20 years under Putin: a timeline

On July 8, the Dynasty Foundation, Russia’s largest private donor supporting science, was shut down after the Ministry of Justice added this organization to its list of foreign agents. Earlier, Dynasty founder Dmitry Zimin announced that he is ceasing its financing, and left Russia. IMR legal expert Ekaterina Mishina analyzes recent changes in the legislation, arguing that they are damaging to the country.


The Dynasty Foundation was established in 2002 by Dmitry Zimin, founder and the former CEO of Vimpelcom Inc., one of Russia’s leading telecom companies. For over 13 years, Dynasty provided a lifeline for many Russian scientists. Photo: The Dynasty Foundation


I have been a member of the board of the Liberal Mission Foundation for almost seven years and I am immensely proud of it. I am even more proud of it now that Liberal Mission and the Dynasty Foundation, its main sponsor, have been added to the registry of foreign agents—for these days, being included in the registry lends a non-governmental organization a seal of quality.

Witch-hunts and the eternal search for an enemy to blame for our troubles are the permanent bedfellows of Russian totalitarianism, as was evident back in July 2012, when amendments to the Federal Law on Noncommercial Organizations and Law on Public Associations formed a legal framework for the official persecution of Russian NGOs the regime deems undesirable. According to the new paragraph 6 of article 2 of the Federal Law on Noncommercial Organizations, a foreign agent is now any Russian NGO receiving “cash and other property from foreign governments and their public authorities, international and foreign organizations, foreign citizens, stateless persons or persons authorized by them, and (or) from Russian legal entities receiving cash and other property from foreign sources,” and involved “in political activities on the territory of the Russian Federation, including for the benefit of foreign sources.”

The wording of the law implies that NGOs acting as a foreign agent are those that:

  • receive money or property from a foreign source, directly or indirectly;
  • participate in political activities carried out on the territory of Russia.

According to the law, an NGO is deemed to participate in political activities (regardless of statutory goals and objectives stated in its founding documents) if “it is involved (including through financing) in organizing and conducting political activities in order to influence decision-making by public authorities aimed at changing state policy pursued by them, as well as in shaping public opinion for such purposes.” The same paragraph specifies the activities that do not fall under the category of political activities, including “activities in the areas of science, culture, art, health care, preventive care and public health, ... charitable activities as well as promotion of charity.”

But it never gets so bad that it could not get worse. Apparently having found that the Procrustean bed for Russian NGOs was not narrow enough, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, as a loyal ally of Russian law enforcers, decided to support them as much as it could. That support resulted in expanding the definition of “political activities” to include “intention to participate in political activities on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Evidence of such intentions, according to the Constitutional Court (CC), can be found in an NGO’s official documents, or the public speeches of its leaders (officials) containing “calls to adopt, amend, or repeal certain government decisions, notices of meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets submitted by the non-profit organization to the executive authority of a subject of the Russian Federation or to a local authority, drafting and launching of legislative initiatives, as well as other manifestations of social activity, that are objective evidence of its intention to engage in organization and conduct of political campaigns in order to influence decision-making by public authorities and their public policies.” Noting the various forms of political action, the CC included in this category “public appeals to public authorities, disseminating... assessments of decisions taken by public authorities and their policies, as well as other activities, an exhaustive list of which cannot be legislatively established.”

Those who made this decision do not seek to support the academic pursuits of our scientists, educate and support young people, publish good and useful books, or promote liberal values. What they seek is to increase the number of the likes of Sharikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog.

The last part of the sentence is key, as it establishes an open-ended definition of what constitutes political action—one that is vague and dimensionless. Thus, the Ministry of Justice, in its sole discretion, and referring to the ruling of the CC, may qualify virtually any action by an NGO (including the organization of an event) as political action, if it detects an intent “to influence, directly or through the formation of public opinion, decisions by public authorities and their public policies, and aimed at getting wide publicity and getting the attention of the state apparatus and (or) civil society.” In short, the Constitutional Court has made the already extremely difficult life of Russian NGOs even worse by making the grounds upon which an NGO may be added to the list of foreign agents virtually unlimited.

Now any NGO can be included on that list of enemies, provided it:

  • receives even minimal foreign funding;
  • has an intention to engage in political activities, to include those specified in the resolution, as well as “other” (that is, almost any) “manifestations of social activity, that are objective evidence of its intention to engage in organization and conduct of political activities.”

And an exhaustive list of political actions cannot be legislatively established.

And there’s no rewind button: according to article 79 of the Federal Constitutional Law on the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, CC decisions are final and not subject to appeal.

In the same decision the CC has provided an important clarification of the last part of article 2, paragraph 6 of the Federal Law on NGOs, which reads, “Activities in the areas of science, culture, art, health care, preventive and public health, social support and protection of citizens, protection of motherhood and childhood, social support for people with disabilities, promotion of healthy lifestyles, physical culture and sport, protection of flora and fauna, charity, as well as activities for the promotion of philanthropy and volunteerism shall not be considered political activities.”

The fundamentally important legal position of the CC on this matter is as follows: these activities are not considered political, “even if they are intended to influence the decisions of public authorities and public policies pursued by them, but on the condition that these goals are within the limits of the respective areas of activity.”

These provisions of the Federal Law on NGOs and the ruling of the Constitutional Court were openly ignored by the Ministry of Justice, when on May 25 the Dynasty Foundation and the Liberal Mission Foundation were included in the registry of foreign agents. Now, for the first time the blacklist includes Russian NGOs that actively support national science and education and are financed exclusively by Russian sponsors. According to the letter of the Federal Law on Charitable Activities and Charitable Organizations of 1995, charitable activities “shall be understood to mean voluntary activities of citizens and legal entities aimed at provision to citizens or legal entities of assets, including cash, pro bono execution of works, provision of services and other support pro bono or on preferential terms.” Article 2 of this law states that one of the purposes of charitable activities is “to promote activities in the areas of education, science, culture, art, [or] spiritual development of the individual.” These provisions were also ignored by the Ministry of Justice precisely because the intention was to complicate and eventually paralyze the activities of two Russian foundations that actively support Russian science and serve a most important educational purpose.

Dmitry Zimin’s Dynasty Foundation is the first private non-profit foundation to sponsor science and education in modern Russia. Its main objective is to find and support talented people and their ideas and projects in the fields of natural and social sciences. The priority activities of the foundation are to develop fundamental science and education in Russia, facilitate scientific research in the country, and to promote science and education. The foundation actively supports gifted students, young physicists and mathematicians, and teachers; organizes and finances lectures by world luminaries of science; and produces publications under the Dynasty Foundation Library.

The Liberal Mission Foundation, whose president is Yevgeny Yasin, was originally created to bring together liberal economists and to set up a forum for supporters of market reforms. Soon enough the foundation’s activities involved political scientists, sociologists, lawyers, and representatives of other social sciences and the cultural sphere. The Liberal Mission Foundation has set up a unique platform for experts to discuss a wide range of relevant topics. With the financial support provided by the foundation, many books have been published, some of which have been crucial for Russia (for example, a collection titled Trial by Jury in Russia: Improvement of Procedures and Expanding the Jurisdiction, the authors of which, in addition to a highly professional analysis of the trial by jury in our country, also presented concrete proposals to improve existing legislation in this area).

Separately, it must be noted what Liberal Mission was doing for students and young scientists. Projects targeted at young people became pet projects for Yevgeny Yasin. In order to support young scientists, the “Dream of Professor Yasin” project was launched. It was Evgeni Yasin who encouraged me and two of my colleagues, working together with a group of my students, to write a joint monograph titled “What does it mean to be a lawyer?” which describes the problems facing the legal profession in Russia today, and analyzes a number of high-profile cases. Under the project “I Think,” the Liberal Mission Foundation regularly organized educational workshops for young people ages eighteen to twenty-five from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, where they met with Russia’s top experts.

I believe the inclusion of Dynasty and Liberal Mission in the registry of “enemies of the people” is shameful and damaging to the country. I consider the deliberate suppression of the noble and educational activities conducted by these foundations to be a disgrace. There are not enough philanthropists in Russia willing to sponsor science and education, and after the decision of May 25, their number will not increase. Those who made this decision do not seek to support the academic pursuits of our scientists, educate and support young people, publish good and useful books, or promote liberal values. What they seek is to increase the number of the likes of infamous Sharikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog. Of those for whom the words “I think” are taboo.