The Church Militant

Archbishop Pitirim of Syktyvkar

Archbishop Pitirim of Syktyvkar has called on his parishioners to rally not around Christ, but around Putin, calling the West “the enemy of the human race.”

“After [hearing] the appeal made by His Eminence the President (on supporting the war – ed.), I considered it my duty to appeal to all the clergy, monastics, and God-loving laypeople of the Syktyvkar Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as to all the patriots of our Northern Region, to rally even closer around our supreme military and political leadership and our valiant army, which, as in the years of the Great Patriotic War, is defending our earthly Fatherland from the insidious enemy of the human race.

“Only by joint prayer and tireless military efforts will we be able to contain the enemy and erect a strong barrier to the West’s aggression.”

It should be noted that “the Great Satan” is Iran’s traditional name for the United States. Meanwhile, the Head of the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of the Russian Federation, Mufti Albir Krganov, invoked the same metaphor in a speech he made during Eid al-Adha.

Previously, Pitirim (who had already taken holy orders) expressed his pride at being awarded the rank of Cossack colonel.

We should also add that Metropolitan Leonid, appointed Patriarchal Exarch of Africa, has devoted seven of his last ten posts on Telegram to the polemic with the “collective West.” Leonid’s position statements were published as part of the ROC’s revenge on the Patriarchate of Alexandria for supporting Ukrainian autocephaly.

Source: Sota, 11 July 2022. Photo courtesy of Sota. Translated by the Russian Reader


The officers who raided Father Ioann Kurmoyarov’s home reportedly seized his mobile phone, a laptop, two icons, a cassock and a wooden cross.

He was taken to a police station in St Petersburg, and allowed to make one phone call to his family.

He told them he had been arrested.

Father Ioann is believed to be the first priest imprisoned under laws introduced in Russia to punish those who spread information countering the Kremlin’s narrative of the war.

“I am a prisoner of conscience, suffering for my beliefs. I consider the charges against me and my detention to be illegal,” says Father Ioann now in a statement he dictated to his lawyer in St Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Father Ioann adds that he is a Christian pacifist whose moral views are entirely based on the commandments of the Gospel and canons of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God,” and “Thou shalt not kill,” are among the quotes he includes in his statement.

On 12 March, just over two weeks after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Father Ioann uploaded an eight and a half minute video to YouTube.

In it he said that those who unleash aggression would not go to heaven, and that in this case it was not Ukraine that attacked Russia but the other way around.

“You are the aggressors who attacked and killed civilians. You will not be in any kind of heaven, you will be in hell,” he says of the Russian leadership.

A picture from a sermon posted on YouTube in which Father Ioann Kurmoyarov said Russian aggressors in the conflict would go to hell.
In a sermon posted on YouTube, Father Ioann Kurmoyarov said Russian aggressors in the conflict would go to hell.

In his video Father Ioann goes on to compare the Russian invasion with violent “jihad” suggesting that bloodthirsty leaders in Moscow should have converted to become “militant Islamists”, a theme that he kept returning to.

“We worried but we just didn’t expect that he would be arrested,” says his brother Alexander Kurmoyarov. He tells me that Father Ioann is currently serving an initial two month detention and is then likely to face trial.

“We thought maybe he would be given a warning by the police, but now we are worried that he will get 10 years in prison,” he says, referring to the maximum sentence Father Ioann could receive.

The only visitor to have seen Father Ioann in Kresty Prison is his lawyer Leonid Krikun who says his client appeared to be in good health and also defiant.

“I told Father Ioann that if he pleads guilty he will probably get a shorter sentence, but he refuses to say he has committed any crime,” Mr Krikun says.

“He says that he would rather serve a longer sentence than admit any wrongdoing and if that happens he will preach to fellow inmates.”

Father Ioann has shown before that he is unafraid of speaking out. He was suspended from the church in 2020 after calling the newly-built Church of the Russian Armed Forces a “pagan temple”.

The Cathedral in Moscow was the brainchild of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and was due to house frescos that featured President Putin and Josef Stalin as well as scenes that celebrated the Crimean occupation.

In a social media post, Father Ioann said Mr Shoigu should be arrested for offending religious sentiment.

But what makes Father Ioann’s story all the more unusual is that before he got in trouble with the Russian state, he also had a brush with the Ukrainian security service, the SBU.

Ioann Kurmayarov lived in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine for most of his life, his parents having moved there after his father retired from the Russian army.

“Even as a child he was always very outspoken, always searching for the truth,” says his brother Alexander who speaks to me from Vinnytsia.

“It was in the church that he found a place where that search for truth was satisfied,” says Alexander.

But in 2017, Father Ioann made the news in Ukraine for an act of defiance.

With Crimea annexed by Russia and parts of the east occupied by Russian-backed forces, Ukraine expanded laws banning Soviet symbols.

But Father Ioann posted pictures of one of the most controversial of them, the St George’s ribbon.

He was taken in by police for questioning and the SBU brought administrative charges against him.

“He was not radically pro-Russia, he was standing up for freedom of speech and simply believed the authorities were doing the wrong thing by banning displays of the ribbon,” says Alexander.

At the time Father Ioann said he was prepared to pay the fine, worth around $100 (£84.50), but said he would then openly wear the ribbon seeing as he had now paid for the privilege. The Ukrainian case against him was dropped.

He soon moved to Russia where he is already paying a much higher price for speaking out against curbs on freedom of expression.

In April he was defrocked by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, though members of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) say he has been accepted by them.

More pressing is that he remains behind bars at Detention Centre Number One in Kresty Prison with the prospect of staying there for years. His initial detention period ends on 6 August after which his trial date is due to be set.

“I want him to be found innocent, as a Christian who was talking about Christian values,” says Alexander.

“But I worry about what is going to happen now and I worry about his future.”

Source: Aleem Maqbool, “Russia-Ukraine war: Priest detained for criticising Putin,” BBC News, 17 July 2022


There are tens of thousands of refugees from Ukraine in Russia. Some of them are trying to leave Russia for countries in Europe or the Transcaucasia, while others remain in temporary accommodation. Both groups are being helped by Russian volunteers. One of the informal leaders of this movement in Petersburg is Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko, a bishop of the Apostolic Orthodox Church and a member of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council. Farida Kurbangaleyeva spoke with him about why he is not afraid of the Russian security forces, why Ukrainians are being taken to the Far East, and why the Russian Orthodox Church failed to oppose the war.

Father Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko, holding a copy of the Russian constitution across the street from the Russian Constitutional Court’s current home in downtown Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Facebook and Republic

— How did you start dealing with the problem of Ukrainian refugees?

— In the very first days of the war, we thought about the Ukrainian nationals already living in Russia. According to various estimates, there were from eight hundred thousand to two million such people. We assumed they might have problems. I proposed to the Human Rights Council that we set up a hotline for Ukrainian nationals, and all my colleagues [on the council] supported me. Immediately, there was a large number of inquiries from people trying to leave Russia. In fact, if people’s papers were in order, there was nothing complicated abut the situation. But while we were figuring it out, refugees from Mariupol reached out to us. Som of them wanted to leave Russia, while others wanted to stay. But all of them were asking for legal assistance.

— Could you have imagined that Ukrainians would be brought to Russia?

— To be honest, no. Although it didn’t surprise me. I don’t want issue any judgements now—for this you need to be inside these events. But if you believe what the people directly involved have been saying, there was no possibility of organized evacuation anywhere except to Russia. At least, that’s what these people were told. And yet, when it is said that these people were taken to Russia by force, this is a somewhat inaccurate way of putting it.

— When I spoke with refugees from Mariupol, they said they had wanted to go to areas controlled by Ukraine, but that was tantamount to death—the humanitarian corridor was being shelled all the time.

— I don’t question what they said. I accept it as a fact. There was a humanitarian corridor to Russia, and, apparently, it was quite safe. I know that some people also left for Ukraine, but mostly at their own risk and mainly those who had vehicles. There was no way out on foot, as far as I know.

— But isn’t this violence on Russia’s part?

— When we talk about forcible removal, what I see in my mind’s eye are stills of German shepherds and people being struck in the back with rifle butts. There was no such thing [in this case], of course. But as far as I understand, people were not offered much choice. So, there was an element of there being no alternative. I personally am not ready to speculate about why it happened. I was not an eyewitness myself, and I have not seen any documents in this regard. I have only heard stories.

But it would be much worse if people who found themselves on Russian soil were legally subjected to forced detention, if the authorities prevented them from moving freely. According to my observations, they have not been prevented from doing this. Those who do not want to go to the proposed temporary accommodation facilities can safely go wherever they want.

It is another matter that these people have no money, that they have telecommunications problems, problems with paperwork. In this sense, the Russian state has not been providing them with anything. Ukrainian nationals could not cope without the volunteers who have been helping them obtain papers, board trains, and buy clothes and medicines, including prescription medicines, because there are people with chronic diseases among them.

— But why do the Russian authorities tell Ukrainian refugees to evacuate if they cannot provide for them? Is there no Pharisaism in this?

— I think there is an element of Pharisaism. But, again, now is not the time for making judgements. Now is the time for action. For example, I need to find a place for refugees to spend the night. Here we are talking, but at the same time I am corresponding on a chat, because another family is waiting for help.

The point is that what happened on February 24 is a crime—a crime against humanity, the unleashing of a war of aggression. Period. Everything else is a consequence of this crime.

We’ll figure out a bit later who is a hero and who is a scumbag. But now everyone should do what they can where they can do it. Journalists should write stories, human rights defenders should defend human rights, and caring people should make moral decisions by sharing their apartments, cars, or their own time. Not helping a refugee—even from the point of view of a book called the Bible—is a very grave sin. As the saying goes, “for you were strangers in a strange land.”

— How many Ukrainian refugees are currently in Russia? And how many camps are there?

— There are no official statistics. There are figures from different departments, and they radically contradict each other. The Russian authorities cite certain fantastic figures that are impossible to believe—860,000 people. I don’t understand where they came from, because there are much fewer people in Mariupol. Are they from the Donetsk region? But there seemingly hasn’t been a mass evacuation from there.

I think that these figures, as they pass along the chain through different departments, get zeros and ones added to them. I think that around one hundred thousand people have actually arrived in Russia from the war zone. Several thousand of them have already left, while a certain number of others are planning to leave.

We know of around five hundred temporary accommodation camps. That sounds scary, but you have to understand that there are places housing literally between fifty to seventy people. They’re like small boarding houses. There are probably only a few large camps, like the one near Petersburg, where 550 people have been accommodated. Or, for example, there are around three hundred people at the camp in Vladivostok.

— But why have refugees been taken so far away? Do you have an explanation?

— To be honest, I don’t see any special malicious intent in this. Apparently, somewhere in the presidential administration there was a request to all regions of the federation to ready sites for taking in refugees. And each region reported how many people it could take in. They are still trying to place these people in more or less normal conditions. These are not tent camps or barracks in the taiga.

The regions were also tasked with providing jobs and papers to the people who wanted them. It is clear that no region in the European part of Russia is ready to take in one hundred thousand people and give them jobs. Where would they find them? So, they began spreading people [around the country] as thinly as possible. Taking into account the size of the country, it turned out the way it turned out. We should be grateful that the most distant reception center is in Vladivostok, not Kamchatka.

— The buzz on social media is that this is another [mass] deportation.

— I don’t want to use words lightly. And, since the phrase “special operation” was introduced, words don’t function anymore, they’re finished. The safety of people has been ensured, and tickets from Vladivostok to Moscow, Petersburg, or Tokyo cost no more than money. Of course, this is all redundant. But what can be solved with money is not the problem.

Excerpts from Facebook chats between Ukrainian refugees and Russian volunteers. Courtesy of Republic

— Can people who have no papers at all leave Russia—for example, if they burned up during bombing?

— Refugees can receive a temporary document called a “Certificate establishing the identity of a foreign national or a stateless person.” It’s a very valuable invention. It is issued at police stations, and features a photo, a seal, and three signatures. With this document, a refugee can leave Russia.

To apply for this paper, a person must confirm their identity in any way. They can even submit an electricity bill, or provide witnesses. For example, a family leaves [Ukraine]: five of them have their papers, but the sixth does not. Cases when an entire family does not have their papers are rare. Besides, there is an analogue of Russia’s Public Services Portal in Ukraine, so in ninety-nine percent of cases it won’t be difficult to confirm a person’s identity.

This document was introduced several years ago. As far as I understand, it was championed by the human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina and her Civic Assistance Committee—because there were a large number of migrant workers in Russia, and their cases were different. Some people had lost their papers. Or, a person, for example, worked in Tyumen, but their country’s consulate was in Yekaterinburg.

Clearly, the nearest Ukrainian consulate is located outside the Russian Federation. Fortunately, the Russian border service understands this, so [Ukrainian refugees] face no particular difficulties when leaving [Russia].

There are more complex dilemmas. For example, there are infants who were born in the now-infamous Mariupol maternity hospital and did not have time to receive any papers. I met a couple here: the dad and mom are legally married, they have plastic biometric cards, but the child’s only ID is the tag it had on its hand or foot.

— Have you baptized any refugee children?

— I was asked to baptize two children, but at that moment there was no room ready. When I asked for a room to be readied, the baptism was postponed. I think we’ll go there in a week. God willing, we will baptize them.

— Who are more numerous—the people who want to leave or the people who want to stay?

— The overwhelming majority (and among them there are people who are absolutely pro-Russian) say that their greatest desire is to get home. You ask, “But isn’t everything wrecked there?” They reply, “That’s okay, we’ll rebuild it.” We’ll set aside how they imagine reconstruction from a political point of view—it’s not about that. The point is that people want to return [to Ukraine]. And they will do so the first chance they get.

That’s why, by the way, the vast majority of refugees do not apply for the fast-track Russian citizenship they are offered. They get either a temporary residence permit or a residence permit. Even those who don’t want to go to Europe and say “We’ll stay here for a while” still regard returning home as their ultimate task.

— How ethical is the offer of Russian citizenship under such circumstances?

— If we set aside February 24, it is something that is done within the concept that the Russian authorities have proclaimed.

— But we cannot set aside February 24, can we?

— That is why it is an outrage. But within this outrage, there may be things that are completely beyond the pale, and there may be things that, from a humanitarian point of view, make it easier for a person to live at a particular moment.

— It seems to me that this is like torturing a person and serving them cake during the breaks.

— But it’s a slightly more complicated scheme if they are told, “Eat cake and we’ll let you go.” Purely practically, there are people who gave the orders to start shelling, others who set up a humanitarian corridor, and still others in the federal migration service who offer fast-track citizenship. All of them together constitute the state apparatus. But individually, they are different people—who, by the way, also have different judgementsd of what is happening.

A very great misfortune has come into our home. But now, I repeat, is not the time for judgements. Now is the time for action.

If a person asks you to give them underpants, a t-shirt, and a toothbrush, you don’t need to ask them who they voted for in the previous election. You have to give them what they ask.

— If martial law is imposed in Russia, will refugees become more vulnerable?

— Such a turn of events would affect everyone. It’s another matter that I have a rather low opinion of our government’s administrative willpower. In Russia, things are usually loudly announced, but come to naught.

I strongly doubt that the authorities would impose martial law. Most likely, they will again make do by adopting hybrid measures so as not to call things by name, because the level of support for this whole business is quite low. In 2014, all the cars were decked out with Saint George’s ribbons and everyone shouted joyfully, “Crimea is ours!” But now we see the letter Z only on Russian National Guard vehicles.

— What about the opinion polls?

— In an authoritarian country that is smoothly segueing to totalitarianism, the worth of such polls is quite low. People are well aware of what answers are expected from them. By the way, the latest poll by the Levada Center says that support for the war has decreased ten percent in a month. This is quite a serious drop, despite the fact that hysteria is being whipped up.

Yesterday, we sent abroad a [Ukrainian] family who had arrived from Astrakhan. They got to Petersburg by train without concealing from others who they were. They did not hide the fact that they were leaving our blessed country. People gave them food, and money, and toys. This is a very important indicator. All the people they met tried to make amends to them.

— Many volunteers also say that they do not go to protest rallies, but help Ukrainians because they feel guilty.

— Now is not a time when you can change the opinion of the authorities with a protest rally. Now there is a flesh and blood problem—the people who have ended up here [in Russia]. And a lot more problems will start to emerge, because the war does no one any good.

I have an appeal on my hands from two hundred families of conscript soldiers who, as you can guess, wound up in this war without any desire or legal grounds for it. But now the high command won’t issue them papers stating that they were involved in hostilities [and are thus owed veterans’ benefits].

Some of them were injured and need long-term rehabilitation and treatment.

It’s called a “ruined life.” A man goes into the army to serve the Motherland and comes home without legs. But he is told, “Actually, fellow, you’re nobody, and we didn’t send you there.” I’m not even talking about those who came back in zinc coffins. War benefits no one except the idiots at the very top.

— If we go back to the statistics, the Ukrainian authorities say that about 200,000 children have been taken to Russia. It turns out that these numbers also don’t jibe with yours?

— Unfortunately, the situation is so monstrous that I am not sure that there is even one agency that can responsibly cite exact figures about the refugees. Imagine: it is a war zone. Management at each individual site belongs to the operational command located there. From there, people are sent to a variety of pretrial detention camps in the Rostov and Belgorod regions, and so on. And from there they are sent further on.

How well are the records kept there? How systematic and accurate are they? Or do people cross the border and that’s the end of it? If I understand correctly, the Russian border service should, theoretically, have more or less accurate data. It should also be borne in mind that among the refugees there are people who managed to get DNR-LNR passports, and people who managed to get Russian citizenship. Some are even citizens of third countries. My data revolves around the number I cited. Perhaps it is already larger. But in any case, it is tens of thousands of people.

— And what is happening in Russia with Ukrainian children who have been left without parents?

— This is the most important issue we are trying to deal with. Fortunately, so far we have not found documentary evidence of such cases. We know that a few days before the war started, an orphanage was evacuated from the DPR. As for all the other children from Ukraine who are in Russia, if they are not with their parents, they are with legal guardians—meaning grandmothers, grandfathers and so on. So we’ve read a lot of stories about total orphans, but we haven’t encountered them yet.

— Do you know what to do if such children turn up?

— Theoretically, we do. In the interests of such a child, a lawyer would represent them with the consent of its legal guardians. This is a difficult job, because the Ukrainian side would have to be involved. I think we would solve the problem somehow.

— You now communicate a lot with children from Ukraine. They say that a child’s psyche is supple, but surely war leaves an irreparable mark on it?

— Of course it does. We can do a deep dive philosophically and discuss when and how to talk to a child about death—what to do if its hamster has died. But what to do if a loved one has died in front of the child? Today, we helped a family travel on to Estonia. The father and grandfather were killed [in Ukraine]. The grandfather died in the arms of his grandson. The boy was barely eighteen years old. And his two younger sisters saw it. Words and tears fail me. This is monstrous.

— How do you find the right words for them?

— I don’t try to find the right words. I try to behave in such a way that, perhaps, they themselves will feel like talking. Of course, post-traumatic syndrome is a very difficult situation. Very often people need to talk to a person who inspires confidence. But I’m not unique in this. All our volunteers are caring, empathetic people. And they all tell their own stories about the refugees.

A few days ago, we had a difficult case getting a family out of the country. The eldest son, who is seventeen years old, has a severe form of cancer. We carried out the evacuation along with the Ukrainian League of Oncologists, because the boy was scheduled for surgery in Switzerland. That was why the family was evacuated directly there, via Warsaw. One of the younger children, a three-year-old boy, has a shrapnel wound. That is, out of four children [in this family], two are in serious condition.

Naturally, this family communicated with our case managers. Our volunteer asked them a completely standard question in the chat: “Do you have pets? Do you need carriers?” And the mother of these children replied, “No, we don’t need anything: our parrot was incinerated along with our apartment.” Such details reveal the degree of horror that has been occurring there.

Yes, a child’s psyche is supple, but we know that young prisoners kept their memories of Auschwitz for life. Many of those who survived have lived thoughtful, fulfilling lives. But this does not mean that they [the Ukrainian children] will forget everything. A lot will depend on the environment and the circumstances in which they find themselves. This is supremely hard work for many years to come.

Father Grigory (far left) with a family from Mariupol whom Russian volunteers were able to send to Switzerland.
Photo courtesy of Facebook and Republic

— I can’t help but ask you as an Orthodox priest: how do you feel about the ROC’s position on the war in Ukraine?

— I feel bad about it. This stance was the basis for my leaving the ROC clergy—because I’d been seeing this position since 2014. Let’s set aside all the theological chatter and just say it outright: the ROC is a public organization with members in two countries. Naturally, this public organization has all the levers it needs for getting involved in peacemaking and bringing people together. Instead, the organization a priori takes one side: these guys here are right, and those guys there are wrong.

This is no dialogue. This is the clerical habit of preaching from the pulpit, from the position of “I teach, and you listen.” This has facilitated only one thing—a decline in the ROC’s authority among the faithful both in Russia and Ukraine and around the world. Read what Pope Francis had to say about his conversation with [Patriarch] Kirill: [he called him] “Putin’s altar boy.”

— But why does Patriarch Kirill support this war?

— Kirill is a man of the system. He has his assignment, and he is carrying it out. His assignment is to support the party line. He is part of the Russian leadership. Recently, a friend told me that there is Rosneft [the Russian state oil corporation], and then there is Roschurch, the state corporation in charge of spirituality. Rosspirituality is probably the right name for it.

That’s the wrong way of doing things, guys. In any case, [Patriarch Kirill] is the head of a powerful organization. It has tens of thousands of regional branches—let’s call them that. It has tens of thousands of rank-and-file clergy. I’m not even talking about the millions of believers in Ukraine. And Ukraine is a much more religious country, a much more “observant” country than Russia. That is, they are people who don’t go to church only out of obligation. Many people in Ukraine now say, “Yes, we are parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the Moscow Patriarchate. But, of course, it should stop communicating with Kirill. Of course, Kirill should no longer be our leader.”

I’m not even talking about the huge number of people in Russia who say, “That’s it, we’re not setting foot in that church.” [The ROC] doesn’t have to condemn or anathematize Putin. But it can and should clearly explain the difference between killing and peacemaking.

— Does this mean that Orthodoxy as a whole is losing its reputation?

— The reputation of religion generally will be greatly devalued by this war. Because religious leaders, unfortunately, do not have sufficient resources for peacekeeping missions. Yes, I know a number of clergymen in Ukraine—they are not necessarily Orthodox, many of them are Protestants—who are working in the war zone, evacuating civilians and helping the wounded. This is the Church’s business.

But the Church cannot make political decisions nowadays. Its word doesn’t have the weight it did in the Middle Ages, when wars were stopped and started because the Pope said so. It has no such resources. And there is no Sergius of Radonezh in Russia nowadays who could seal off the churches in Nizhny Novgorod.

One could, of course, do a performance. I could go to Red Square and seal the doors of St. Basil’s Cathedral. It would get written about, but it would be forgotten in five minutes, because [the Church] has now sway over minds. Society has long been de-Christianized.

— But the Pope has spoken out against the war, hasn’t he?

— I have a lot of sympathy for Pope Francis. But the Catholic Church is not just the Pope. There are also a huge number of people who should have worked even more vigorously. Now, unfortunately, what the Pope says is not heard by those to whom it is primarily addressed. Putin does not hear [the Pope], and Kirill does not tell him what the Pope says. We have reached a dead end. This is the trouble with ecclesiastical diplomacy and the Church’s influence.

— Do you cooperate with the Catholic charity organization Caritas?

— I don’t have any prejudices about anyone at all, especially when it comes to humanitarian cooperation. People can be atheists to the fourth degree or Catholics to the eighteenth power, but I say, “Lord, what a blessing that there are people who care.” Basically, we are willing to work with absolutely everyone—with the police, the border service, the Defense Ministry, the FSB. If it can be of real benefit to people, I say let’s cooperate, let’s look for a solution. If people are sitting and talking it’s always better than when they are looking at each other through the sight of a gun.

— Some of the volunteers helping the refugees have now become targets of harassment. Aren’t you afraid of this?

— I’m definitely not afraid of bullying. I didn’t experience it in 2014, when I supported Ukraine. Although I was asked a lot of puzzled questions. I think that the events that are happening now with the volunteers have to do with the fact that one of the heads of the regional special services isn’t quite up to his job. He misunderstands the state’s goals and objectives.

I talked to the big bosses in Petersburg and got their full agreement that everyone who wants to leave [Russia] should be sent away as soon as possible. This is in the public interest. Because otherwise we end up with an unmanageable number of socially disadvantaged people who still have personal ties to Ukraine and may have grievances against the Russian state.

Today, they say they want to live here, but tomorrow? Are we sure? Maybe we should get them out of her faster? And if the state does not have the material resources to keep them here and send them off, then thank God that there are volunteers who are willing to help these people go quietly and calmly wherever they want. [The officials] thought it over. They said, “This is an approach that suits the state.” I replied, “Well, you see.”

— Is it true that volunteers do not unite in one big movement and instead operate as discrete partisan detachments intentionally so that the authorities don’t harm them?

— We don’t have time to unite in one big movement. We would start spending time on organizational work, on electing a chair—on nonsense. Now there is a simple task: a man arrives at a train station [in Petersburg] and writes, “I have three bags and four kids.” He needs to be helped through simple efforts.

You can even just stand at the Moscow Station in Petersburg holding a sign that says, “I am driving refugees to Ivangorod.” That’s it. If you seem basically trustworthy, [the refugees] will approach you.

I am very happy (if I can say that at all nowadays) when I see thousands of volunteer chats. All my hopes rest on this.

People ask me, “Aren’t you afraid that half of [the people on the volunteer chats] are officers in the special services?” If that’s the case, then I’m doubly happy that they see and read everything. A person with the remnants of a healthy psyche cannot help but reach the right conclusions. It is a lot of fun to press a button and destroy an abstract opponent from afar. You listen to [pro-Putin TV talk show presenter Vladimir] Solovyov and go into battle for denazification. But when you come across people who have nothing to do with it at all—such as the dead grandfather [that Father Grigory mentioned, above] and the dad, who worked as an engineer at the Azovstal plant—you get a completely different picture.

— Aren’t you afraid of being named a “foreign agent”?

— I am a foreign agent by definition, because I abide by the the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. This does not mean that I would deliberately and maliciously violate the laws of the state. But there are primary laws and secondary laws. The primary laws are: do not kill, do not steal, and so on down the line. So it is shameful to be afraid.

I don’t believe that I am violating the law by doing what I do. I obey it scrupulously. The law does not stipulate that the phrase “no war” is a crime.

Nor do I think that these words discredit the armed forces. I believe that they are words that any sane person would say. War is something that should not be part of humanity in the twenty-first century.

— Now you are you refraining from judging what is happening. When can we make this judgement?

— First of all, the fighting must end. Secondly, all refugees must find a home. It is clear that everyone won’t be getting home anytime soon. And considering such dangers as the use of nuclear weapons, this whole business could drag on for a very long time.

But that day will come. Someday a peace treaty or an act of surrender will be signed. The guns will stop talking. Not only analysts, but also historians will start talking. Sooner or later, judges and prosecutors will have their say. It’s a very sad spectacle. Of course, I would have rather that Russia had avoided this shock. But that didn’t happen.

Source: Farida Kurbangaleyeva, “‘I am a foreign agent by definition, because I abide by the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven’: how a Petersburg priest who left the Russian Orthodox Church has been helping Ukrainian refugees,” Republic, 10 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

All It Takes

As a “foreign agent,” the liberal Russian current affairs website Republic has to attach this disclaimer to every article it posts online. Screenshot by the Russian Reader

Justice Ministry Explains It Designated Republic a ‘Foreign Agent’ Because Foreign Embassies Subscribed to the Publication • Novaya Gazeta • 20 January 2022

The Russian Justice Ministry has explained that it placed the news and commentary website Republic on its register of media “foreign agents” because foreign embassies and Russian branches of foreign organizations had paid for subscriptions to the publication’s paywalled articles. The news was broken by Republic editor-in-chief Dmitry Kolezev on his Telegram channel.

The ministry claims that the publication received funds from the “Embassy of the Swiss Conference” [sic], as well as from the foreign missions of Finland, France, Lithuania and Kazakhstan in Russia. In addition, according to the excerpted statement, the Wall Street Journal, the Russian office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, and the Kazakh firm Eurasia Metals Company had transferred money to Republic‘s account.

“As we guessed, the formal reason was that foreign legal entities such as the embassies of France and Kazakhstan, the Wall Street Journal, etc., had paid for subscriptions in the amount of 14,800 rubles [approx. 170 euros] per year. Over two years, the Justice Ministry found a total of 178,500 rubles [approx. 2,000 euros] worth of such ‘foreign financing’ — we calculated that it was about 0.18% of our overall turnover,” Kolezev wrote. 

On 15 October 2021, the Justice Ministry added Moscow Digital Media (Republic) to its register of Russian media outlets functioning as “foreign agents.” Kolezev told Novaya, then, that Republic was funded exclusively by subscribers, and that its founding organization did not have any sources of external financing.

Full disclosure: I’ve subscribed to Republic for several years running. And, on many occasions, I have translated and published their articles here, especially ones by their perpetually clear-eyed and sardonic editor and commentator Ivan Davydov. I translated this article too. If you want this “media outlet functioning as a foreign agent” to keep on chugging, share my posts on social media and make a donation via PayPal or Ko-Fi. ||| TRR

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