MUROM, Russia — Until prosecutors all over Russia set to work unmasking “foreign agents,” 80-year-old Raisa’s biggest worry was whether her tiny pension would ever allow her to afford the false teeth she covets.
Raisa — last name Golubyatnikova — cheerfully admits that she’s in league with Vladimir Lazarev, 88, who hobbles with the help of a thin red cane across the gritty snow and ice that clings so stubbornly to this city east of Moscow.
The two of them belong to the local chapter of Memorial, a volunteer organization formed in Moscow in the late 1980s that is devoted to preventing a return to Stalinist terror. Their means are not so covert: remembering the victims of repression and promoting democracy and the rule of law. These are suspect ambitions in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and a new law requires such nongovernmental organizations to register as foreign agents if they receive any financing from abroad.
In childhood, Golubyatnikova and Lazarev were enemies of the people — both had parents who were sent off to the gulag. Now, they risk being branded as foreign agents. The prosecutor here has called in the head of their chapter. They have endured worse, the two said, shrugging off the danger. But the law, accompanied by unannounced audits in search of money from the United States and Europe, has set off profound consternation in the rest of the world about threats to freedom in Russia.
Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, was sharply critical as he wrapped up a visit to Russia last week. The law fits into a wider array of recent legislation — on blasphemy, libel, protests and treason — that makes it more difficult to exercise human rights, he said.
“It has a chilling effect on freedom of association and NGO work,” Muiznieks said of the audits, adding that expecting transparency from nongovernmental organizations was legitimate but that far-reaching inspections and foreign-agent labels were troubling.
In the 1930s, NGO leaders had reminded him, a Soviet poster read “Death to foreign agents!”
In Moscow, the main Memorial office and other prominent NGOs have refused to register as foreign agents. Memorial has always acknowledged receiving grants from the European Commission, the U.N. refugee agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development and others.
“If you get money from abroad,” said Alexander Cherkasov, a member of Memorial’s board and director of its Human Rights Center, “it doesn’t mean you are following instructions.”
Cherkasov noted that Putin comes from the KGB world, where buying others is natural. “For 13 years, he has repeatedly said those who pay write the music,” Cherkasov said. “We write our own music.”
The law requiring foreign-agent registration went into effect at the end of November, but officials did not begin enforcing it until last month, after Putin pointedly told security officials that something must be done.
On March 21, a bevy of officials rang the buzzer at Memorial’s headquarters in Moscow — Justice Ministry agents, tax officials, prosecutors, police officers. In St. Petersburg, officials asked a 68-year-old Memorial member for proof of her smallpox vaccination, Cherkasov said. They gave no reason for the inspections.
“Who knows,” Cherkasov said, “maybe I broke the law of gravity.”
A week later, the visitors left the Moscow office with 8,776 pages of documents detailing expenses, activities, membership, sources of financing. “It cost us a lot of time, Chinese toner and Finnish paper,” Cherkasov said.
Memorial has heard nothing further, but the Justice Ministry said Tuesday that it was bringing charges against Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitor, for failure to register as a foreign agent. Although Golos was founded with U.S. help, its leaders said they have stopped accepting money from abroad.
In a television interview before a trip to Germany last week, Putin said that more than 650 NGOs in Russia had received more than $1 billion from abroad since last year, a figure that his spokesman said came from security services. NGO leaders said the number given was far too high.
Cherkasov said he was reminded of the Stalin era. People are not being executed, he said, but when the bureaucracy takes up a task, it is carried out mindlessly just as before. That’s the only way he can explain why two German foundations in Russia were searched on the eve of Putin’s visit, with documents and hard drives seized, provoking a rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel as the Russian president stood beside her.
In Murom, a city of 140,000 separated from Moscow by centuries of official indifference and 200 miles of mud, Memorial’s members have heard little about the new laws. The annual reports they file to the government are full of zeroes, said Alexander Maslov, the head of the local chapter.
Their largest single donation was $10 from a Murom supermarket executive. Members meet around a narrow table in a small room that the mayor gave them free of charge. (He was killed 12 years ago, shot by an unknown assailant.) The group’s lack of Internet access and telephone service cuts down on the international intrigue. Its most advanced electronic device is a well-worn tea kettle.
The Murom group was founded in 1994 in memory of the city’s 1,200 Stalin victims. “We used to have 600 members,” Maslov said, “but now there’s only 250. Many died.”
Maslov, 66, had retired from a career teaching history, German and physical education at a village secondary school. His grandfather, a priest, had disappeared after the revolution.
Lazarev was 11 when his father was arrested in 1937. The next year, they took his mother, leaving four children on their own — the oldest being 13. “We were often hungry,” he said. “We don’t know why they took them. Probably because they worked too well.” His mother returned less than a year later. His father was killed in 1940.
Golubyatnikova said her father was arrested in 1932, probably because he was rich for a peasant. He worked hard and had a bicycle. He returned 15 years later.
Maslov was called to the prosecutor’s office last week and told to bring all of Memorial’s documents. The young man was pleasant, but he told Maslov that more was required. “I had to find a printer and pay for copies,” Maslov said.
The prosecutor was not convinced that the organization could exist without a regular source of funds. “We have parties,” Maslov said, with each member contributing $2 or $3.
“They’re not expensive parties,” said Golubyatnikova, who lives on a $285 monthly pension. “We don’t drink very much. Well, maybe a little wine.”
The members hope some good will come out of the prosecutor’s interest in them. “We have already lived through all possible humiliation,” Golubyatnikova said. “Now people know about us.”
“Americans are very respected in Russia,” Maslov said. “If any U.S. organizations gave us donations, it would have great resonance. They would have real friends here.”
But no foreign agents, he said.
Will Englund in Moscow contributed to this report.