Evgeny Shtorn: How the FSB Tried to Recruit Me

“I Had a Night to Say Goodbye to My Whole Life”
Sociologist Evgeny Shtorn Left Russia Because the FSB Tried to Recruit Him
Elena Racheva
Novaya Gazeta
January 20, 2018

On January 5, sociologist Evgeny Shtorn, an employee at the Centre for Independent Sociological Research (CISR) in St. Petersburg, left Russia for Ireland. In December, his application for Russian citizenship was rejected, and immediately afterwards he was summoned to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), according to Shtorn, where he was interrogated about CISR’s financing and the foreign organizations it collaborates with. (Since 2015, the CISR has been classified as a “foreign agent.”) According to CISR director Viktor Voronkov, Shtorn is at least the fourth CISR employee whom the FSB has attempted to recruit.

Shtorn was born in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, but in 2000 he left the country to study in Petersburg. In 2004, he was granted Russian citizenship at a Russian consulate in Kazakhstan. He lived for eight years on his Russian passport, but in 2011 he was told by authorities the passport had been issued groundlessly, and he was not a Russian citizen.

Shtorn’s Kazakhstani citizenship had been annulled long before, but he found himself a stateless person after living in Russia for eleven years. The only paper the authorities would issue him was a residence permit for a stateless person, which allowed him to live and work in Russia. After five years, one can apply for Russian citizenship on this basis. This was what Shtorn did in July 2017, after passing the obligatory Russian language exam, assembling a whole dossier of paperwork, and standing in endless queues.

During this time, Shtorn, who is thirty-five, enrolled in the Higher School of Economics MA program and continued working as manager for development at CISR, one of the oldest and most respected independent sociological research institutes in Russia.

“I went to the local Federal Migration Service (FMS) office in late November to pick up my passport,” Shtorn recounts. “I was told my citizenship application had been rejected because I had provided false information about myself. The FMS had decided I did not lived at my registered address, because they had come checking in the afternoon, when I was not home, and I had not listed all the addresses where I had lived in Russia, although in the application I filled out there was a footnote saying I was not obliged to list all of them.”

The rejection meant Shtorn could resubmit his application for citizenship only in a year. Two weeks after his application was rejected, Shtorn was telephoned by a person who identified himself as an FMS employee. He said he was handling Shtorn’s application and asked him to stop by their office.

On December 7, Shtorn went to the FMS office that handles the registration of statelesss persons.

“I was met by a person my age. We went up to the second floor and walked into an office with no plaque on the door,” Shtorn recounts. “I caught sight of a picture of Andropov on the wall, an old-fashioned, insipid, Soviet-era portrait. I immediately understood everything.”

The man showed Shtorn a FSB officer’s ID. Shtorn did not remember his rank, but he did memorize his name and surname, but he is afraid of identifying him publicly.

“He quickly got down to business,” recalls Shtorn. “He said when the FSB reviewed my application, they were quite surprised I worked for a ‘foreign agent’ and at the Higher School of Economics, although I am actually a student there. He asked me what I did at CISR. He was polite, but his vocabulary was bizarre. ‘Who is your patron?’ he asked. I explained we did not have patrons, that researchers operate differently. There are things a person wants to research, and he or she tries to research them. To have something to say, I told him about Max Weber, and the difference between quantitative and qualitative sociology.”

Evgeny Shtorn. Photo from his personal archives

Then, according to Shtorn, the FSB officer asked him where the “foreign agent” got its money and what western foundations CISR worked with.

“I said, ‘What, do foreign agents have money? The American foundations you declared undesirables are gone, and we have big problems with financing.’

“‘So people transport cash from abroad, right?’ he asked.

“I explained I didn’t have a passport, I hadn’t been abroad for many years, and I didn’t have access to those realms, but I didn’t think anyone was transporting cash in their underwear. Then he asked whether I had met with foreign intelligence officers as part of my job.”

According to Shtorn, the FSB officer was well informed about the work of Shtorn, CISR, and related organizations. He knew about academic conferences and listed the surnames of foreign foundation directors, asking whether Shtorn was acquainted with them. He asked what Shtorn was researching at the Higher School of Economics, although he clearly knew Shtorn was researching hate crimes against LGBT. He asked what foreign languages Shtorn spoke.

“Is English your working language?” he asked.

According to Shtorn, the FSB officer was not aggressive, but twice during their ninety-minute conversation he quoted the articles in the Russian Criminal Code covering espionage and treason, commenting they applied to everyone who flirted with foreign special services and foreign organizations.

In the middle of the conversation, the FSB officer asked him whether he had read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book The Grand Chessboard.

“He said that, way back in the nineties, Brzezinki had written Ukraine would go over to the US in 2012, and this was what had happened. He advised me to read the book.

“At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘How unlucky you were with your citizenship application.’ He explained he was unable to help me in any way. ‘Many believe we are an all-seeing eye, but it’s not like that at all. We also have a tough time obtaining information.’

“He insisted I tell no one about our conversation. When I was getting ready to leave, he said, ‘If I call you again, you won’t be scared? Because some people get scared and change their telephone numbers.’ I said, ‘Of course not. You’re a polite person. What do I have be afraid of?’

“‘And you are such an interesting person, and educated. It’s interesting to chat with you. Thank you for your time,’ he said.

“We left the office, and that was when I caught sight of a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky behind the coat rack, a life-sized bust.

“‘And here is Felix,’ the FSB officer said.

“I left.”

The FSB officer telephoned Shtorn the very next day. According to him, the FSB officer suggested meeting for coffee.

“I realized that was that. They were going to try and recruit me,” says Shtorn.

He believes if he had refused to work for the FSB, as a stateless person he would have been sent to the Temporary Detention Center for Migrants.

“I felt paranoid,” says Shtorn. “I imagined the FSB had access to all my channels of communication, that they could see all my emails. They realized I had nowhere to go, that without papers I was caged. I realized I had to make a run for it, so I turned to Team 29, LGBT Network, and Civic Control. I got a lot of help from human rights activist Jennifer Gaspar. In 2014, she was also invited to have a chat with the FSB, who stripped her of her residence permit and expelled her from Russia. Jennifer put me in touch with Front Line Defenders, who asked the German, Lithuanian, French, and US governments to issue me a visa. They all turned us down, saying they could not put a visa in a residence permit.”

On the evening of December 21, Front Line Defenders informed Shtorn Ireland was willing to issue him a visa. The next morning he had to fly to Moscow, apply for the visa at the Irish Embassy, and fly to Ireland without any hope of ever returning to Russia.

“I had a night to say goodbye to my whole life,” recalls Shtorn. “It felt like I was standing on the edge of an abyss and jumped off.”

In Moscow, it transpired that, due to the short working day, the Irish consular officials would not have time to draw up his visa, and he flew back to Petersburg. He obtained the visa only on January 4. The next day, he tried to board a Lufthansa flight to Dublin, but the airline refused to let him board the plane. The German Federal Police had informed the airline it would refuse to let a person with a residence permit enter the transit zone. It was clear Shtorn would not be allowed to fly via any of the EU countries. The next flight from Domodedovo Airport to Dublin had a stopover in Moldova.

“I went to the check-in counter,” recounts Shtorn. “The folks there were reasonable. They realized a person with an Irish visa would not want to stay in Chișinău. I bought a ticket. There was 45 minutes until boarding, and the whole time I sat waiting for them to come for me. When the plane took off, I started shaking.”

Shtorn is now in Dublin on a three-month short-term visa.

“Thanks to Front Line Defenders I have a place to live and money for food,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen next. I cannot go back to Russia. If my situation was bad, now I have made it worse. Initially, I wanted to keep mum, but I decided I had to warn the employees of other NGOs. When the law on ‘foreign agents’ was enacted, it stated the penalties did not apply to people who worked for such organizations. My story shows this is not the case.”

•••••

Фото: «Новая газета»

Viktor Voronkov, director, Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR), Petersburg 

Of course, the FSB is interested in CISR. Four of our employees have approached me and said, “They’re trying to recruit me. What should I do?” I think they have tried to recruit nearly everyone at CISR. Some have told me, others have turned them down and not told me, and still others, perhaps, did not turn them down. In conversation with the people they were trying to recruit, FSB officers have mentioned numerous facts they could have learned only from our employees.

It is normal. I know the practice well from the Soviet Union. When they tried to recruit me in 1981, they also asked questions that came out of left field. “Maybe you could describe your critical view of things at the institute? Maybe we could work together? You want to help the Motherland, don’t you?” They always associate themselves with the Motherland. They offered me help traveling abroad via the Soviet-East German Friendship Society. They blackmailed me.

I met with them three or four times. One time, a KGB officer tried to take me into a cubbyhole under the stairs at the institute to work me over. He looked in there, said, “Excuse me,” and closed the door. Another officer was already working someone over in the cubbyhole.

You can get rid of them. They have the right to recruit, and we have the right to turn them down. When they tried to recruit a pal of mine, he simply opened the door of his officer and shouted, “Get the hell outta here!” The KGB guy left. But I do not advise anyone to start talking with them. You cannot win against them. Nowadays, I advise my employees to give FSB guys the bum’s rush.

They tried to blackmail our other employees over trifles, but they were not as vulnerable as Evgeny was. I told him him to pay no mind to the blackmail, but it was not worth taking risks in his position. When a person is guided by fear, it is better to give into that fear.

I think we have to talk about such stories publicly. We could do a flash mob hashtagged #HowTheyTriedToRecruitMe. If there is no public oversight of the KGB, it means the KGB oversees society.

I realize this story could affect CISR, but we have been taking different measures to soften the blow. CISR is currently split. The majority of our employees argues we should disband the center and establish a new one. The minority argues we should not surrender. I have taken the most radical position. Everyone wants to find the means to survive. I want to show there is way to fight we can fight to the end. I hope to their end, not ours.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Is It Hard Being a “Foreign Agent” in Russia?

Viktor Voronkov
Viktor Voronkov

Is It Hard Being a Foreign Agent in Russia?
Vadim Shuvalov
Gorod 812
August 8, 2016

How does an organization officially declared a “foreign agent” manage? Gorod 812 asked Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) in Petersburg, what it has been like.

Did you expect to be declared a foreign agent?

On the one hand, after Bolotnaya Square, it was no surprise. On the other hand, we have never believed what we do is political activity.

Some Ph.D. in philosophy did the forensic examination on us for the Justice Ministry. I won’t repeat the stupid things he wrote. We have gone through four court trials. Recently, the Supreme Court reimbursed one of the fines we had to pay, in the amount of 300,000 rubles.

We were labeled a foreign agent, allegedly, for making recommendations on how to improve the work of magistrates, doing research on the political preferences of trade unions, and advertising a book (which we didn’t publish) on political movements in Russia.

Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.

What has changed in your work since you were declared a foreign agent?

Four times a year, instead of once a year, we write a financial disclosure report. We have to hire a specialist to help us write it. Any violation results in an “irredeemable” fine of 300,000 rubles from the Justice Ministry. But we don’t know we violated.

The Women of the Don Foundation, which deals with gender issues in the North Caucasus, has suffered because of us. It was declared a foreign agent only because we sent them 10,000 rubles out of a sense of professional solidarity, to help them pay a fine. Now we are trying to explain to the authorities the money was Russian in origin.

We cannot work with state universities and officials. We cannot do fieldwork in schools, hospitals, etc. Business is afraid to help us; it is afraid of reprisals. As for the populace, when people find out who we are, they are immediately put on their guard, and the conversation becomes stiff.

I once got a call from a major public radio station. They told me they were putting me on the air in two hours. I warned them that CISR was a foreign agent. They said it was not a problem. Half an hour later, a young woman called me and said her bosses had decided not to trouble me: they needed a cultural studies person, not a sociologist. All electronic media are now closed to us.

Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.

According to one part of the new definition, all sociological research is classified as political activity, while another part claims that scientific and scholarly research is not political activity. So sociology is no longer scientific and scholarly research.

So how do you do your work nowadays?

For example, we have been researching temporary сohabitation among migrant workers. They support each other while having families back home. Such research requires so-called participant observation. First, you help the migrant worker out. You take him or her to the doctor, get their kid into a kindergarten, and invite them over to your place. Only then will they tell you what they really think about the world they live in. It might take years to get to that point. Whose agent you are, in this case, matters not a whit.

As for working with officials and civil servants, now everything is based on off-the-record interviews.

Initially, when you opened in 1991, did you work with the state? Whose agents were you then?

We were the agents of Boris Yeltsin and his folk. We were interested in working on topics relevant to the country: grassroots movements, Russian nationalism, the new gender studies. A social revolution was underway, and values were being revised.

Did you get money from the government?

We would sometimes participate in grant competitions and get a few crumbs. The times allowed for completing the research were paltry, and the financial reporting was complicated. But we were not fundamentally opposed to taking money from the government. That became a hard and fast principle sometime in the early 2000s.

Why?

We ran up against corruption, against demands for kickbacks and rigged outcomes. The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] would send us invitations to grant competitions, but we quickly realized they had already picked the winners. Or they would ask us to do research on topics like “The Danger from Muslim Migrant Workers in Petersburg.” But we are researchers and don’t do appraisals. We are interested in how migrant workers integrate, in the issue of xenophobia. We gave up on public financing.

What is the size of the usual private grant, and how much time does a study take?

No less than a year or two, often as many as three years. The budget for a study of this sort comes to about three million rubles or more.

Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?

The foreign foundations set only one: the research has to be academic research, serious scholarship involving participant observation, and not just getting people to fill out surveys and quickly summarizing the results. By the way, I should note that [only] one out of fifty sociology department graduates goes on to become a serious researcher.

Russian foundations require self-censorship. We did work in Tatarstan: the republic’s president must not be disturbed by the research outcomes. We agreed to censor ourselves. We were interested in finding out why young people were leaving Tatarstan.

And why are they leaving?

It’s a nationwide problem: ours is an avuncular society. If you are outside this circle, you won’t get a good education and you will not be able to set up your own business. All this is highly developed in Tatarstan. There are confessional issues within Islam to boot. Given the circumstances, young people leave the republic or join “extremists.” We recommended an amnesty for certain religious groups that do not call for violence.

We had just finished this study when we were declared a foreign agent.

How have the foundations themselves reacted to your foreign agent status?

Some foundations, even ones with whom were on very good terms, have parted ways with us. They are afraid of being put on the list of undesirable organizations that will be cut off from all official contacts with Russia.

On the other hand, we have received offers of assistance from foundations we had never heard of before. That has been nice.

Why do western foundations finance academic research?

The conscience of the capitalists has awoken or they are unhappy with their own offspring.

What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?

It’s a pity people have stopped reading. But this is a socialist value. Under capitalism, in new technological circumstances, it could not have survived.

Translated by the
Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR

Centre for Independent Social Research: “We Don’t Scold or Praise — We Do Research”

“We Don’t Scold or Praise—We Do Research”: Why the Authorities Want a Research Center Declared a “Foreign Agent”
Viktoria Vzyatysheva
April 3, 2015
paperpaper.ru

Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) could be declared a foreign agent. Among the particulars laid against it are a video of a discussion during which someone spoke critically of the authorities, an abstract of a book with the word “politics” in the title, and a brochure containing advice for judges, which was vetted by judges themselves. CISR’s staff insists they do research and are proud of foreign financing. Paper got to the bottom of the conflict, finding out how sociological studies differ from politics, and how terrible the status of foreign agents is for sociologists.

How the work of a research center was deemed a “political action”

CISR was among the few research centers that the authorities demanded register as a foreign agent. On March 12, it received a formal written warning from the Ministry of Justice demanding that it place itself on the registry. The ministry deemed that CISR, which receives foreign funding, was engaged in political activity

As the center’s employees tell it, they had been expecting this since passage of the law on foreign agents in 2012, but had continued to hope, nevertheless, that the status of foreign agents would not be applied to research organization. In 2014, the Constitutional Court has issued a clarification to this end. Soon, however, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov was placed on the registry, and their fears arose again.

“According to the Ministry of Justice,” says Oksana Karpenko, executive director of CISR, “any form of public activity that does not involve praising Russian legislation or various government policies is a “political action” whose goal is to put pressure on the government and shape public opinion negatively. Under these circumstances, it is hard to explain that sociology is an apparatus for society to reflect on itself. When this apparatus breaks down, when society is incapable of taking a sober look at itself, taking joy in its achievements and admitting its weaknesses and imperfections, this leads to a loss of equilibrium. Without it, an upright position can be maintained only with prostheses that rigidly lock society into place. These prostheses are now being tried out on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and dissidents.”

The Centre for Independent Sociological Research was founded by researchers from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1991 as an alternative to the Soviet academic system. It was unaffiliated with any university and from the outset worked on an interdisciplinary level with experts from different universities.

CISR’s researchers say that its main methodological difference from classical sociological institutes has been its focus on qualitative methods. Karpenko explains that while most sociology has to do with statistics, polls, and charts, CISR’s studies are based on talking to people and trying to understand what guides them in making certain decisions, how conflicts arise, and how opinions on sensitive issues are shaped.

“We focus on those issues that are relevant. We don’t make diagnoses or prescribe treatment, we don’t scold or praise—we do research. We attempt to understand how society works, and we try and tell people about the outcome of our work in an intelligible form.”

IMG_6473

Oksana Karpenko

According to Karpenko, CISR has no clear profile. The emphasis has been on the interests of specific researchers, and often their work has become an area of focus at the center. In the late 80s and early 90s, CISR’s founders were focused on social movements, including nationalist and democratic movements; they also researched the so-called brain drain, poverty, and genders. Later, CISR took up migration and ethnicity, environmental issues, the development of scientific research organizations, and the informal economy (corruption).

Three grievances: video of a discussion, the word “politics,” and advice to judges

The Ministry of Justice identified three grounds for its warning when it demanded that CISR register as a foreign agent. One of them was a video recording of a lecture by Irina Olimpieva, a Ph.D. in Economics, entitled “Russian Trade Unions in Search of Political Leverage: The Evolution of Political Strategies and New Political Ambitions.”

The lecture itself dealt with the influence trade unions have on social policy. According to Olimpieva, the role of trade unions in Russia is extremely limited, whereas in foreign practice, mechanisms for influencing social policy are often enshrined in law. However, in recent years, trade unions have been forced to become more active politically. Olimpieva’s study, launched in 2006, was funded by a grant from a Russian foundation.

However, the Ministry of Justice had no beefs with the lecture itself, but with the discussion of the lecture, which was posted on CISR’s website.

As the ministry wrote in its conclusion, “During the course of the discussion, seminar participants made statements that gave a negative assessment of current legislation.”

“Researchers are now expected only to approve current policy or, perhaps, as in Soviet times, mention ‘certain minor shortcomings.’ This is essentially a ban on criticism, at least on the part of independent research organizations,” argues Olimpieva.

Another project the ministry deemed “political activity” was a brochure entitled “Conducting Impartiality Training as a Basic Component of the Professionalism of Magistrates and Organizing Psychological Relief Rooms for Magistrates.” The brochure was intended for psychologists working in the judicial system, and was based on training workshops and interviews with judges conducted by CISR.

In its conclusion, the Ministry of Justice wrote that the brochure forms “a negative public opinion,” and “the judgments of the authors are aimed at generating a negative public response.”

The objective of the workshops was to enhance the impartiality of magistrates, an institution that has emerged relatively recently in Russia, in the early 2000s. During the sessions, the judges talked about the difficulties of making decisions and examined them with psychologists. CISR researchers said the judges themselves were enthusiastic about the training sessions.

However, they vetted the entire brochure. Otherwise, “it would simply would have been impossible to publish,” the people at CISR explain.

“Judges in all countries have problems with impartiality, so that is why similar workshops are held all over the world. And for this purpose special systems of psychological supported are developed that are aimed at helping the judge disengage from personal predilections when making decisions, and be objective and impartial,” explains Olimpieva.

IMG_6478Irina Olimpieva 

The third grounds for the warning was a presentation of a book entitled The Politics of the Apolitical: Civic Movements in Russia, 2011-2013. The Ministry of Justice determined that the book had a “political focus” and could influence “decision-making by state bodies.” CISR staff claim the book is a purely academic monograph written by professional sociologists, graduate students from various universities.

“It is not even a matter of the book’s content: the research topic and the title were sufficient. But it remains a mystery how placing information about a research publication on the website of a research center constitutes what the law describes as ‘political activity,’“ says Karpenko.;

Artemy Magun, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in Saint Petersburg, says that by paying attention only to the word “politics,” one can go to absurd lengths and ban all political science departments at public universities, which a priori have no right to engage in politics.

“There is an element of politics in everything. The fact that you put up a road sign is also some kind of public statement. This border is quite flexible, and can be moved back and forth at will. But we believe that sociology exists as a science, and that it is not reducible to ideology or public relations. Meaning that we can arrive at more or less objective knowledge of society by examining it in the richness of its ideological affiliations.”

Why foreign funding is good for research

At CISR, they point out they have never concealed foreign funding and, on the contrary, have been proud of their research grants. Since the moment of its inception, CISR has subsisted mostly on money from foreign foundations and organizations. CISR has been supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Academy of Finland, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the German Research Society, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and European universities and institutes.

Since the law on foreign agents has been adopted, argues Olimpieva, everything the organization had considered an achievement, has now been considered a minus.

“In our view, grants from international foundations and organizations indicate the high level of professionalism of our staff. But when foreign financing is leveled as a charge, no one even wants to understand what the ‘foreign’ sources are and what they finance. The word ‘foreign’ is already grounds for accusations of hostile intentions. Paradoxically, the higher the professional achievements of an organization, the more suspicious it is from the viewpoint of the law on foreign agents.”

Magun says that, on the contrary, international foundations avoid influencing research altogether and act as impartially as impossible.

“In some cases, the Russian institutions set the agenda, while the international foundations nearly always give absolute carte blanche as to the work’s content. International foundations go out of their way to exclude the ideological influence of donors. Scientific rigor is the basis for issuing grants. It is simply a higher level of quality.”

According to Karpenko, the commonplace that the one who pays the piper calls the tune “manipulates people’s attention, causing them to see a threat in the very fact financing from abroad and closing their eyes to the content and quality of the intellectual product.”

 Why sociologists cannot be foreign agents

In the near future, CISR intends to appeal the warning and prove they are not involved in politics. They are afraid of receiving the foreign agent status not primarily because of the additional required reporting or new inspections, but because of the negative image that would arise around the organization.

According to Karpenko, CISR’s experts can find it difficult to establish contact with an interlocutor. If they are forced to introduce themselves as foreign agents, an interview might be called off, and the sociologists would risk not being admitted to certain organizations at all.

“For the research we do, it is important to establish relationships of trust with informants. When we go into schools or talk with officials, policemen or pedestrians, we are trying to understand how society works in a particular segment, why certain problems arise. We do no want people to be afraid to talk to us. The Constitutional Court ruled that the phrase ‘foreign agent’ supposedly has no negative connotations. As sociologists, we can say this is not the case.”

Thus, the people at CISR say the status of foreign agent will simply make it impossible for them to work professionally, because many areas of society will be closed to them.

You can sign this letter of support (in English) for CISR.  It has so far collected over 1,300 signatures of researchers and scholars from around the world.

Photos courtesy of paperpaper.ru