Why so secretive?


The Russian authorities are keeping far too many secrets from citizens. Komanda-29 and its founder Ivan Pavlov are fighting back. Русский

Grigory Tumanov
17 March 2016

Ivan Pavlov spends a lot of time travelling between Moscow and St.Petersburg. Were you to encounter him in a sleeping compartment on the high-speed train, Pavlov would look like any other successful corporate lawyer; a sensible haircut, a 
serious look, flitting from city to city for multi-million dollar contracts. Hardly a figure you’d suspect to be a fearless fighter for government transparency.

A taste of the law 

For as long as he can remember, Ivan Pavlov wanted to be a lawyer. But it was the height of perestroika, the USSR was close to collapse and the young man from St. Petersburg didn’t make it to law school.

“I realised exactly what was happening, and enrolled at what was then the Ulyanov-Lenin Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute. I chose to study information technology: it felt like something new, something that would be needed in the future. And I wasn’t wrong,” he says.

When Ivan graduated, he was already living in a different country. It was 1993: the tanks were storming Moscow’s White House parliament building and Russia put its Soviet past behind.
The young Dmitry Medvedev was an exciting lecturer, and after classes Ivan worked as an assistant to the legendary human rights lawyers Yuri Schmidt and Genri Reznik 

Earlier, in 1991, a commission had been set up to carry out the declassification of the Communist Party’s Central Committee archives. It began the transfer of Party and KGB archives into government storage facilities.

Just as Pavlov was graduating, the commission’s work was halted because of the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet, and most of the documents were left in the official archives of the security services. A new commission was created, charged instead with guarding state secrets, and Pavlov would spend his whole life fighting it.

In 1994 the future human rights specialist finally enrolled at Leningrad University’s Law Faculty. There was an atmosphere of enthusiasm: the young Dmitry Medvedev was an exciting lecturer, and after classes Ivan worked as an assistant to the legendary human rights lawyer Yuri Schmidt, as well as Genri Reznik, a prominent lawyer and criminologist who now heads the Moscow bar association.


“It was these two men that brought me into the profession. They, essentially, turned me into a defender of human rights,” says Pavlov. Pavlov defends Natalia Sharina, director of Moscow’s library of Ukrainian literature, October 2015. Photo (c): Vitaly Belousov / visual RIAN. All rights reserved. The laws regulating the legal profession in the 1990s allowed people without a law degree to represent defendants in court, so in 1996 Pavlov was already learning the ropes, defending environmental activists and human rights campaigners in their conflicts with the state, and doing it so well that at one point he was head of St Petersburg’s Bellona environmental organisation (now on Russia’s “foreign agent” register).

It was Pavlov’s work with Bellona that determined his direction in life. In 1995 the environmental scientist and former head of the organisation, Aleksandr Nikitin was charged by the FSB with divulgence of state secrets and high treason. The accusation centred on his published report, “The Northern Fleet - a potential source of risk of radioactive pollution of the region,” which supposedly divulged secret information.

The investigation lasted four years and was Ivan’s baptism of fire. Nikitin’s senior defence lawyer was Yuri Schmidt, with the young Pavlov as his junior. The case was batted to and fro between the investigators and the courts, Amnesty International recognised Nikitin as a prisoner of conscience and finally, in 2000 all charges against him were dropped.

Since then, people accused of divulging state secrets have become Pavlov’s main client group: journalist Gregory Pasko, numerous academics, even a former employee of the Moscow Patriarchate who was either working under cover for the FSB or had, according to the Russians, become a mole for the CIA. 

Pavlov was wary to say much about the case of Yevgeny Petrin, the former church administrator. It’s a very different business from his other clients. There are not thousands of signatures being collected in his defence, unlike Svetlana Davydova. The Kremlin has also kept silent on Petrin’s case.

On the move for justice

“I flew into Moscow, and arriving at court for Petrin’s trial, I found it had been postponed. It was stupid. I could have attended a meeting in my own town rather than wasted time” — says Pavlov, sighing, on his way to another flight. On 4 March it turned out that the lawyer’s moving back and forth between the two cities had not been in vain — at the first hearing of Petrin’s case, the court resolved that there had been too many procedural violations to examine the case in its current form. Petrin was returned to the detention centre, while Pavlov flew back to St. Petersburg.

To have a life in several cities is not usual for a lawyer, activist and human rights defender, but Pavlov’s situation is different. You could say that he had his own score to settle with the secret services, which partly explains the direction he has taken.

“I reckon that one day, these bastards will get what’s coming to them, and then we’ll get justice”In 2014, Pavlov’s wife Jennifer Gaspar, was declared a persona non grata by the FSB and expelled from the country.

Gaspar, an American citizen, was engaged in consultancy work for various NGOs in St. Petersburg, often advising human rights defenders on grant applications. Pavlov’s attempts to appeal the decision came to nothing. Jennifer now lives in Prague, where she works for the CEELI Institute, which provides legal education. 

The NGO’s office overlooks Prague, occupying the former villa of a Czech railway magnate. Gaspar left for Prague along with the couple’s son and daughter. One evening, Ivan and I have a smoke together outside the villa’s entrance. I ask him what it’s like, to live in so many cities, with a family abroad. “You know”, begins Pavlov, “I reckon that one day, these bastards will get what’s coming to them, and then we’ll get justice”.

You’d expect to hear these words from somebody younger, still naively holding faith in the inevitable victory of good over evil. From Pavlov, born in 1971, you’d expect them least of all. But as I look at him, in bomber jacket and baseball cap, peering out into the darkness of a Prague park, I understand that he isn’t joking.

The rise and fall of FOI

If you were to create a graph representing the Russian government’s relations with freedom of information, its line would now and then form a small peak, but its general direction over recent years would be downward.

Russia’s Institute for Freedom of Information was set up in 2003, when human rights campaigners realised that the right to know didn’t begin and end with legislation on state secrets.

“I think we left our mark on history”, Pavlov tells me. “We, along with many others, eventually forced government bodies to set up their own internet sites. It’s difficult to believe now, but many went without for a long time.”
The state’s attitude to freedom of information has deteriorated so much that even the 1990s now seem like a golden age of transparency

Then there were the problems with the official technology regulatory body, which in the end was forced to provide free, rather than paid, access to GOST, the set of technical standards that operates in CIS countries.

In 2009 came Russia's Freedom of Information Act, the text of which the liberal leaders of the Ministry of Economic Development commissioned from FOI campaigners.

It’s hard to believe this in 2016, but in 2009 graduates of the Institute for Freedom of Information were still involved in drafting federal legislation (the Institute decided to shut down in 2013, rather than be classified as a foreign agent).

Over the last few years the attitude of the state towards FOI (freedom of information) has changed so much for the worse that even the 1990s, not known for their liberalism in that respect, now seem like a golden age of transparency.

Article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (on high treason) was recently amended to basically include the divulgence of a state secret by anyone, whether or not they had access to one.

The height of absurdity with regard to this area of legislation was reached in the case of housewife Svetlana Davydova. One day, in a bus, she heard a stranger, a soldier, gossip about plans to send a GRU (Military Intelligence) squad to the Donbas region of Ukraine, whereupon she phoned the Ukrainian embassy. Davydova was soon arrested and charged with high treason, and became famous overnight.

There followed a public campaign, a petition and statements by the human rights Ombudsman, and eventually she was freed. Pavlov has since had numerous clients from the most unexpected quarters, and the number of convictions under Article 275 continues to rise.

Uncovering the past

Pavlov has often represented historians, and this sphere of activity takes him back to his beginnings, when attempts were being made in the newly created Russia to declassify the colossal archives of the KGB.

Komanda-29, another organisation created by Pavlov (named after the clause in the Russian constitution guaranteeing the right to information) is located in an office building in the centre of St. Petersburg. Pavlov, who heads the organisation, is helped by several of his former colleagues.

Among other things, Komanda-29 is engaged in the Rosotvet project.

In essence, its goal is to force state institutions to become more open. Citizens are asked to enter their questions to this or that government agency on a special website, though they can also do so in a freer format should they prefer. Komanda-29’s role in this is to clothe the questions in the necessary bureaucratic character and forward them to the correct address.

“The formal replies citizens receive from the state often discourage them from trying to learn anything, even though it could be important information”  

“Citizens don’t always understand how to get their questions answered by this or that government agency. The formal replies they so love to receive often discourage them from trying to learn anything, even though it could be important information. In a sense, we’ve become their translators.” — explains Pavlov.

At present, Komanda-29 is working on FOI cases for two historians. The first is that of Sergei Prudovsky. He is not a professional historian, but is nonetheless passionately interested in the Soviet period, and more specifically Stalin’s terror of the 1930s. His conflict with the authorities arose out of his research into the famous Harbinite case.

The so-called Harbinites were Russians who founded Harbin, in north east China, as a small settlement in 1898. They initially came to build the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian railway, but many settled in the growing city and their numbers were boosted by White Russian émigrés after the Bolshevik revolution. Prudovsky’s interest in the story is personal - his grandfather worked for the Chinese Eastern Railway in the 30s and miraculously survived when its employees were targeted during the Terror.

An operational order sent in 1937 by NKVD [forerunner of the KGB and FSB] leader Nikolai Yezhov stated that 25,000 old railway employees who had lived in Harbin but later returned to the USSR had been identified. According to Yezhov, these were all former White Guard officers, members of spy and terrorist cells and saboteurs, and should be arrested. Altogether 30,000 people were arrested, 20,000 of whom were shot.

Prudovsky has been unable to get access to Yezhov’s order. In 1992 Yeltsin ordered the declassification of documents relating to Stalin’s Terror, but judges have since interpreted his wishes rather loosely.

“At first there was no actual law guaranteeing declassification, so people were sent from pillar to post to look for things, but then a law was passed ordering the declassification of documents over 30 years old, and in some cases 50 years old”, Pavlov tells me.

Since then the Constitutional Court has had to make special ruling to force lower courts to follow the law: the new law, the judges in lower courts had argued, could not be applied retroactively, so Soviet documents, whether 30 or 50 years old, were not affected by it.

The Constitutional Court ruling, however, did not mean the automatic declassification of all Soviet documents – that would require a meeting of the Committee for the Protection of State Secrets, which makes backroom decisions on whether to remove “Classified” stamps. The law on State Secrets only asks the Committee to consider “expediency” as well whether or not documents contain information that might be “sensitive with regard to Russian security.”

Prudovsky had a rare stroke of luck. Despite the Russian courts all refusing him access to Yezhov’s order, he was able to find it quite easily: in 2011 it was declassified in Ukraine, and anyone can now discover its contents online.

Pavlov’s team managed to get involved in one more historical case before the Institute for Freedom of Information closed down in 2011. When the Archangelsk historian Mikhail Suprun tried to research the fates of ethnic Germans deported to the Archangelsk region in the 1930s and 1940s, the regional FSB decided he had gathered his information illegally and charged him with under a law forbidding the infringement of personal and family privacy.

The investigation against him continued for some time, but the case was eventually dismissed by a court, which ruled that the stature of limitations had passed.

The reason why

Why does the Russian government have such a peculiar policy on secrecy?

Historian Nikita Petrov, writing in the journal Uroki Istorii [Lessons of History], has claimed that an enigmatic document entitled, An Agreement on a Basis for the Reassessment of Levels of Secrecy of Classified Information from the Soviet Period in CIS Member Countries was signed at a CIS Summit held in St Petersburg in 2011.

“This is a reflection of the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions: any declassification must be agreed with Moscow first”

“As far as I can make out”, Petrov said at the time, “It was signed by Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Ukraine and Moldova, haven’t signed yet, and I really hope they won’t” (Moldova and Ukraine in fact abstained in 2012).

The problem, Petrov explains, is that documents classified during the Soviet period may only be declassified with the permission of all the relevant parties and countries. “This is, in effect, a reflection of Moscow and the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions: any declassification has to be agreed with Moscow first.”

This comes as no surprise to Ivan Pavlov: the reassessment of its Soviet legacy has always been a central tenet of New Russian ideology and it is up to its creators to decide how it should be done

Pavlov, however, is not deterred: “We can sometimes still find ways and means of accessing information: not all has been lost”, he tells me, appropriately enough, on the eve of a Supreme Court hearing to examine a complaint by another one of his clients, former sound engineer Gennady Kravtsov who left the GRU and sent his CV to Europe, and is now serving a lengthy sentence for high treason. 

Pavlov’s activities have clearly not gone unnoticed. The biggest sign of the effectiveness of his work came in the form of a special investigation by Channel Five, a state media outlet, into Komanda 29, in order to collect incriminating materials.

One of Komanda 29’s volunteers informed his colleagues about Channel Five’s attempts to recruit him for their investigation. The team then decided to deliberately feed journalists misinformation about their participation in all kinds of nefarious deeds, almost up to collaboration with ISIS.

Not everybody in the TV crew believed them, but after some time the channel broadcast a programme about a plot, denouncing foreign agents and stooges of the west entrenched in St. Petersburg, who worked under the guise of activists fighting for transparency of government agencies. 

Judging by his delighted reaction, Pavlov saw the broadcast as a recognition of sorts for his hard work, for which he received an award from the Moscow Helsinki group in 2015.

He began to share posts by his critics on his Facebook page, who found it suspicious that the organisation always appeared “whenever the subject of state secrets is raised”, and saw this as evidence that his team was actively collecting information under the pretence of fighting for freedom of speech. These accusations are a perfect example of everything Pavlov has resolved to fight, and has fought, for many years.

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