How do the security forces function in Russia? Is resistance possible despite the harsh political repression? Dima Starover talks about how he turned the slogan “Freedom to Political Prisoners” into everyday practice
What were you doing before February 24th, and how has your life changed since?
Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I worked as a performance artist in independent theaters, staging plays and doing the sound for them. I made a podcast with my colleagues about performance art in Russia, institutional criticism, and the legal basis of our work. Even before the war, my acquaintances, friends, and colleagues were constantly under threat of persecution. I was more interested in the artistic field and defending artists’ rights then. Now I help political prisoners and people prosecuted for political motives in Russia.
I was eager to do something useful in the circumstances. Unfortunately, theater activities were no longer suitable for this because most theaters now support the war and because of Z-propaganda. All independent institutions the authorities could reach have been closed, and grassroots communities have dissolved or moved abroad. Moreover, the legal field as such no longer exists in Russia because the legal framework changes every month.
What I do now is not drastically different, though. I continue to do performance art. Looking for loopholes within the Russian state, ways to evade surveillance, and escape is a kind of artistic task. One cannot blindly follow instructions here. Making step-by-step plans to get people out of the country when there are only 5-10 minutes before the security services arrive is structurally similar to writing a score. Now I do the same thing at my computer, remotely, and with other tools.
What is your work about, and why is it essential for you?
Thousands of people in Russia are under various pre-trial restrictions, or in detention. Those under house arrest or travel restrictions often do not know they can flee the country and do not have the tools for it. They feel there is no way out and just wait to be put in prison. As you may know, there are no other options because acquittal is practically non-existent. I can only recall some four exceptions for political cases, and that is only thanks to a great effort by human rights activists, lawyers, volunteers, publicity in the media, etc. There is no way 15,000 people can be provided with such publicity, media coverage, and connections, especially outside of big cities.
“Looking for loopholes within the Russian state, ways to evade surveillance, and escape is a kind of artistic task”
So my work revolves around studying how security services operate and applying this knowledge in practice. I help move political prisoners and those under investigation out of the country to safety. Each political prisoner is a courageous person who most likely has an activist or human rights background. Freedom of such people is essential for opposition to the regime. They should not simply end up in prison for 5-10 years for “discrediting the Armed Forces” (Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code). I’m sure that those whom my comrades and I have helped will continue their activism. There is no such opportunity if you are under investigation. I wanted to move away from slogans, such as “Free Political Prisoners,” to practices that would not simply attract media attention but affect people’s everyday lives inside the country. During the war, such work has proved to be an appropriate and necessary instrument of resistance.
No large human rights organization, European or Russian, is currently engaged in this kind of assistance, due to its unaccountability. You can’t, for example, make a financial report on a route out of the country that goes entirely by land through private carriers. You can’t buy tickets, you can’t leave your passport data, and you can’t stop where registration is required. And in such a situation, there is no way to apply for help [to large organizations]. Under investigation, defendants often have limited access to the Internet and phone. They may not have a human rights lawyer or acquaintances among other political prisoners who can share their experiences. Therefore, in most cases, I reach out to them myself.
How large is the Russian law enforcement apparatus, and how does it work?
It is indeed massive, but it is rather primitive. In the last five years, law enforcement has been one of the most significant budget expenses, comparable to defense. But the amount of staff and resources does not easily translate into quality of work. You see, power structures work under rigorous protocols. Once people enter this system, they can’t express their will or be initiative or proactive. Mostly, they just try to achieve their KPIs for the month. Let’s say they need to open 30 criminal cases to get a bonus because last month, there were 29. If there are twice as many people, they open twice as many cases, but the guidelines are the same.
How do these cases appear? Let’s look at the example of Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code, “Justification of Terrorism.” So, an officer or agent opens up the social network Vkontakte and types in “Zhlobitsky” (the last name of Mikhail Zhlobitsky, an anarchist who blew himself up in the FSB building in Arkhangelsk two years ago). They look for all the posts that mention Zhlobitsky’s name or approve of his actions in one way or another and end up with a case. It is as simple as that, once the case is there, the found person goes to jail — no need for complicated expertise or reports.
“You see, power structures work under rigorous protocols. Once people enter this system, they can’t express their will”
As for the anti-war cases, there are still fewer than there could be. I mean that the security forces often take the easiest route, looking for those they need in Vkontakte or Facebook. At the same time, they cannot track down those who do partisan actions for six months or more. Partisans tend to be more experienced and aware of security rules and direct action strategies, so investigative work requires sophistication.
How has the law enforcement apparatus changed since the early 2000s? What events influenced this change?
All the security services’ basic investigation systems were developed in 1999. The “Rozysk-Magistral” [Search Highway] database, which collects data on all purchased tickets for all modes of transport using the passport information required for the purchase, was introduced then. The “Cascade-Potok” system has also been in place at border checkpoints since the early 2000s. These systems are also used for ethnic and political profiling.
We know that ethnic profiling was already in use in 2007 when Russia invaded Georgia. Georgian citizens were stopped at airports and in the subway, searched, interrogated, and taken to police departments. Now all this applies to people from Ukraine. Governmental institutions provide all the information (place of work, residence registration, citizenship and passport information, place of birth), and then it is put into security databases. After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, political profiling has been used more often. Activists and activists were detained at the border so they could not leave the country. Some people were deliberately prevented from entering the airport, for example, caught by traffic police at the entrance, preventing them from flying to, say, a conference in London or elsewhere that dealt with the opposition in Russia.
During the protests, we learned how street cameras help to identify people. Even if you run away from the police at a rally, they can find you through subway footage. Special services analyze the data and photos from the rallies and put them all in the database. If they catch you, that’s it: now you’re “unreliable,” you must be questioned, checked, and charged with an administrative offense. In addition, “Center E” [The Centre for Combating Extremism] has been added, but it uses the same tools.
This system has not dramatically improved in 20 years. There are obvious errors that can easily be corrected, but no one does that. Then whole budget for improvement projects ended up being embezzled, and contractors went to jail for corruption. This was the case, for example, with electronic bracelets for house arrest. The bracelets were introduced into the system in 2010 and were immediately used to pressure political activists. There are several monitoring devices, and now they’re not much different from plastic toys. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) usually puts a bracelet on your leg and a device in your apartment, a receiver that works within a certain radius (50-100 meters if you’re not allowed to go out of the house). As soon as you go outside this radius, FSIN receives a signal. In theory, they should immediately react to the call, find you and either return you to your place of arrest or put you in a pre-trial detention center for violating the preventive measure. However, outside of this radius, they do not see your movements, which means the bracelet does not function as it should. Another type of bracelet with a separate tracker is issued if you are permitted to leave the house. But this tracker is detached from the wristband; you can leave it at home and walk away.
“Then whole budget for improvement projects ended up being embezzled, and contractors went to jail for corruption”
These bracelets have spurred endless corruption scandals. In 2011, just after Bolotnaya, apparently, when the number of political cases and, accordingly, the number of people under house arrest, increased dramatically, they tried to modify them. In the end, more than 1.3 billion rubles were stolen, and the former chief of the FSIN, Alexander Reimer, was sentenced to eight years in prison. As a result, the bracelets reverted to their previous version.
The last thing they tried to do in 2022 before the invasion was to create a single meta-base that would unite the disparate regional and departmental databases (“Passport,” “Registry of detainees,” “Civil registry,” and others). It is possible to look for vulnerabilities in each of them in their current state and use them to our advantage, but in a single system, it would be much more difficult. Now the year is ending, the project is stuck, despite the money and resources provided.
How omnipresent is the system of surveillance of political activists in Russia?
It is pretty limited and selective, and its mechanisms can be studied. Take the example of Navalny’s poisoning. If the FSB could get on the plane that Navalny was traveling on, it was not because they had been spending all day monitoring the movements of opposition politicians. If a person is in a so-called “Surveillance Database” (Сторожевой контроль), which has been actively used against opposition leaders and activists since 2014, information about his ticket purchase automatically goes to the FSB from the “Rozysk-Magistral” database. A widespread mistake made by those who leave without assistance is to buy a plane or train ticket. When the investigator finds out about this, he instructs the officers to remove you from the train at the region border [travel restrictions are controlled only in one area, not all over the country].
It is essential to understand that the special services in the Russian Federation are very fragmented. There is competition between them, and they do not communicate well. Your public statements are reviewed by one department, while another reviews physical actions. For example, I am often asked: “What will happen to me at the border checkpoint if I publish anti-war materials under my real name?” They’ll never find out about it there. First, your article will be found by the FSB officers who are interested in you, and they will begin investigative actions, which you will probably become aware of. That is, even if you are under house arrest, your investigator will only get the information that you left the country after the fact.
“The special services in the Russian Federation are very fragmented. There is competition between them, and they do not communicate well”
As for external surveillance in politically motivated cases, it can be open or undercover. The first is used as psychological intimidation. Officers purposely tail along, put their cars under your windows, and accompany you on trips to the store, cafes, and bars when you meet with friends. Naturally, when this happens over a long period, the person begins to go crazy. There is also professional, covert surveillance, which is quite hard to notice. It has other objectives: not to let you escape from custody, not let you go anywhere, to find out with whom you communicate and who your accomplices are. So the intelligence services collect a complete profile on you and your circle to build up a big case. But this is not done on a massive scale, either. No matter how many resources they have, there are 140 million people in Russia. The Russian system is primarily focused on intimidation. It has neither money, nor sufficient human resources, nor the tools, to eliminate vulnerabilities for mass repression, as the above examples demonstrate.
What kind of people work in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB? What is their psychological profile?
I have never had personal contact with them, so I don’t have an exhaustive understanding. But there is, for example, a department that deals with the surveillance of political activists and people under house arrest. They have pretty clear requirements for an employee: an unremarkable person between the ages of 30 and 50, male or female. Average height and build, no visible signs, moles, and tattoos, walk without visible defects. The same goes for clothing or makeup. Such an average person can remain unnoticed in the urban space. This is not a psychological portrait, but it says something, too.
On the employment application form for any law enforcement department, you must write down the names of all your relatives, ex-wives, current wives, children, grandchildren, parents, and so on. On all sides, you must be spotless. They run the information through their databases and check how reliable you and your acquaintances are from the state’s perspective. On the one hand, this is a method of verification, but on the other, it is a method of psychological intimidation so that you do not think of doing something wrong. This is precisely the kind of people the Russian Federation needs: as ordinary and lacking ideals as possible, with no propensity for self-expression, working according to protocols and carrying out the tasks sent down from the authority, whatever these tasks may be.
It is widely known that there are more than 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus today. What are the differences between the resistance and the political repression machine in Russia and Belarus?
The security apparatus in Russia is larger and more technologically advanced, but in Belarus, it is more brutal, partly because it does not have as many resources. For example, the Belarusian agencies have no money for house arrests. In Belarus, you either have time to take a person out, knowing that she is under surveillance, or she goes straight to the detention center. You don’t have a few months to get in touch with the person, give her a security briefing, or prepare her for departure. In Russia, the situation is still quite flexible and has a lot of vulnerabilities. There are so many people here that you can’t put everyone in a pre-trial detention center, and for many charges, the maximum preventive measure is house arrest. We know the same thing about the rally cases: 10,000 people on the scale of Moscow is not that many, but there are not enough temporary detention facilities for all of them.
“The Russian system is primarily focused on intimidation. It has neither money, nor sufficient human resources, nor the tools, to eliminate vulnerabilities for mass repression”
The idea of non-violent protest is still widespread in Russia. However, the state determines the boundary between “violence” and “non-violence” based on its interests. In discussions about methods of protest, it is, therefore, worth rethinking the notions constructed by the state against which this protest is directed. Yes, non-violent protest has a media effect and promotes solidarity, but it hardly achieves anything tangible. Moreover, it is very convenient for security services, which use facial recognition systems to identify all unreliable people during rallies, pickets, and by their statements on social networks. For a while, protesters in Belarus were guided by a similar idea, including during the protests in 2020. However, as repression intensified, the protest turned into partisan resistance. And when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, railroad guerillas from Belarus were the first to disrupt the supply of Russian troops. Now in Russia, we are also starting to observe a similar process. For example, a large community, “Stop Trains”, has formed since the beginning of the war.
Is protest feasible under repressive legislation and coercion from the security forces?
Today, we need to change strategies and find ways to disrupt the state’s functioning rather than simply declare our dissent. What is required is a protest that goes underground and operates in a decentralized, grassroots way and with safety in mind. Sadly, we still believe that going out with a placard is righteous and blowing up the rails is extremist. All anti-war initiatives are now working toward the same goal, and we must be comrades. If we endlessly differentiate ourselves, separating the “good” movements from the “bad,” we will achieve nothing. Those with substantial media influence have the resources to affect the situation and provide partisan resistance with publicity and support.
“In discussions about methods of protest, it is worth rethinking the notions constructed by the state against which this protest is directed”
Of course, there have always been activists in Russia who engage in direct action. They have finally become more visible, but even now, few people support them. Anti-war initiatives often refuse to fundraise for those who set fire to a military recruitment center or damage railways because this is too radical. It is challenging to raise money to support “bad political prisoners.” Recently Ivan Astashin, who served ten years in Siberian prisons, and the human rights activist Anna Kurbatova, together with a team, created “Solidarity Zone”. This kind of organization needs support and help to spread information. We need to help political prisoners by telling their stories so they don’t get lost in thousands of criminal cases. You can, for example, make a habit of writing letters to prisoners. You can do it online through the FSIN-Letters service.
In addition, mass sabotage and boycott make sense today, and if done carefully, it is not dangerous and can, at most, result in a layoff. At the beginning of the war, the Russian army’s supply of weapons into of Ukraine did not go according to plan precisely because of sabotage. When a teacher refuses to give propaganda lessons and a post office employee refuses to deliver call-up papers, these are essential and effective methods of resistance. There are other methods, such as “telephone terrorism.” There are many charges in Russia for so-called “telephone terrorism” (Article 207 of the Criminal Code). Usually, these are fabricated cases that help to persecute and harass activists. However, it can be done, especially by those in exile (in Russia, it is a significant risk), and with proper caution, it is pretty safe and effective. A successful, false bomb alert stops the work of any pro-government organization or state institution for at least a day.
I want to clarify that I talk a lot about protest, which puts you at risk when you are in Russia while I am in exile. But I think it is important to note that our work is about creating a safety cushion for all those who continue their protest in Russia, regardless of chosen strategies. The only way to exist in this repression-driven reality is to work in coordination: to know about each other, to provide physical security for those who come out to protest, and to be ready to help, to help them get away from persecution from the FSB. This requires both people inside Russia and people who can coordinate and provide information on security measures from outside.
“Mass sabotage and boycott make sense today, and if done carefully, it is not dangerous and can, at most, result in a layoff”
You should not underestimate your enemy, because you can get caught by losing focus. We can’t get inside every FSB or Interior Ministry officer’s head and figure out their plan for the next month. So, basic precautions:
- Don’t keep your passport at home.
- If you still need to get one, get on with it.
- Keep it in a place where police will not find it during a raid: at the home of friends who are not connected with politics in any way. If you’re involved in any political activism, you can’t live where you’re officially registered. If there is a raid, it is in your interest to find out about it from a distance.
- If you go to street actions, take personal precautions, hide your face, and change your clothes.
- It is necessary to follow the instructions on cybersecurity carefully: do not use Telegram to communicate confidential information, password your computer and applications, and encrypt your hard drive.
This is the only way we can help you if something happens. And remember, an investigation is not an end.