“I’m supposed to be thinking about god, not Putin” – the demise of Russian NGOs

The traditional task of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is to guarantee human rights, free elections and the freedom of speech, thereby fulfilling an important role in societies that struggle with censorship and oppression, such as Russia. A law recently adopted in the Duma may very well mean the end of Russian NGOs. Dutch writer Daan Heerma van Voss travelled to Moscow with a friend who works at Amnesty International Netherlands to research how the situation could have gotten to this point, and why the Russians don’t really seem to care.

October 13 2015 Text: Daan Heerma van Voss Translation from Dutch: Allison Krüter-Klein

“I heard a rumor that the employees at an NGO in the south of Russia play their own version of roulette,” he tells me. “They draw straws every day to decide who will start the car that day.” My friend jumps over a puddle, his pockets are getting heavier with each step, I can hear him thinking, “Almost there.” Amnesty International’s Russian office is located in a small, dilapidated building in the administrative center of Moscow. A heavy metal door under a corrugated overhang marks the entrance; there is no sign to be found anywhere. A staircase made of exposed concrete leads up to a white door that opens as we approach. “Welcome to our apartment,” says Ivan, a young campaign coordinator with a clown-like halo of curls. Sergei Nikitin, the director, corrects him. “It’s an office.” Sergei is a tall man who drags his right leg slightly when he walks. As a child, he and his grandfather used to listen to the BBC, and that was when he had first heard of Amnesty International. Decades later, he signed up with the organization, and now he heads up this small office that serves as the workplace for five employees. My friend empties his pockets: two large pieces of Old Amsterdam ripened cheese. Just a little token of appreciation from the Dutch. Recently, my friend told me, there had been a mass destruction of cheese in Russia; a journalist from The Guardian had coined the term fromagicide in reporting on the event. Thousands of rounds of Gouda and other Dutch cheeses were crushed by a bulldozer, in an attempt to show that Russia won’t be deterred by the Western embargos. With the MH17 crash, my nation’s attitude towards Russia had changed dramatically. The tragedy had united us: the last tiny remainder of charm that Putin still possessed according to some was gone. It’s a miracle that they found as much cheese as they did for their little demonstration.

“The Kremlin’s greatest fear is revolution,” Nikitin says. “The greater the fear, the more difficult things are for us here. The problems started in 2006, after unrest in Ukraine. This was when the first measures were taken against NGOs; we had to re-register the organization, and deal with all kinds of administrative obstacles. And that was only the beginning.” The largest wave followed in 2012 … In the winter of 2011, after the Medvedev interlude, Putin was re-elected as president, a development that led to great unrest in Russia. Whether this was manifested as rallies in Vladivostok, Perm, St. Petersburg or Moscow, tens of thousands of citizens harbored doubts about the validity of the election results and took to the streets, waving white handkerchiefs and bearing signs reading “The rats must go!” and “Swindlers and thieves—give us our elections back!”, and the face of the major cities changed. These were the largest protests since those held just before the fall of the Soviet Union. This fact, in combination with the roaming, revolutionary ghost that had made an appearance during the Arab Spring, calling for “Western” values and institutions, caused panic in the Kremlin. For someone who views order as the first criteria for effective leadership, who has been trained in mistrust, whose political career was shaped during the Cold War, in short, for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, failing to respond to this pro-Western “aggression” was simply not an option.

He accused the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of inciting unrest; the U.S. had allegedly tapped into hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign funds to influence the elections and their aftermath. Meanwhile, in Russia, Putin tightened the reins. Nikitin: “The Foreign Agents Law was passed in 2012, and if an NGO received money from abroad after that point, it had to apply for the Foreign Agent status. Every communication or statement made by a Foreign Agent, all printed materials, had to be marked with a special disclosure, informing people that this was the opinion of a Foreign Agent.” Rife with connotations of espionage and high treason, in daily Russian parlance this term is tantamount to a conviction. The fact that the Foreign Agents enjoy little to no protection from the state has led to the development of a violent, lawless atmosphere particularly in non-urban areas in Russia. Incidents of intimidation targeting NGOs, involving vandalism or even terror, usually go unpunished. This was followed in May of this year by the Undesirables Act. This law gives the Public Prosecutor the authority, in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to place any NGO he or she deems fit on the list of Undesirable Organizations, after which they officially become illegal. If the former members of these organizations decide to continue their activities, they will be arrested. Anyone working in any capacity with Undesirable NGOs risks facing a prison sentence of up to six years.
In July, the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, was the first NGO in Russia to close down.

“The most dangerous part about the Undesirables Act,” Nikitin explains, “lies in the vague way the law is formulated: every NGO that poses a threat to national security, the constitution or the armed forces may be designated as an ‘undesirable’. In practice, this means that every NGO that the Kremlin doesn’t like may be shut down. As you can read in Putin’s biography, from the early days of his work for the KGB in Leningrad, he had already been a proponent of the principle that administrative pressure is the most effective form of terror. NGOs face a variety of daily stonewalling techniques in their work as a result, including endless paperwork to fill out, unreasonable inspections, fines and so on. And then he will still throw the real go-getters in prison later on.”


Nikitin has never had any personal experience with physical threats. “As far as that goes, there is a big difference between the big cities and the rest of the country where there often isn’t any oversight, no protection at all. I am protected by the name ‘Amnesty’, by the brand. We get strange phone calls now and then, and there was a case of attempted arson once. You can still see the scorch marks. Given the fact that the government always seems to know our schedules, I can only assume that we are being watched. The phones are tapped, and they probably know how to break into our security system.”

NGOs have been a thorn in Putin’s side for quite some time. The official fear is that NGOs serve the purpose of supplying dissidents with Western money. The argument that is often presented is that most NGOs are undeniably Western in nature; they are founded on Christian-Democratic ideals such as charity, justice and freedom of speech. The term that springs to mind in describing the Kremlin’s suspicions is paranoia. This is also a term that is used frequently in Western media. However, anyone who resorts to these types of clinical terms is indicating that they only partially understand Russia. Pride and belief in their own superiority, essential components of the Russian identity, have historically always been closely tied to stereotypes of the enemy. The United States in particular—the ultimate representative of the somewhat vague overarching designation, “The West”—embodies the Other, the anti-Russia. A chaotic, decadent, hedonistic world power whose goal is to curtail the Russian sphere of influence.

Indeed, sphere of influence, a term from the Cold War which, as we learned in school, ended in 1989 when the Wall fell. However, although the story of the Cold War ended for us, the Soviet Union was forced to contend with a nasty epilogue. The humiliation that the proud Russians suffered as the crumbling of their empire met with loud Western applause and was ultimately dissolved in 1991 may not be overestimated. Russia subsequently ended up in a state of economic and social chaos. Hyperinflation dominated, endless lines of people could be found waiting outside of banks, mothers fought over loaves of bread. The period is generally considered to be the darkest and most shameful in modern Russian history.

“Those chaotic years resulted in a major revival of national nostalgia,” says Sergey Buntman, assistant editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, a radio station that is viewed as being the last bastion of the free press in Russia (Even though it is partly owned by the Kremlin-friendly Gazprom.). On the wall of his smoke-filled office hangs a Je Suis Charlie T-shirt. He wears a corduroy jacket, and books and papers are scattered haphazardly throughout the room. “Video clips were broadcast on television that idealized our past, people were suddenly talking about the time that everyone feared us, the year that we were the first to send a man into space. Well, I was around back then too, but I never felt that same sense of pride. The worst part is that even though I have become susceptible to that kind of nostalgia, the constant propaganda has also affected me. I have my own personal memories, but the framework in which those memories belong has been created by others. In 2005, during the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the ‘powers that be’ decided that our national history was in need of embellishment. This was when this nostalgia took on its current military-patriotic layer; the layer which works out in Putin’s favor.”

The rise of Putin satisfied an almost emotional need to restore honor and give the people something to hold onto. This widespread need is the foundation of his power. The alliance he entered into with the Orthodox church served to anchor Putin’s position as a powerful man even more firmly in Russian tradition. Putin is not an ideologist or a moralist; he is a born opportunist who knows better than anyone how to consolidate or expand his power. The more fear Putin inspires in the West, the happier his support base. The result is a fist that is permanently clenched. The war in the eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula have only served to reinforce this process.

How could this situation have “just” come about? Given the fact that approximately three-quarters of the Russians support their president, and the remaining one-fourththe ever-shrinking intelligentsia and the urban eliteusually take a passive stance, all Putin has to do is continue to isolate his country from Western beliefs to maintain the status quo. This isolation is facilitated by the way in which the Russians gather information. Only a minority use the Internet to stay informed. One example: a recent study has shown that 93% of Russians get their information on the situation in Ukraine from Russian television, a media channel that is very loyal to the Kremlin. 64% of Russians consider this information to be objective, and only 1 to 3% look for their information on Ukraine in non-Russian news sources. A citizen must therefore expend a great deal of effort to find neutral information; the average citizen doesn’t bother.

Constantly fiddling with his cigarette, Buntman talks about his friends at Charlie Hebdo who have died, co-combatants for the freedom of speech. “Poetin loves to brandish statistics. Under his rule, the average life expectancy has risen, social mobility has grown and prosperity has increased considerably. The problem, however, is this has not led to greater freedom for the Russian people. The connection between financial and existential freedom has been broken. In other words, we have been taught that freedom automatically leads to chaos, poverty and alienation. Freedom is anything but a necessity here for a fruitful and successful life. So why should we dream about it?’ After all, this is the frame of reference; compared with the Soviet years, terror on a grand scale no longer exists. The result is a populace that, half ignorant, half indifferent, chooses not to participate. Buntman continues, “The Kremlin’s ideal is a corporate state: a nation that is shaped by people with the same standards and values, who speak with the same voice. In the long run, no one would ever dream of voicing dissent of course. The problem is that a society that is fully corporate is untenable. People do tend to form their own ideas. It’s as if we are living two different truths simultaneously, two realities that collide with one another on a regular basis. Take the disaster with your plane, for example. The majority of Russians feel guilty about what happened, but this same majority is convinced that any Dutch-led investigation will be anti-Russian in nature. We will always feel the need to defend our country. We are in a permanent state of schizophrenia.”

Amnesty’s Nikitin takes a dim view of the future. “Many NGOs will have to shut down their operations. The local NGOs in particular, the ones that are actually dependent on that little bit of funding from the West, will simply not be able to support themselves anymore.” If you were to view this cynically, you could ask yourself how bad that would actually be. The NGOs haven’t really accomplished that much. The number of people who have been helped directly by NGOs in recent years, by legal aid for example, is fairly low. “But each and every one of these people would never have been heard at all, let alone helped, if it hadn’t been for the NGOs. What about the thousands of people who are in prison based on an unfair trial? Besides, large parts of our history, the stories about the gulags for example, are monitored by local NGOs. This means that part of our collective memory will disappear.” There is another fundamental aspect to consider: “NGOs are an important part of what’s left of ‘civil society’, of free space. This space will shrink again as a result. At this point, it is still unclear whether or not the elimination of these things will result in an overwhelming sense of dismay or in desperation which in turn can lead to violence.”

This somber outlook is shared by Aleksey Simonov, director of the Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), founded in 1991 as one of Russia’s first NGOs. The GDF is dedicated to helping journalists who are facing difficulties, and the families of the journalists who have died doing their job. The GDF is housed on the third floor of an enormous, Soviet-era building that was built for the 1980 Olympics. The organization consists of two people, one room, and 5,000 turtle figurines. The turtle is the symbol of the organization, Simonov explains. “He may move slowly, but he’s headed in the right direction.” Originally a movie director, the 77-year-old Simonov sits casually with his legs apart, sports a grayish-white beard, and a generous stomach that conceals his waist. “When Gorbachev became president in 1990, it was the dawn of a period of great hope. For the first time, people were finally able to openly speak their minds; they fell in love with the truth. Within a few years however, most Russians didn’t really appear to give a damn. It was like the Soviet years all over again: people just wanted to be left alone, were all too happy to not be affected. And those who were affected, well, they must have done something wrong, that’s all.”

The GDF depends on financial support from the U.S. and Europe. Since the GDF maintains close ties with organizations which will presumably soon be given the “undesirable” label, interference from the Kremlin just seems to be a matter of time. “We can be declared ‘undesirable’ at any time,” Simonov says. “It is hard to predict which organizations will get this designation. Who knows? Maybe it won’t even happen to us. Our organization is less important than it used to be. We don’t really stand out, that much is certain. You can’t be the old man and the wrestler at the same time. It is up to the younger generations to continue the fight in new, less open ways. Glasnost (which means “openness”, ed.) is a word from the past. I am from the past, and I have slowly become a stranger who just happens to be sitting in my chair. I am 77 years old. I’m supposed to be thinking about God, not Putin.” So are engagement and civil resistance a young man’s game then? Echo’s Buntman qualifies this. “There are young people with fighting spirit, but they aren’t sure how to find one another yet, to join forces. Or they abandon each other again because they don’t have exactly the same ideas. They have to learn that a generation does not consist of people with the same ideas, but of people that are in the same boat. Everyone has to realize what’s at stake. The NGOs must not leave, under any circumstances. They have to stay here, fight back, armed with the law, and have to learn how to bend the law to their advantage. How? By constantly changing the name of their organization, moving their office, tricks like that.”

Someone is waiting for my friend and me at the railway station at Nizhny Novgorod, a city 400 kilometers east of Moscow that is surrounded by dense forests and located on the Volga. This practice of being met at the station is a security measure; pro-Putin youth gangs are active in this city, and are usually well-informed about visitors like us. Today, it is quiet. We are here to see an NGO that has been branded a Foreign Agent and which opted for this type of re-launch. This organization, the Committee Against Torture, has since been rechristened the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Albert Kuznetsov, a 25-year-old man born in Estonia, drives us through the suburbs to the office, the door of which had recently been smeared with feces.

Albert was one of the two activists present when, on June 3rd of this year, two masked men attacked the Committee office in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in broad daylight. He saw the chainsaw coming through the door, but wasn’t really afraid until he realized that the police weren’t coming to help. “I thought, ‘We’re safe here, the office is on the busiest road in the city, there are policemen everywhere.’ And they were everywhere, they just didn’t lift a finger to help. I asked a friend who was supposed to call the police what had happened; he said it took them 45 minutes to answer the phone.” A small group had gathered on the street, and cheered as the cameras were destroyed. Albert and his co-worker ultimately jumped out of the office. “They had already tried to set the office on fire the year before, but this time they finally succeeded in destroying the place.” He shakes his head. “After I had jumped, I grabbed a police officer and asked if he could help us. He literally looked the other way.” I ask about the story involving roulette. “That was the same office, the one in Grozny. We didn’t draw straws, but it’s true that the car was started by a different person each day, and everyone else remained at a safe distance. These days we have a new car, with an electric key that we can operate from inside the office. That thing is a godsend. It’s from the West you know.”

For an outsider, it’s easy to give in to fatalism the way most Russians do. How do you convince a country that doesn’t want to be convinced? And whose job is that? The people I speak to are divided on the issue. Some believe that external pressuresanctions imposed by the EU or economic hardshipis the only thing that can stop Putin’s repression. Others think that pressure from the outside doesn’t do any good; the change has to come from within. A mentality shift is required that will force the population to rise up against corruption and human rights violations. In a society such as Russia, this type of hope almost sounds like a prayer.

On our last night in Russia, my friend is shooting a commercial for the Russian market, together with Amnesty Russia. The scenario: two masked men break into the office of an unnamed NGO in search of incriminating evidence. On the verge of panic, my friend realizes he’s short one Russian. He turns to me, studying me from head to toe. Within a couple minutes, someone has wrapped a black scarf around my head, magically transforming me into “Russian No. 2”. With an illegal Uzbek asylum seeker (“Russian No. 1”) following close behind me, I throw open the door of an apartment in a distant suburb of Moscow, running from room to room, upending boxes. And even though I haven’t read the script, I am absolutely positive I will find something that will mark the end of this NGO.