In her former life as a top Communist Party official at a closed military factory in Samara, a city on the Volga River, Albina Tsareva helped enforce ideological conformity and general discipline among the workers.
Now living in retirement in northwest Moscow, Tsareva, 66, is still on the lookout for anti-social behavior. "We want to make our community better," she said. "Safe, secure and healthy."
Tsareva heads a network of 190 volunteers who keep an eye out for suspicious people and questionable behavior at 51 apartment buildings, courtyards and parks in Moscow's Shukino district. In her role as chairwoman of the Public Order Council in Territorial Administrative Unit No. 4, she describes herself half-jokingly as "Czar and God."
The Moscow city council this month passed a law and appropriated $3 million to create public order councils in each of Moscow's 676 subdistricts. Backers describe the measure as a kind of neighborhood watch that will involve ordinary people in the fight against terrorism, crime, public drunkenness and vandalism.
"Without the help of the citizens it is impossible to have security," said Inna Svyatenko, a Moscow city council member and the bill's sponsor. "And our goal is to promote the people's participation."
But critics view the public order councils as an attempt to return to Soviet-style monitoring of the citizenry and the resurrection of the feared stukach, or informer, in Russian life.
"Of course in Russia, people should be concerned about security, but this law is another government tool, not a citizen initiative," said Lev Ponomarev, executive director of the All-Russia Public Movement for Human Rights. "It's very Soviet, and it exploits the fact that some people will inform on their neighbors with pleasure."
Reacting to the threat of terrorist attacks across the country, local and federal authorities have proposed numerous initiatives designed to strengthen security. But some of the measures have kindled unpleasant memories. In Soviet times, so-called Public Order Squads informed on people suspected of criminal behavior and disloyalty to the government. Sometimes, little more than the word of an informer sent people to prison.
Another volunteer corps, the druzhina, or people's patrol, whose roots go back to Czarist times when it acted as a loyalist security force, has also been revived in recent years. "The druzhina are law-abiding citizens who work with the executive power on all issues related to public security," said Oleg Cherkasov, head of the druzhina in the northern district of Moscow.
He said members of the druzhina, wearing red armbands, patrol parks and streets, and help with crowd control at public gatherings. "In the past the druzhina had very communist tasks and purposes," Cherkasov said. "But now we are just helping the police."
Svyatenko said any comparison of her initiative with Soviet times distorts an attempt to build community activism, commonplace in Western Europe and the United States. She said the councils give police another security tool as they seek to avoid attacks such as the apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities that killed more than 300 people in 1999.
"The law very clearly lays out the rights and responsibilities of the activists," said Svyatenko, a member of the United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin. "They are not police and they are not informants. They are volunteers who are giving their time for nothing."
Besides monitoring the community, Tsareva said her volunteers have worked to preserve a local park, restored broken-down playgrounds and are creating an art program for young people.
"This isn't about informing," she said. "I don't even understand how people can use that word. It's about having a good and safe place to live."
The public councils began with a pilot program in the Tagansky district of Moscow last year. It was supposed to be expanded across the city last January, but the new bill with secure financing only passed this month, Svyatenko said.
Local officials said they welcomed the initiative. "The police are incapable of watching everything," said Sergei Krupin, an official in the Shukino district. "We remember our history, how people were informants, and that's very painful. On the other hand, the police need help. There is no other way."
But many human rights activists fear that the volunteers are most likely to be retired police or security officials as well as old-style bureaucrats, such as Tsareva. The Tagansky pilot project was reviled in the press because one of its most prominent activists happily told reporters about his days as an informer in Soviet times. He declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he no longer spoke to the press.
Critics also fear that the council members will report on people who are thought to be suspicious simply because they are different.
"This is going to encourage xenophobia, which is already a problem," Ponomarev said. "Who are they going to report on? Chechens and foreigners, of course."
Tsareva said the biggest issue raised by the door monitors and "house seniors" under her watch was "who their neighbors are."
"There are a lot of newcomers here and people want to know who they are," she said. "That's the main issue."
Critics compare the networks to informants and Soviet-style monitoring.