Aleksandr Podrabinek: Protesting on our knees. What should dissidents do?

16 October 2021 

By Aleksandr Podrabinkek

Source: Vot-Tak Besat TV

Here’s what’s happened over the last few days. The government has felt the need to ban individuals who are involved in extremism and terrorism (“Russian-style” ™) from working as pilots or cabin crew. Yandex has started flagging up content produced by media outlets deemed by Russia as foreign agents. The Ministry of Justice has added Rosbalt and Republic to its list of foreign agent media outlets.

Progressive Russian society, freedom-loving journalists and the liberal opposition are all outraged by the enforcement of laws on foreign agents and undesirable organisations. And rightly so. The laws are abominable, they contravene international law and Russia’s constitution, and they are the perfect example of the State Duma’s totalitarian nature.

So, that’s that. But why did it happen? This anti-society campaign started nine years ago. What resistance did society put up against that brutal and arrogant attack on its rights? How did the people most directly affected by these laws react?


The authorities, spooked by the protests of late 2011 and early 2012, decided to tighten their grip on the public. The State Duma brought in one repressive law after another, prompting us to give it the nickname “the mad printer”.

In 2012, the State Duma passed an amendment to the Law on Non-Profit Organisations and introduced the concept of a “foreign agent” into the legal lexicon. According to the amendments made, foreign agents were required to register with the Ministry of Justice and to indicate their status on all their content, whether in mainstream media or online.

The sanctions for breaching this law were not too harsh: suspension of activity, liquidation of the NGO by court ruling, and a fine of up to 500 roubles for individuals, or 20,000 roubles for organisations.

The first to be affected by this new law were human rights organisations. They were faced with a choice: identify themselves as foreign agents and continue receiving funding from Western donors, or turn down Western funding in the hope of receiving a Kremlin grant and avoiding the foreign agent status. Different NGOs chose differently. But none of them decided to openly ignore the law; nobody said “We refuse to comply with this unlawful legislation”. Everyone chose from the options available to them.

The authorities were chuffed – their first very step had brought them victory. By and large, the Kremlin did not care who chose what: the cowardly admission of loyalty, or the submissive willingness to be branded a foreign agent. Both those options were perfectly fine, as long as society submitted to this entirely arbitrary law.


Very quickly, other types of NGOs started receiving the foreign agent designation, including those whose activities were entirely apolitical. And why not? If everyone is keeping quiet and complying – or even if they do speak out against the law but don’t follow through with actions – then why not take these prohibitions a step further?

In 2017, the State Duma passed a law which added media outlets into the definition of foreign agents. Since then, the Ministry of Justice has been able to apply the foreign agent label to any media outlet in receipt of funding or property from foreign organisations or citizens. These media outlets are subject to the same rules as NGO foreign agents. And the sanctions for violating them are the same as for NGOs, only the fines are larger – up to 50,000 roubles. At present, there are 28 organisations on the Ministry of Justice’s list of media foreign agents. This includes both Russian media outlets and foreign outlets which broadcast in Russia.

So, how did those beacons of truth and highly principled Western media outlets respond to this draconian law? It’s exactly the same story! Most of the media outlets who were classed as foreign agents either experienced a fit of loyalty and emblazoned their status all over their content, like a plague warning (see Meduza, Mediazona and TV Rain), or they buried it somewhere at the bottom of the page (Like Current Time and all of RFE/RL’s other projects).

And almost all of them are, in one way or another, meeting the ridiculous demands of Russian legislation: warning audiences that the organisation in question has been deemed a foreign agent or extremist. Even the BBC, which is not yet included on any of the government’s lists, includes this kind of “compulsory” statement in its content. But somehow, Voice of America – a “media foreign agent” – gets away without writing any such nonsense about itself or about the subjects of its reporting. And what of it? Nothing! Business as usual. Why? Well, because this law, like others like it, relies on our weakness, cowardice, fear of despotism and fear of running into difficulties.


Our repressive regime’s fantasies are through the roof. In 2019, the State Duma passed amendments allowing for the recognition of a physical person as a foreign agent if that person publishes their own materials and receives money from abroad. Now journalists can be deemed foreign agents if, for example, they work for media-foreign agents.

By law, these citizen-foreign agents are required to report to the Justice Ministry once every six months on their spending of funds received from abroad and to identify themselves as a foreign agent in every one of their publications, no matter where it appears. In addition, they cannot work for a state service or have access to state secrets.

Since the progressive Russian public’s forbearance has been verified by previous humiliating laws that met with virtually no resistance in society (the universal wail about oppressions don’t count), the state has come up with a harsher punishment for violating this law: a fine of up to 300,000 roubles or imprisonment for two to five years.

What did you expect? If, in 2012, failure to obey the law threatened an NGO with a fine or dissolution, now it threatens criminal prosecution and a sentence of up to five years. The state has raised the stakes, and it’s foolish to expect it to abruptly leave the game. You didn’t take a stand yesterday, so you’re getting a new law today.

How has the public reacted to the law passed then? Properly, in purely Russian fashion—with indignation and submission. When the sanctions for violating the law went into force, everyone, with few exceptions, began putting an admission of their status as “foreign agent” before each of their pieces in giant letters. What was the state’s reaction? Full and profound satisfaction.


In 2020, Putin signs a law recognizing physical persons and civil society associations that receive financing from abroad as foreign agents. We’re no longer talking about disseminating information or about journalists and bloggers. Persons and civil society organizations engaged in collecting information about Russia’s military or military-technical activity can be deemed foreign agents.

There is extensive room here for interpretation and judicial arbitrariness. Political activity in the interests of foreign sources is deemed to include, among other things, holding rallies and public debates, spreading opinions about state policy, and observing elections or the activities of political parties. That is, the label can be hung on everyone. When the country needs foreign agents, anyone can be a foreign agent! The penalty is no joke, either: up to five years’ imprisonment (Article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code).

And now I have a rhetorical question for outraged foreign agents, my colleagues in the journalism guild, and sincere critics of the regime: Do you know why the state gets more and more impudent every year? Because it meets with no resistance. Your insults and complaints against it only lift its mood. The state met your recent open appeal to dial back its draconian laws with frank disdain.


I think you understand full well what comes next. From here on out you’re going to express your indignation verbally but in practice obey. The state will continue to stiffen its repressive legislation. You haven’t taken a stand at any point, so the state is going to crush you, and everyone else, too. It’s going to write lots of laws that aren’t only going to obliterate the meager remains of our puny free speech but will obligate everyone to make a public expression of loyalty.

They’ll make not just a word of protest but silence itself dangerous. They’ll force you to gush over their filthy doings, and out of fear of criminal prosecution you’ll submit and say you’re just abiding by the law. And the punishment will be no match for today’s.

This won’t be fines or prison terms of up to five years but full-blown state terror under which you might pay for an expressed opinion with your life. You think this is fantasy, that I’m laying it on too thick? Yes, this has already happened, and not that long ago. But ten years ago, did you anticipate what’s happening today?


Do you think your pickets and petitions are opposition to tyranny? That’s kindergarten! Those methods are effective under democracy, when the state depends at least to some extent on public opinion. In today’s Russia, that doesn’t work. At all. You don’t like this law? You want it repealed? For that you shouldn’t picket or collect signatures on petitions. Just stop obeying it. Only then will the law truly stop functioning.

The only thing that can stop our crazed state is solidarity in refusing to obey repressive laws. Only by encountering direct disobedience will the state stop on its way to totalitarianism. By implementing their laws, you yourselves become accomplices to a crime against our country’s future.

Remember, Martin Luther King said: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Retribution may follow a refusal to carry out the laws’ requirements for foreign agents. Not terribly serious retribution for now. But if we don’t take a stand somewhere, on something, we’re doomed to slip further and further. Until step by step, concession by concession, we slide into nationwide civil enslavement.

Translated by Judith Fagelson and Marian Schwartz

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