Photo - Meduza

Is it pos­si­ble to intro­duce cen­sor­ship bypass­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion? Eas­i­ly. All one needs to do is to con­struct an appro­pri­ate sys­tem, get the “right” peo­ple to ini­ti­ate the process in par­lia­ment in order to give it the appear­ance of legal­i­ty, intro­duce the word “for­eign agent” which sounds sus­pi­cious to the aver­age cit­i­zen, incite law enforce­ment offi­cials to active­ly enforce the law, “charge” pro­pa­gan­dists, moti­vate “use­ful idiots” to “snitch” to the secret police, and voila! — The repres­sion train is run­ning. The “law” works. The Con­sti­tu­tion rests. 

This is more or less how things work in Rus­sia today, as the Meduza inves­ti­ga­tion, “You are the ene­mies of the Father­land, you must be hanged on poles,” con­vinc­ing­ly demon­strates (author: Liliya Yap­paro­va).

Back in 2012, my col­leagues and I were pio­neers in get­ting the “for­eign agent” label: we set up an NGO to share our jour­nal­is­tic expe­ri­ences and help novice inves­tiga­tive reporters from the regions, and we were among the first to be labeled as “for­eign agents” for what the courts found to be “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” This very activ­i­ty was expressed in the pub­li­ca­tion of crit­i­cal opin­ions on our web­site — the court rul­ing said as much. The pre­text was quite exot­ic at the time, but today it is a com­mon one. We imme­di­ate­ly decid­ed not to play by the rules (or, if you pre­fer, with­out the rules, which in this case is the same thing), imposed by the state spe­cial ser­vices: we elim­i­nat­ed our legal enti­ty in Rus­sia and came back, as they say, from the oth­er side. 

How­ev­er, the regime did not waste any time in doing so. Not sat­is­fied with the mop­ping up of NGOs and oppo­si­tion politi­cians and activists, they went after the jour­nal­ists. First they squeezed the most tal­ent­ed inves­ti­ga­tors out of most of the major media out­lets, forc­ing their own­ers to shut down their inves­tiga­tive depart­ments as such. And after col­leagues did not give up and cre­at­ed even more thought-pro­vok­ing Inter­net projects of their own, they began bla­tant­ly repres­sive mea­sures. The result: four kinds of “for­eign agents,” a list of “unde­sir­able” orga­ni­za­tions and a list of extrem­ists all in one pack­age.  In April, sev­en edi­to­r­i­al boards and 20 more jour­nal­ists were giv­en the “ene­my label”.  The Project Media was declared “unde­sir­able”. Sev­er­al sites have been blocked; those with­out “the sta­tus” have been threat­ened with inspec­tions and trials.

The author of the inves­ti­ga­tion con­sis­tent­ly brings out of the shad­ows the indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions involved in this spe­cial oper­a­tion to impose cen­sor­ship in cir­cum­ven­tion and vio­la­tion of the Russ­ian Con­sti­tu­tion. Par­tic­u­lar atten­tion is paid to the “vol­un­tary helpers”. I remem­ber that their names used to be hid­den — dur­ing court hear­ings to chal­lenge the “for­eign-agent” sta­tus, we expe­ri­enced dif­fi­cul­ty to per­suade a judge to even have a look at the sweep­ing let­ter with which the “for­eign-agent case” began. Things are dif­fer­ent now. By the way, accord­ing to the law, such a case can now start with­out the report of a “pri­vate indi­vid­ual” — an appeal from any gov­ern­ment agency is enough. But the author­i­ties need “patri­ots.” “The bud­get came up. I take it that if you do it with the last name and patronymic, they pay more,” notes one of Meduza­’s inter­locu­tors, soci­ol­o­gist Kon­stan­tin Gaase.

And the inform­ers do not hide their names. More­over, they are eager to talk to jour­nal­ists (those whom they “turn in”). They seem to enjoy the process. They brag about “snitch­ing” as if they do not think at all about the future, in which after the change of pow­er, they will have to pay for every­thing. “Active Cit­i­zen” Alexan­der Ionov “jok­ing­ly” threat­ens the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion and even reproach­es Sergei Naryshkin, the direc­tor of For­eign Intel­li­gence Ser­vice, say­ing that he did not men­tion all the “for­eign agents” in his inter­view to Solovy­ov (one of the top pro­pa­gan­dists  at the Russ­ian state TV – ed.) – “he knows less than we do…” And only when it comes to his ties with the pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion, Mr. Ionov slows down slight­ly — appar­ent­ly, he has not received instruc­tions to “dis­close” his con­tacts. But, appar­ent­ly, he received a hint-advice to orga­nize a kind of Pub­lic Com­mit­tee to reveal for­eign inter­fer­ence.  So far, how­ev­er, the orga­ni­za­tion has not been reg­is­tered. But Ionov had already announced its cre­ation in spring, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fil­ing a law­suit against Novaya Gaze­ta and com­plain­ing about Impor­tant Sto­ries. He com­plained to the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion that prepar­ing doc­u­ments against “for­eign agents” is a trou­ble­some busi­ness — he gets help from two lawyers. “Draft­ing a com­plaint against “Medusa” cost more than 100 thou­sand rubles”, he laments.

Ionov sent one of his com­plaints — against the Amer­i­can Bard Col­lege (declared “unde­sir­able” short­ly there­after) — through a struc­ture called the Coor­di­nat­ing Coun­cil of Non-Prof­it Orga­ni­za­tions of the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion (CC NPO). It is head­ed by Anton Tsvetkov, a pub­lic activist and a man with close ties to the Admin­is­tra­tion of the Pres­i­dent in the past. Jour­nal­ists have learned that Ionov was a mem­ber of two of Tsvetkov’s projects at once: the Offi­cers of Rus­sia move­ment and the Strong Rus­sia movement. 

Anoth­er notable char­ac­ter who has gained noto­ri­ety through “snitch­ing” is Vitaly Borodin, a vet­er­an of the Inte­ri­or Min­istry and an activist whose com­plaint to the pros­e­cu­tor’s office had led to the Project Media being declared an “unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tion”. Borodin is famous for his mirac­u­lous abil­i­ty to get acquaint­ed with the pow­er­ful, for which he has earned the nick­name “Truf­faldino from Berg­amo” among his friends. As a for­mer offi­cial who knows Borodin well told Meduza, he is always accom­pa­nied by his per­son­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er at events. At the moment he shakes hand with some impor­tant guy, he gets his pic­ture tak­en, and then uploads the pho­tos: “Here I am with this gen­er­al, we dis­cussed some impor­tant mat­ters, and we are look­ing for some solu­tions”. “They gave him a pass to the pros­e­cu­tor’s office,” the jour­nal­ist quotes his source as say­ing, “and he start­ed film­ing a video out­side [for­mer Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al Yuri Chaika’s office – ed.], as if he were going to see Chai­ka at a meet­ing. Borodin admit­ted to the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion that his aide did indeed “accom­pa­ny him every­where”. How­ev­er, the admir­er of pho­tos with the pow­er­ful once got burned out on this hob­by: Borodin was so eager to make a pic­ture with Putin that he got into the his­to­ry with his guards, which did not like such a desire for the “inti­ma­cy” with the pro­tect­ed per­son. Only a few years lat­er, accord­ing to Meduza­’s sources, he was “for­giv­en,” after a suc­cess­ful encounter with Umar Krem­lin, pres­i­dent of the Inter­na­tion­al Box­ing Fed­er­a­tion and for­mer head of the Russ­ian Box­ing Fed­er­a­tion. The lat­ter, in turn, is believed to be close to Alex­ei Rubezh­ny, deputy direc­tor of the Fed­er­al Secu­ri­ty Ser­vice (FSS). Now Borodin posts pho­tos of him­self and famous Unit­ed Rus­sia par­ty politi­cians on his Insta­gram, and “han­dles” with Patru­shev and Kolokolt­sev. “Then with this pic­ture you can open doors,” the jour­nal­ist quotes his acquaintance. 

Hav­ing reg­is­tered the Fed­er­al Secu­ri­ty and Anti-Cor­rup­tion Project (FSKP) in the town of Mytishchi, Borodin is already mak­ing his way into offices in the sta­tus of a pub­lic fig­ure. He claims to have opened up anti-cor­rup­tion units in 51 regions. The oblig­a­tory “tro­phy” is a pho­to with the local gov­er­nor. He also mag­i­cal­ly turned out to be one of the Fed­er­al Secu­ri­ty Service’s “con­trac­tors”. The thing is that the FSS is also charged with mon­i­tor­ing pub­lic opin­ion and the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the regions. In this case, employ­ees must not use the infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed to them by local author­i­ties, but act in par­al­lel. Since the FSS has only sev­en ana­lyt­i­cal cen­ters of its own across the coun­try, and since it has elim­i­nat­ed major pro­fes­sion­al inde­pen­dent com­peti­tors in this field with the help of the law on for­eign agents, peo­ple “with con­nec­tions” like Borodin are invit­ed into the “case”. They pro­vide “facts from the field” for analy­sis, “regard­ing the local intra-elite sit­u­a­tion”, as one of the journalist’s inter­locu­tor puts it. 

The major­i­ty of experts with whom Meduza spoke believe that the com­plaints from Borodin, Ionov, Tsvetkov, and oth­ers do not have “objec­tive pow­er”. In real­i­ty the agen­cies behind the activists in coor­di­na­tion with the Admin­is­tra­tion of the Pres­i­dent launch the mech­a­nism for check­ing media and NGOs and label­ing them as “for­eign agents”.

Anoth­er reg­u­lar “com­plain­er,” Yevge­ny Prigozhin, accord­ing to the jour­nal­ist’s sources, joined the cam­paign against “for­eign agents” in order to set­tle a per­son­al score and, most impor­tant­ly, to pro­mote his own ini­tia­tives, pri­mar­i­ly the Nation­al Val­ues Pro­tec­tion Foun­da­tion (FZNTs). As, a for­mer employ­ee of Prigozhin’s struc­tures, said to the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion, “He has a class hatred for you — I don’t rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that he sin­cere­ly believes that you are ene­mies of the Father­land and should be hanged on poles. He has the red empire in his head. He is a patri­ot of his imag­i­nary country”. 

Most of these “snitch­es” feed on infor­ma­tion sup­plied by Rus­sia Today (RT), an active par­tic­i­pant in the spe­cial oper­a­tion. As Borodin con­fess­es to Meduza, “We look at what they write — and we start send­ing requests”.

A sep­a­rate chap­ter in the Meduza inves­ti­ga­tion is devot­ed to RT. Of course, it is sur­pris­ing what their staff does instead of doing their jour­nal­is­tic work. How­ev­er, it only shows how huge is the dif­fer­ence between jour­nal­ism and pro­pa­gan­da. RT has its own list of “untrust­wor­thy” edi­to­r­i­al offices (as well as orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als), which, as it became clear in the spring and sum­mer of 2021, is almost exact­ly the same as the offi­cial “for­eign agents” reg­istry. Meduza­’s sources call it a “card index on ene­mies” — and, accord­ing to two peo­ple close to the TV chan­nel, it was Mar­gari­ta Simonyan’s (the RT edi­tor-in-chief – ed.) per­son­al ini­tia­tive to start it.

She has been run­ning the “card index” for six years, but since 2018 it has also been sup­ple­ment­ed by employ­ees from a spe­cial­ly cre­at­ed inves­tiga­tive depart­ment. This is where one can feel like a real agent: the authors of the “RT Inves­ti­ga­tion” do not sign their mate­ri­als and remain anony­mous even with­in the edi­to­r­i­al office – “apo­lit­i­cal young men with exper­tise in eco­nom­ics and expe­ri­ence in Aram Gabrelyanov’s media struc­tures (known as the own­er of “yel­low press” and close to the gov­ern­ment media – ed.). RT’s inves­tiga­tive depart­ment is divid­ed into teams, each respon­si­ble for its own project. RT jour­nal­ists have access to “sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion” only through Simonyan. The process is led by Yevge­ny Ship­ilov, one of the chan­nel’s top man­agers. He per­son­al­ly super­vised the anti-Naval­ny and anti-Open Rus­sia sto­ries. In his pro­file on an indus­try web­site for media work­ers, Ship­ilov point­ed out that in 2021, “a series of inves­ti­ga­tions by the edi­to­r­i­al staff” won RT the Gold­en Pen of Rus­sia award.

Three inter­locu­tors con­firmed to the Meduza that RT’s “inves­ti­ga­tors” are “advised” by the FSB’s Oper­a­tive Infor­ma­tion Depart­ment. They [the FSB] ran some mate­ri­als pub­lished or shown by RT in 2017 and 2018, the jour­nal­ist quot­ed an inter­locu­tor close to the secret ser­vice as say­ing, which is also con­firmed by Meduza­’s sources in the Admin­is­tra­tion of the Pres­i­dent. Simonyan, when asked if the chan­nel’s employ­ees were in con­tact with the secu­ri­ty ser­vices, wrote: “I hope they are.”

The inves­ti­ga­tion is stag­ger­ing in its abun­dance of infor­ma­tion. To some­how cope with it, the author and the edi­tor found a good solu­tion in the form of using open foot­notes: the read­er who wants to go deep­er into details eas­i­ly does so click­ing the arrow, and if there is no time for a long read, you can grasp it with­out going into details or post­pone it for later. 

A sep­a­rate chap­ter of the inves­ti­ga­tion is devot­ed to the Min­istry of Jus­tice, which was charged with imple­ment­ing the “for­eign agent oper­a­tion,” back when it only applied to NGOs. Natalia Yev­doki­mo­va, the mem­ber of the Pres­i­den­tial Coun­cil for Civ­il Soci­ety and Human Rights recalls how, when the law on for­eign agents was passed in the Duma in 2012, then-Min­is­ter of Jus­tice Alexan­der Kono­val­ov said that it “falls out of the gen­er­al leg­isla­tive order, con­tra­dicts every­thing and every­one. We don’t know how to imple­ment it.” “We have learned,” the expert states. 

Because of the new work­ing con­di­tions, Min­istry of Jus­tice offi­cials are often “in admin­is­tra­tive despair,” con­firms to Meduza a source close to the agency. “Leg­is­la­tors are issu­ing crude laws that have to be imple­ment­ed from the wheel…. Salaries are low and spe­cial­ists are scarce,” an employ­ee of the Jus­tice Depart­ment in the Moscow region shares her prob­lems with the jour­nal­ist. — But every­one is used to work­ing almost to death, every­one is try­ing to meet deadlines”. 

Two major weak­ness­es of the law have not been point­ed out only by the lazy: the word­ing, espe­cial­ly as it per­tains to polit­i­cal activ­i­ty, is vague (here, it would prob­a­bly be more hon­est to sim­ply name all activ­i­ties polit­i­cal); the same is true of for­eign financ­ing.  Accord­ing to Natalia Yev­doki­mo­va, the law in its present form leaves too much to the Min­istry of Jusctice, “doom­ing” it to selec­tive appli­ca­tion of the law: “If you don’t like an orga­ni­za­tion, it will be a «for­eign agent,» and if you like anoth­er one, it won’t be.” Mean­while, accord­ing to Yev­doki­mo­va, those “who are try­ing to soft­en the blow, because they can­not pre­vent it, have been qui­et­ly removed from the Min­istry over the past two or three years”.

The author of the inves­ti­ga­tion pro­vides a curi­ous touch to the struc­ture of the sys­tem. Accord­ing to one of her inter­locu­tors, on the eve of Meduza being includ­ed into the for­eign agents’ list Min­istry of Jus­tice offi­cials “were run­ning around and could­n’t get the final brush-off. The prob­lem was,” the source claims, “that you were on the list, but they could­n’t fig­ure out who exact­ly want­ed it. There was no seri­ous oper­a­tional mate­r­i­al on you — but there was some large, but pri­vate wish.” This inter­locu­tor hints that it could have been RT head Mar­gari­ta Simonyan. 

As Meduza’s inves­ti­ga­tion makes clear, there are many peo­ple who might have want­ed it. This includes the afore­men­tioned FSS, the Admin­is­tra­tion of the Pres­i­dent, the Fed­er­al Finan­cial Mon­i­tor­ing Ser­vice (some­times, as in the case of PASMI media, its infor­ma­tion becomes the only basis for start­ing a check and mak­ing a deci­sion), the Gen­er­al Pros­e­cu­tor’s Office, vig­i­lant “col­leagues” in the indus­try, and cer­tain influ­en­tial individuals. 

How­ev­er, the cen­tral “oper­a­tor” of the cam­paign against inde­pen­dent media, as the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion became con­vinced by her research and con­ver­sa­tions with experts, was the FSB. For exam­ple, the Min­istry of Jus­tice hon­est­ly referred to the infor­ma­tion received from the FSB dur­ing the unsched­uled inspec­tion of the Perm media project Fourth Sec­tor — includ­ed in the list of “for­eign agents” on August 21, 2021. As she recalls, Anas­ta­sia Sechi­na, its for­mer coor­di­na­tor, was told: “Accord­ing to a state­ment from the [region­al depart­ment] of the FSB, there is infor­ma­tion that you are engaged in polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. How­ev­er, they did­n’t pro­vide a doc­u­ment to that effect — they lim­it­ed them­selves to ver­bal information”. 

The Min­istry of Jus­tice received the order to list The Project media as an “unde­sir­able” orga­ni­za­tion in a pack­age — and the papers were from the spe­cial ser­vices,” an inter­locu­tor famil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion at the min­istry said to Meduza. Andrei Solda­tov, a researcher of the Russ­ian spe­cial ser­vices with whom the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion spoke, assured Meduza that regard­less of the doc­u­men­t’s head­er, “it could have been writ­ten only in one place — the “sec­ond ser­vice” of the FSB (Ser­vice for the Pro­tec­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Sys­tem and the Fight against Ter­ror­ism), head­ed for 15 years by Gen­er­al Alex­ei Sedov.

Infor­ma­tion on “for­eign agents” pre­pared by the FSB ends up in Putin’s hands. Putin him­self con­firmed this fact at a Human Rights Coun­cil meet­ing, while answer­ing the ques­tion of the human rights activist Natalia Yev­doki­mo­va “who snitch­es to you?”: “Natalia Leonidov­na, FSB rep­re­sen­ta­tives lay ref­er­ences on my desk, and they say exact­ly the oppo­site of what you’re telling us”.

And yet, whose last (or first) hand, is it? 

Chang­ing an orga­ni­za­tion’s sta­tus to “for­eign agent” or “unde­sir­able” requires coor­di­nat­ed action by a num­ber of agen­cies — the Min­istry of Jus­tice, the For­eign Min­istry, Roskom­nad­zor, Ros­fin­mon­i­tor­ing, the Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al’s Office,” argues soci­ol­o­gist Kon­stan­tin Gaase. — The lev­el of their coor­di­na­tion is aston­ish­ing: What would nor­mal­ly take months of nego­ti­a­tions now takes a day. It’s unlike­ly the FSB could have achieved some­thing like this. Who could? The experts inter­viewed by Meduza are sure there is only one oth­er orga­ni­za­tion in the Krem­lin hier­ar­chy which can do this, and has been giv­en new pow­ers by the amend­ed con­sti­tu­tion. This is the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil of the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion, chaired by the Putin him­self. It is the Coun­cil that dis­cuss­es the lists of would-be “for­eign agents” and “unde­sir­ables» (accord­ing to Solda­tov and three oth­er Meduza inter­locu­tors famil­iar with the con­tents of these meet­ings or doc­u­ments). He is the one who out­lines the goals of the FSB and its com­rades-in-arms. The cir­cle has closed.

The AP, Min­istry of Jus­tice, FSO, and FSB ignored Meduza­’s ques­tions. So far. But Meduza­’s huge inves­ti­ga­tion, based on an abun­dance of dif­fer­ent sources, shows more than con­vinc­ing­ly: there was a com­mand from above to shut up inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists and destroy the best media projects. The whole sto­ry about “for­eign agents” and “unde­sir­ables” has been craft­ed as a spe­cial oper­a­tion – and the Krem­lin author­i­ties and the spe­cial ser­vices entrust­ed to them are behind it. That is why, I should add, the sug­ges­tions to amend the repres­sive law, which my col­leagues are now des­per­ate­ly try­ing to do through their appeals to high­er author­i­ties, are sim­ply use­less — it was cre­at­ed by those who cur­rent­ly rule and own the coun­try not to be amend­ed or abolished.

But at least such attempts show that jour­nal­is­tic sol­i­dar­i­ty is still here. And it is worth remind­ing civ­il soci­ety that cen­sor­ship is pow­er­less against free­dom of thought and speech — there are still jour­nal­ists in this coun­try who are not afraid to resist and do their work honestly.

Search tech­nolo­gies used by the author: work with human sources, jour­nal­is­tic inquiries, and the study of pub­li­ca­tions and documents.

Tech­niques used: inter­views with sources and experts; analy­sis and sys­tem­ati­za­tion of the data obtained.

Expert Analy­sis and Assessment
Galina Sidorova
Gali­na Sidorova
Ask a ques­tion
Pub­lic Value
100 /100
Entire­ty of the Investigation
95 /100
100 /100
95 /100
Reli­a­bil­i­ty of Sources
95 /100
100 /100
Strengths & Weaknesses
rel­e­vance of the top­ic; deep dive into the mate­r­i­al; sys­tem­ati­za­tion of a huge amount of infor­ma­tion obtained; diver­si­ty of sources; qual­i­ty work with human sources and experts; per­fect­ly edit­ed text; good lay­out of the material 
no minus­es so far