Russia Watch: Russian conservatives see ‘foreign agents’ and ‘treason’ behind social change

Ashley, an American friend, and I were walking on a bridge over the Moscow River to the “Inostranii Agent” or “Foreign Agent” party. To dress the part, I wore my trench coat.

Our destination: Red October, the rambling red brick industrial space that has morphed in recent years from Soviet chocolate factory to hipster hangout. The party organizers had emailed a password: “I am the agent.”

I knew the party organizers. At first the concept seemed to be an edgy Muscovite response to the official spy paranoia emanating from the Kremlin. But, crossing the Moscow River, my own paranoia grew with each step. As the byzantine towers of Kremlin glowed in the background, I started to fret that the party was a clever trap set by the FSB, Russia’s successor agency to the KGB.

Hidden cameras would record dozens of gullible foreigners “confessing” simply in return for a club admission.

Ashley thought otherwise. Accordingly, she had dressed for success. She suspected a simpler plot line: Moscow women flocking to the Foreign Agent party, scheming to meet a foreign man for the holiday season.
Ashley’s instincts were correct.

At the party, at Reka (or River) Club, the music was so loud, the liquor so abundant and the female outfits so distracting, that no one remembered to ask for the “secret password.” The crowd was 95 percent Russian, drawn largely by the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex — and the chance to win a door prize, like a BMW X5 car for a day.

Meanwhile, official Moscow – the humorless, political one — is on a real foreign agent campaign.

Last week, prosecutors charged that Leonid Razvozzhayev, a jailed leftwing dissident, was taking “Georgian money” to organize “mass riots” and a “coup.”

Andrei Isayev, a ruling party leader in the Duma, charged that Mikhail Kasanyov, a former prime minister, “absolutely corresponds to the status of ‘an agent of foreign influence.’” Kasanyov supports the Magnitsky Act, which was overwhelmingly approved last week by the U.S. Congress. It calls for placing visa and banking bans on Russian officials believed to involved in major human rights violations.

Earlier this year, the Duma passed legislation requiring foreign supported nongovernmental groups to declare themselves “foreign agents.” Soon, spray paint appeared on the walls of Memorial, the Russian history and human rights organization: “Foreign Agent. I love USA.”

Now the Duma is considering legislation that would apply to reporters for media organizations that receive financial support from foreign governments, such as VOA, BBC, and AFP, the French wire agency. Under this bill, we would not only have to get accreditation as “foreign correspondents,” we would be register as “foreign correspondent foreign agents.”

Presumably, “foreign correspondent foreign agents” would be required to walk the streets of Moscow wearing fluorescent yellow beanies, topped with wind-driven propellers that would power flashing red warning lights. (That is a joke, OK?)

As the “Foreign Agent” party indicates, some Muscovites roll their eyes at the government’s attempt to blame Russia’s social change on foreigners. In sharp contrast to the closed days of Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin, about 10 percent of Russian adults now vacation outside Russia every year. About 50 percent freely surf the worldwide web.

A few days after the “Foreign Agent” party, I got a reminder that foreign agent paranoia can be a political dead end. Around the alley from Reka, in a building where Soviet worker elves once made delicious chocolate bars, Lumiere Brothers Photography Center was hosting a thought provoking show.

Called “Living America,” the show of photojournalist Steve Shapiro captured a time – half a century ago – when some conservative Americans brushed off social change as the work of agents of Moscow.

First the civil rights movement, then the anti-Vietnam War movement were dismissed by many American conservatives as plots led by agents of Moscow, paid by “Moscow’s gold.”

Yes, the Communist Party USA received funding from Moscow. Yes, the CPUSA was very active in both movements. But, the Communist Party’s influence in the sea changes of late 20th century American social history was, at best, marginal.

Dismissing wide social change as the work of “foreign agents” was not only intellectually lazy. It put a good number of American politicians on the losing end of history.

A lesson for modern Russia?


(Photo: Webber)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.