Russia crackdown on activists stirs Soviet comparisons

MOSCOW — Two months ago, a civic-minded history professor in the picturesque city of Kostroma, Russia invited a US diplomat to take part in a roundtable about Russian-American relations. The event was open, the conversation spirited — and the professor’s organization was taken to court, accused of being a foreign agent.

The Kostroma Center for the Support of Public Initiatives ran afoul of a new law requiring organizations that receive funds from abroad and engage in political activity to register as foreign agents.

The center’s chairman says his group is neither political nor in the pay of foreign governments.


The law, they say, is being used to silence advocacy groups and frighten supporters, and it reminds some of the Cold War era, especially since many of the targets have US connections.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘You know, Kostroma is a small city,’’ said Nikolai Sorokin, the historian, ‘‘and everyone’s talking about this. It’s like in Soviet times when you could go to jail for that.’’

Howard Solomon, the US Embassy’s political officer, had gone to Kostroma mainly to tour a plant where a Houston company is investing about $100 million in an oil rig factory, creating an estimated 500 jobs, the kind of project courted by the Russian government.

On Feb. 28 he participated in a roundtable with about 30 people, including activists, retirees, students, journalists — and a priest who gave him a hard time about American culture and Coca-Cola.

‘‘Prosecutors believe that since we organized this roundtable with Solomon,’’ Sorokin said, ‘‘this is automatically political activity.’’


The US Embassy saw the visit differently, saying it was the kind of public diplomacy practiced around the world.

Prosecutors began investigating nongovernment organizations after President Vladimir Putin made it clear he wanted action on the foreign agent law, publicly stating that 654 Russia organizations were receiving foreign money, said Pavel Chikov, chairman of Agora, an association that offers NGOs legal representation.

‘‘They needed to find something that can be considered political in terms of the law,’’ he said, ‘‘and in Kostroma they found the roundtable.’’