Evgeny Shtorn: How the FSB Tried to Recruit Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evgeny Shtorn. Photo from his personal archives

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

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

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

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

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

“Is English your working language?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I left.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••••

Фото: «Новая газета»

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by the Russian Reader

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“A Great City Deserves a Great Library”: Petersburg Professors Defend the Publichka

Literary scholar Dmitry Kalugin picketing the entrance to the Russian National Library (“Publichka”), February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanova/Novaya Gazeta

Professors Stand Up for Librarians
Serafim Romanov
Novaya Gazeta Sankt-Peterburg
February 9, 2017

“Have you heard they want to merge the Russian National Library with the Lenin Library in Moscow?” Boris Kolonitsky, a senior researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History (Russian Academy of Sciences) asked passerby.

On February 9, a “professors’ picket” took place outside the Russian National Library’s main building on Ostrovsky Square. Lecturers from the European University, the Higher School of Economics, and other institutions rallied to preserve the so-called Publichka and defend its former head bibliographer Tatyana Shumilova [who was summarily dismissed from her post last week for speaking publicly about the negative consequences of the merger.]

Most bystanders heard about these developments for the first time. But after a short briefing, passersby agreed it would be wrong to merge one of the country’s most important academic and cultural institutions.

“It is not so much the library, St. Isaac’s or anything else that causes people to protest, as it is the fact that no one reckons with them,” Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Reseach, explained to Novaya Gazeta. “Why is everything being centralized? To make it was easier to control. The entire country is being formed up into a [power] vertical, and it is the same way in every field.”

“It matters that people from the outside, people who don’t work at the library but understand its value, speak out,” said journalist Daniil Kotsiubinsky, who organized the rally.

“The people who came here today are not random, but one of a kind. Petersburgers should listen to them.”

As the rally was drawing to a close, the overall enthusiasm was disturbed by a police officer.

“We’ve got a solo picket here,” the guardian of order reported on his cell phone, asking the picketers to show him their papers.

“It’s an A4-sized placard,” the policeman reported. “What does it say? ‘A great city deserves a great library.'”

Historian Boris Kolonitsky shows the group’s placard to a policeman. February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanov/Novaya Gazeta

Translated by the Russian Reader

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

Viktor Voronkov
Viktor Voronkov

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

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

Did you expect to be declared a foreign agent?

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

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

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

Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.

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

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

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

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

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

Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.

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

So how do you do your work nowadays?

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

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

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

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

Did you get money from the government?

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

Why?

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

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

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

Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?

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

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

And why are they leaving?

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

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

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

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

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

Why do western foundations finance academic research?

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

What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?

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

Translated by the
Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR

Viktor Voronkov on Why You Shouldn’t Trust Russian “Public Opinion” Polls

Can we trust opinion polls on the president’s popularity?
Serafima Taran
December 2, 2014
Gorod 812

Sociologists weekly poll Russians about their attitude to the president and government policies. Despite all the events happening inside and outside Russia, the level of trust in Vladimir Putin has remained virtually unchanged. 

According to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), nearly three quarters of the populace (72%) view the president’s actions positively. Can these figures be trusted? Sociologist Viktor Voronkov, director of the Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), discussed this in an exclusive interview with Gorod 812.

Can opinion polls be used to predict the near future, at least, whether stability or social upheaval awaits us?

The first thing I would note is that opinion polls are manipulative techniques that shape public opinion rather than reflect anything. You can interpret them as you like. This means, actually, that they are probably not amenable to interpretation.

In addition, most of the questions asked by polling centers are outside the competence of the people responding to them.

Sociology is generally not in the business of forecasting. That is not its function. Sociology studies the rules by which people live and act.

Is there a great difference between polls taken in authoritarian societies and polls in democratic societies?

In an authoritarian society it is more difficult, of course, to determine what people actually mean to say. Like the Soviet Union (although to a lesser degree), our society is now dominated by fear. The fear of saying the wrong thing, the fear that someone will use this information the wrong way, and so on. So just to be on the safe side, one has to stick to the mainstream when speaking.

But sociologists and the people in Kremlin probably realize this. Why, then, are so many polls conducted?

Their function is purely manipulative, but it is also has a lot to do with making money. The state manipulates public opinion polls and this, in turn, really influences people.

In general, the nature of public opinion in modern Russia is extremely primitive. There is Putin, whose rating is stable and basically cannot change rapidly. All other existing ratings are directly dependent on what President Putin says. You needn’t bother studying public opinion in Russia. It is enough to study the opinion of only one man, because in one way or another all other opinions will fall in line with this principal opinion.

We see, for example, how sentiments toward the US have evolved in recent years. In 1999, NATO bombed Kosovo. Putin condemned the US, and the country’s rating dropped to thirty-five percent. In 2001, the terrorist attack took place in New York. Putin expressed condolences: sympathy for Americans rose sharply, reaching seventy-five percent. We now have a negative outlook on the US, but if Putin decides tomorrow that we are friends with America, everything will change.

It doesn’t mean anything, except that people basically are not very concerned about it.

So the main objective of these polls is impacting the populace by publishing them in the media?

Of course. The media is mainly responsible for spreading the contagion of propaganda. I would say that in terms of impact on people, media publications of poll results are akin to horoscopes. Horoscopes, as we know, affect people’s lives. People try to interpret their lives in accordance with what the horoscopes say. It is the same with opinion polls.

But there is, nevertheless, real public opinion in Russia. Can one find out what it is?

Suppose you ask someone how he relates to the issue of “Crimea is ours” [Russia’s annexation of Crimea]. He says, “Yeah, it’s wonderful, it’s great, I support it.” You continue questioning him, asking him to tell you more. And the reply you hear is, “You know, I have no time for this. I’ve got work and kids. Spare me your nonsense!” So it is real life that is important, not sketchy answers to staged questions.

The fact that people give answers in no way means we can assess their behavior in terms of these answers.

Opinion polls reflect (at best!) attitudes, the values that society imposes, perhaps. But you would need to study people’s behavior, their real personal motivation, because there is no unambiguous connection between attitudes and behavior. People think one thing and then do something else altogether.

 Is it like this in any society, closed or open?

It is easier in an open society. People tell you what they think, but again, this does not mean their behavior will match it.

But in a closed, Soviet-type society, on the one hand, a “small victorious war” raises the government’s rating, because everyone rallies around the leader. On the other hand, within the country, everyone criticizes everything. There is no confidence in the army or the police, not to mention the parliament and the courts. There is no real confidence in anyone.

But in foreign policy, society almost unanimously supports “its” powers that be. The bulk of Russia’s citizens have an imperial mindset: it was not for nothing they were raised as patriots for seventy years, beginning with Stalin’s ideological turnaround in 1934. So the people see any foreign adventure undertaken by the Russian government as a symptom of our being “picked on.” And their justification of any aggression—the invasion of Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc.—follows this. All these military actions were fully supported by the people. The 2008 Georgian War had exactly the same support. The annexation of Crimea is now supported for the same reasons.

In Russia, it is almost impossible to find out not what public figures and experts think, but what the “common man” thinks.

This is true. The common man has very little right to be heard anywhere. Current sociology and anthropology, which are not dominant in Russia, aspire to give the average man a voice. Hence the spread of so-called qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, methods, publications of interviews with “ordinary” people. Attempts are made to produce texts in collaboration with them. Some sociologists even just publish the texts of these people without commentary.

But why don’t Russian sociologists do this?

In Russia, sociology has adapted to serve the powers that be. And the powers that be have little interest in the real opinions of ordinary people. Our powers that be are even uninterested in the opinions of sociologists, except those who publicize what the powers that be themselves say, couched in academic discourse.

If economic difficulties worsen, will the mood of Russians change?

People have now had a taste of a relatively prosperous life. At least twenty percent of the population has seen what life abroad looks like, and they are unlikely to want to live under war communism or as in North Korea. But it is already clear that this little splash of the good life, which was due to high oil prices in the 2000s, has ended. Real income levels will now fall. Those who lived in poverty will feel almost nothing. They will go on living as before. But the so-called middle class, who are supposed to support the authorities because they live well, will feel this first and foremost.

So I think that a political crisis cannot be avoided, whatever propaganda or opinion polls are thrown at it.

__________

See my previous posts on Russia’s authoritarian “pollocracy”: