VORONEZH, Russia -- During the long years of his dotage, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was often ridiculed for the endlessly growing row of Hero of the Soviet Union stars blossoming across his chest. By the time he died in 1982, he had accumulated four of the medals.
Media defense lawyer Galina Arapova says she now feels a little bit like Brezhnev, having become the first person designated by the Russian government as a “foreign agent” not once, but twice. The first designation came in 2018 when the nongovernmental Mass Media Defense Center that she heads was listed. The second came on October 8, when the attorney herself was designated has a “foreign agent media outlet.”
But it won’t stop there, apparently: The individual designation means that, under the controversial Russian law, she will have to create a legal entity to handle the government's reporting requirements -- and that entity itself will automatically become yet another “foreign agent.”
“It is a bit like a nesting doll,” Arapova she told the North.Realities Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service. “You accumulate these designations like Hero of the Soviet Union stars.”
The 49-year-old Voronezh native can add these latest titles to previous honors she has amassed from the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Russian Union of Journalists, and other human rights and civil society organizations. In addition, she has served as a member of the Russian Press Council, as a board member of the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, as a member of the international High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, and as a trustee of the London-based Article 19 media freedom organization.
When she became the only Russian attorney ever to win the International Bar Association's award for “outstanding contribution by a practicing lawyer to the defense of human rights” in 2016, Arapova received a congratulatory telegram from the then Governor of Voronezh Oblast and later Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Gordeyev (also a senior official of the ruling United Russia party): “Thanks to you, the Media Rights Defense Center has earned a reputation as one of the most authoritative legal organizations in Russia or abroad.”
So far, she said, the designations have had little substantial impact on her work defending and advising dozens of individuals and media outlets that have found themselves on the government’s “foreign agent” lists.
“I would only mention that I have to -- on every social media post, at every public lecture -- place the 24-word disclaimer, which in the near future will be seen by readers as being as normal as 'hello,'“ she said. “There are also personal reports on income and expenses, which is a serious intrusion into one's personal life…. Of course, I will appeal because this is a deeply discriminatory law. Which, of course, is the point of it.”
Over the nearly 25-year history of the Media Rights Defense Center, the group has provided legal assistance to thousands of journalists, many of whom were fending off punitive defamation lawsuits.
In an RFE/RL interview in 2018, Arapova described the historical dynamic of the plight of journalists in post-Soviet Russia.
“In the late 1990s, there was more violence against journalists, including murders,” she said. “In the early 2000s, we started seeing more court cases and disputes were resolved in a civilized way. Toward 2008, there were about 4,500 defamation cases a year. Now, there are about 700, because new tools for driving away journalists have appeared.”
The most important of those “new means,” she added, are the so-called “foreign agent” laws.
“Since the summer we have seen an avalanche of designations to the 'foreign agents' registry,” she said following her own designation last week. “We are helping all the journalists and the overwhelming majority of the media outlets that have been added to the registry since July. We are talking about dozens.”
'Stress and Shock'
“Just like I helped before, I will continue to help people who find themselves in a situation of confusion, indignation, stress, and shock,” she added. “Some of them take up nervous smoking. Others do not understand what to do next. These people don't just need legal help but also psychological support. This is a difficult life situation that most people are not prepared for.”
Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits. Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media.
At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.
In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, including North.Realities, and Current Time on the list. Earlier this year, Russian courts began imposing large fines on RFE/RL for failing to mark its articles with a government-prescribed label as required by rules adopted in October 2020. RFE/RL is appealing the fines.
Human Rights Watch has described the “foreign agent” legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”
Arapova warns that the “foreign agent” laws have been and will continue to be expanded as tools of overall repression under President Vladimir Putin.
“Legally speaking, they have prepared designations for the widest range of legal subjects and the most varied formations,” she said. “Whether a legal entity or a collective of citizens or just an individual, regardless of citizenship. You can be designated in any conceivable capacity.”
Her advice to her clients is always the same, she said: “Everything passes, and this too shall pass.”
“They need to understand that this is not the end of the world,” she said. “I think this is like a house of cards that will rot and fall to pieces…. If you do your work well, if you are a professional and a decent person – that is what will remain in the end. That is why even when life is very difficult, you need to get through it with dignity, don't betray yourself, make the correct strategic choices.”
But she realizes that acting in this way is not always easy.
“I am not calling on people to show selfless heroism,” she concluded. “Everyone makes their own choices about what position to adopt, what world view to hold. People have the right to act as they see fit, including to be afraid. Being afraid is not shameful. We all have only one life.”