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Russia's 'foreign agent' law threatens rights group that survived Soviet pressures

St. Basil's Cathedral, left, and the Spasskaya tower stand on Red Square in Moscow on Dec. 27, 2018. According to reports on April 3, 2021, changes to Russia's law on "foreign agents" mean that anyone who posts on social media opinions critical of authorities and allegedly receives overseas donations or payments can be named a foreign agent, a term that conveys the meaning of spy or traitor in Russia.

ANDREY RUDAKOV/BLOOMBERG

By ROBYN DIXON | The Washington Post | Published: April 3, 2021

MOSCOW — Changes to Russia's law on "foreign agents" are threatening to close some of the country's oldest rights organizations, even reversing the victories of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov in the final years of the Soviet Union.

As the Kremlin tightens its grip, the new rules mean that anyone who posts opinions critical of authorities on social media and allegedly receives overseas donations or payments can be named a foreign agent, a term that conveys the meaning of spy or traitor in Russia.

The foreign agent law has been a highly effective tool by authorities to harass and fragment Russia's pro-democracy activists and others - just one part of a sweeping crackdown on Kremlin critics under President Vladimir Putin.

The penalties, which took effect in March, can bring up to five years of jail for those who do not obey a government order to register as foreign agents or do not to submit regular detailed reports of all plans, activities and finances.

The first five people named as foreign agents include a feminist performance artist who teaches Russian to migrants, a 79-year-old veteran human rights activist named Lev Ponomaryov and three independent journalists who contribute to U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

The changes also claimed one of the giants of Russia's human rights world, Ponomaryov's For Human Rights nongovernmental organization, with more than 1,000 activists across Russia.

"It's a kind of cold civil war," said Ponomaryov, who dissolved For Human Rights on March 2.

Now, several organizations are under intense state pressure.

They include smaller groups such as an independent doctors union and an organization supporting victims of domestic violence.

The list also includes venerable names: the Russia operations of RFE/RL, and Memorial, the NGO founded by Sakharov, Ponomaryov and others that began work exposing Soviet political executions and the gulag, the vast network of Soviet prison camps where thousands of political prisoners served sentences of hard labor, many of whom died.

"In Soviet times, especially in the era of Great Terror, we had 'spies' everywhere," said Marina Agaltsova, senior lawyer at Memorial. "And the term 'foreign agent' in Russian is perceived to mean a spy. The government is trying to put the label 'spy' on people who are criticizing the government and disagreeing with its policy and politics."

An initial 2012 law targeted registered NGOs that receive foreign funding, but it has steadily been broadened. In 2017, Russia named RFE/RL a foreign agent in retaliation for American demands that Kremlin-funded Russian media in the United States register as foreign agents.

Russia's Justice Ministry has mounted 260 cases against RFE/RL for not marking its reports with a "foreign agent" label, with fines of $980,000 in 142 of those cases since Jan. 14.

In September, agents of Russia's Anti-Extremist Center, posing as book lovers, raided Moscow's international book fair and pounced on Memorial's stand. They seized nine books and catalogues, and they laid charges that the materials had no label that Memorial was a "foreign agent."

In December, police raided Memorial's office, demanding thousands of documents going back three years.

It has been fined a total of 6.1 million rubles, nearly $85,000. "An incredible amount for an NGO," said Agaltsova.

Memorial grew out of the Perestroika Club in Moscow in 1987 when several hundred activists met regularly in a hall to discuss the history of Soviet terrorism, environmental problems and the preservation of historical buildings.

Such meetings would be difficult under Putin today. About 200 municipal deputies and activists met in a Moscow hotel on March 13, and all were arrested.

Memorial's struggle for official recognition took years, though activists recall the euphoria and hope of the time. It was "a feeling that suddenly a window had opened and fresh air had blown in," said one founder, Irina Vysochina.

Sakharov spoke at its founding conference in 1989. On Oct. 30 that year, Memorial formed a human chain with candles around the KGB building - another event that could not happen in Putin's Russia. (The whole of central Moscow was blocked off by riot police in January this year to bar a planned protest at the building.)

Sakharov died in December 1989. At Sakharov's funeral, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, that he would give thought to perpetuating her husband's memory. She answered that registering Memorial was the best way to do so. A month later, Memorial's Moscow branch was registered.

With parliamentary elections due in September, the Kremlin is cracking down on independent journalists, activists and critics.

Media outlets critical of the Kremlin have been declared extremist and forced to close. Journalists and elderly scientists have been charged with treason or justifying terrorism. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, poisoned with a Soviet-era chemical nerve agent last August, was jailed upon his return to Russia in January, and many members of his team were arrested and put under house arrest, or fled the country.

Darya Apakhonchich, a feminist performance artist who teaches Russian to migrants in her spare time, was shocked to be one of the first five people named as "foreign agents." She knew she would never again get a teaching job in a state or private school.

"I thought it was so crazy, so absurd. I lost my normal life. It took me a few weeks to realize this is not a dream, it's not a nightmare. This is your new life. I understood that it's not possible to be an activist and to live a normal life."

Apakhonchich, evicted by her landlord after being named a foreign agent, sees the law as a form of state violence.

"Unfortunately, we have abusers in our country, and they are very strong."

Also evicted from its premises after being named foreign agents was No to Violence, an NGO that supports domestic violence survivors.

In February, the landlord appeared at the door with a posse of "brats in leather jackets" when workers were counseling female clients, according to director Anna Rivina. He told her the NGO was "unpleasant" and gave it a month to vacate.

Whenever Rivina, Apakhonchich or other "foreign agents" write posts on social media or make public speeches, they must begin by stating that they "perform the functions of a foreign agent." So must all employees or members of "foreign agent" NGOs, according to Agaltsova, Memorial's lawyer.

RFE/RL is obligated to mark all reports under its title.

Agaltsova says Memorial is targeted for exposing Soviet abuses uncomfortable for Russian security agencies. She has fought many court battles to access Soviet archives, against increasing resistance from authorities, meaning the names of many of those responsible for Soviet-era activities remain a state secret.

"The repressions of the past are painful because they inevitably touch on the repressions of the present," she said.

But activists insist that they will fight on. Ponomaryov had to close his beloved rights organization, but he is not finished yet.

"I have been a human rights activist for more than 30 years. You know, in Russia, if you're a human rights activist, it is like the state of your soul. And we will continue to work, as long as we're still around."

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The Washington Post's Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.