Russian Media‎ > ‎

BBC interview with Evgeny Shtorn: "Sociologist Flees Russia and Tells of FSB Attempt to Recruit Him" [BBC Russian Service]

posted 27 Jan 2018, 05:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 29 Jan 2018, 05:02 ]
19 January 2018

By Ilya Barabanov 

Source: BBC Russian Service  

Photo: BBC via Facebook

St. Petersburg sociologist Evgeny Shtorn has fled to Ireland and says that in Russia the security services tried to recruit him. According to him, the FSB [Federal Security Service] wanted information about the work of “foreign agents.”

On 18 January, Evgeny Shtorn, an associate at the Center for Independent Sociological Research (TsNSI) in St. Petersburg, reported that he had left Russia. “Representatives of the security structures attempted to take advantage of my position and wanted to use me, to make me into an informer,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Evgeny Shtorn told the BBC Russian Service what the security services had wanted from him and why he ended up in Dublin as a result.

BBC: Why did you decide to leave Russia, and why did this happen?

E.Sh.: It all began back in the summer of 2011, when I was moving my Mum to Russia. Before that, I’d been a citizen of Kazakhstan. In 2004, I was given Russian citizenship. At least, that’s what I thought. But in the summer of 2011, I was told by the Federal Migration Service that my passport had been issued improperly. The Kazakhstan consulate in Petersburg told me I was no longer a citizen of Kazakhstan. Based on my lack of Kazakhstan citizenship, Russia issued me a stateless citizen residence permit.

BBC: That is, for the last few years you didn’t have any passport?

E.Sh.: Yes, they’d annulled my Kazakhstan citizenship, and it turned out I had no Russian one. I decided to live for five years with this residence permit and then apply for citizenship in the usual way. When you’re living with a residence permit, you have to regularly report to the state bodies that you’re working somewhere and earning some basic income.

At the time, I got a job at the Center for Independent Sociological Research as a “public communications” specialist. For the past five years I’ve lived with this residence permit, but in that time, as we know, a lot has changed. A law was passed about foreign agents, and the TSNSI was deemed a foreign agent. In the summer of 2017, my case was reviewed by a commission and I submitted my documents for obtaining Russian citizenship.

The Center for Independent Sociological Research (TsNSI) is one of the oldest nonprofit organizations in St. Petersburg. For more than twenty years, they have been conducting sociological research in Russia, developing scholarship programs, and collaborating with leading sociological research institutes—the RAN [Russian Academy of Sciences] Institute of Sociology, the Higher School of Economics, and the European University in St. Petersburg. In 2015, the Justice Ministry added the TsNSI to the list of “foreign agents” —organizations that receive financing from abroad and, in the authorities’ opinion, are engaged in political activity.

BBC: What are the distinctive features of this status — living under a residence permit?

E.Sh.: It comes with definite restrictions, although I worked quite a lot and began graduate studies at the Higher School of Economics. Although the document says that it certifies my identity, the Petersburg metro, for example, refused to issue me a student pass on its basis. This is a trivial example, but there were many like it. They even refused to give me a hotel room based on this document.

BBC: Were you eventually given citizenship?

E.Sh.: In November, after the waiting period on my application had expired, I was told I’d been refused citizenship because I’d supplied false information. What they considered false information was the fact that I hadn’t listed all the addresses where I’d lived during these years. I saw this as outrageous bureaucracy, got very upset, and fell into a deep depression. It was clear I was going to have to wait a year to apply for citizenship again, a year I was going to have to live with a residence permit.

And then, in December, on the 6th, I got a call from an ordinary mobile phone, and some person suggested I go over to the offices of the Federal Migration Service and discuss my application. To be honest, I thought they’d changed their minds or had changed certain quotas. A lawyer I know told me not to sign anything under any circumstances, but he advised me to go find out what was what. The next day, I arrived at this address, but it wasn’t the Federal Migration Service that met me at all.

BBC: What is there at that address?

E.Sh.: It was a police station. On the second floor there really was an office of the Federal Migration Service, but on the third floor there was an unmarked room. I was met by a man of about my age, and he led me into the office, where there was a portrait of Andropov hanging that I can still see in front of me. He introduced himself and the conversation began.

BBC: How did he introduce himself?

E.Sh.: I think he was a major. I remember his name, but I’m not sure I should say it. To be honest, I was upset when I saw an ID card stamped “FSB.” We discussed my situation a little, and altogether we talked for more than an hour and a half. His basic idea came down to the fact that they were very surprised I was working for a “foreign agent.” I explained that with my documents there wasn’t much of anywhere I could get a job, and I’d gotten the job at the TsNSI long before the law on foreign agents was passed.

The FSB agent was very interested in how the financing worked and whether agents of foreign security services or diplomats came to see us. I replied that I was a technical worker and didn’t meet with any diplomats. I told him what qualitative sociology was and how it differs from quantitative. He told me about Brzezinski and asked whether I’d read his book, The Grand Chessboard. I said, “No, I haven’t.”

He related its content to me briefly, saying that back in the mid-1990s, Brzezinski had written that in the mid-2000s Ukraine would become an agent of the West and that everything had happened just that way. That they wanted to bring us down, make Chechnya separate, make Karelia separate, and so on. The conversation was good-natured overall, although a few times he said in passing, you know there’s a law on espionage and there’s a law on state treason. But very gently, although it was totally baffling what state I could betray, since I was stateless citizen.

BBC: What happened after this conversation?

E. Sh.: I emerged in a state of shock. I got paranoid, afraid to talk on the phone. What’s more, he’d warned me that if I started talking about that meeting, there might be serious problems. He said: tell everyone I was at the Federal Migration Service, just discussing my application for citizenship. I spent some time thinking about what to do, but I hoped that they would leave me in peace, that I had convinced them I was small fry, and nothing depended on me. But the next day he called me again and said: you are such a nice person, let’s meet again.

BBC: After that you decided you had to leave?

E. Sh.: Even during the meeting, he’d said that I couldn’t leave the country using my documents. And I replied that therefore I wanted citizenship so I could travel. After his phone call I understood that they were going to exploit me and beat me up. Moreover, he already knew a great deal about my work, my trips around the country and my publications. He knew about my course at the Higher School of Economics, which was on the theme of “The murder of gays on the basis of court decisions”. In short, when he called I realised I had to do something. After that call I turned to several people.

One of the people who helped me was American human rights activist Jennifer Gaspar, who had a somewhat similar story. She had been deported from Russia in 2014. They didn’t give her citizenship either, her residence permit was revoked and she was forced to leave by a court decision. Citizens’ Watch and the Russian LGBT Network helped me. They took me to the Front Line Defenders organisation. They began to take action and tried to find out which states might issue me a visa. Among them were Germany, Lithuania, France and the USA. But all of them said very quickly that they could hardly put a visa in a residence permit.

BBC: Who agreed to take you in the end?

E.Sh.: A residence permit is a bit like a Russian passport, but green. However, the trouble is that not a single state really knows what you can do with this bit of paper, and whether in principle they would let me on an international flight with the passport as grounds. But Front Line Defenders somehow managed to persuade Ireland to issue me a visa. In December, the man from the FSB called me several more times, but I said I was ill. On 21 December they told me that the Irish had agreed, I should go to Moscow and there they would give me a visa and I would leave at once.

But 22 December was a short working day before Christmas, and they didn’t manage to issue me a visa. I went back to St Petersburg. They asked me for some more papers confirming that the airline would let me board, my friends called the border service to find out whether I could leave the country with the kind of documents I had. Russia said it would let me go, but would another country let me in?

On 4 January I got a visa anyway, and on 5 January there was a flight from Moscow via Munich. There are no direct flights to Dublin. At the airport the airline staff told me: “Oh, we can’t let you board with this kind of document, suppose you made it yourself, we need to confirm its validity.” They took me off the plane, but three hours later the Irish visa was confirmed by Lufthansa. I got a new ticket via Frankfurt, and went to cross the border, and again there was a call from the airline saying that Germany wasn’t prepared to take me, even into its transit zone. The airline staff tried to help every way possible, but next Sweden refused to take me. Then there was a flight via Chisinau, and I went to the Molodvans, and they said: “Well, if he has a genuine visa he’s not likely to remain in our country.” So I was able to fly to Dublin via Moldova.

BBC: What do you intend to do now? Have you requested political asylum in Ireland?

E.Sh.: I really don’t know, but I’m afraid I have no other option. I’m afraid that, now I’ve told my story, there’s no chance I could return without trouble. I don’t think that they’d convict me of spying in Russia, but they could easily cancel my residence permit, after which the same thing would happen to me that is now happening to Ali Feruz.

Obviously I would never have co-operated with them. I haven’t applied for asylum yet. In Ireland the asylum law is very bad, a very high percentage of applications fail. People who are waiting for asylum don’t have the right to work and wait for 20 months for a decision. Front Line Defenders have taken me in for three months, but what will happen next is entirely unclear. But I decided to make my story public, in order to warn everyone who works for NGOs that are foreign agents that they are in danger. If it was only my personal story, I’d probably have kept quiet.

The BBC Russian Service has addressed a request for information to the FSB.

Translated by Anna Bowles and Marian Schwartz