Foreign agents

“You’re not with the federal security services, are you?”

This is not a question you really want to hear as a visiting researcher.

I had gotten in touch with a few members of a group active in opposition politics in Moscow, and this was the first time I’d been invited to one of their meetings. Two members met me at the metro station nearby, talking about recent news as they showed me the way to the group’s apartment-cum-office in a nondescript Soviet-era apartment building. We left our shoes at the entrance and walked into a well-worn room that just managed to contain the dozen people inside. The walls were plastered with posters announcing old campaigns and events. Those gathered, all but one under 30, most in t-shirts and jeans, were busy collating flyers, editing article drafts, boxing up pamphlets, while a gray cat watched over the proceedings from its perch on a well-worn desk piled high with documents.

Once everyone had settled in a ragged circle for the meeting, I introduced myself as an American student in anthropologist, come to study the politics around family and family values in Russia. I explained my project, handed out my contact info, and asked permission to record the meeting. That’s when the question came.

A tall young man in thick-framed hipster glasses asked it: “You’re not with the government security services, are you?”

I paused for a moment, trying to gauge the mood. Obviously I hadn’t offered them any money—my grant check barely covered my plane ticket and rent! But I was a total stranger and foreigner, come to record the internal planning of activists in the midst of a crackdown on opposition politics. It was an uncomfortable moment, and I made a quick gamble:

“Oh, of course. I work for the CIA,” I deadpanned.

Smiles and a few laughs. Relieved, I started in with note-taking and careful listening as they got down to business.

At the time, opposition activists were routinely accused of being supported, or even instigated, by foreign governments. Pro-Putin groups spread rumors that foreign organizations—especially the US State Department—were paying Russians to go to opposition rallies. Putin himself has expressed similar ideas for years—delegitimizing any political opposition by claiming that it was controlled by enemies abroad, and by July a new law had been passed to control the political activities of groups that receive funding from abroad. This means that any Russian organization looking for funding—say, groups that work for government transparency, LGBT rights, or any of a number of causes that find a more sympathetic and wealthier audience in the West than at home—has a whole new set of political and economic concerns.

The way these concerns intersect with my own position in the field makes me uneasy at times. By the letter of the law, I am doing nothing that would jeopardize the groups I’m working with: I am incredibly grateful for my granting agencies, but they certainly didn’t give me a generous enough budget to support both myself and Russian NGOs. But there is a tiny kernal of truth to the rumors: US foreign policy does support the development of civil society and further democratization in Russia. A little bit of that is financial—to my knowledge we don’t fund opposition groups, and we certainly didn’t pay cash for people to attend rallies—but this policy also shapes the application process for research grants. To receive my funding, for example, I had to write a short explanation of how my research would be relevant to US foreign policy interests. The fact that I’m here suggests that someone decided my very presence here as a researcher somehow helps advance US policy goals in Russia. Maybe I am a foreign agent after all.

I’ll end here by observing that this post originally included a bit more ethnographic color at the beginning: descriptions of some of the slogans posted on the apartment wall, a joke one of my guides made on our way to the meeting place. I took them out because I was afraid they might reveal something about the identity of the group. It’s unsettling to work in a place where I’m not sure how much to reveal and how much to keep close. It’s not always clear what my presence here might mean—to those I’m learning from, to security services here, to my government at home. So for now, I’m trying to err as far as possible on the side of caution.

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