MOSCOW -- Konstantin Vyatkin has never acknowledged the Soviet collapse.
"For the past 28 years I've tried to live in this country called Russia," he says. "But in my heart I still live there, in the Soviet Union."
The words may sound banal in a country where two-thirds of the population professes nostalgia for the former empire, motivated by economic concerns and the absence of a welfare state.
But Vyatkin does not simply miss the Soviet Union -- he actively denies its breakup, and claims to obey only its laws. And now a vibrant cottage industry is helping legitimize his discontent.
Sitting behind the steering wheel of his Mercedes in central Moscow on a recent afternoon, he produces a brand-new Soviet passport. Date of issue: March 9, 2019.
It looks identical to the real thing -- with a stamp bearing the Soviet emblem, a black-and-white photograph, and hammers and sickles on each two-page spread. It came, he says, with a red-and-white sticker now stuck to his windshield: "I am a citizen of the U.S.S.R.," it reads.
Vyatkin is among a loose but growing network of Russians prone to conspiratorial thinking and ready to use quasi-legal arguments in an effort to evade laws and taxes. They believe their government was usurped by venal outside forces and disavow the system of numbers and documents that identify them as citizens.
At banks, police stations, and inside courtrooms across the country, people calling themselves "citizens of the U.S.S.R." demand their right to impunity before the legal system of the Russian Federation, a state they neither recognize nor, apparently, fear.
The Internet, which only reached the masses after the Soviet collapse, is now helping spread their basic conspiracy theory: that a document dissolving the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, and signed on December 25, 1991, by its then-President Boris Yeltsin, is illegal.
'The Organs Of Soviet Power Are Being Recreated'
Vyatkin has long felt like a stranger in his own country. But around six months ago his disillusionment reached a head, and he began scouring the web for validation.
"I was looking for information and like-minded people," he says. "I knew I couldn't continue living in a country like this."
On a website that claims to represent "MVD SSSR" -- the Soviet Interior Ministry -- he filled out an online form and paid 3,800 rubles ($58) to receive his "Soviet" passport. The organization, which uses the Soviet .su domain but lists no address or other identifying details other than "Moscow, RSFSR," told RFE/RL in an e-mail that it has issued more than 10,000 such passports since early 2018.
On YouTube, Vyatkin found hundreds of channels peddling conspiracy theories: that Russia's an offshore company registered in Delaware; that President Vladimir Putin was killed in 2012 and replaced by a body double; that the Soviet Union, and its ministries, are being resurrected. Some gave him convincing explanations of the inequality he was witnessing in Russia.
But beyond feeding widespread Soviet nostalgia and disillusionment, the channels also promote ways newly minted "Soviet citizens" can skirt Russian laws, open bank accounts, and evade taxes. Bloggers harass parliamentary deputies on camera, prank-call government ministries, set up bank accounts using "Soviet" passports, and ridicule traffic cops who stop them for displaying illicit, "Soviet" registration plates.
Some of these channels have hundreds of thousands of followers The most popular video on the YouTube channel Pravoved TV (Jurist TV), which claims to offer "practical tips and advice for citizens of the U.S.S.R.," is titled How To Legally Avoid Paying Off Debt. It has 2.8 million views. As legal authorities it cites Wikipedia and Russian online dictionaries.
The movement’s unofficial manifesto, quoted by MVD SSSR and other sites flogging counterfeit documents, as well as the numerous videos online, includes a demand that all "Soviet citizens" working for the "occupational structures" be amnestied and freed from prosecution once the U.S.S.R. is revived. Anyone born in the erstwhile Soviet Union is considered to still be a Soviet citizen today under the 1978 Soviet law on citizenship, and so are their children. That includes people living in all of the 15 former Soviet republics.
Also making the rounds is a guide to interacting with Russian officials.
“In contact with a representative of the occupational structure, a citizen of the U.S.S.R. must behave correctly and politely, and not provoke any unlawful actions," explains a document published by MVD SSSR.
Aleksandr Ulyanov, a 53-year-old blogger in Yaroslavl (who curiously shares Lenin's surname), puts this into practice for his YouTube blog. In one video, he drives around town with "Soviet" number plates and a dashboard camera, and when he's pulled over he claims the officer has no authority over a "citizen of the U.S.S.R." since the Russian police represent a state that should not legally exist.
"Here we go again, I've heard this all before!" the officer says in the video.
"What year were you born?" Ulyanov asks.
"What was the country?"
"Did someone deprive you of U.S.S.R. citizenship?"
"What are you trying to tell me?"
"That you're not a Russian citizen but a citizen of the U.S.S.R.," Ulyanov responds. "From a legal standpoint you have no right to address me."
Ulyanov then presents his passport, driver's license, and insurance papers, all issued by ministries claiming to represent the U.S.S.R.
"You understand what's happening? All the organs of Soviet power are being re-created."
The baffled officer apparently lets him continue on his way.
Who Pays The Bills?
Bloggers like Ulyanov may be lone crusaders, using YouTube to educate viewers in the art of legal sabotage. But Soviet nostalgia has long been a business opportunity, and some are seizing on the new legalistic argument to elicit money from the most gullible.
In January 2018, Sergei Demkin, a former oil trader in St. Petersburg, published a document online that claimed members of a new trade union he was launching were entitled to free household utilities.
The organization, Union SSR, now has its own office in central St. Petersburg, from which it advocates rejection of Russian laws and claims to empower its members with a legal basis to refuse paying taxes and utility bills. Demkin says that since the government has never refuted his claims, they are legally sound.
But the privilege does not come free. Demkin's clients -- mostly retired people, in a country where the average monthly pension is $213 -- pay a 1,000 ruble ($15) registration fee and monthly payments of 200 rubles ($3).
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Demkin said Union SSR has 170 regional chapters, but he declined to quantify his membership.
"I don't want the Russian secret services to know how many we are," he said. "They fear any form of association."
But Fontanka, an independent news outlet in St. Petersburg, estimated in February that Union SSR has 10,000 members in that city alone.
And Demkin's clients are apparently taking his message to heart. Across Russia, thousands have been refusing to pay their bills, and some have sent letters to energy companies citing the January 2018 document Demkin released. Many have had their electricity switched off as a result.
In December, major energy providers in several Russian regions, including Amur and Kamchatka, told the RIA Novosti news agency that members of Union SSR had begun sending letters to the companies stating their refusal to pay bills. One provider published a statement clarifying that trade-union members were not exempt from utility payments. It singled out Union SSR for spreading dangerous rumors.
In April, state TV profiled a Union SSR member in the city of Nizhny Tagil who had refused to pay bills for the past three years. According to her homeowner's association, she owed more than 100,000 rubles ($1,500) and her electricity had been shut off 13 times. Each time, she managed to reactivate it herself. On her door hung a sign reading: "This apartment belongs to the jurisdiction of the U.S.S.R. The laws of the Russian Federation have no legal force here."
Ilya Bakhmutsky, a Moscow-based lawyer for the Association of Guaranteed Suppliers and Energy Service Companies who has looked into the activity of groups like Union SSR, described their claims as totally unsubstantiated and "simply a call to break the law."
According to Bakhmutsky, unregistered groups like Union SSR can fly under the authorities' radar because they exist in a "legal vacuum" and are not governed by laws that regulate commercial enterprises. A separate court ruling would be needed to shut Union SSR down.
"We have many similar groups in Russia. And I think the authorities just don't get around to them," he said.
Grigory Yudin, a sociologist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said that a noticeable shift has taken place in Russia recently "from nostalgia driven by the imperialist past toward a nostalgia driven by a demand for social justice and for equality."
Bakhmutsky agreed. In the U.S.S.R., there was no such concept as private property and most Soviet citizens paid minimal taxes and utility bills. Many today want a return to that blueprint, he said.
"The number of people living below the poverty line is growing. Naturally, they begin to seek a moral justification for not paying for the services they use," he said. "And some try to capitalize on that misconstrued sense of social justice."
In January, state gas giant Gazprom revealed that customers across Russia owe the company and its subsidiaries over 30.1 billion rubles ($466 million) in arrears.
In Chechnya, the problem grew so acute that a court instructed Gazprom in January to write off $135 million in debt owed by customers in the region after prosecutors warned of "social unrest." Four other regions soon followed Chechnya's lead by seeking their own debt amnesties.
'We Just Help People'
At a time of rising living costs and anger over inequality, groups like Union SSR are operating on fertile ground.
However, there are signs that law enforcement is beginning to catch up.
In early 2018, the Sverdlovsk regional branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) launched a criminal investigation on charges of promoting extremism against Andrei Zlokazov, a man who styles himself as "head of the Sverdlovsk region of the RSFSR."
Court documents describe Zlokazov as a member of the Union of Slavic Forces of Rus, an unregistered group whose membership the FSB estimates at 150,000 members. According to Sova, an NGO that monitors extremism in Russia, "the union's materials contain very specific, often unclear, and often anti-Semitic rhetoric."
According to the indictment, Zlokazov joined the organization in 2014 and was quickly appointed to a number of high-ranking posts in the imagined Soviet government. Local FSB investigator Nikita Karpov told the daily Kommersant last March that the security services were forced to act after they were alerted to a series of orders that Zlokazov sent out through the Russian mail to the leaderships of army bases across the region in February 2016, in which he threatened to liquidate them if they did not reorganize themselves into self-defense units engaged in the campaign to revive the Soviet Union.
The FSB alleges Zlokazov was out to foment revolution in Russia. But he does not appear to have been driven purely by ideology. From his apartment in Yekaterinburg, prosecutors say, he ran a business selling "Soviet" passports, driver's licenses, and other documents of the kind Vyatkin and others use to insist on impunity before Russian law.
Perhaps spooked by the arrest of Taraskin in July 2018, Demkin devotes a sizable portion of the front page of Union SSR's website to an explanation of why the group is not extremist.
He's twice been summoned to the local police station, he told RFE/RL, each time arguing his way out. He insisted he makes no money from his organization, but rather uses his own money -- part of a 50,000 ruble ($775) monthly income from real estate investments -- to prop it up.
"We just help people," he said.
Free From Taxation
In early March, Vyatkin stumbled upon Valentina Reunova. An unlikely YouTube star, the bespectacled Muscovite in her early 60s calls herself chairwoman of the Soviet Supreme Council and keeps thousands of viewers across Russia hanging on her every word. Vyatkin contacted her to ask what he can do to help revive the U.S.S.R.
In late March, he traveled to a small rental apartment in a Moscow suburb to attend a gathering that included Reunova and other "like-minded people" of the kind he'd been searching for. Like other such clubs across the country, they claim to have inherited the Soviet Union and meet regularly to discuss “state policies” before cell-phone cameras that live-stream the speeches online.
They also hold ceremonies in which members receive their new “Soviet” passports.
That afternoon, Vyatkin addressed thousands of viewers tuning in from across the former Soviet Union and explained why he was joining the movement to rebuild the U.S.S.R.
"I hope all viewers in our U.S.S.R. hear me," he said. "We must resurrect the organs of Soviet power."
Vyatkin, who runs a small business that renovates hydraulic tail lifts on dump trucks, has long felt angry about taxes and the lack of welfare in Russia. In May, he plans to visit his local police station and demand they delete his records.
"I'll insist on my rights as a Soviet citizen," he says. "After that, tax statements will no longer arrive."