The introduction of amendments to NGO legislation according to which non-governmental organisations receiving any financing from abroad should be recorded as ‘foreign agents’, which forms the legal basis for this mass investigation, was highlighted in an earlier blog (November 2012). Here, Elena Omelchenko, who is leader of the Russian MYPLACE research team, reports on latest developments.
For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE
Region, Ul’ianovsk State University received a visit from the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
After announcing their intention to visit only by a telephone call the previous day, five people from the Ministry of Justice and the Public Prosecutor’s Office requested that, before their arrival, all documents connected with the Centre’s research activity (or rather that financed by foreign funding agencies) should be prepared for inspection. They also requested that all academic publications (reports, books and articles) containing research results be made available.
In February of this year, ‘Region’ celebrated its 18th birthday. Over the period of its existence, it has conducted more than 100 basic and applied research projects on aspects of the everyday life and cultural practices of Russian youth. It has published 16 books, created an inter-regional network of youth researchers and organised more than 30 academic events such as workshops, seminars, conferences and summer schools. Information about its activity, including both news and analysis, is fully available to read on the official sites of Region and associated structures (Centre for Youth Studies, HSE, St Petersburg).
The legal status of ‘Region’ is that of a state structure not an NGO – it is founded by Ul’ianovsk State University. Nonetheless ‘Region’ was included in the pool of organisations being subject to a mass investigation of NGOs across Russia.* Trying to discuss this legal nuance with the visiting investigators proved pointless. Just as pointless, probably, as trying to understand how this, country and those that govern it, could introduce this ‘Who wants to become a foreign agent?’ initiative on such a mass scale and in such a threateningly directive way. Of course, we, and many others in our community, know who, why and for what purpose it has been initiated… But this knowledge does not help come to terms with the reality of what is happening. Why have those who are supposed to defend civic initiatives and support the development of normal, professionally beneficial academic activity, ended up on the other side of the barricades? What law has been violated? What offence committed? Where have we overstepped the mark? The fact that research structures, which receive no budget, should generate income themselves, that grant applications are a routine practice, that the results of research are always open information (after all this is the point of our work and life) – all this, it seemed, was axiomatic, common ground. The parochial thinking behind questions such as ‘Why would foreign funding agencies pay ‘us’ for this? There must be some hidden meaning or objective’, it seemed, had died out years ago. But alas, it seems from some things there is no escape.
The political coercion to ‘self-interrogation’ as a foreign agent and the public discussion of the ‘facts’ about the receipt of western money and grants has become part of public discourse; it has taken up almost prime position and has become a popular subject of debate on talk shows and televised political battles and a source of juicy gossip and dubious interest in the details of the personal lives of ‘academic and activist enemies of the people’ in conversations on public transport and in public places. The propaganda is working, the ideological machine is in full swing! The voices of others – those not in agreement, insulted, surprised, frightened, shocked, and all those who just don’t understand, are not heard and are not even of interest.
Precisely what they aim to expose or what repentance is sought is not clear. State TV channels and the pages of the state media are once again shaping public attitudes to the scientific and research milieu as ‘sold out, dangerous and opportunistic’ and leave no space to counter this narrative. Not only do they get fat on western money, it is said, but they don’t even want to admit it in public.
The actual content of the studies – neither research reports nor individual publications – were of any interest to the investigators. They were there to fulfil an order – to find political activity by any means. The process is aggravated by the fact that the context of the ‘political’ is not defined. Most likely it consists of everything that looks insulting, critical, questioning or, somehow ‘incorrect’ to that circle of people who, of course, know what the Russian people need. And of course the motif of the ‘dubious intelligentsia’, ‘parasites’, ‘agents and stooges’ perniciously influenced by the, by definition, depraved West, has always enjoyed great popularity. It is initiated from above whilst at the same time legitimating the popular search for enemies; periodically it takes a tangible form in exposés, denunciations and even pogroms. We want, nevertheless, to believe that the latter won’t happen to us. We want, nevertheless, to believe that the academic community (in our case the sociological community) will be strong and determined enough to unite and defend its right to independence of judgement, findings and critical views on social reality. The birthmark of a servile science or, more accurately, of a servile ideological instrument, need not be a fatal diagnosis and even the fear of closure will not force people to return to the 80s or even 90s of the last century. Although you can of course scare them.
The only consolation in all of this is that we have found ourselves in good company. And although we are not an NGO, in this instance that is not important – just as it is not important for the investigators either…
The most negative aspect is the constant and persistent formation of an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in the country. When you know neither the reason nor the motive, when you have no recourse to the rule of law, when the indeterminacy of the decisions and conclusions of ‘those who invented it all’ exceed all limits, then reason and rationality appear to be redundant. Big Brother increasingly resembles an extra-terrestrial being with whom, by definition, a conversation is impossible and whose actions are so unpredictable that at a certain moment all fear evaporates. We should not, and do not want to, be afraid forever. Dignity – personal, professional, institutional – is still more precious than the most terrible fear.
Director, Centre for Youth Studies, Higher EconomicsSchool, St Petersburg
29 April 2013
*Translator’s note: the introduction of amendments to NGO legislation according to which non-governmental organisations receiving any financing from abroad should be recorded as ‘foreign agents’, which forms the legal basis for this mass investigation, was highlighted in an earlier blog (November 2012): https://myplacefp7.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/sociology-under-threat-or-who-is-on-the-lookout-for-new-enemies-of-russia-and-why/