Russia’s Bright Future (Putin 4.0)

Member of HRC Describes Putin’s New Term: Everything under the Sun Will Be Banned
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
October 10, 2017

Pavel Chikov argues Russia will become isolated internationally, and federalism and regional economies will be jettisoned.

Pavel Chikov, member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, has forecast what politics in Russia will be like if Vladimir Putin is re-elected to another term. According to Chikov, the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly, and more and more areas of public life will be off limits.

1a1bb3f8a345889fc79a754c4ae35c6dPavel Chikov. Photo courtesy of Facebook/MK

Foreign mass media will be the first to be banned. This has been borne out, says the human rights activist, by the threat to shutter Radio Svoboda, which the media outlet received from the Justice Ministry last Monday.

Following the media, “the political arena will be mopped up: the current persecution of Alexei Navalny’s employees and Open Russia’s employees is a harbinger of this.”

In Chikov’s opinion, the country will also be stripped of religious freedom, as witnessed by “the huge criminal cases against and expulsion from the country” of members of various non-traditional religious movements, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been declared “extremist” banned in the Russian Federation, to supporters of non-mainstream Buddhist and Muslim groups.

These measures, writes the human rights activist on his Telegram channel, will be paralleled by Russia’s renunciation of its international commitments. It will exit the Council of Europe and end its cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. (Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, said yesterday this was a probable scenario.) Russian’s relations with many European countries, from the Baltic states to Germany, will deteriorate, and their embassies will be closed. Restrictions will be placed on Russian nationals traveling outside the country, and the practice of stripping refugees and asylum seekers of their Russian citizenship and confiscating their property will be broadened.

Meanwhile, Russia will succeed in isolating its segment of the Internet and instituting a Chinese-style firewall to censor content.

Finally, Chikov writes, the country’s economy and domestic politics will deteriorate. The regions will lose the last remnants of their autonomy (Chikhov cites Vladimir Vasilyev’s  recent appointment as acting head of Dagestan, although the United Russia MP has no experience in the republic), and the assets the regions have left will be placed under the control of Putin’s inner circle.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Vasily Zharkov for the heads-up

You’ve Lost Control Again

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Black Lists and Total Monitoring: Agora’s New Report on the Surveillance of Russians
A person’s life is utterly transparent to the secret services
Damir Gainutdinov
Republic
August 22, 2017

The Agora International Human Rights Group has released a report entitled “Russia under Surveillance 2017: How the Authorities Are Setting Up a Total System for Monitoring Citizens.” Damir Gainutdinov, the report’s co-author, discusses its key points. The Russian state has been harvesting an unprecedented amount of information about its citizens and wants to collect other kinds of information. It maintains a system of black lists that categorize different types of citizens and has been engaged in a relentless assault on internet anonymity. (You can read the full report in Russian.)

In recent years, Russia has been assembling a complex system for monitoring grassroots activists, reporters, and members of the opposition, a system that encompasses at least several thousand people. Under the pretext of public safety, and fighting extremism and terrorism, the security forces have been monitoring people’s movements around the country and when they cross national borders, wiretapping their phone conversations, intercepting their SMS and email messages, staking them out and surveilling them with audio and video equipment, and analyzing and systematizing biometric information. They have made vigorous use of illegal methods, for example, hacking internet accounts.

The key problem is the absolute lack of control over the state’s invasion of our private lives. The courts rubber stamp decisions taken by the security services. There is almost no chance of successfully challenging the decisions in court. Hence, over the past ten years, the courts have on average approved 98.35% of motions by the state to limit a person’s privacy of correspondence. The upshot is that any law-abiding resident of Russia is now constantly exposed to the risk of arbitrary access to her private life through the internet, mobile telephones, video surveillance, random contacts with the police, when using money, pubic transportation, and driving her car, and applying for a job at a number of workplaces, as well as traveling abroad, carrying weapons, and exercising her other rights.

Privacy and the presumption of innocence are meaningless, and the intensity of the interference has been constantly increasing. The number of requests to eavesdrop on telephone conversations and intercept correspondence have alone more than tripled since 2007.  A person is faced with a choice: either accept total surveillance as a given or look for ways of guarding her privacy. The state, however, regards the latter as illegal, the attempt to hide something criminal.

Complusory Biometrics
The Russian authorities have been vigorously engaged in gathering biometric information: fingerprints, DNA samples, and photographs. By law, this can be done without the individual’s consent if it is a matter of national security, for example. Aside from voluntary fingerprinting (anyone can go to a police and submit his fingerprints), the procedure is obligatory for a large number of people ranging from security services officers to people applying to work as private detectives, from suspects in criminal cases to people who have only committed administrative offenses if there is no other way to identify them, from large numbers of foreigners to stateless persons. Since 2015, anyone over the age of twelve who applies for a biometric foreign travel passport must also submit prints of two fingers. Meaning that, currently, we are talking about at least 25 million people. [Russia’s current population is approximately 143 million.]

Despite the clear list of grounds for compulsory biometric registration, there are regular reports of patently illegal attempts to fingerprint, photograph, and do saliva swipes for DNA tests. Participants of public events such as protest rallies, political activists, and reporters have been the victims of these attempts.

For example, on March 23, 2017, in Moscow, police detained supporters of Alexei Navalny who were handing out stickers in support of his campaign to be allowed to run in the 2018 presidential elections. The detainees were all taken to the Arbat Police Precinct for “preventive” discussions, during which the information in their internal passports was copied and they were fingerprinted. In another incident, which took place on April 6, 2017, at a market in Simferopol, around fifty people of “non-Slavic appearance” were detained, allegedly, because they were mixed up with Crimean Tatar activists in Crimea. Lawyer Edem Semedlyaev said all the detainees were forcibly fingerprinted, photographed, and swabbed for DNA samples.

Video Surveillance
As of 2015, the so-called Secure City complex has begun to be installed in all regions. Secure City is an extensive system of video surveillance and facial recognition. In Moscow alone, 184.6 billion rubles [approx. 2.6 billion euros] have been allocated on implementating the program until 2019. As of 2016, 86.3% of residential neighborhoods in Moscow were covered by CCTV systems. 128,590 cameras had been installed, 98,000 of them in stairwells. The Secure City video archive is stored for five days, and direct access to the recordings is enjoyed not only by the Interior Ministry [i.e., the police] but also by other state agencies.

Under the pretext of getting ready for international sports events, the authorities have improved their surveillance capacities. Sports complexes are equipped with CCTV systems featuring facial recognition functions, even in towns not hosting sporting events. Moscow’s railway stations have been expanding the areas covered by cameras that identify faces and record car license numbers. The Russian government has issued a decree ordering local authorities to draw up lists of places where more than fifty people can gather. They all must be equipped with CCTV systems. The recordings will be stored for thirty days.

Special systems for identifying people have been used at authorized public events [i.e., permitted protest rallies]. For example, officials have admitted they could have identified absolutely everyone who passed through the inspection line on June 12 on Sakharov Avenue.

Tracking Movements
When you buy a ticket, stay at a hotel or use public-access Wi-Fi in Russia, you are informing the regime about your whereabouts.

When you have anything to with with almost any form of long-distance public transportation, the authorities will at very least learn your name, date of birth, type and number of identity card, sex, nationality, departure and destination points, route, and other information using a round-the-clock interactive system.

The practice of scanning passports is widespread in hotels, since management is obliged to inform the Interior Ministry about the registration of guests within twenty-four hours.

The information obtained is sufficient to determine the whereabouts of a person of interest at any moment. The information is used, among other things, to track the movements of activists and human rights workers, and exert pressure on them. This was how Agora lawyer Alexander Popkov was followed when he arrived in one of the regional centers of Krasnodar Territory to take part in the trial of a police officer accused of rape and murder. Arrivign at the train station, Popkov was swiftly met by police investigators, who immediately informed him he was listed in a Russian Interior Ministry database, and so they wanted to know his purpose for visiting the city. The policemen knew his route and means of transportation, his place of residence, and the particulars of his documents.

Eight Years of Administrative Supervision
In May 2017, the use of administrative supervision for persons released from imprisonment increased. A court has ordered that an acknowledged political prisoner, Tatar activist Rafis Kashapov, will be placed under administrative supervision for eight years after being released from prison. In 2015, Kashapov was sentenced to three years in a prison colony for publishing texts critical of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Now, after he is released, Kashapov must register with the police within three days, inform them of all his travel plans and changes of places of residence and work, and report to a police station to give testimony when required by the police. Police officers can conduct individual preventive work with him, ask his employer about his behavior, freely enter his house, and forbid him from making short trips even, for example, when a relative dies.

In addition to administration supervision, which is on the record, there is also clandestine surveillance. Formally, putting someone on preventive registration is part of the beat cop’s routine work. In practice, it has turned into a means for surveilling “suspicious” people, which includes not only ex-cons and registered drug addicts but also people who have committed crimes against public safety at mass events [i.e., committed minor or wholly fictitious infractions at protest rallies], as well as members of “informal youth organizations.”

Lists of the Disloyal
Aside from putting people on preventive registration, the Russian authorities maintain a number of different lists and databases, chockablock with “unreliable” people and organizations. If you end up on one of these lists, you are guaranteed increased attention from law enforcement, including constant checks, detentions, and inspections. Here are only a few of these lists.

Rosfinmonitoring (Federal Financial Monitoring Service) publishes a list of organizations and peoples involved, allegedly, in extremism or terrorism. The list includes the names, dates and places of the birth of the people, and the relevant information about the organizations. A court order banning an organization or sentencing someone for a crime is not required for inclusion on the list. The list features not only people convicted of terrorism but also people suspected of terrorism. It suffices that a prosecutor or the Justice Ministry has suspended an organization’s work or brought charges or declared someone a suspect in the commission of one or more of twenty-two crimes listed in the Criminal Code, including the most “popular” anti-“extremist” crimes. Currently, the list includes 7,558 Russian citizens, 411 foreign nationals, and 182 organizations.

Inclusion in the list means the state has total control of your financial transactions and disposal of your property. All transactions to which a person on Rosfinmonitoring’s list is a party are subject to mandatory control by banks. If they fail to exercise this control, they will be punished by the Russian Central Bank. By default, all transactions are frozen, but you can spend 10,000 rubles per month per family member [approx. 143 euros]  from the wages you earn, and you can also spend the welfare payments you receive. It often happens that people placed on the list discover it after the fact, when they call the bank to find out why a transaction has not been completed.

Of course, there is also the list of NGOs declared “foreign agents,” which the Justice Ministry requires to submit additional reporting on property, expenditures, and management. The Justice Ministry also keeps lists of “undesirable” and “extremist” organizations (currently, there are 11 and 61 of these organizations, respectively). When they are accorded this status, the authorities are obliged to identify their rank-and-file members. When it is a matter of large organizations, thousands and, sometimes, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves targets of surveillance. Thus, in the wake of the banning and forced closure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia in 2017, up to 150,000 of its followers in Russia face the prospect of criminal investigations and criminal prosecutions.

Groups that used to be on the periphery of public life, for example, football fans, have also faced increased attention from the authorities. After a law was amended in 2016, the Interior Ministry began publishing lists of people banned from attending sporting events. The listed included 319 names at the the end of July.

Schoolchildren are yet another group that has faced increased police surveillance. Thus, in the Education Ministry’s recommendations on criminal subcultures [sic], schoolteachers are practically delegated the role of police investigators vis-à-vis minors. They are obliged to divulge information to the police about the private lives of their pupils and their families. This means that the children are entered into the record and put in various police databases.

The Attack on Anonymity
In 2016, the authorities launched a vigorous campaign against anonymity on the internet. The so-called Yarovaya anti-terrorist package of amendments to existing laws could have supplied the secret services with unsupervised access to all communication among users if it were not for the resistance of some providers and standard end-to-end encryption. The Yarovaya package continued the policy of nationalizing and deanonymizing the Runet, which could provide full control over the information flows inside Russia.

The next steps were the laws on messengers and anonymizers, signed by the president on July 30, 2017. The first law, in particular, stipulates the obligatory identification of users by mobile telephone numbers. The second law is essentially an attempt to establish total control over anonymizers and VPNs.

In August 2017, the Communications Ministry published draft requirements for internet providers, as listed in the register of information distribution companies. The draft includes a list of information that must be accessible to the FSB (Federal Security Service): the date and time the user was registered, and the latest update of the registration form; nickname, date of birth, address, full name, passport particulars, other identity documents, languages spoken, information about relatives, and accounts with other providers; the receipt, sending, and processing of messages, images, and sounds; recipients of messenges; financial transactions, including payees, amounts paid, currency, goods and services paid for; and client programs and geolocation information, among other things. Providers are required to store and transmit to the security services not only sent and received messages, but draft messages as well.

And yet public opinion polls show the majority of Russians are not terribbly worried about maintaining privacy for the time being. [Russian opinion polls are worthless as measures of real opinion—TRR.] For activists, reporters, and members of the opposition, however, the refusal of internet companies to cooperate with the authorities and the capacity to withstand hacking are the only guarantees of their security.

Without access to encrypted correspondence, the Russian state, apparently has had to resort to the services of hackers. Thus, on October 11, 2016, Google and Yandex warned several dozen activists, reporters, and NGO employees about an attempt by “pro-government hackers” to hack their accounts.

The Burden of Information
Despite establishing legal grounds for harvesting information about nearly everyone in Russia, there is a huge amount of evidence the regime is technologically and financially incapable of gathering, storing, and qualitatively processing it.

The most obvious example of this is, perhaps, the Yarovaya package itself. During an economic crisis, the authorities are clearly not willing to incur the huge expenses required to implement the entire range of e-surveillance of the populace, which, according to various estimates, could cost from 130 billion rubles [approx. 1.86 billion euros] to 10 trillion rubles [approx. 143 billion euros]. Consequently, the duties of collecting and saving traffic have been sloughed off onto the telecoms and internet providers, who are likewise not at all happy about such a “gift” and have already begun to raise their rates. Meaning that the surveilled themselves have been asked to pay for the ability of the secret services to read their correspondence and view their personal photographs, to pay a kind of “shadowing” tax. Meanwhile, since more than half the world’s internet traffic is already transmitted in encrypted form, the regime, even though it has access to exabytes of user correspondence, has been forced to demand that providers supply them with encryption keys.

Aware of its limited resources, the Russian state has focused on more diligent work with specific groups. Hence, the enthusiasm over different types of black lists, as well as the delegation of surveillance duties to telecoms, internet providers, banks, and transportation companies. On the one hand, they have access to the information; on the other hand, they depend on the state, make their money from government contracts or receive their licenses and permits from the state.

The authorities are willing to chuck the black lists, which have proved ineffective, just as they gave up on the bloggers register. This would enable them to focus resources on various risk groups. When necessary, they could include people of special interest in the groups while surveilling the populace as a whole.

Consequently, the security departments of many commercial organizations have been ratting on their clients to the security forces, headmasters have been forced to gather dirt on schoolchildren, and internet providers to monitor the traffic of users. Even as it stores this growing mountain of information on Russians, the authorities care little for their safety. Increasingly, user data has become publicly accessible, often deliberately.

Damir Gainutdinov is a legal analyst at Agora. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Fyodor Chistyakov: Why I Have Left Russia

Fyodor Chistyakov: Russia Is the Freest Country—You Can Adopt a Constitution and Then Throw It Out
Musician Fyodor Chistyakov has left Russia because of his religious beliefs, but promises to come back. True, only on tours. The newly minted New Yorker told Fontanka.Office what happened.
Nikolai Nelyubin
Fontanka.ru
July 31, 2017

Федор Чистяков: Россия самая свободная страна – можно принять Конституцию и выбросить ее
Fyodor Chistyakov

Have you really emigrated to the US?
It’s not quite like that. Circumstances are such in Russia at the moment that make it difficult for me to live there. But that doesn’t mean I’m planning to cut all the ropes and drown everything there. In the fall, for example, Nol [Chistyakov’s band] is planning to play concerts we promised to play long ago, and they should come off unless there is an act of God. We’re playing November 18 in Moscow, and November 23 in Petersburg. Otherwise, I will be spending more time in a different place.

Have you requested political asylum?
I’m not going to discuss that. I’ll just say things are in order on that front. I have an employment contract.

Did the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia influence your decision to stay in the US?
That decision turned all members of the organization, including me, into outlaws. How can I live in a country where I’m an outlaw? The answer is simple: there’s no way I can. Hence everything that has happened.

Did you or your friends get any signals or threats after the Jehovah’s Witnesses were outlawed?
Yes, we did. For example, the authorities came to a friend’s house, confiscated all his computers, and searched the place, because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. I think this is a nightmare. I have a music recording studio at home. I can’t allow the state to dig around in computer files looking for signs of “extremism.” At the end of the day, it’s simply humiliating. It’s not a matter of danger, but of your state of mind: you’re always waiting for something to happen. I do long-term musical projects. It takes six months to record and release an album. But with things like this I can’t promise anything. What if I’m arrested tomorrow, say. Then I won’t be able to fulfill my obligations.

Fyodor Chistyakov, Live interview via Skype on Fontanka.Office, July 31, 2017

But earlier you did not publicly identify yourself with the organization or did you? What are you afraid of, if you’re not promoting anything? 
A Danish citizen has been arrested and jailed in the city of Oryol. When you look into the matter, you discover law enforcement has not even formulated the charges, but the man sits in jail. This is lawlessness. There are no laws or norms, no Constitution that protects human rights. As long as no one has taken an interest in you, you are free to party, so to speak, but if something controversial comes up, you won’t be able to prove anything. You’ll be ruined.

Yes, but now that you’ve openly said why you left, how are you going to give concerts in Russia? How can you avoid the risks you’ve mentioned?
According to my beliefs, every week I have scheduled events for worshiping God. This is what the Russian authorities consider “extremism.” If, for example, I come to Russia to give concerts, that is a specific goal. I come and go. But if I live in Russia, I would have to do all this somewhere on the sly.

Meaning the corpus delicti is the religious ritual, which you will not be performing in the Russian Federation? 
Yes.

How have your friends in Russian and colleagues in the US taken the news of your move?
There are different opinions. There are people who support me, and people who openly mock me. Opinions are quite polarized.

What about the musicians in your band?
I think we’ll continue working together. There will be collaborations.

Can you explain the rationale behind the banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia? Why was it done?
The most terrible thing is there is no rationale. It’s inexplicable. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have lots of enemies. But I don’t understand why the Russian authorities had to adopt this ruling. There is talk of property they plan to confiscate. But this amounts to kopecks on the scale of the Russian state. The Witnesses were persecuted in Nazi Germany. But in the US, you ride the subway and read an ad that says if you encounter racial or religious discrimination, you can contact so-and-so.

But if someone promised you that everything here in Russia would be cool, would you come back?
That’s the thing. That’s the essence of life in Russia: there is no law. Someone says one thing today, and tomorrow he forgets it. Or he is replaced altogether. And who cares about me?

I’ll put it more simply. What must change for you to return?
I haven’t disappeared. I plan to visit. I plan to make music, only remotely.

What if the ban in Russia were overturned?
Hard to say. Right now the circumstances in Russia are quite alarming, and not only for the Witnesses. What’s alarming is that all the foundations have fallen and crumbled. Until a certain order emerges, it will be dangerous to live in Russia.

I recently read that a lawyer was unable to get a response from the court on a case. They failed to respond to his requests. He published an open letter in a newspaper, in which he described how the case had been handled by the judicial authorities. The courts should try and figure out the truth, but there is no objectivity in Russian courts. Russia is the freest country. You can adopt laws and then not enforce them. You can adopt a Constitution and then throw it out. Anything is possible. But that makes things a bit tricky if you want to have rights.

You will be told it’s like that everywhere in the world, but on a different scale.
I wouldn’t argue with that. But as long it doesn’t affect anyone personally, you can philosophize. But when the problems kick off, you just have to make a decision that will solve the problems. This is completely different.

What do think about how things in general are shaping up on the planet? You felt alarm in Russia. Is there no alarm in the US?
Things in Russia are quite disturbing. The main cause are the media. When you open a news website and read the headlines, the headlines are enough to flip your wig. Completely. But here [looks out window] life is calm. There is nothing like that here, in fact. You can avoid thinking about it if you don’t want to, if you don’t open your browser. In Russia, this is hard to pull off. You walk outside and immediately read something printed on banners. Here, on the contrary, you get the sense that politics is god knows where. The police are also god knows where. They are somewhere round the corner, but you don’t see them. I’m talking about New York. It’s calmer. As for real threats, the situation is unpleasant. It resembles the Cold War again. You could say it’s already underway. We’ve gone full circle. Everything is happening all over again, and I’m quite tired of it all, in fact. Generally, I have hope, of course, but I won’t talk about, because it is now considered forbidden in the Russian Federation. For the time being, there is little of this hope in the Russian Federation.

Okay, what are your future musical plans. “Time to Live,” the first track from the resurrected Nol, has been released. Is an album the obvious next step? Will it be nostalgic, like your previous LP, Fyodor Chistyakov: Nol + 30? Or will it be something different?
Yes, aside from the fall concerts in Russia, we have the idea to record a Nol LP. I’ll start working on it in the very near future. In any case, it will be a new album with new songs. The new song “Time to Live” I recorded with Alexei “Nichols” Nikolayev [a member of the classic Nol line-up]. It was just the two of us who recorded the track. I really liked it. It turned out quite well. I would like to keep working and record the whole album in this vein.

Will you be recording in the States or Petersburg?
It’s going to be an intercontinental project.

Better intercontinental Nol albums than intercontinental missiles, eh?
Probably. [Laughs.]

Will the new Nol album be as militant as your last songs, from the LP No Fools, and the new singles “Went Mental” and “Time to Live”? Or will it be more lyrical? How much material do you have and what is it about?
I wouldn’t say the material is ready. Some songs are more or less ready, while others are still only sketches. But, ultimately, I think the material will be good. It won’t leave you bored.

Thanks, Fyodor, for this “intercontinental” conversation.
It’s just like from a space station.

The voting in our official group broke down as follows. 84.8% of users said they understood people who leave Russia. (“Yes, it’s everybody’s right.”) Only seven percent agreed with the statement, “No, who then will be left?” An interesting outcome?
Quite interesting, and quite encouraging that are so many people who respect the rights of others, at least, on Fontanka. Office.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up

Fyodor Chistyakov and Nol (Zero), “Time to Live” (2017)

* * * * *

No article about Fyodor Chistyakov and Nol would be complete without this oldie but goodie from a much better time, whatever the wiseguys says about it now. It was a free country then. Just listen to the lyrics. Back then the song was in constant rotation on just about every radio station, at least in Chistyakov’s hometown of Petersburg. TRR

Nol, “Song about a Real Indian” (1991)

Nikolay Mitrokhin: God-Given “Extremists”

God-Given “Extremists”
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Takie Dela
April 26, 2017

I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.

Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.

An American Salesman’s Religion

The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.

“A History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” a display in the museum at the Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, located in Solnechnoye, a suburb of St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Alexander Demyanchuk/TASS

A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.

The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.

Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.

Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.

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The cover of a 1928 Russian-language edition of The Watchtower. When the Russian edition was founded in 1925, it was originally entitled The Guard Tower, but in 1964 the name was changed to The Watchtower. Photo courtesy of Boris Alexeyevich/Wikipedia

The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.

Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.

If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN.  At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.

A Religion for Soviet Individuals

The story of how the Witnesses took root in the Soviet Union has been well told in a book published three years ago by Emily Baran, Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It. Polish and Romanian peasants and market traders adopted the doctrine of the Witnesses at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, and before the war they unexpectedly were made Soviet citizens when the Soviet Union occupied parts of Poland and Romania.

The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.

The Moscow Jehovah’s Witness community worshiping at the velodrome in the city’s Krylatskoye District, 2000. Photo courtesy of Alexander Fomin/PhotoXPress.ru

As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipedia provides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”

The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.

Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Minsk, 2015. Photo courtesy of Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters/Pixstream

Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.

Wholehearted Atheists

In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.

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The Jehovah’s Witness Congress Hall in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.

Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.

“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”

This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.

In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.

“Is there an end to your suffering? Take a copy for free in your own language.” Tuchkovo, Moscow Region. Photo courtesy of Alexander Artemenkov/TASS

This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.

The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.

Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.

By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.

Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sochi, 2007. Photo courtesy of Natalya Kolesnikova/PhotoXPress

After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others.  Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless. 

Wholehearted Anticultists

Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.

In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings.  Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.

Protest rally against the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, 1997. Photo courtesy of TASS

Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.

Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.

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Professor Alexander Dvorkin. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Mukhtarov/Wikipedia

By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years.  The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows,  there won’t be much point to what they are doing.

Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.

Marquee being taken down from the Surgut office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with their ban in Russia, April 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexei Andronov/Ura.Ru/TASS

The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.

I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way of rescinding the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Extremism” Ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Popular Will?

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Was it the “popular will” that 500 hectares of land be reclaimed in the Neva Bay right off Petersburg’s Vasiliyevsky Island and developed into densely built high-rise estates, causing untold amounts of environmental and aesthetic damage? No, it wasn’t. In fact, locals were bitterly opposed to the project and they mounted a loud resistance back in the day. But their will was roundly ignored by Petersburg city hall and developers. Under the present authoritarian regime, “popular will” is a friendly phantom, at best, an irritant, at worst. Photo by The Russian Reader.

The Russian Supreme Court has gone ahead and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered their property confiscated. This is a colossal insult to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Russian citizens. A huge new underground has been generated. Massive crackdowns for their faith, new political prisoners, and mass immigration are around the corner. The Russian authorities and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is personally responsible for this operation, have curious ideas about the joy of Easter.
—Nikolay Mitrokhin, Facebook, April 21, 2017

Perhaps this is what is most disheartening about the recent legal battle. The state may be the central actor, but its actions reflect the popular will of Russians who, by and large, have decided that Witnesses have no place in their society.
—Emily Baran, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Spells End for Russia’s Religious Diversity,” Moscow Times, April 24, 2017

When did Russians decide this? Did they hold a referendum recently? Are most Russians even aware of how the Justice Ministry has used the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists,” allegedly, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill? I very much doubt it.

Professor Baran only mentions actions by state or quasi-state actors, such as the central press in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Yet they were and have been somehow acting on behalf of the “popular will,” a symbiosis she makes no real attempt to prove in her op-ed piece for the Moscow Times, as quoted above.

As for real popular sentiment, I imagine there are as many Americans as Russians who have reflexively negative attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just think of all the jokes about JWs you have heard in your lifetime that cast them in a negative or ridiculous light, or how many times you have seen their likenesses figuring as the villains on TV medical dramas who refuse proper care for desperately sick children? Then why aren’t they banned in the US? At worst, the American “popular will” sees them as outsiders and obscurantists, at best, as an annoyance.

I can imagine that tenure-track professors in the US have a hard time understanding how disempowered and disconnected the grassroots are in a country that now has the world’s largest income inequality gap, and a long, brutal history of minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, getting hammered by the powers that be while putative “majority” either did not mind, looked the other way or did not even notice.

But does Tennessee, where Professor Baran teaches, have an utterly different history when it comes to protecting the rights of its minorities?

The Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist is completely despicable in every possible way, but Russians who bother to care about minorities and “minority” interests (like the environment, civil and social rights, corruption, labor rights, migrant rights, and historical preservation and sound urban planning) are often too few and far between to fight every battle and put out every fire. And many of those fighters are themselves currently under the state’s gun. The same Justice Ministry that has gone after Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses like a pit bull has also been branding NGOs, research institutes, and grassroots organizations “foreign agents” like it was at a fire sale.

That is no excuse for the judicial execution the Russian state has just performed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was a decision made at the top by the political, ecclesiastical and judicial elites, including the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill. It was not the state’s response to a nonexistent, utterly imaginary “popular will.” TRR

Russian Supreme Court Looks Set to Ban Jehovah’s Witnesses

Hearing of the Justice Ministry’s case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia in Russian Supreme Court, April 5, 2017, Moscow. Photo courtesy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia

Supreme Court Refuses to Recognize Jehovah’s Witnesses as Victims of Political Repression
Court Examining Justice Ministry’s Suit to Have Organized Declared “Extremist”
Elena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
April 5, 2017

The Supreme Court has begun its consideration of the Justice Ministry’s suit against the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The ministry has asked the organization to be declared extremist, to ban its work, and to close it.

The Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia had tried to file a counterclaim, asking that the Justice Ministry’s actions be declared illegal. It also asked the court to rule that the ministry’s actions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses were political repression and to throw out the Justice Ministry’s suit. However, the judge refused to take the counterclaim into consideration.

The Justice Ministry has filed its suit to close not only the Administrative Center but also all of the religious organization’s branches and affiliates in Russia.

“The true goal is political repression against religious organizations, in particular, the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said a defense counsellor.

He recalled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were also banned in Soviet times. In the early 1990s, however, the authorities admitted that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been victims of political repression, and they were subsequently rehabilitated.

Three hundred and ninety-five local chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have asked to be named co-defendants, since their work would be stopped if the Administrative Center were deemed an “extremist” organization. Each of these chapters, which could be deemed “extremist,” has the right to ask Justice Ministry officials why they want to ban them, said a defense counsellor. The court turned down the request. They also requested the case files from administrative cases, in particular, cases in which the authorities claimed to have seized “extremist” matter. A defense counsellor said there were witnesses who had seen matter that had previously been recognized as “extremist” planted in places where searches had taken place. This motion was also denied. The next hearing in the case will be on Thursday.

In October of last year, Moscow’s Tverskaya District Court issued a warning to the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia for “extremist” activity. In January of this year, Moscow City Court upheld the legality of the warning. In March, the Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court asking that the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia be recognized as an “extreme” organization and that its activities be banned after inspections allegedly revealed violations of anti-“extremist” laws. At the same time, an order was issued to suspend the work of both the Administrative Center and all local chapters until the court had made its final decision. In turn, the Jehovah’s Witnesses indicated the ban would affect four hundred registered local religious organizations and 2,777 religious groups in Russia, amounting to 175,000 followers. The Supreme Court had already upheld the closure of local chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol, Belgorod, Samara, and other cities.

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Nikolay Mitrokhin
Facebook
April 5, 2017

Today, a trial began whereby the Russian authorities intend to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The whole world understands it is shameful to persecute people for religious beliefs, but not the Russian authorities, who habitually could not care less about their reputation. If we speak in terms of the “public good,” then in the coming years, as terrorist attacks continue, crime rates remain high, and corruption has become total, law enforcement agencies will be busy “interdicting” the religious activities of the organization’s 170,000 active members. (This figure does not included the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, family members, and people involved in some way.)

There is no doubt the entire attack on the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been undertaken by Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov to curry favor with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. It could be stopped with a single phone call. And yet this ban won’t really help the ROC in any way. Moreover, it will cause it serious problems, which even part of the church leadership understands. However, Kirill and his ideological confederates, having long ago taken the bit between their teeth, are speeding the church’s carriage over bumps and gullies.

Translated by the Russian Reader

If Harassing Jehovah’s Witnesses Were an Olympic Sport, Russia Would Win a Gold Medal

Cupolas of the Cossack Exaltation of the Holy Cross Cathedral, St. Petersburg, November 18, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader
Cossack Exaltation of the Holy Cross Cathedral, St. Petersburg, November 18, 2016. Billboard in foreground reads, “The Pink Bunny, A Store for Fortifying the Family, Ligov Shopping Center.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.
Constitution of the Russian Federation, Chapter 2, Article 28

Police Search Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls in Smolensk and Sochi, Disrupting Services in Both Cases
SOVA Center
December 19, 2016

On December 17 in Sochi, police officers and Cossacks came to the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, blocked all the doors, drove all the worshippers from the auditorium except two people, and conducted a search. During the search, a publication included in the Federal List of Extremist Literature was confiscated.

According to the worshippers, one of the official witnesses accompanying the police helped them knock down the gate.

On December 18 in Smolensk, police and prosecutors, accompanied by armed riot police, arrived at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, where about sixty people were assembled. A search was also conducted. During the search, an extremist pamphlet was discovered in the toilet.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the extremist literature was planted by those conducting the searches in both cases. In both cases, the worship services were disrupted.

In addition, on December 18, a search was carried out in a private home in Smolensk where Jehovah’s Witnesses live. According to them, the police officers were rude and used force against women. When one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses felt sick, the law enforcement officers kept them from summoning medics for a long time.

Translated by the Russian Reader