The Return of Russia’s Foreign Agent Paranoia as Biological Imperative
Every Friday, the Russian Internet — well, at least the liberal part of it — waits with bated breath for communications regulator Roskomnadzor to announce which Russian citizens have been designated as “foreign agents” this week. “Who will it be today?” we are interested.
This specifically Russian phenomenon may need some explanation for those who are not accustomed to the Russian reality of the 21st century. What exactly does it mean to be labeled a foreign agent in today’s Russia, how can any organization or individual now be added to this effective blacklist, and why does the Russian government have so many internal enemies?
Russia’s foreign agents law was passed more than a decade ago to stigmatize foreign-funded non-profit organizations engaged in activities that could be seen as political.
To many at the time, this absurd example of abuse of power seemed a mistake, as the Justice Department seemed to equate any form of civic action with political activity, be it a campaign against deforestation or a protest against domestic violence. Any organization independent of the state was potentially a candidate.
But, as we all now understand with terrible clarity, the introduction of the law was not a mistake. In fact, it was only the beginning.
In 2017, the law was expanded to include the media, and in 2019 to grant status to individuals.
Last month, the requirement for a foreign agent to be a recipient of foreign funding was lifted. Now, all it takes for a person to be recognized as a foreign agent in Russia is for the government to decide that they have come under “foreign influence,” a deliberately vague term that has turned the law into a powerful weapon to suppress the Kremlin. criticism.
Those labeled as foreign agents face significant repercussions in their daily lives, being denied the right to receive any public funds, including child allowances or allowances, and are prohibited from teaching at schools or state universities, from working in Russian state or municipal institutions. bodies that are members of election commissions or members of expert bodies. Foreign agents are also prohibited from being drafted into the army, but – and be prepared for this – they can still be called up if mobilized.
In addition, the state can conduct unlimited searches of their homes and request information about their financial and economic activities from banks and government agencies without a warrant. Banking is also getting much more difficult, and foreign agents are even banned from using Russia’s simplified tax system, a sanction that seems deliberately dastardly.
To top it off, any post or social media post by a foreign agent must be accompanied by an annoying disclaimer printed in all caps to ensure that anyone innocently viewing the content immediately knows that its author is a social outcast.
The threat of ostracism as a means of combating dissent is a well-established phenomenon in Russia and was widely used in the Soviet era, when a whole category of citizens was deprived of basic civil rights and even deprived of the right to vote.
The term “foreign agent” was used by both the Bolsheviks and their Soviet successors to intimidate dissidents and put a “black mark” on their political opponents, which usually meant that their arrest would soon follow.
By 1930, Stalin was regularly using the term “foreign agent” as a tool to suppress anyone who opposed his dictatorship.
The constant talk of foreign agents faded from the Soviet press after Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s subsequent exposure of the Great Terror. Yet none of this stopped Russia from resurrecting the “enemy within” narrative more than half a century later.
So why is Russia always looking for an internal enemy? The answer, perhaps striking in its simplicity, is biology. The presence of an external enemy, “foreign”, is necessary for the sustainable existence of even the simplest communities.
The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz showed that the mechanisms of recognition of “one’s own” and “them” are inherent in all levels of biological evolution. Bacteria divide environmental components into two categories, attractive and repulsive, each of which elicits a standard behavioral response, and geese innately know that “anything red, big, and furry is very dangerous.”
But what if there is no obvious external enemy? In this case, ecosystems often fail. An example of this, given by Lorenz, describes the behavior of male fish, which, in the absence of an external rival encroaching on their territory, transfer their aggression to their own offspring and destroy it.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, no challenge to his power – let alone a revolution – can be provoked at home, and therefore any act of defiance against Putin’s rule must be the result of foreign interference.
Kremlin ideologues have in recent years promoted the narrative that the Russian nation has a natural enemy in the form of a group of people it calls the Anglo-Saxons, although these mythical creatures cannot be said to correspond to the historical Germanic tribes that invaded and settled England. in the 5th century.
It seems that even the Kremlin does not fully understand who the real enemy of the Anglo-Saxons is. Moreover, the term “Anglo-Saxons” is increasingly being used as a synonym for “fifth column” and could potentially include anyone in Russia sympathetic to the collective West, making it a qualifier of political beliefs rather than ethnic identity.
The endless search for the enemy by Russia then finally bore fruit, and the mere confirmation of the existence of the enemy was enough to rally a significant part of the Russian population around the flag.
But suppose for a moment that Putin and his henchmen are right and that there are indeed enemies among the Russian population acting on behalf of Western intelligence. Then it goes without saying that this phenomenon arose with the coming to power of Vladimir Putin. In 1999, before Putin became president, it was difficult for most Russians to answer the question of who Russia’s enemies are.
However, by the pivotal year of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Russian separatists began fighting in eastern Ukraine, 84% of Russians said they believed Russia’s enemies existed.
This article is an edited version of the Continue Following media collective’s video explainer.
The views expressed in the opinion articles do not necessarily reflect those of The Moscow Times.