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'There's A Room Under The Stairs': Russia's FSB Sets Up Resident Agents At Research Institutes

A demonstrator in Moscow holds up a sign saying "FSB" with a portrait of Vladimir Putin demanding freedom for political prisoners. The FSB is "closed in on itself and accounts to no one. In that sense, the FSB now is more frightening and more powerful than the KGB was," an NGO lawyer says.
A demonstrator in Moscow holds up a sign saying "FSB" with a portrait of Vladimir Putin demanding freedom for political prisoners. The FSB is "closed in on itself and accounts to no one. In that sense, the FSB now is more frightening and more powerful than the KGB was," an NGO lawyer says.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- On December 29, the Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences held its annual New Year's gathering for researchers and other employees. The institute's director and his deputy duly greeted the crowd with traditional seasonal speeches and well-wishes.

But at one point during the proceedings, an unknown man appeared on the dais. He calmly introduced himself as the institute's "curator," or resident agent, from the Federal Security Service (FSB).

"We were absolutely petrified," senior researcher Irina Levinkaya said. "No one expected anything like this, and we were all shocked by his openness. He wasn't embarrassed at all to say openly that he was monitoring the institute for the FSB. It turns out, he's been with us since September."

Levinskaya added that no one among the shocked employees had any questions for their resident agent.

Irina Levinskaya
Irina Levinskaya

The incident reminded many of the researchers of the Soviet era, when KGB agents were routinely stationed at academic institutions and other workplaces. They frequently made decisions about where researchers could publish, what conferences they could attend, and what foreign contacts they could have. In addition, they developed networks of informers aimed at weeding out dissent.

Levinskaya says it remains unclear what her institute's new FSB resident agent will be up to.

"It is hard to say what would interest this man there, but it is clearly not the early periods," she told RFE/RL. "And it isn't the Middle Ages, although many of us study that period and we have an amazing Middle Ages archive. I think most likely he is interested in more contemporary history -- for instance, World War II."

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has sought to enshrine a narrative about World War II that glorifies the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany while ignoring the crimes and errors of dictator Josef Stalin and his government. In 2014, Russia adopted the so-called Memory Law, which criminalized the "knowing dissemination of false information about the activities of the U.S.S.R. during World War II" (Criminal Code, Article 354.1).

Among the hundreds of amendments to the Russian Constitution that were hastily adopted last year was one to Article 67 that states: "the Russian Federation honors the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland and guarantees the defense of historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the people's heroic achievement in defending the Fatherland is forbidden."

Rewriting History

Levinskaya connects the appearance of an FSB resident agent with an expedition begun in 2019 to the Sandarmokh mass-grave site in the northern region of Karelia. The Kremlin-connected Russian Military-Historical Society began digging in the area in a bid to prove that the bodies did not belong to victims of Stalin's secret police, but rather to Soviet prisoners of war who were supposedly executed by Finnish forces during the region's occupation during World War II.

"I see a direct connection," she said. "Those excavations were absolutely unscientific.... They violated every bit of historical logic. After all, Finland has published all its documents and they have been thoroughly examined. This is a real, repulsive attempt to rewrite history."

Boris Vishnevsky
Boris Vishnevsky

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Deputy Boris Vishnevsky on January 4 sent an official query to the head of the city's FSB branch, Aleksandr Rodionov, asking about the extent of the "resident agent" program, on what legal authority the initiative has been undertaken, and what exactly are their functions.

"There is nothing for FSB 'curators' to do at civilian academic institutions that have no connection to national security and have no access to secret documents," he told RFE/RL. "There is no legal basis for sending such 'curators' there."

"I am amazed not only that he went there so openly and introduced himself but also that the leadership of the institute didn't immediately show him the door," he added.

'They Are Monitoring Our Loyalty'

The Institute of History is evidently not the only academic institution that has attracted the attention of the FSB. A former ballet dancer who works for the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet says the FSB has never been far from her workplace and that the presence of the security agency increased noticeably when a new director, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, was appointed in 2014.

"They are monitoring our loyalty," the instructor, who asked not to be identified, said. "People who are regarded as disloyal are almost immediately fired. That's why I left -- I could just tell that the situation was getting dangerous."

In Soviet times, she recalled, the high-profile defections of dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalya Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev had harsh ramifications at her institute and other similar academies.

"They held meetings," she said. "Everyone was implicated, tormented, kicked out. There was no avoiding it."

"Now, all this has been transferred to the level of personal loyalty to the managers," she concluded.

'Our Country Hasn't Changed'

Inna Saksonova, who recently retired from the Russian National Library, told RFE/RL that the security agencies had always maintained a presence near the public reading rooms.

"There's a room under the stairs where they sat," she said. "And when I was just starting work there, still a girl, we accidentally opened that door and saw a man there eating a sandwich while monitoring recording machines.... That room is still there. I don't think the recorders are still there, but the point is still the same. We got used to it because apparently there is nothing to be done. Our country hasn't changed."

Yevgeny Smirnov, a lawyer with the Komanda 29 legal-defense NGO, agrees, saying, "Everything is still as it was in the Soviet Union -- nothing has changed."

"They control everything," he said of the security agencies. "Beginning with military production and ending with ballet. Now this Soviet structure is being reassembled in the worst possible form, with Soviet-style monitoring of everything and everyone."

"Now the FSB is not under any control," Smirnov concluded. "It is closed in on itself and accounts to no one. In that sense, the FSB now is more frightening and more powerful than the KGB was."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by Tatyana Voltskaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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