But CW is a natural target for government suspicion. In August 2007, it underwent ‘checking’ by the Federal Registration Service (FRS), an agency created the previous year to head a clampdown on NGOs. The FRS could bring no charges against Citizens’ Watch, but things got complicated when they demanded access to all of CW’s outgoing correspondence for the last three years.
‘They were exceeding their powers. I refused to comply and asked for the demand in written form,’ explains Pustyntsev. ‘Next day they delivered it with a threat at the end of the letter: Refusing to give us access to the documents in question will be considered as obstructing the checking procedure.‘ Pustyntsev knew that the FRS could initiate sanctions against an NGO accused of obstructing the checking process, such as freezing its bank accounts.
The team decided they had better comply, but simultaneously lodged a complaint with the FRS’s governing authorities. Their computers were seized and for nine long months the case was passed from one court to another. Finally, CW appealed to the City Court, which in October 2008 ruled in their favour. It was a victory all round, as the ruling created a precedent that other NGOs have used to combat the FRS.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Ironically, while one branch of the government was investigating Citizens’ Watch, another was asking for its help. CW runs a program for youth offenders at prisons around St Petersburg. When the Juvenile Section of the City Court and the Criminal Executive Inspections Department heard about it, they asked CW to train their staff. Pustyntsev called in Andrew Bernhardt and Keith Davies, experts from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, who wrote a training manual for the project, and led seminars for guards, judges and lawyers.
‘Because we’re trustworthy, it’s easier for civil servants to work with us than the government,’ says Pustyntsev. ‘Slowly, we’re proving that transparency and equity are simply more efficient than intimidation.’
All this annoys the Kremlin, which continues to harass CW’s staff. Most of Pustyntsev’s team have family members who endured punishment under the old gulag system, and many have been imprisoned or abused themselves. Resilience, or perhaps complete indifference to suffering, seems to be the core of the Russian character. Generations of servitude have taught them to take pride in pain. Some commentators blame this stoic fatalism for the average Russian’s inability to question the government, as if Russia is like a girl who dates abusive leaders because her father was a violent drunk. In the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II, known to his loving subjects as ‘Little Father’, turned his personal troops on a group of peaceful demonstrators carrying his portrait.
‘Russians just want a leader to defer to, the way they do to God,’ says Anna, a historian from Copenhagen who has spent most of her life in St Petersburg. ‘Whether it’s Stalin or Putin, he’s just stepping into a role. However much they resent it, they’ll accept whatever punishment he doles out.’ She is exasperated by this habitual forbearance. Inveterate socialists, Scandinavians are devoted to equality because it gives them a sense of community. Russians have a little more trouble with the idea of an informal, egalitarian relationship. Serfdom was not abandoned here until 1861, after centuries of hierarchy and feudal role-play. Perhaps this is why communism promised paradise to Russia, but, by the same token, was too alien to take root.