For a person who has dedicated her life to improving ties between Moscow and the West -- and who has passionately denounced what she calls the "demonization" of President Vladimir Putin by Western media and officials -- Sharon Tennison has gotten a strange reception in Russia.
Tennison, an American activist whose bridge-building efforts date back to the Cold War, and her colleague were detained this week in the southern city of Volgograd for violating the terms of their tourist visas and fined 2,000 rubles ($26) apiece.
A Volgograd court ruled on February 16 that Tennison and fellow activist Theodore McIntire were not acting as tourists when they held a meeting about relaunching programs run by the Center For Citizen Initiatives, a San Francisco-based NGO that Tennison launched in 1983 to "bring about a constructive relationship with the Soviet Union."
That they were dinged for their visa status is not necessarily surprising: anecdotal evidence suggests that authorities in various Russian regions in recent years have clamped down on Western academics and NGO workers conducting research and other work on tourist or business visas.
What is surprising is how Tennison, a staunch opponent of current U.S. policy toward Russia, and her organization have been portrayed in Kremlin-loyal and state-owned media: namely as nefarious agents of American influence.
The sensationalistic LifeNews website, which is widely believed to have ties to Russia's security services, reported that Tennison and McIntire "met with businessmen, conducted seminars, invited [people] to the United States for internships, and in every possible way tried to impose American values."
The local Volgograd web portal V1.ru called the activists "U.S. State Department agents," while the local edition of the national broadsheet Moskovsky Komsomolets called them "propagandists from the U.S."
The Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, meanwhile, appeared to imply that there was something suspicious about McIntire, writing "by the way, [he] is a former U.S. Army serviceman."
The CCI describes McIntire as "a retired U.S. Air Force acquisitions officer."
A Putin Defender
These characterizations appear wholly ignorant of Tennison's public -- and easily googlable -- commentary about contemporary Russia, which is notably sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of Washington's approach to dealing with the Kremlin.
Her positions place her firmly in the camp of U.S. academics and former officials like renowned historian Stephen Cohen and former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock. Critics have accused them of being Kremlin apologists for advocating greater bilateral cooperation amid Washington's standoff with Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.
In a column published earlier this month, Tennison echoed the Kremlin's narrative about purported threats from NATO, saying Russia has been forced to build up its military due to "the decisions of a few powerful people on the other side of the Atlantic to drive NATO up to Russia's borders."
Her arguments are also consistent with the Kremlin's position on Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory and the war between Kyiv's forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine. The West accuses Moscow of arming, funding, and bolstering the separatists with personnel— allegations Russia denies despite significant evidence of such support.
Tennison has also written highly favorably of Putin, whom she met in 1992 when he was working for the St. Petersburg mayor's office.
"It is astounding to me how much progress Russia has made in the past 14 years since an unknown man with no experience walked into Russia's presidency and took over a country that was flat on its belly," she wrote of Putin's reign in 2014. "So why do our leaders and media demean and demonize Putin and Russia?"
The Russian media's portrayal of Tennison as a menacing U.S. operative comes amid Kremlin tightening of its control over nongovernmental organizations and foreign funding of grassroots political movements, a trend that worsened since Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 following a four-year stint as prime minister.
Russian media appeared to refer to her organization's earlier funding by the U.S. government in their reporting on her visa troubles in Volgograd.CCI received grants from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the 1990s to run economic development programs in Russia, according to government documents.
LifeNews, which published court documents and footage of migration officials detaining Tennison and McIntire, described CCI as "acting under GosDep patronage," using a common Russian shorthand for the State Department.
But Tennison called the LifeNews article "bogus," telling RFE/RL that she has not had any involvement with the State Department "in 10 years."
"I get no money from any government agency," she said in an e-mail. "I've never done any 'democracy-building' programs. I am not pushing any point of view."
The State Department did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Tennison said that this month she has been doing "long-term evaluations of our CCI alumni in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Volgograd, just to see myself whether the U.S.-based management training we did throughout the years has been effective."
She added that the training has been "greatly effective."
Tennison said that she thought she had a business visa but that it may have been converted to a tourist visa without her knowledge the last time she renewed it.
Tennison launched the CCI in 1983 "with a mission of using citizen diplomacy to improve relations between the two nuclear Superpowers," the group says in its official history.
Three years later, it sponsored a trip of more than 30 members of Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet Union to spread the message of sobriety at a time when reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev was undertaking an antialcohol campaign.
Over the next two decades, Tennison organized a range of economic, environmental, and social programs between Americans and Russians. She was also named to the board of directors of the Russian-American Enterprise Fund, created by President Bill Clinton in 1993 "to invest in the creation and expansion of privately owned and controlled small and medium-sized enterprises in Russia" with $340 million in funding.
'Perplexing' Media Reports
CCI says its funding began to dry up in 2010, at the height of U.S. President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia. But the group decided to relaunch its efforts amid plunging ties between Moscow and the West to Cold War-level lows, according to its website.
"Once again it's time for citizen diplomats from both countries to step in and help guide us back from the precipice at which we've arrived," the site states.
It was in connection with this mission that Tennison and McIntire landed in hot water. According to a copy of the court order published by LifeNews, they violated the terms of their tourist visas by holding a meeting February 16 at a Volgograd chapter of Rotary International to discuss "the resumption of the [CCI's] programs in the Russian Federation."
The court shortened the time they were allowed to stay in Russia but did not order their deportation, according to media reports.
The president of the Volgograd Rotary chapter, Pavel Shabalkov, said he was perplexed by media insinuations that the two activists were spreading "propaganda."
"At a meeting of our club, we gave them a chance to speak. There were no lectures, and of course no seminars or propaganda," V1.ru quoted him as saying, adding that Tennison "has spent lots of her time, energy, and resources to prove to Americans that [Russians] are normal people."
Shabalkov also defended the patriotism of his club, which is part of Rotary's international network of community-service clubs made up mainly of business and civic leaders.
"We start every meeting of our club by singing the national anthem of the Russian Federation," he said. "This is an iron-clad rule of our club. I don't think any other explanations are needed."