The Price of Dissent
BY NINA ROZHANOVSKAYA
Last April, Oleg Bondarev, a sixty-year-old veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who lives in the Russian city of Tambov, was fined a total of 510,000 rubles (approximately $7,100) for participating in a public protest and for reposting information about a protest on his social media accounts.
Were it not for a swift and effective crowdfunding campaign, Bondarev would have faced personal bankruptcy. The average retirement pension in Russia is only 15,744 rubles ($220) per month. Private donations regularly help people facing charges and huge fines keep their lives together.
In Russia, it is no longer unusual for monthly contributions to NGOs and advocacy groups to feature in a person’s banking app, right next to streaming service payments. But the money raised to save independent media from shutdown or to support a detained activist looks increasingly like a targeted tax imposed on those who care about their fellow citizens in need of help.
Exercising the constitutionally protected right to free speech and freedom of assembly may get a person fired from a stable job (as happened to some Moscow Subway employees) or expelled from the university. Laptops and mobile phones may be seized during a home search and never returned. The professional legal assistance required when facing charges may be costly. And even a short detention could mean the loss of income.
A robust mutual support system has emerged in Russia that relies to a large degree on donation-based crowdfunding, which takes different forms. Sometimes people chip in to help a specific person, as in the case of the Pskov-based journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, who was found guilty of “justifying terrorism” after she published an article exploring the reasons for an FSB office bombing in Arkhangelsk and was fined 500,000 rubles ($6,950). Sometimes money is raised for an organization or a group of people. In February 2021 the political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, a popular public intellectual, held a Q&A stream on YouTube and within two hours raised over 3.3 million rubles (over $45,000), which she split among three causes.
In May, OVD-Info, an NGO helping those detained and arrested, and Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, held a joint stream in support of political prisoners. In terms of platform, mutual support campaigns are not limited to online streams, dedicated websites, or public appeals on Facebook. There are, for instance, channels on the popular messaging app Telegram where donors can help cover the costs of food, toiletries, and other essentials for detained protesters.
Crowdfunding in support of human rights organizations and initiatives is certainly not a new phenomenon in Russia, but there was a surge in such donations in early 2021, against the backdrop of major public protests all across the country. For instance, OVD-Info project, whose slogan is “No one should be left alone against the system,” collected almost 49 million rubles ($678,000) in donations in January 2021 and 57 million rubles ($791,000) in February.
It is not unusual for independent media to rely on donations, but sometimes there is no choice. In April 2021, the popular Russian-language news website Meduza, headquartered in Riga, Latvia, was declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian Ministry of Justice and now faces an array of legal and commercial challenges associated with this status, which puts its journalists at risk and scares off advertisers. On April 29 the outlet, which has operated since 2014 without a paywall, issued a plea for help, asking its readers for donations. Two weeks later, Meduza reported that almost 80,000 people had already joined its crowdfunding campaign. Meduza has survived so far, but another media outlet, VTimes, has not. VTimes was launched only last October by journalists who used to produce Vedomosti, a business daily that lost its independence because of a takeover by a Kremlin-connected businessman.
On March 1, legislation raising the fines for various protest-related infractions entered into force. At the same time, research carried out by the Project media outlet indicates that in January and February 2021, Moscow courts fined protesters for a much smaller aggregate sum but sentenced them to six times more days of arrest than during the summer protests of 2019. The rationale behind the switch to lengthierr detention times is unclear, but one possible explanation could be that in the case of Muscovites, detention is now seen as a more efficient deterrent against protesting than financial penalties.
The mobilization of support for independent media and activists sends a positive signal and attracts new donors and volunteers, but the increase in donations in early 2021 due to what The Bell, an independent news site, called the “Navalny effect” could not have escaped the government’s notice. In March, when recounting the successes of crowdfunding, Kommersant newspaper already wondered how long it would take the Russian authorities to follow the example of Belarus and find ways to penalize such manifestations of civic solidarity. In June, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared an extremist organization, and thus individuals who donated to the foundation may be barred from running in elections. The State Duma also adopted a new bill enhancing the restrictions on support (including in the form of donations) to so-called “undesirable organizations” and expanding the ability of Russian government agencies to track money transfers from abroad and monitor the financial flows of nonprofit organizations. According to RBC, NGOs—especially the ones with a “foreign agent” label—expect the new provisions to scare many donors away.
Financial contribution used to be a simple way to help the common cause and a safer alternative to other forms of activism. It is no longer as simple and safe as before, but it is already an integral part of how Russian civil society operates. Subscription to donations for political and civic causes seems indeed to have become associated with a certain lifestyle, just as the meme now widely circulating in Russia jokingly suggests. (According to the meme, one can barely survive on 100,000 rubles in Russia, having to spend 20k on rent, 10k on food, and 70k on donations to various NGOs.)
The strength of civil society is constantly tested, and the new restrictions are meant to dissuade people not just from protesting or expressing their views in public but from providing financial assistance to those who do. Still, once you have noticed an injustice, it is difficult to unsee it, and once you have developed the habit of setting aside a small fraction of your income to aid causes that matter to you, this habit persists. This often starts with charity, with helping sick children or animal shelters, but spills over to other causes. The Russian “tax on dissent” is a heavy burden when activists, “foreign agent” NGOs, and independent media have to pay it by themselves, but when more people join in the same “injustice-conscious” lifestyle and split the bill, the burden becomes bearable.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more