Everyone Wants to Like and Be Liked

Mail.ru Group Speaks Out against Punishments for Likes and Reposts
Company Proposes Changing the Law and Law Enforcement Practice
Olga Churakova and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
August 6, 2018

Mail.ru Group не раз критиковала громкие законодательные инициативы, касающиеся интернетаMail.ru Group has repeatedly criticized high-profile law bills and laws affecting the internet. Photo by Yevgeny Yegorov. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Mail.ru Group, which owns the largest social networks in Russia, VK and Odnoklassniki [“Classmates”], has harshly condemned the practice of filing criminal charges against social media users for likes and reposts on social networks.

“Often the actions of law enforcement authorities have been clearly disproportionate to the potential danger, and their reaction to comments and memes in news feeds are inordinately severe,” reads a statement on the company’s website. “We are convinced laws and law enforcement practices must be changed. We believe it necessary to grant amnesty to people who have been wrongly convicted and decriminalize such cases in the future.”

Recently, the number of convictions for posts and reposts on social networks has reached a critical mass, explained a Mail.ru Group employee. Most of the convicitions are not only unjust but also absurd. He would not explain what specific corrections the company was going to propose.

“We believe current laws need to be adjusted, and we are going to make pertinent proposals,” VK’s press service told Vedomosti.

Mail.ru Group has repeatedly criticized high-profile laws and law bills affecting the internet. In 2013, for example, the company opposed an anti-piracy law. In 2015, it teamed up with Yandex to criticize the “right to be forgotten” law. In 2016, it opposed a law bill that proposed regulating messengers and search engines.  But punishing people for likes and reposts has become a political issue. Members of the opposition and social activists have often been the victims of Criminal Code Article 282, amended in 2014 to allow prosecution of people for incitment to hatred or enmity while using the internet.

Communist Party MP Sergei Shargunov addressed the problem during the President’s Direct Line in June of this year.

“If Article 282 were taken literally, certain zealots would have to convict Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Mayakovsky, and have their works removed,” he said.

Putin agreed it was wrong to reduce such cases to absurdity. Subsequently, he tasked the Russian People’s Front (ONF) and the Prosecutor General’s Office with analyzing how the notions of “extremist community” and “extremist crime” were employed practically in law enforcement.

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“Prosecutions for Incitement to Enmity (Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) in Russia. Numbers of People Convicted, 2009–2017. Source: Trials Department, Russian Supreme Court.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

An Agenda for the Autumn
On June 25, Shargunov and Alexei Zhuravlyov, leader of the Rodina [“Motherland”] party, tabled draft amendments in the Duma that would decriminalize “extremist” likes and reposts. The MPs proposed transferring the violation described in Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1 to the Administrative Offenses Code, where infractions would be punishable by a fine of up to 20,000 rubles or 15 days in jail, while leaving only Part 2 of Article 282 in the Criminal Code. Part 2 stipulates a punishment of up to six years in prison for the same actions when they are committed with violence, by a public official or by an organized group. The government, the Supreme Court, and the State Duma’s legal department gave the draft amendments negative reviews, pointing out that the grounds for adopting them were insufficient. A spokesman for Pavel Krasheninnikov, chair of the Duma’s Committee on Legislation, informed us the committee would start working on the amendments when MPs returned from summer recess.

The ONF, which held a meeting of experts in July, has begun drafting a report for the president. The legal community, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry, telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the Russian Supreme Court must send their proposals to the Kremlin’s control directorate before September 15.

Leonid Levin, chair of the State Duma’s Committee on Information Policy, agreed there was a problem.

“The law is repressive, and there is no misdemeanor offense, although the Supreme Court issued an opinion that different cases should not be treated identically,” he said.

While there has been no lack of proposals, no one is in a hurry to abolish the law completely. A source in the Kremlin said dissemination of prohibited information should be punished. But a way of relaxing the law must be devised and, most important, a means of avoiding random convictions, he added.

A Demand for Liberalization
Recently, VK had been under pressure from the public due to the huge number of criminal prosecutions for posting pictures and reposts, said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. He argued the statement issued by Mail.ru Group was an attempt to defend the company’s reputation. According to the so-called Yarovaya package of amendments and laws, since January 1, 2018, VK has been obliged to provide law enforcement agencies with information about its users upon request, but the question of the legality of providing information having to do with people’s private lives remains open, since under Russian law a court order is required for this, Chikov noted.

Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov argued political decentralization and moderate opposition were now fashionable.

“Even the most cautious players sense the dictates of the age and have been trying to expand the space of freedom. Mail.ru Group is trying to be trendy,” he said.

Gallyamov predicted that, as the regime’s popularity ratings decline, the screws would be loosened, and the number of people advocating liberalization would grow.

Part of the political elite realizes many things have gone askew, agreed political scientist Alexander Kynev. A number of people hoped the circumstances could be exploited to push the idea of moderate liberalization. This could be a way of showing the regime was ready to talk, he argued.

“A lot will depend on what the autumn brings, on the results of regional elections. Now it would appear to be a topic that is up for discussion, but there are no guarantees. There are people in the government interested in having the topic discussed, but this doesn’t mean a decision has been taken,” Kynev said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Denis Lebedev’s Suicide Note

lebedev-1.jpgThe first page of Denis Lebedev’s suicide note. Courtesy of Ivan N. Ivanov

Ivan N. Ivanov
Facebook
26 April 2018

The suicide note of the boy who jumped from a window after the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) intimidated him has been posted on the net.

Denis Lebedev was seventeen years old. He was a brilliant pupil and an Academic Olympics winner in chemistry. Chemistry was his passion in life. He did experiments in a small laboratory at home and dreamed of attending university.

Neighbors complained to the FSB about “explosions” in Lebedev’s flat, and one day the secret services forced their way in Believing Lebedev was either a terrorist or revolutionary, they turned the flat upside down, stole his telephone, computer, and lab equipments, scared him and his parents half to death, and made them sign a nondisclosure agreement.

On April 23, the day of his birthday, Denis was found dead on the ground outside his high-rise apartment building.

lebedev-2The second page of Denis Lebedev’s suicide note. Courtesy of Ivan N. Ivanov

This is addressed to the police, FSB, and other law enforcement agencies.

I’m just completely fucking exhausted. I don’t need anything fucking more from this life. No one induced me [to commit suicide], it was my personal decision.

The only thing I would like to say in the end is that I really fuck hate you motherfuckers.

You took from me the only passion that gave me joy and distracted me from my problems. I really fucking hate your entire government, whose only impulse is to ban the shit out of everything. Well, then you should fucking ban water, because you can use electrolysis to turn water in a canister into a bomb.

And fuck this system, in which my goddamn life depends on a single exam that has been compiled in such a way you cannot make fucking heads or tails of it. It is total shit, tailored to everyone identically.

You don’t need a people. You need a mob of fucking zombies who follow your orders. A separate portion of shit for Yarovaya.

Also, I apologize in advance to everyone to whom I meant something. That is it. I have nothing else to say. The people will say the rest.

To make it easier to identify the pancake on the cement: I am Denis Lebedev.

You can all go fuck yourselves!

Reports on Mr. Lebedev’s suicide in the Russian media:

Thanks to Evgeny Shtorn for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

We’ve Got Your Number

DSCN5048Everything sent through these transmitters will now go straight into the hands of the FSB

Medvedev Approves Rules for Storing Records of Russians’ Conversations and Correspondence 
In keeping with the decree signed by the prime minister, telecom providers must store records of Russians’ conversation for six months without allowing unauthorized access to them
Yevgeny Kalyukov
RBC
April 19, 2018

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved the rules for storage by telecom providers of Russians’ text messages and recordings of their conversations, as well as the images, audio recordings, and video recordings they exchange, as stipulated by the so-called Yarovaya law, which comes into force on July 1, 2018. The decree has been posted on the Official Internet Portal for Legal Information.

In accordance with the decree, telecom providers must store the data within Russia on servers owned by them or, by agreement with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), on servers owned by another provider. Moreover, providers are obliged to protect the information they store, prevented unauthorized access to it by unauthorized persons.

The storage time of records of long-distance and international phone conversations, as well as conversations via radiotelephone, satellite telephone, and other communications devices, and text messages has been defined by the government decree as six months from the moment “of the cessation of their receipt, transmission, delivery and (or) processing.”

Telecom providers who supply telematic services, i.e., services supplied through the internet (email, messengers, etc.), shall have to store all communications transmitted through them from October 1, 2018. Moreover, the capacity of the “technical means of storage” necessary to preserve the information has been defined in the government decree as equal “to the volume of electronic communications” sent and received by users over the previous thirty days. The capacity of the “technical means of communication” must increase by 15% annually for five years.

DSCN5471.jpgThe FSB will know what she is saying.

After the records of Russians’ conversations and correspondence have been stored for six months, they must be deleted automatically.

In February, members of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs warned Deputy Minister of Communications Dmitry Alkhazov and Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich that the need to enforce the law could lead to increases in telecom rates of twelve percent to ninety percent and gooble up the investment budgets of mobile providers. In their communique, they wrote that enforcing the Yarovaya law over five years would cost MTS up to 43 billion rubles; VimpelCom, at least 63 billion rubles; Megafon, around 40 billion rubles; the Moscow City Telephone Network, no more than 17 billion rubles; and ER Telecom, around 50 billion rubles.*

* For a total bill of approximately 2.8 billion euros. It’s money well spent.

Photos and translations by the Russian Reader

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

Is Yoga a Crime in Petersburg?

Dmitry Ugay. Still image courtesy of philologist.livejournal.com
Dmitry Ugay. Still image courtesy of philologist.livejournal.com

Persecuted for Yoga
An article by Dmitry Ugay, a follower of Vaishnavism who has studied and practiced the ancient science of reality for many years
Hare Krishna in Novgorod the Great
January 2, 2016

On December 1,  2016, the Indian philosophy of yoga was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Culture of Humanity. A bit earlier, on October 22, 2016, I gave a lecture entitled “Varieties of Yoga” and was also written up—on a misdemeanor charge for violating the so-called Yarovaya Law. I was charged with engaging in missionary work, a charge of which I am innocent. I was not even allowed to familiarize myself with the charge sheet. I am concerned by the complete lawlessness of the incident, which could result in the persecution of my many fellow citizens who practice yoga and study Indian philosophy, completely unaware of the possible dangers.

There was recently a wild discussion on Facebook of an article by the Indian national Prasun Prakash, who was pelted with foul accusations and insulted. Later, an attempt was made to break into the Center for Promoting the Preservation and Development of Indian Culture, founded by his father. It is amazing that people are being persecuted for work that even the most subtle interpretations could construe as missionary work. People are being persecuted for practicing yoga, a culture whose history dates back several thousand years, for yoga, who beneficial health effects have been confirmed by a myriad of medical studies. Even in the Soviet Union, popular science films about yoga were shot and publicly screened.  The Soviet science fiction writer Ivan Yefremov wrote about yoga, and it was taught to Soviet cosmonauts as part of their physical training. Carl Jung wrote about yoga’s serious therapeutic value, and over 250 million people worldwide practice yoga seriously. In a word, there are signs that a campaign against an entire culture has been unleashed, a campaign against one of humanity’s supreme achievements, a very nasty xenophobic campaign not only against yoga, but against India, its traditions, and its people.

I had been invited to given a lecture on the varieties of yoga at the Veda Life Festival on October 22, 2016, at Loft Project ETAGI in Saint Petersburg. The audience consisted of neophytes, many of whom would be hearing about Indian philosophy for the first time. I tried to make the lecture as simple as possible. Nowadays, yoga is seen mostly as a means of wellness. The general public knows nothing about the worldview on which yoga is based, on its high ethical and spiritual standards. So I emphasized the philosophy and ethic of yoga. In my lecture, I talked about the fundamentals, the things one might here in classes on comparative religion and eastern philosophy at liberal arts universities in Russia. True, I had to make some effort to do this, because I had shout over the loud music playing next to me on the stage.

I was interrupted after about forty minutes. The audience was visibly agitated. I didn’t immediately understand what the matter was, noticing only later that police officers had entered the room. Two officers came up to me, one in uniform, the other in plain clothes. As I learned later, there was a total of six or seven officers. The others went to inspect the other events at the festival, checking people’s papers, looking for the organizers, and acting nervously when people took pictures of them, officers of the law at a public event.

They asked me rather rudely to go with them. Initially, they wanted to lead me out of the building without letting me put my coat on. They behaved rudely and cheekily in a calculated attempt to intimidate me and keep me from coming to my senses. Fortunately, Sergei, a professional attorney who was attending the festival, turned up in the audience. He forced the police to let me put on my coat. He persistently asked the officers whether I was officially under arrest or not, but the officers kept mum. They were trying to spirit me out of the building quickly, but the lawyer was clearly putting a spanner in their works. He asked them to draw up an arrest sheet. He asked them to show us their IDs. He insisted he intended to act as my advocate and demanded that I be allowed to write up a power of attorney in his name.

The police officers silently ignored all these legitimate requests and forcibly dragged me to the exit, where a car was parked. Resisting the police meant giving them grounds for yet another charge, in this case a completely real charge, so I had to obey. Outside, yet another uniformed officer joined us.  Sergei threatened to call the prosecutor’s office directly. One of the officers finally produced an ID: Arsen Magomedovich Magomedov, a detective with the 76th Investigative Division. I was pushed into a police car. The police gave Sergei the brush-off, and he and my friends set off after us in a cab.

I was taken to the 76th police precinct on Ligovsky. Sergei telephoned and asked what shape I was in. I remember that the police detectives laughed. They asked whether I understood that I would be put on trial, and that the judge would ask me unpleasant questions. They persuaded me to sign a statement they had written up beforehand They said if I signed, I would go home peacefully, but if I didn’t, they would put me behind bars for 48 hours: they had the right to do it.

Sergei had warned me that under no circumstances should I sign anything. Following his instructions, I refused to sign, invoking my right not to testify against myself under Article 51 of the Russian Constitution. They wrote down that I had refused to sign the statement and threatened to take me to court. I replied that, as officers of the law, they could perform their professional duties. A beat cop asked whether I understood that I was engaged in illegal missionary work, and what lay in store for me.

It was the height of absurdity. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mircea Eliade had no idea that a simple recounting of their world-renowned academic works would be dubbed missionary work and sectarian preaching. In keeping with this rationale, any lecture on Indian philosophy at any university could be dubbed missionary work. But I was merely discussing how the various yogas imagined the law of karma and the way of liberation. Hundreds of similar lectures are given annually to students in different university departments. They form the basis for course exams and honor’s theses.  How would this mass of students feel were they to learn that they are now illegal missionaries? The level of nonsense has clearly gone off the scale.

At the precinct, there was a rather educated looking man among the officers. I don’t remember whether he was in uniform or not. He asked what my religious views were, how I viewed Russian Orthodoxy, whether I had a spiritual name, and whether I lived at home or the temple. I could not understand at all what this had to do with my case. I replied that I believed in Krishna, but in this instance it was completely irrelevant. It was my profoundly personal affair whether I believed in Krishna, Buddha, Cthulhu or a pasta monster. My lecture had not been about that. Besides, worshiping God was one variety of yoga, namely, Bhakti yoga.  Hearing an unfamiliar concept, the officer left me alone.

Then I was asked where I worked. I replied that I worked as a web programmer. They asked for and took my internal passport. I sat down on a bench in the waiting room along with other detainees.

Two hours later, a detective came for me. He sat down at a desk and wrote something with an intimidating look on his face.  Right then, Sergei called again. He told me to telephone the prosecutor’s office and file an oral complaint against the actions of the police detectives, because they were obliged to draw up a charge sheet and release me. They did not have the right to detain me. He texted me the on-duty number at the prosecutor’s office.

The detective said I had the right to make only one phone call (just like in American films about dangerous criminals!) and ordered me to switch off my phone, threatening me with force if I didn’t. I turned my phone off. Then he gave me a blank sheet of paper and said I had two options. I could go on denying everything and then I would spend a minimum of 48 hours behind bars here. He would lock me up in a cell, and then I would go to court. Or I could write out handwritten promise to report to the precinct on such-and-such a date and sign it, and I would be released immediately. I said I would not sign a blank piece of paper.

“Are you a moron?” the detective asked.

“Call me what you like,” I replied.

He left. I stayed in the waiting room. A woman who was not let out to use the toilet was wailing and cursing in the holding cell. Other police officers came and went, dealing with the current crop of detainees. Crates filled with fruit and peppers stood in the corner: a woman had been detained for selling them. She poured grapes into plastic bags and very humbly handed them over to the police officers. She was released, but her crates were left behind. Someone  else had been detained for not registering his car, while another man had been brought in for swearing in an Okay grocery store. The female desk sergeant quarreled with the women in the holding cell and the detainees, swearing at them.

I had been sitting there for a fairly long time. Three detainees had already been released from the front desk area. One of the detectives came in and asked the desk sergeant for the papers “on the Hare Krishna,” grabbed them, and left.

I went to the toilet. There were double doors in there without latches. I finally turned on my phone and called my friends. They had been scrambling on my behalf. They called me down and said I would be released soon. Soon after, the desk sergeant did in fact say I was free to go.

“And my passport? My passport was confiscated,” I asked.

She expressed surprised and walked out of the room. Ten minutes later, she gave me back my passport.

I headed out of the building. Passing a bored officer, I asked for a copy of my arrest sheet. He looked at me as if I were an imbecile and said I wasn’t supposed to get a copy.  Really? What about procedure?

There was nothing I could do, so I left the building. I hugged my friends and got into their car. We headed home.

Later, I learned that my case had been sent back by the judge due to multiple procedural violations and the lack of corpus delicti. The arrest sheet in the case file had been filled out extremely clumsily. I also found out that, two months later, the old arrest sheet had been destroyed and a new one  drawn up that took into account the judge’s criticisms. The judge admitted this arrest sheet into evidence, along with a charge sheet filed several days (!) before my lecture. The case file also included the testimony of two fake witnesses, two women, one of whom had not even my lecture. All this time I sense what Sartre meant by the phrase “being under the gaze” and the saying “We were born to make Kafka a reality.” I hadn’t studied philosophy under Valery Sagatovsky in grad school for nothing. He had been depressed by the state of affairs in Russia. Unfortunately, now, several years after his death, the situation is even more alarming and uncertain.

Indian philosophy has greatly enriched Russian culture. The impact of Indian though on the Russian Silver Age was huge.  The complete academic translation of the Mahabharata was published in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, an edition that required titanic efforts on the part of the editors and commentators. Numerous works by classic Indian thinkers, writers, and poets have been published. And who can imagine Russian today without the Indian cinema? Without Indian dance? Without yoga? Without vegetarian food? Is this Russia coming to an end?

P.S. I seek the help of religious studies scholars, lawyers, civil rights activists, reporters, and anyone who could help out by publishing this article in print and online publications or read the transcript of the lecture and confirm, as experts, that it contains no signs of missionary work.

Dmitry Ugay, “Varieties of Yoga” (lecture), Loft Project ETAGI, Petersburg, October 22, 2016

Also, if possible, you can support me by mentioning my court hearing in your publications, blogs, and social network pages. This will help avoid such incidents in the future. The hearing takes place at 3:10 p.m on January 9, 2017, in Saint Petersburg at 26 Fourth Soviet Street, Room 11, Section 211 (near Ploshchad Vosstaniya subway station).

With respect and gratitude,

Dmitry

UPDATE. A Petersburg court threw out the case againt Mr. Ugay on Wednesday, January 18, 2016.

________________________

E.M. Maha-Balarama Prabhu, “The Law on Missionary Work: A Survival Guide,” July 10, 2016, Moscow (in Russian)

The Testimonial Imperative

Alexei Kungurov. Photo courtesy of the New Chronicle of Current Events
Alexei Kungurov. Photo courtesy of the New Chronicle of Current Events

Amendment from “Yarovaya Package” Applied for First Time in Tyumen
FSB Asks Reporters to Help Prove Blogger Kungurov’s Guilt
Georgy Borodyansky
Novaya Gazeta
October 13, 2016

The FSB’s Tyumen Regional Office has asked a number of Urals region media to help it find evidence against blogger Alexei Kungurov, in particular, “to provide the investigation with articles of his that contain public insults to the authorities and other information worthy of the attention of law enforcement and regulatory authorities.”

The request could also be considered a demand. As Anton Yulayev, a reporter for Znak.com and one of the people who received the letter from the FSB, told Novaya Gazeta, the letter contains a reference to the legal norm obliging recipients to respond to it.

“Our lawyers are now trying to solve this dilemma: how to respond without harming Alexei, and in such a way that the FSB has no beef with us,” explained Yulayev.

The appeal made by the FSB’s Tyumen Region Office is a new legal norm [sic] introduced by the so-called Yarovaya package. Alexei Zyryanov, Kungurov’s attorney, explained the implications to Novaya Gazeta.

“Previously, you could ignore a letter like this, but now you can’t. Basically, the law has introduced criminal liability for the failure to inform,” said Zyryanov.

The liability is spelled out in Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 206.6, which entered into force on July 20, 2016. It says that “non-reporting of terrorist crimes” is punishable by a fine of 100,000 rubles or by up to one year in prison. If individuals know something about another individual who is planning to commit such a crime or has committed such a crime, but do not report their information to law enforcement agencies, they can be found guilty.

Blogger Alexei Kungurov has been held for five months in pre-trial detention facility on charges of “public justification of terrorism.” Investigators found evidence of such a crime in a post the blogger published on his LiveJournal page in October of last years. Entitled “Who Putin’s falcons are really bombing,” the post is still in the public domain.

On October 11, 2016, Tyumen’s Central District Court extended Kungurov’s arrest another two months, until December 15. Investigators motivated their request for the extension on the grounds that they had not managed “to carry all necessary [investigative] actions” over the previous four months. According to Zyryanov, they had not carried out any actions at all. They had been waiting the whole time for the outcome of the linguistic forensic investigation.

Why has the linguistic forensic investigation taken so long? Zyryanov surmises that the forensic experts were faced with a tough job: proving that Kungurov’s argument that Islamic State (an organization banned in Russia) “is hardly the most terrible and crazy [organization]” somehow justifies terrorism.

On October 13, the lead investigator informed the lawyer that the findings from the forensic examination had finally arrived.

“I haven’t examined them in detail yet,” said Zyryanov, “but the conclusion is predictable: there is evidence of a crime in Alexei’s article.”

It would have been difficult to hope for another outcome, because the forensic examination was performed by a bureau of the very same agency that has charged the blogger, the FSB’s Sverdlovsk Regional Office, rather than its Tyumen Regional Office.

The results of another forensic examination are still pending. It will determine the originality of Kungurov’s article that, allegedly, “justifies terrorism,” whether it was written wholly by Kungurov, or whether he borrowed it, wholly or partly, from someone else. Then the case will be sent to trial, apparently.

Why do the secret services need the media’s help? According to Zyryanov, investigators do not have conclusive proof of Kungurov’s guilt, and they are attempting the shore up their case. But it is also possible the FSB has decided to test the new law out on the journalistic community by forcing independent periodicals, which can be counted on one hand in the Urals (the others simply could not afford to publish Kungurov’s articles), into giving “testimony.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Alexander Verkhovsky for the heads-up

“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Yekaterina Schulmann

Yekaterina Schulmann. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Yekaterina Schulmann on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Yekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.


The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Yekaterina Schulmann: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0. Continue reading ““We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Yekaterina Schulmann”