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Opinion | Vladimir Kara-Murza: Russia’s spy law is worse than in Stalin’s times
Opinion | Vladimir Kara-Murza: Russia’s spy law is worse than in Stalin’s times

PRISON COLONY #6, OMSK, RUSSIA — Solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in Siberia is not particularly eventful. Among the few distractions (and welcome opportunities to leave my cell) I have here are my regular court appearances via video link from the prison office. One might reasonably wonder what court appearances there could be for someone who has already been sentenced to 25 years in prison. But it seems the Russian state is not done with me yet.

Every month I get a visit from a couple of polite officials from Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s censorship agency, who hand me summons to appear before an administrative court for violating Russia’s “agent law.” Any messages I receive from prison and posted by my colleagues on my social media must include a disclaimer in capital letters that they were “created by a foreign agent,” they tell me. And I invariably and just as politely reply that I am a Russian politician, not a “foreign agent”—and that I have no intention of defaming myself. I say exactly the same thing to the (aptly named) Soviet district court that dutifully issues my administrative judgments. On June 11, it handed me the third summons, paving the way for the authorities to open a new criminal case against me for “failure to comply with the agent law.”

Trying to smear political opponents as “agents of foreign influence” is an old Soviet tactic – one of many that Vladimir Putin’s regime has adopted. During Stalin’s massive state terror, millions of people were sent to the Gulag or to their deaths with this label. (This includes my great-grandfather and great-uncle, who were executed as “Latvian agents.” Both were posthumously fully rehabilitated and acquitted of all charges.) In the post-Stalin era, Soviet state propaganda went to great lengths to portray dissidents – including such well-known figures as Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn – as puppets of the West.

Under Putin, this practice was revived after the mass pro-democracy protests of 2011 and 2012 with the passage of the first “foreign agent” law. The Kremlin claimed it was merely following the example of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, but this comparison was obviously false from the start. Unlike the U.S. law, which focuses on political lobbying “at the command, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principal,” Putin’s measure targeted anyone engaging in vaguely defined “political activities”—and, importantly, did not tie foreign funding to specific actions. (The concept of a “foreign principal” was absent altogether.) Moreover, the definition of “foreign funding” included pretty much everything: Opposition activists and groups were labeled “foreign agents” if they made taxi payments, transferred airline miles, and even used Western online payment systems like PayPal.

After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin signed a new law that completely removed the funding formality: the Justice Department could now designate anyone it deemed to be “under foreign influence” as a “foreign agent”—which in practice meant any public figure who spoke out against the Kremlin. I was declared a “foreign agent” in April 2022 (at the same time as my arrest) for opposing the war in Ukraine and calling Putin a war criminal—this was the Justice Department’s official justification when I challenged the designation in court. The Russian government’s “Register of Foreign Agents” now includes more than 800 organizations and individuals—including Russia’s most successful living novelists Ludmila Ulitskaya and Boris Akunin, legendary rock musicians Andrei Makarevich and Boris Grebenshikov, famous poet and literary critic Dmitry Bykov, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov.

Frankly, this reads more like an honor roll than a blacklist. But the blacklist is very real: people classified as “foreign agents” are banned from engaging in a wide range of activities, including teaching, organizing public events, conducting anti-corruption audits, election monitoring, advertising on social media, and so on—not to mention informal bans like the one on books by “foreign agents” in bookstores and libraries.

Last month, Putin signed amendments to the law banning “foreign agents” from running in elections and holding office at any level. Traditional authoritarian methods such as electoral fraud have become obsolete in Russia: the government can now instantly remove any opponent from the electoral list or from parliament simply by labeling them a “foreign agent.” Among the first to be stripped of their seats under this law is Boris Vishnevsky, a long-time member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and deputy leader of the liberal Yabloko party, who was recently blacklisted for his anti-war stance.

But perhaps the most offensive requirement of the “agent law” is that people must publicly identify themselves as such – something not even the Soviet KGB had invented. Anyone who refuses to do so faces administrative and later criminal proceedings – hence my regular visits to the Soviet district court. My criminal trial here in Omsk will probably begin in the autumn – and the outcome is of course known. It looks like my current 25-year sentence will not be the maximum. But the positive side is that I will get more welcome opportunities to leave my prison cell.

By Everly