The rise of Russia’s vice squad

Developments in Russia’s intellectual community confirm that the worst Soviet practices and institutions are being restored. They have no place in Russia today – yet they’ve already become entrenched in it. RU

Alexander Kondakov
2 February 2018

Students and EUSP staff at the conference. Right in the last row – Alexander Kondakov and Evgeny Stororn. Photo from the author's archive.Academic research in Russia, particularly in the social and political sciences, is increasingly being directed by the law enforcement agencies. Two ongoing developments in St Petersburg confirm this trend. The first is the crisis that has enveloped the European University at St Petersburg (EUSP); the second is the story surrounding Evgeny Shtorn, an employee of the city’s Centre for Independent Social Research who has been forced to flee Russia.

For more than a year now, EUSP has been battling to claw back its educational license, which it almost lost in December 2016, before being stripped of it completely in summer 2017. The Federal Service for the Supervision of Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor) alleges that the university is ill equipped for teaching, citing various technicalities as evidence (there’s no swimming pool, you see, and the lift doors are too narrow).

As for Shtorn, his “transgression” was simply working for an academic organisation – Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research – which, in 2015, was added to Russia’s “foreign agents” registry. It was precisely on these grounds that Shtorn was refused Russian citizenship, for which he (a stateless person) had applied according to standard procedure. The formal justification for the refusal was entirely unrelated to Shtorn’s research work and social activism (which encompasses LGBT issues). In reality, however, it was precisely these factors that were behind the pressure on him.

In both cases, the final decisions were formalised in accordance with administrative law yet inspired by ideological control. A Rosobrnadzor commission pays a visit to EUSP and stuffs its final report with vague objections: the university’s auditoria, claims the report, are not “logistically equipped” for the teaching of political science and economics. What this might imply is a subject for esoteric speculation rather than legal interpretation. Nevertheless, the wording is perfectly legitimate: the licensing of educational activities can be denied on its basis.

The FSB deliberately and knowingly breaks Russian laws when it interferes in the procedures of other agencies

As regards citizenship denial, the law provides a closed list of potential reasons. Shtorn was refused citizenship because he allegedly gave “false information” about his place of residence. When district police officers arrived at the address he’d indicated on the form, he wasn’t at home. As far as the factual side of things is concerned, it’s important to note that they arrived during working hours, when Evgeny was, well, at work. As regards the instrumental deployment of the law, however, what matters is the fact that a norm can now be used against a person: if he’s not at home, perhaps he’s actually lying when he claims to live there.

Now, as for Rosobrnadzor’s technical gripes with the EUSP, many struggled to believe they were genuine throughout the affair. Ever since the legal battle between the university and the state got underway, commentators have concurred that these developments constitute an organised assault against the freedom of thought. Deputy Vitaly Milonov, responsible for giving voice to the awkward positions of the state bureaucracy, confirmed these suspicions, taking every opportunity to castigate the EUSP’s Gender Studies programme. In today’s Russia, gender and sexuality represent an enormous bone of contention between government-endorsed conservatives and the progressive intellectual community, of which the EUSP is a part.

Other observers, meanwhile, have focused on the economic interests potentially being pursued by the instigators of the witch hunt against the university: someone within the Russian government may have taken a fancy to the Small Marble Palace, where the EUSP has been based since its foundation. But a recently floated theory strikes me as the most convincing one of all: the university may have attracted the interest of an FSB department engaged in the containment and elimination of “ideological sabotage”.


Photo from the archive of Evgeny Shtorn.The story of Evgeny Shtorn, too, points towards FSB involvement. In interviews with Novaya Gazeta and the BBC Russian Service, Shtorn maintains that his citizenship application was allegedly refused because he hadn’t filled out his form in the proper fashion – this despite the fact that the form was thoroughly checked on receipt by the same officials who issued the refusal. Shtorn was subsequently invited to the Federal Migration Service to discuss Russian migration legislation in person. But when he arrived at the Migration Service office, Evgeny encountered a sentinel of the ideological order – an FSB man who’d decorated the office with a portrait of Andropov and a bust of Dzerzhinsky. It turned out that the FSB officer had gone through Shtorn’s citizenship documents and, surprised to discover that the applicant was working for a “foreign agent”, he’d recommended that the application be rejected. Needless to say, this was not a legal course of action: working for an NGO listed as a “foreign agent” is no basis for citizenship denial. Hence the necessity of claiming that the applicant had provided false information on his form.

At the “migration legislation” meeting, the FSB officer informed Shtorn that, if his understanding was correct, the US was gradually subordinating Russia by means of “soft power”. The wellsprings of US “soft power” in Russia, he said, were organisations such as the CISR and the EUSP – organisations used by the American government to disseminate views and values alien to this country of ours: support for LGBT rights, discontent with the regime, criticism of Soviet-era repressions, and so on and so forth.

Russian values, in the FSB’s eyes, were the following: subordination to one’s superiors; loyalty; “traditional” expressions of sexuality. All other values were alien and served as instruments for the subjugation of Russia. The FSB learned of this imminent threat from publicly available sources, and namely from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard. In the stories surrounding the EUSP and Shtorn, however, the chessboard has shrunk to the very specific cases of a modestly sized university and a stateless person. Nevertheless, both stories showcase the revival of institutions from the past. The Soviet past. The past we’ve been fleeing for so long.

Post-Soviet “organs”

After the collapse of the USSR, Soviet state institutions experienced a long and painful crisis. Many of them failed to find a niche of their own in the new reality, in the new type of state brought into being by the 1993 Russian Constitution, which affirmed (at least nominally so) democratic freedoms and human rights as the basis of Russian statehood. One of the first obvious candidates for elimination in this new state was the centrally planned economy. Determining supply and demand by means of statistical calculations became inadmissible: in capitalist societies, supply and demand are determined by autonomous market agents, and the limits of their freedom can be regulated by the state only to a certain degree. It is of no consequence in this case which of the methods is better – what matters is that the former was rendered rudimentary in the new conditions.

Another Soviet institution to become unfit for purpose was that enforcer of ideological control, the KGB. If Soviet citizens were officially forbidden to think their own thoughts – to say nothing of thoughts at variance with the positions of the Communist Party – freedom of thought is guaranteed for the citizens of Russia by Articles 13 and 29 of the Constitution. Monitoring people who think “incorrectly” therefore ceased to have any purpose. Though the “security” agencies remained in place, they acquired new functions that partly overlapped with the functions of other law-enforcement agencies. It is important to emphasise that Russia’s new KGB (the FSB) has become a law-enforcement organisation – that is, an organisation that formally acts within the framework of the law and applies it to resolve conflicts. In theory, then, ideology should play no role in the endeavours of this agency. The reality, of course, is rather different.

Resurrecting the form of Soviet state institutions leads ineluctably to the replication of their content

Throughout post-Soviet history, Russia has witnessed an ongoing reestablishment of Soviet-style statecraft institutions. What should have perished with the Soviet Union had merely entered a brief dormancy period that facilitated adaptation to the new conditions. Did this happen because statecraft in post-Soviet Russia was performed in keeping with Soviet textbooks and the Soviet experience, or because it was in the interest of the new ruling class to recreate the statecraft system of the USSR, wherein all branches of power are integrated into a single administrative chain of subordination? Either way, the state agencies of the past underwent a gradual resurrection in the new Russian state. Most likely, the explanation should be sought in the incompetence of government officials capable of doing only what they’d been taught to do in the past.


Graduate students of the European University at the meeting.Resurrecting the form of Soviet state institutions – that is, the administrative logic that determines their behaviour and position in the system – leads ineluctably to the replication of their content. Under the new conditions, this content is naturally subject to modification: you can’t step into the same river twice. We may no longer have a planned economy, but the country’s principal industries and a host of market agents have been subordinated to the state bureaucracy and pursue the goals it sets for them, even if said goals are inconsistent with revenue generation. Which is precisely why certain business can continue operating at a loss – provided they’re catering to the interests of the state. Whether or not some new product or other proves a hit among consumers is unimportant. What matters is that its creation was ordered; consumers can always be forced to use it, as has happened, for example, in the case of the Mir payment system.

The content of the new Russian ideology – to be controlled by state security – remained unclear for a long time. Russian nationalism can be integrated into this ideology only to a limited degree: it is problematic because it provokes undesirable conflicts. Ditto Russian Orthodoxy. Although both ideas undoubtedly play a role in the current fragmented ideological project, they’ve not become central to it. Only recently was it decided that the ideological keystone of today’s Russia would be anti-Americanism. Although the belief that Russia and the United States represent opposing poles in a conflict of values is not underpinned by the facts, it works well enough as a central ideological concept, facilitating distinctions between “good” and “bad”, “us” and “them”, “Self” and “Other”. This gives the ideological police a raison d’être: with a particular coordinate system now specified and the requisite dichotomies easy to erect, it makes sense to exercise control and mete out punishment.

Doubting the undoubtable

This ideological police turned out to be the central protagonist in the cases involving the EUSP and Evgeny Shtorn.

It is not the law that is enforced by this police: it is their own value system, habitually moulded by specific individuals within the power structures. Privately, of course, FSB personnel have the right, as citizens of Russia, to think whatever they see fit; they can deem the US their ultimate enemy and regard Russia’s research institutions as weapons in ideological conflicts. Nonetheless, they cannot act on these beliefs in their professional activities, for restrictions on freedom of thought as stipulated by ideological control are contrary to the Russian Constitution and federal laws. Institutions that implement the law, the FSB included, are expected to abide by that selfsame law – or is this expectation just another of the “false” values that the US, taking its cue from Brzezinski, has foisted upon us? Nowhere in the current legislation is it specified that universities deemed by someone or other to be “ideologically alien” must be denied an educational license, or that individuals in the employ of “foreign agents” must be denied citizenship. Furthermore, if the Russian Constitution is anything to go by, this cannot be specified in the current legislation.

FSB personnel, needless to say, know all this full well themselves, which is why they force other agencies and departments – the Migration Service, say, or the Ministry of Education – to hunt for formal reasons to give this red light or that, thereby allowing the true motives to be kept hidden. In other words, the upshot is that the FSB deliberately and knowingly breaks the law when it interferes in the procedures of other agencies in order to monitor the ideological loyalty of individuals making applications to these agencies for whatever reason.

Even in the Soviet era, it was the exception rather than the rule for state agencies to act illegally – the USSR didn’t guarantee freedom of thought and legislatively codified its limitations. In today’s Russia, however, there would appear to exist an agency that restricts heterodox thinking without any legal grounds to do so, even as far as current Russian legislation is concerned (to say nothing of the “alien” norms of international law).

The FSB believes that Russian citizens love the regime, and social scientists ask whether or not this is the case

In this situation, the social sciences and humanities become targets for the ideological police. In the domain of the social sciences, universities and research centres are engaged in criticism: they do not toe the party line. We scholars and researchers critique the current state of affairs or some prior state of affairs (the government’s behaviour included) because this is the essence of our work. We’re interested in situations where some factor or other may take us by surprise, situations where conflict may be unearthed, situations whose reality is far removed from idealisations thereof. The FSB believes that Russian citizens love the regime, and social scientists ask whether or not this is the case. The very fact of such enquiries is sufficient to bring us into conflict with the FSB, since we’re effectively permitting ourselves to doubt the “undoubtable”.

The stories surrounding the EUSP and Evgeny Shtorn, which have brought this conflict into sharp focus, testify to the fact that Soviet-era institutions of ideological control are being resurrected in a post-Soviet political reality and becoming progressively more powerful. But existing as they do in this new reality – and specifically against the backdrop of the norms established by the Constitution of 1993 – these institutions also undoubtedly contravene the law. They have no place in the new Russia, yet they’ve already become entrenched in it.

The ideological department of the FSB cannot vindicate its right to exist in the current legal environment, since we, the citizens of Russia, do have the right to think differently, to criticise the authorities, to refuse loyalty to the regime. Our value ​systems ​are diverse: they don’t all follow the same template. Some of us support LGBT rights, and some of us do not; we can hold different views on gender equality and the country’s historical experience, vote for different presidential candidates, have preferences for different films and plays. In theory, this diversity of worldviews is legally unrestricted, and the “traditionalism” (or otherwise) of your values legally inconsequential. “In theory” being, once again, the operative phrase.

In reality, we’re all being monitored by an ideological morality police who are guided by ignorant interpretations of American political scientists.

Translated by Leo Shtutin.

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