Each Friday, the Russian Ministry of Justice updates its list of people and organizations labelled as “foreign agents”. This phrase bears negative and repressive connotations in Russian and can lead to severe consequences for those who receive the label.
For the moment, as many experts agree, the main intent of this is to make people give up on their political and civic activities or push them out of the country.
It is rooted in Stalin’s totalitarian repressive practices and the atmosphere of fear that they imposed. For example, in the following letter published by one of Stalin’s closest associates, Kaganovich — who actively executed people during the period of the Great Terror of 1936–1938 and supported policies that led to Holodomor (the Terror Famine) from 1932–1933 — suggests a man who tried to organize a coup d'état in 1934 is a foreign agent:
По делу Нахаева Вы совершенно правы в своей оценке и дела по существу и слабостей допроса. Он пока настоящих корней не показывает. Все его поведение это подтверждение того, что он иностранный агент. Через пару дней придется окончательно решить вопрос в духе Ваших указаний.
In the case of Nakhaev, you are absolutely right in your assessment of both the case on the merits and the weaknesses of the interrogation. He doesn't show his real roots yet. All his behavior is confirmation that he is a foreign agent. In a couple of days it will be necessary to finally resolve the issue in the spirit of your instructions.
The first law, which labelled NGOs as “foreign agents”, was adopted at the beginning of Putin’s third presidential turn after mass protests against the election fraud broke out in Russia in 2011–2012. They were crushed, and one of the first large politically motivated criminal case was initiated, the Bolotnaya square case.
In 2017, the law was amended to include media receiving foreign funds, then again in 2020 any public figure receiving funding from abroad could be labelled as a foreign agent, and again in 2021 any collective of citizens that failed to register as an organization with the government.
At first, these laws were not considered as repressive as the labels used during Stalin’s Great Terror.
Journalist Maxim Trudolubov said in a 2020 Meduza article:
Ярлык «иностранных агентов», который был введен в закон в 2012 году…позволяет избежать разговора на равных и частично подорвать общественную поддержку оппонентов — все-таки люди опасаются иметь дело с «агентами». Но может ли эта технология, как в советское время или в других тоталитарных режимах, превратить спор в войну? Скорее всего, не сможет — в силу особенностей российского правоприменения, которое одновременно и облегчает действия властей, и снижает к этим действиям доверие.
The label ‘foreign agents’ that was introduced into the law in 2012… allows the government to avoid talking on an equal footing and partially undermine the public support of opponents — after all, people are afraid to deal with ‘agents’. But can this technology, as in Soviet times or in other totalitarian regimes, turn a dispute into a war? Most likely, it will not be able to, due to the peculiarities of Russian law enforcement, which both facilitates the actions of the authorities and reduces confidence in these actions.
However, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the restrictions were tightened: foreign agents were banned from teaching and producing informational material for children, organizing public events, and their deposits in Russian banks were no longer covered by insurance.
In addition, the law, which came into force in 2022, changed the criteria for recognizing someone as a foreign agent. While the previous requirements involved receiving financing from abroad, now any organization under “foreign influence”, including influence through “coercion, persuasion or in other ways” by a foreign person.
As OVD-info explains, numerous other legislative amendments to “foreign agency” regulation were added. They created harsher consequences for people and organizations who failed to report to the Ministry of Justice, and also cancelled banking, and could access personal, family, and commercial information for “foreign agents”.
The new law also included a provision for imprisonment for up to five years for “foreign agents” who were brought to justice twice a year for violating the procedure for the activities of a “foreign agent”.
While Russian opposition in exile still sometimes looks at the label as a “sign of quality” (because many distinguished writers, journalists, human rights activists, and others received it), some Russian parliament MPs (including the speaker Volodin) have recently proposed confiscating the property of “foreign agents”.
In December 2022, the Ministry of Internal Affairs published a full list of “foreign agents” which comprised 493 names of organizations and people. Nevertheless, in 2023 it continued to announce “foreign agents” every Friday of the week. On January 27, 2023, the list contained 536 people and organizations.
According to the human rights organization and media resource OVD-info, the latest people and organizations included on the list on January 27, 2023 were:
Musician, leader of the Little Big band Ilya Prusikin
Buddhist figure, President of Buddhists of Kalmykia and official representative of the Dalai Lama XIV in Russia, Mongolia, CIS countries Erdni-Basan Ombadykov. He had since resigned from the post.
Feminist Anti-War Resistance Coordinator Daria Serenko
Read more: ‘We were born in a situation of hellish urgency’: How the Russian Feminist Anti-War Resistance Movement works
The Moscow Times journalist Fidel Agumava
Chairman of the Tatar Public Center, co-founder of Free Idel-Ural Rafis Kashapov
Two NGOs, “Philosophy of non-violence” and “Digital Rights Development Foundation” (their founders include journalists and activists previously labelled as foreign agents, for example, Andrei Makarevich, a popular rock band musician).
The Ministry of Justice published explanations about each of the new “foreign agents”. All of them, according to the Ministry, spoke out against the war in Ukraine and live outside of Russia.
As reported by the OVD-info, officials also criticized Prusikin for performing concerts in “unfriendly countries”; Kashapov for calling to “fighting the current state power of the Russian Federation”; Agumava and Serenko for promoting LGBTQ+ relations.
On February 3, 2023, the following people were labelled:
Elena Prokasheva (Elena Malisova) and Ekaterina Dudko (Katya Selvanova) — writers, authors of the LGBTQ+ books “Summer in a Pioneer's Tie” and “What the Swallow Is Silent About” about same-sex relationships
Alexander Makashenets , the host of the show Popular Politics (the hallmark YouTube channel of Alexey Navalny, a Russian opposition leader).
Read more: Shallow grave: Putin’s dictatorship is slowly killing Russia's main opposition leader Navalny
Pavel Mezerin, political scientist and coordinator of the Free Ingria movement;
Nikolai Sobolev, a YouTube blogger with over five million subscribers
In December 2022, the BBC-Russia quoted Galina Arapova, head of the Center to protect the rights of media:
Уровень мер контроля, которые предусматривают новые правила, в первую очередь помешает работе ‘иноагентов’. Организации, по ее мнению, будут изматывать проверками и подводить под ликвидацию, как это произошло с ‘Мемориалом’ (был признан ‘иноагентом’ и ликвидирован якобы за нарушение требований отчетности). А людей-‘иноагентов” будут изматывать новыми, еще более неопределенными требованиями. Такое бремя, считает она, фактически направлено ‘на выдавливание людей из деятельности, связанной с активной гражданской позицией или вообще – из страны.
The level of control measures that the new rules provide will primarily hinder the work of ‘foreign agents’. Organizations… will be exhausted by checks and brought under liquidation, as happened with Memorial (it was recognized as a ‘foreign agent and liquidated allegedly for violation of reporting requirements). And people ‘foreign agents’ will be exhausted with new, even more vague requirements. Such a burden, she believes, is actually aimed ‘at squeezing people out of activities related to active citizenship or, in general, out of the country.’
The sociological poll company Levada Center published results of the poll on Russians’ attitudes to the designated “foreign agents”, and it is worrying:
A year ago, most of the respondents believed that this law was a way of state pressure on independent public organizations. Today, against the background of the consolidation of public opinion around the government and the deepening of the conflict with the West, the opinion is beginning to prevail that the law is designed to ‘limit the negative influence of the West on our country’.