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Police officers record Moscow’s July 27 election protest.
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What is Center E? A former agent for Russia's secretive Anti-Extremism Center explains how ‘eshniki’ crack down on protesters and prosecute online activity

Источник: Meduza
Police officers record Moscow’s July 27 election protest.
Police officers record Moscow’s July 27 election protest.
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

At any mass protest in Russia, a careful eye can spot officers in civilian dress pointing video cameras at the crowd. From time to time, the same officers quietly guide police toward individual protesters, who are immediately arrested. Behind the scenes, the very same people are also responsible for bringing criminal cases against Russian citizens who share supposedly extremist posts on social media. These officials work for Center E. The internal structure of the center remains poorly understood, so we talked it through with former Center E employee Vladimir Vorontsov. Since leaving the center, Vorontsov has become known for creating a popular online support organization for police officers.

What is Center E?

From the outside, it can seem like Center E is a monolithic bureaucratic office that only works on social media shares and fighting dissent. A lot of people think of it as a kind of political police. To some degree, that’s correct — I do think their employees monitor all the major opposition activists. But in a way, that’s also not the case. For example, in the AEC, there’s a department that works on coordinating counterterrorist activities, and that department has nothing to do with protests or the opposition. What they fight in there is what’s probably the true evil of our time.

The rest of the departments also have their own portfolios. There are departments for religious extremism, nationalist extremism, and suppressing extremism at public events. There’s a department for disrupting the economic activities of extremist organizations: They deal with cases where somebody creates a criminal organization and makes millions on promises like “Give us everything, and you’ll be saved.” The people in that department have specialized experience — they’re all trained economists.

There’s also a very odd department where they deal with banned groups and political parties that just keep operating under a different name. Nobody, even in the center itself, really understood why we needed that department. In the end, to justify their own existence, they just took on everything to do with politics and tried to make themselves look significant any way they could.

What do the center’s employees actually do?

I was officially in the department for combating nationalist extremism, but you could really do anything you wanted to. At one point, I even arrested a pedophile — it was Andrey Kaminov, the deputy chief court bailiff for the Moscow suburbs.

Back when Maxim Martsinkevich was hunting pedophiles, Kaminov was one of them. They caught him, poured urine all over him, and posted a video of it all on the Internet. Then, Life published their video. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case based on that media coverage, but they couldn’t take it any further because the investigators didn’t know anything about these activists. They called me at the AEC and asked for help. So we helped — it’s in the record that we were the ones who solved the case.

Generally, though, the structure of our work was a little simpler than that, and the powers AEC agents have aren’t much different from those of other police officers. Usually, every day around 8:30 AM, the head of the center meets with the department heads and their deputies and gives them their general orders for the day. Then, around 9:00 AM, the department heads hold a meeting with their employees and give them their orders. They ask about what everybody’s working on, who’s working on which potential bad guys — usually, each employee is working on some specific person they found out about from police monitors or from their own sources. Of course, information about those kinds of people comes in through monitoring social media, too. The officers join groups they find suspicious, make special cover accounts, things like that. If an investigation turns up evidence that the person they’re following actually did something, then you take appropriate steps based on that fact.

Another component of the center’s work is the constant stream of complaints people send in about things that happen on social media. For example, on Odnoklassniki, somebody called someone else a “yid,” and the person got offended and decided to complain to law enforcement. For those kinds of complaints, the officers have to set up expert inspections that determine whether the posts in question show extremist tendencies. The cops themselves aren’t linguists, so they can’t decide whether there’s anything illegal in the posts or not. It’s especially hard for the officers when there’s some kind of new hashtag and everybody starts reporting the same post or the same person. I ran into one case where I had to process 150 practically identical complaints.

Until 2013, we pretty much worked within that same general structure, but then it started degrading fast. The degradation was related to the fact that what we call headquarters in the MVD system started playing a larger role. Headquarters are internal divisions that don’t contribute directly to fighting crime themselves, but they do decide who does what when. Those divisions started introducing work plans for us, and that’s when rank-and-file officers started doing some pretty strange tasks.

For example, I personally got sent to a dorm where the students were all from the Northern Caucasus. They asked me to talk to the prefect about whether the students were doing anything illegal even though everybody knew that nobody would tell me anything. So it was just a dead end: I went there, wrote down their testimony saying everything was okay, and left.

A modified Soviet-era propaganda poster that reads “NO REPOST” hangs in Novosibirsk during a public art action against the prosecution of social media activity. 2018
Valery Titievsky / Kommersant

A lot of other time-consuming formalities were introduced around the same time. For example, every week, I had to ask [the social media network] VKontakte to delete five images of swastikas, and I had to find each image myself. I didn’t have to look for the person who posted the swastikas; it didn’t even matter whether they actually deleted the images or not. I just had to send in an order and report that I had sent it.

More and more of that kind of idiocy started popping up over time. That said, it never got to the point that Center E employees had to catch a predetermined number of extremists in a certain period of time, which is how things are structured for criminal investigators and some other MVD employees. The AEC had a different evaluation system — it was a points system that was created through an order from the Internal Affairs Minister. To put it simply, if a given department caught a criminal, then they would get points added to their total, and if the criminal got away, they would get points taken off. The most important thing was to keep your score above a certain number of points.

What kind of people work for Center E? Is working there considered prestigious?

When the center had just been established, nobody wanted to work there. For MVD employees, it was very telling that the center was built on the ruins of the UBOP, where people worked on kidnapping cases and racketeering and so on, and then their successors were just clicking through social media posts. People didn’t see it as serious work: It was like using cannons for a bird hunt.

So in 2011, when I had just transferred there, there was a huge labor shortage. The agents themselves would say you could almost see tumbleweed blowing around like in American movies. A 100-person department could be 50 or 60 percent short, and there were fewer than 10 people who really understood the details of the work. Those people really had a thing or two figured out: They could tell by somebody’s clothes what subculture or organization they identified with. The rest of them just didn’t get it.

There was a really small number of people who transferred there because they were interested — people who were mega soccer fans themselves and stuff like that. The rest transferred to wait things out until they retired. Some people were sent to the center as a form of punishment. It was very telling that the subdivision heads went around the MVD’s institutes themselves to recruit future graduates. There were no potential employees waiting in line to be hired there.

Over time, the situation changed. The president started talking about the necessity of escalating anti-extremism efforts more often at MVD conferences. The AEC’s role began to grow, and its employees started to get more privileges in investigation operations — they were able to avoid bureaucratic complications and skip waiting lists. Now, the AEC gets a green light wherever it goes.

At this point, people do want to work there. That’s also largely because the workload there isn’t as overwhelming as it is in local police offices or criminal investigation divisions. Plus, the nature of the work is a little different. In criminal investigations, your workflow goes from the crime to the perpetrator, but at the AEC, it’s the other way around: You go from the perpetrator to the crime. It can even be the case that the officers find out about some suspicious person, and then they only commit a crime later on. But you can’t arrest people in advance because nobody knows whether the person will actually do anything illegal or not. It’s easy to devolve into provocations in cases like these.

How do people get charged with extremism?

I’d split all the high-profile extremism cases that stir up significant public resistance into two categories based on how they come about. The first category involves public figures who get charged after the government machine decides to “take them out.” I’ve never gotten orders from above to “take out” somebody who had become an inconvenience to the government, but I’ve seen how other AEC employees work, and I think that kind of thing can happen.

The second category of criminal cases comes straight out of the stick system. Technically, there was no stick system at the AEC, but the officers still have to report the number of cases they open, so it’s not much of a difference. And I think most cases fall into that second category. It’s not likely that anyone felt a pressing need to go after Maria Motuznaya when she was charged, for example. Cases like that happen because the cops sit there and think, “Dude, awesome, these pictures are saved, let’s write ‘em up and get a report.” That’s how they justify their existence. The government makes its demands, and they go and make it happen.

What do Center E employees think about charging people with crimes for sharing posts on social media?

Generally, the attitude is that it’s just a job. Most people don’t stop and think about how somebody can be locked up for life just because they posted a couple of paragraphs or a video. You could say they’re opportunists. Their reasoning is “I’ll do what’s asked of me and hope I don’t get yelled at by the boss.”

In most cases, AEC officers are cops who used to work in criminal investigations or some other similar area. They used to work on murders and robberies, but now they just have to sort through shared posts on VKontakte. So they all want to keep that cushy little position for themselves, and they’re willing to do what they’re told.

What attitude do Center E employees have toward the government and the opposition?

When I was working there, I never really heard any negative comments about the government. But it wasn’t like they forced the idea on us that we had a specific category of enemies. Sometimes, they did call individual political figures State Department agents or say they had a million dollars in foreign currency in the bank. I won’t name any names, but they’re well-known people.

There were even people at the center who thought 1917 was on the horizon and they’d get a Cheka uniform before long. I remember very vividly how, right after Putin was reelected in 2012, we had a routine planning meeting, and one of the commanders said, without a hint of a smile or a hint of sarcasm, “That’s it. Starting tomorrow, freedom of speech in this country is over.” In his worldview, the situation was — the election’s over; no more freedom of speech; it’s time for us badass Chekists to take out everybody.

Generally speaking, though, people have a range of views of the opposition. There are individual people who hate it. But if you look at the center as a whole, for most departments, it’s just not their job. Take the counterterrorism department. They catch terrorist groups, infiltrate them — what do they have to do with the opposition?

If you look at the specific departments that work mass protests and stuff like that, you’ll find more blind obedience than personal dislike there, too. The boss comes in and says, “Do this.” And nobody asks any questions — they just go and do it. As they keep working, that obedience can turn into personal ill will because you start working on somebody, you get to know more about them, and you can tell they’re an idiot and they’re doing something bad. Naturally, you start having more personal feelings because the person might go off and do something out of the ordinary.

What do Center E officers do during protests?

They blend in with the crowd and keep an eye on the protesters. Their main goal is to wheedle out the most active ones, the ringleaders, the rulebreakers. Maybe even provocateurs. AEC officers also have to be able to recognize political figures. We all see how as soon as some celebrity steps outside, they get arrested right away just because it’s them.

It’s not like the police officers out there in uniform are under their command, but there is some level of collaboration. An AEC employee can point to somebody they think should be arrested, and then, of course, that person gets arrested.

AEC agents also take videos of what goes on. That’s to help the police with their job. For example, if somebody commits a crime, then the footage can be used as evidence in their case. Maybe the police will have to identify somebody afterward. Maybe a certain individual just catches their eye. Nobody knows ahead of time what might happen.

I don’t believe the theory that there are bloggers who help the AEC while they livestream protests. I think it’s just a conspiracy theory because I don’t understand what would stop the agents themselves from videotaping the exact same things. Also, what would be in it for the bloggers? Of course, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there’s no such partnership, but to me, that seems like a really strange concept.

Why do Center E agents go to protests in civilian dress?

Combining visible and invisible methods is a basic principle of law enforcement operations. The ability to operate incognito is even provided by Russian law. Center E employees aren’t obligated to wear a uniform, so they don’t.

That said, it’s easy to identify agents when they stand next to people in uniform and talk to them. It’s obvious that no ordinary pedestrian would do that. It’s especially obvious because they usually wear jeans and nice shoes and carry a leather messenger bag. I call it the “Agent Leatherbag” look.

There are two reasons they stick out so much. One is that there are a lot of obstacles to staying incognito and to the center’s work in general. To give you a simple example, once, I got to work, and my browser told me I wasn’t allowed to be on social media during work hours. It was just a stupid order from afar that banned everybody from social media, even the eshniki who are on Odnoklassniki or VKontakte because that’s their job.

There was another stupid order from afar that said agents had to be either wearing uniform or in business dress whenever they went to the city headquarters on Petrovka Street. So AEC agents just can’t show up in clothes that would let them blend in with the crowd if, say, there’s a general meeting in the Petrovka headquarters right before a protest. The guards just wouldn’t let them in otherwise.

The second reason for all this is that some people think they aren’t giving themselves away. And then other people know they’re giving themselves away, but they don’t really care.

Why do the same Center E agents show up at protests for years on end?

I wouldn’t say anybody takes pleasure in going to protests or that it’s a sign of stagnation in their career. It’s just that the people who have been doing it for more than a year are naturally more experienced. It’s logical to think that a more experienced agent would be able to get oriented faster if something comes up at a protest, and they’d be more likely to behave appropriately.

A man carries a video camera at Moscow’s August 3 protest.
Sergey Yerzhenkov / Meduza
The same man carries a video camera at Moscow’s August 10 protest.
Kristina Safonova / Meduza

At the same time, it can be harder for more experienced agents to blend in because everyone already knows who they are. From the outside, it just looks funny, but nobody thinks about the fact that there might be other eshniki in the crowd that nobody recognizes. It could be that five meters away from an eshnik you know, there’s an eshnik you don’t know. It could even be that the famous eshniki go to protests on purpose to attract attention away from the others.

Center E’s most famous agent is Alexey Okopny. Who is he?

He’s the center’s most despicable employee. He used to work in the Department for Combating Illegal Parties as a senior special agent. They would go to all the opposition protests just to justify the department’s existence somehow, and at some point, he got on camera and got famous. Plus, they weren’t exactly a shining example of incognito operations.

Then, he transferred to the Public Events Department, which he now leads. After protests, he drives around to all the police stations and points out the most active protesters among everyone who’s been arrested to make sure law enforcement treats them accordingly. He also has some skeletons in his closet from the murder of a National Bolshevik, and people are always going to remind him of that fact.

Opposition activists see him as the bloody regime’s executioner. I didn’t have any problems with him when I’d talk to him myself, but I think that over time, his fight against the opposition got personal. After all these years, his job has gotten to be a little bit more than a job for him.

All in all, I think it’s because on one hand, the opposition pillories him, and on the other, his career is going really well, and naturally, he’s grateful to the government and to his direct superiors. He’s 100 percent loyal. He sees himself as a dedicated old hand, a legendary agent who started from the bottom and rose to the top of a department in the citywide police headquarters.

Do Center E agents fabricate extremism cases?

Hypothetically, it’s possible, but why would they? Given the specifics of the center’s work, they don’t really need fabrications. Plus, on a technical level, how would you do that? Let’s say were talking about a VKontakte post. Before, you could have just made a clone of somebody’s page, gotten a couple of witnesses together, and charged the person with whatever you wanted. But now, there’s Yarovaya’s law, and when every post gets archived, it’s not realistic to fabricate things anymore. Basically, this law that’s attracted a lot of criticism can actually work in somebody’s favor if the government wants to fabricate a case against them.

Do Center E agents ever go native?

It depends on the department. For example, in the Religious Extremism Department, I sincerely doubt that anybody could end up adopting the beliefs that they’re fighting.

Same goes for counterterrorism. It’s very telling that when that department was just created, they hung up a full-color printout with photos of terrorists like in American movies. And then they crossed out the terrorists’ faces very carefully once they were liquidated. Even though the liquidations happened through special operations outside the Moscow AEC. I think that’s a kind of going native too, actually.

Generally, though, AEC agents have it the same as anybody else in the police force. Their empathy and humanity get desensitized. You don’t hold yourself responsible for the fact that your actions can seal somebody’s fate, make it impossible for them to live a normal life ever again.

Essentially, the attitude people have is that their work is an assembly line. Today, you’re after somebody; tomorrow, you’re after somebody else. So the attitude is just that somebody’s gotta do it. The party said, “Do it”; the Komsomol said, “Done.”

The Russian edition of this piece is part of a Meduza special project dedicated to resisting police brutality and reforming the Russian justice system. You can find other pieces from the project here.

Transcription by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Hilah Kohen