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

In No Mood for Songs and Dialogues (OVD Info)

In No Mood for Songs and Dialogues
OVD Info
July 2, 2016

Hello. We continue to raise money for the work of our monitoring group. Watch the following video, in which Artyom Loskutov, co-founder of the annual Monstrations, talks about what champs we are.

You can donate money to us by heading to this page.

Last week, Moscow courts left two suspects in the Bolotnaya Square case, Dmitry Buchenkov and Maxim Panfilov, in police custody, along with Petersburg architect Sergei Akhmetov, accused of tearing epaulettes from a policeman’s uniform during a gathering in support of Alexei Navalny and Pyotr Ofitserov. Curiously, police investigators have been unable to produce convincing evidence that Buchenkov and Akhmetov were actually at the scene of the crimes of which they have been accused.

Maxim Panfilov. Courtesy of OVD Info
Maxim Panfilov. Courtesy of OVD Info

Other Criminal Prosecutions

No less predictable was the rejection of Oleg Navalny’s petition for parole, especially considering the fact that, a week before his court hearing, he received three reprimands for poor conduct at the penal colony where he has been imprisoned.

Totally unpredictable, however, was the return to Moscow of Ildar Dadin, sentenced to two and a half years in a prison colony for “repeated violations” at public protests.  Dadin had been held for over two months in a Petersburg remand prison, and it was anticipated that sooner or later he would be transferred to a penal colony. For some reason, however, this has not happened.

News came of the first criminal charges filed for “willful refusal” to obey the law on “foreign agents.” Charges were filed against Valentina Cherevatenko, chair of Women of the Don Foundation.

Valentina Cherevatenko. Courtesy of Frontline Defenders
Valentina Cherevatenko. Courtesy of Front Line Defenders

Shapi Biyakiyev, a Petersburg trucker involved in the recent nationwide protests by truckers against the new Plato toll system, was charged with using violence against a police officer.

The week would not be complete without news of more “extremism” cases. Yuri Yekishev, a support of Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, was arrested. He has been accused of having incited hatred with a video recording. Perm resident Vladimir Luzgin was found guilty of rehabilitating Nazism and fined 200,000 rubles for reposting an article about collaboration between “communists and Nazis” during WWII. But the case of Stavropol resident Viktor Krasnov, accused of offending the feelings of religious believers, has been suspended, because the court has expressed its doubts as to the legitimacy of the forensic examination of Krasnov’s statements, taken out of context from an online discussion.

Detentions

In Hurzuf, Crimea, residents upset that a local beach had been transferred to the Artek Young Pioneers Camp were detained by police.  Meanwhile, in Moscow, tempers flared around construction of the so-called Northeast Chord highway. First, a cyclist was detained for protesting the felling of trees in Kuskovo Park, and then people opposed to the felling of trees on Krasny Kazanets Street in Veshnyaki were detained.

“Murder of 200-Year-Old Oak in Kuskovo Park,” posted July 2, 2016, by Ecowalker First

Moscow police also detained people in a hunger strike organized by the Moscow Queue Waiters [i.e., ocheredniki, people on a waiting list for affordable housing—TRR] twice in a single day outside the constituent reception offices of the ruling United Russia party. When the detainees were released from a police station after the first detention, they went back to the reception offices and were rearrested. But Makhachkala outdid everyone: around eighty believers were detained after Friday prayers outside a Salafist mosque.  Meanwhile, Dagestan public figure and parliamentary candidate Rasul Ismailov was detained in Khasavyurt.

Cellist Semyon Lashkin, detained last week while busking in Moscow, was fined 10,000 rubles for “deliberately creating a crowd and preventing pedestrian movement.”

Other Forms of Persecution

An unnamed 23-year-old resident of Salekhard was sentenced to five days in jail for posting “extremist” music, presumably songs by Krovostok and Kolovrat, on a social network.

Daniil Alexandrov, a freelance correspondent for online newspaper Meduza, was ticketed for working without accreditation in Karelia, where he gone to cover the story of the children who died on Lake Syamozero.

FSB agents raided the Mayakovsky Library in Petersburg in connection with the fact that it served as the venue for Dialogues, monthly public discussions of political topics. The project’s founder, Nikolai Solodnikov, resigned his post at the library, which will no longer host the events.

In Krasnodar, people involved in solo pickets against the policies of current Mayor Vladimir Yevlanov and in support of Communist Party MP Sergei Obukhov were assaulted, while in Kemerovo, local opposition activist Stanislav Kaliniсhenko was detained, taken to a police station, and, allegedly, beaten up by police.

Opposition activist Stanislav Kalinichenko after his alleged beating by police in Kemerovo. Courtesy of his blog
Opposition activist Stanislav Kalinichenko after his alleged beating by police in Kemerovo. Courtesy of his blog

Karelian village council member Vladimir Zavarkin, sentenced to a fine for calling for a referendum to decide whether the republic should secede from Russia, was stripped of his mandate.

Read

Two plus two does not always make four: how Russian courts calculate prison terms in criminal cases and jail terms in administrative cases.

Translated by the Russian Reader