Archive for September, 2012

What I Will (and Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow

Monday, September 24th, 2012

On September 24, 2012, I will leave Moscow after three years of living here, a few weeks shy of the day, thirty years ago, that I was born here. In between, I managed to have half a childhood here, a whole life in America, and a fellowship that brought me to Moscow, on September 12, 2009, for nine months. Instead, I stayed for three years. I never expected to stay that long, and I never expected that these years would make me a real, live journalist. (Medicine was always the completely unrealistic back-up plan.) I never expected to interview the kinds of people I did, I never expected to be able to speak real, educated adult Russian well enough to go on local television, I never expected to see the kinds of things I did, I never expected to write this much, and I certainly never expected that it would be so hard to leave. I never expected to fall in love.

After a fourteen-hour journey via Zurich, I will land at Dulles International Airport, and I will begin my life in Washington, D.C. I will get a new beat and new colleagues. I will make new friends. Perhaps I will come back to Moscow for the occasional story, but my life will be in the Chesapeake basin. And, after months of heartache, Moscow will slowly become a bright blur, fodder for dinner party conversation, or a handshake to inaugurate me into the secret society of all the other American journalists who have come through this place and come away transformed. It will become yet another factoid about me.

But folded deep into those anecdotes will be the fact that this foreign city is also my native city, a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien, a place I’ve loved and hated for so long. Buried in there will be all the details I will forget with delight and remember with longing. And before my memory irons them out, I want to make note of them.

When I leave Moscow, I won’t miss the traffic and the pollution and the boom-town prices, but I’ll miss that a gypsy cab for $6 still gets you just about anywhere.

I’ll miss the beautifully Soviet metro stations—the stained glass, the marble, the utopian, gilt mosaics. I’ll miss the fact that you rarely have to wait more than a minute for a train. I won’t miss stepping inside at nine in the morning past a cloud of peregar, the smell of metabolized alcohol.

I won’t miss how much Russians drink, but I will miss drinking with Russians.

I won’t miss the late-night debates in which you find yourself falling down an epistemological black hole. Down there, nothing is provable and nothing is knowable, except for your sparring partner’s increasingly bizarre pronouncements. In Moscow, I have debated the following topics: whether or not the archived kill-lists with Stalin’s signature are forgeries; the allegation that I am naïve for thinking that American traffic cops generally don’t take bribes; that I am a C.I.A. spy; and the reason America is a more successful country than Somalia (hint: it wasn’t founded by black people). I’ve also been asked to prove how smoking causes lung cancer.

I won’t miss the casual racism and the relax-I-was-just-joking anti-Semitism. I will miss the fact that just about everyone can do a killer Georgian accent and knows a truly wonderful Jewish joke.

I will also miss the fact that, with the anti-Kremlin protests of the last few months, there is still a place in the world where you can debate the things the West has long ago stopped talking about and long ago started taking for granted; that, here, you have conversations full of big words and basic concepts like “freedom” and whether government officials can have fully private lives.

I won’t miss the fact that abstraction can get boring.

I won’t miss the casual misogyny, but I will miss the fact that it makes for excellent copy, as it did when Bolshoi prima Anastasia Volochkova quit the ruling United Russia party and the party responded as follows: “Women, like children, are susceptible to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” (As one American friend here once noted, “It’s like ‘Mad Men,’ but with worse clothes.”)

I won’t miss living in a city where virtually everyone is white and wearing an Orthodox Christian cross, where the only places of worship you see are the onion domes of Orthodox churches, and where the Church and the state are in such close cooperation. The medieval beauty of the architecture wears thin when there’s nothing to contrast it to, and when you know of the abuses happening under its aegis. A monopoly is a monopoly is a monopoly.

I won’t miss the fact that Jewish culture and Jewish people have largely disappeared from this city, and that another monopoly—Chabad—has become the only way to be Jewish here.

I will miss the fact that, when you go to someone’s birthday party, you have to bring them a gift or flowers. It gets expensive, but the moment when you hand it over is so nice. And when it’s your birthday, you may have to pay for the food and the booze, but you can barely get the flowers home, to say nothing of the gifts.

I won’t miss the fact that there is no trust in the Russian system: not in institutions, not in people. I will miss the strength of the bonds it breeds when you find that trust.

I will miss the fact that Russians are not afraid of what we in America nervously call “the L-word,” or the messes it can get you into.

I won’t miss the fact that seemingly every educated, professional woman my age happens to also be a single mom. I will miss the fact that kids are a natural part of everyone’s life here, rather than a special, perfectly-planned project.

I won’t miss the fact that nothing is planned here, that everything on every level is slapdash and knee jerk, that everything happens, as the Russians say, “from the cunt.” I will miss the fact that this means you don’t have to plan with whom you’ll have dinner two weeks from now, and that your social life can be spontaneous, organic, and sincere.

I will miss the strange and colorful expressions. (And that, as they say, is “speaking truth to the uterus.”)

I won’t miss the fact that there is only a handful of decent bars and restaurants in this city of 15 million. I will miss that this means that most of them are like Cheers, and that you are guaranteed to bump into half your friends on any given night. It also makes you a better cook.

I will miss ordering water in a restaurant and having the waiter ask you if you want it “room temperature, or cold?” with a look on their faces that suggests that opening the latter door will lead you to a desolate place of upper respiratory demise (see below).

I will miss the way that Russian journalists will readily drink beer with you till 3 am on a school night. I won’t miss thinking about what it does for their product, or mine.

I will miss the addiction to social networks and text messages like “Look at my FB page!” I won’t miss the loss of productivity. Actually, I will.

I thought I wouldn’t miss the ubiquity of emoticons – especially, the ones with no eyes – but I was wrong.))))

I will miss the heels, but not the painful fact of wearing them on a long Moscow trek.

I won’t miss the bad lip jobs and the bad Botox jobs, the obvious hair extensions, the mullets that have slowly been beaten back into neck bangs, the range of men’s footwear, which ranges from pointy to cheese-grate, the male purses, the men’s jeans that are tight and loose in absolutely paradoxical places, respectively. I will miss the people watching. A friend visiting from New York confirmed: Moscow beats the Big Apple with its manicured hands tied behind its back.

I will miss the amazing medical theories I’ve heard here. Pimples? Try massaging your face with semen. Migraine? Must’ve eaten too much mayonnaise. Gynecological cancer? Too much lady-stress. I won’t, however, miss the fact that I’m afraid to go to the doctor’s office here. (Once, my friends’ six-year-old daughter broke her arm and, when the doctor saw the x-ray, he did a double take, pulled a medical reference book off the shelf, and started feverishly reading it. A friend of a friend was mistakenly told he was HIV-positive, and lived with this diagnosis for about a week.)

I will miss the fact that you can get antibiotics and just about anything else over the counter. I won’t miss people breathing down your neck in the pharmacy line, asking why you picked out such expensive medicine. (There is no word in Russian for “privacy.”)

I won’t miss needing my passport for everything, including returning a pair of flip-flops to the store. I will miss bank tellers looking at my American passport and asking me where the Russian is.

I won’t miss the fact that in Russia, the absence of the rule of law is sublimated into the tyranny of the procedural guideline and the dictatorship of the technicality. Without the right notarized slip of paper, the saying goes, “you’re a doodie.”

I won’t miss the fact that no one ever seems to have any change, especially cashiers. I love that it’s made me good at arithmetic again.

I won’t miss the aggression and rudeness in every interaction. I will miss the creative sarcasm it engenders in all participants.

I will miss the twisted, clever Russian sense of humor.

I will miss the laser precision with which Russians answer questions. “Isn’t there a café here somewhere?” “Yes.” “…and where is it?” “Second floor.”

I will miss the long and freezing Russian winters and the heat-generating habits they inspire. I will especially miss the warm, short Moscow summers, when it gets dark close to midnight and the whole city seems to live in outdoor cafes.

I will miss how tough Moscow makes you, and how miserable, and the way it teaches you to hunt out and savor the good. I will miss the dizzying happiness born of those moments. In three years, I’ve never seen anyone crying in the street.

What I Will (and Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow [TNR]

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

MOSCOW—When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 8, there was one item on the agenda she was not expecting. Sitting down with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the two discussed missile defense and Syria, talked about Iran’s quest to get a nuclear weapon. And then Lavrov dropped the bomb: USAID was to cease all operations inside the Russian Federation starting October 1. Four days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered the news in writing.

USAID, the government development agency started by John F. Kennedy in 1961, first opened its operations in Russia right after the end of the Cold War. The goal was to help Russia transition from a command economy to a market one. Since then, the agency has helped Russians draft land and tax reform, has tried to jump-start the small business sector through micro loans and has addressed public health issues like Russia’s mammoth AIDS and tuberculosis problems.

Mostly, of course, it finances civil society and democracy initiatives. Today’s USAID office is a shadow of its former self, with a budget of under $50 million, a drop fom $207 million in 1995, but it still finances large chunks of the operating budgets of a number of prominent Russian organizations like the storied human rights and historical “memory” group Memorial, the Russian branch of Transparency International, and the election monitoring NGO “Golos”. These organizations, not coincidentally, are an irritant for the Kremlin, which is often the target of their criticism.

There has long been talk in Moscow of shutting down USAID, but it’s impossible to appreciate today’s news without first considering the backdrop of continuing anti-government protests and the Kremlin’s increasingly harsh way of dealing with them. The foundation for this move was laid back in May when the Russian parliament passed a law that required such groups—which participate in the political life of the country and get foreign financing—to register as “foreign agents.” The new measure goes one step further and threatens to shut the spigot off altogether.

Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, sees something even more sinister in this. Golos and its army of fastidious election monitors are a favorite of the American government and of the U.S. ambassador to Russia. But to Putin, they are spoilers; the Kremlin likes its elections engineered just so. Last fall, a week before the December parliamentary elections, Putin took a shot across the bow at Golos, saying: “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money—so called ‘grantees’—whom they instruct…in order to influence the result of the election in our country.” He added, “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” Shortly thereafter, Golos offices were raided.

Shibanova sees today’s news as the next act of the crackdown. “If what I’m hearing is true, that the deadline is October 1, then it seems that the government is in a rush to close us down in time for the regional elections, which are October 14,” she said. “The timing seems very suspicious to me.”

The U.S. government, for its part, insists that this doesn’t spell the end of their support for civil rights in Russia. “We haven’t changed our policy,” said one senior government official, and echoed State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland’s statement that State “remains committed to supporting, democracy human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” In December of last year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and floated the administration’s idea of creating a $50 million fund to sponsor democracy development in Russia. This could take on new urgency given today’s news and the State Department’s defiant pledge to continue in this line of work, be it through USAID or some other vehicle.

“This is not anything new,” says Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International Russia. “In 2005, when they found the rock”—a British spy camera that looked like a rock—“they went after foreign funding. A lot of our donors left us then, but we made it out alive.” Panfilova says she and her employees simply found other work and contributed parts of their salaries to the project. And while finding domestic sponsors becomes increasingly unlikely in a context such as this, Panfilova remains hopeful. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We’re not stupid.”

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All [TNR]

Russia’s Wild Fantasies of an All-Powerful State Department

Monday, September 17th, 2012

When journalist Arkady Mamontov aired his television exposé on Pussy Riot last week, the central question was who was behind their riotous performance? Mamontov’s investigation yielded two culprits: oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky, and “some Americans” who hired Pussy Riot and choreographed their act in order to corrupt the souls of Russian youth. Mamontov didn’t need to spell out who those Americans were; everyone watching got the message anyway. It was the State Department.

If you were to believe the official Russian press, it is not Vladimir Putin running the country, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Russian public has been lead to believe that penny-pinching Foggy Bottom is a sleek and furtive machine with money to burn, one that can topple leaders on a whim and choreograph elaborate street protests at a far remove.

The State Department’s plots against Russia were initially unveiled by none other than Putin himself, who, in December, accused Clinton of “giving the signal” to Russia’s opposition to go out and protest after last year’s parliamentary election. Then there was talk that the State Department paid tens of thousands of Muscovites to come out and rail against the Kremlin. (In case you were wondering about the true origins of America’s national debt.) Then newly-appointed Ambassador Michael McFaul arrived, and he was accused in state media of having been sent by the State Department to foment revolution in Russia via his Twitter account. State television has aired chilling documentaries about how the State Department was behind everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the economic chaos of the 1990s, because its ultimate goal is “to bring Russia to its knees.” One such expose even accused the State Department of deviously luring people to opposition protests with—wait for it—cookies.

To anyone who knows anything about how Foggy Bottom actually works, its Bondian image in Russia is nothing short of hilarious. “The conspiracy theories are all 100 percent correct,” quipped a Hill staffer who works on foreign policy. “The Russians cracked the code on this one. The State Department really is the center of a conspiracy so vast that it boggles the imagination.” People inside the State Department hardly recognize the organization that the Russian government describes. “The Russians see the State Department as this pseudo-mystical, omniscient, omnipotent organization,” explained one State Department employee in Moscow. “Little do they know that we live from budget to budget, and that, at times, we’re even worried about our salaries!”

Whence comes this ill-fitting lionization of a rather unwieldy, bureaucratic ministry? Aside from the obvious propaganda benefit of having an external enemy, a large part of it is rooted in the Russian proclivity to see puppeteers and conspiracies everywhere. In Russia, as in many societies with closed systems of government, nothing is as it seems, even when the counter-intuitive becomes the counter-factual. Archives filled with documents proving mass repressions in the 1930s? Forged. People coming out to demand democratic freedoms on their own? Please. (A couple years ago, a Russian opposition leader went on the television show of Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Kremlin English-language channel Russia Today. He happened to mention that he didn’t think that the State Department engineered the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In fact, he called it “insanity” and “propaganda.” She shot back sarcastically: “So you really believe that they did this themselves? Thought all this stuff up on their own?”)

In part, it comes from the fact that Russians, just like Americans, think that the rest of the world is just like them. In Russia, one man decides everything — including who gets to edit a small scientific journal. It’s hard for Russians to understand, for example, that America does not have a monolithic political system—or even a monolithic foreign ministry—and that President Obama, for example, can’t just tell Congress to go and do something, the way Putin can with his parliament. And because there’s been no real change at the top for over a decade, it’s hard for Russians to grasp that the foreign policy of Obama may differ substantively from that of George W. Bush, and that the appearance of change is not a canard. “Russian public opinion is given to seeing the world not as diverse but as a whole,” says Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin hawk and former parliamentarian. “In the Russian mass consciousness, the American side is a very strong power, so there must be a secret room where people engineer these things.”

Moreover, the man who does decide everything in Russia has a background—however spotty and apparently second-rate—in espionage and subterfuge: He served as a KGB officer in Dresden. Today, he is surrounded by foreign policy advisors who, according to several sources who have sat in on such meetings, are a fairly paranoid bunch. “Even during the reset, the bureaucracies of the two countries have never gotten along well,” says Cliff Kupchan, who heads up the Russia division in the Eurasia Group. “Even when the top gets along well, as they have during Obama era, it’s hard to penetrate down into the ranks, especially when many are products of the Cold War.”

And, to be fair to the Russians, the State Department has expressed a clear interest in democracy promotion around the world. In Russia, those efforts are mostly conducted through USAID and NDI, as well as by grants to local NGOs. These efforts, of course, are officially unwelcome and seen not as a strain of quixotic American idealism, but as meddling. In fact, there was talk recently of the Russian government shutting down USAID on its turf. “Of course, no one pays them to organize protests, but they pay them for years to promote ‘democratic values,’” explains Markov, who, ironically, spent a decade working for NDI in Moscow. “I think the State Department itself participates very little in what is happening on the ground, but they are happy that these protests are happening, no doubt.” (“Many Russians really think NDI can cause color revolutions,” says Kupchan. “Empirically, I don’t think that’s the case. They have a lot of very young people running around in these countries.”)

And yet, it’s hard for American officials not to see a bit of humor in it, like the old joke about a Jewish man reading an anti-Semitic paper because it’s brimming with good news: Jews have all the money, Jews have all the power. Says the Hill staffer: “They still believe in American power and American influence, probably more than Americans do. It’s probably the last place in the world where people still think we can engineer anything effectively. It’s very refreshing.”

Russia’s Wild Fantasies of an All-Powerful State Department [TNR]

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Today, the Russian parliament voted 291 to 150 to strip one Gennady Gudkov of his seat. Gudkov, a former KGB man and businessman, has served in the Duma, the Russian parliament, for eleven years, most of them in the leftist Just Russia party. (The biography on his website notes, oddly, that he was “the first deputy elected in the third millennium.”) The ostensible cause was that Gudkov “combined a deputy’s role with an entrepreneur’s”—that is to say, he continued to run his private security business while voting on laws and otherwise involving himself in the strange workings of the Duma.

Some sort of punishment would undoubtedly have been deserved—if only Gudkov’s “combining” had been proven in court, or if every other parliamentarian weren’t doing the exact same thing. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the evergreen clown of the pseudo-nationalist LDPR faction, for example, has a vodka factory that makes Zhirinovsky Vodka. Another deputy, a young man from the United Russia faction, is the CEO of a company called “Konsalting Menedzhment Strategia.” According to a list compiled by Gudkov’s son Dmitry (also a deputy from the same party), his colleagues in the Duma own scores of business, hundreds of shares in companies, acres of posh real estate, and drive quite incredible cars. (One drives a Bentley, for example; the husband of another drives a Lamborghini Diablo. Indeed, the parking lot in front of the Duma building is a thicket of luxury vehicles, all this despite the parliamentarians’ officially low salaries.)

None of this is anything new. Russian bureaucrats are the country’s new elite. A study done by a Moscow real estate company found that most of the apartments on the “elite” market (apartments for $1.5 to 2 million) sell to bureaucrats. Their wives and children are usually the heads of large and lucrative businesses, and their automotive choices rarely jive with the incomes listed on their official declarations. Everyone in Russia knows that in Russia politics is almost explicitly about proximity to cash flows and the size of the bucket you get. This is why, when the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times recently reported on potential insider trading by which Putin ally Igor Shuvalov (then deputy prime minister) shuffled about a billion dollars to himself and his friends, no one so much as batted an eye, not even Shuvalov. A case that, in the West, would have churned up a media sensation and a drawn out legal battle here didn’t even ripple the water.

And this is the problem with the Gudkov case. Yes, Gudkov had a nice business—I would know: I’ve been to the well-appointed 18th century mansion that serves as its central office—but the fact that his business was first shut down (the Interior Ministry revoked its license that had allowed it to operate) and that he was shorn of his status clearly has nothing to do with the business. It has everything to do with the fact that Gudkov, a good old boy, went over to the wrong side: When mass political protests began after December’s disputed parliamentary elections, Gudkov became a very visible and very vocal leader of the opposition, both in parliament and on the streets. The issue is not that he is a businessman, but that he is a traitor. This is why, when Gudkov finished his farewell speech to his colleagues shortly before the vote, one United Russia deputy shouted “Judas!” (His fellow traitor, television celebrity and daughter of Putin’s mentor Ksenia Sobchak, was subjected to a humiliating nine-hour search of her home in June after joining the opposition. The investigators took nearly $2 million from her safe—and if she ever sees the money again, I will quit this profession.)

When I asked high-ranking United Russia deputy Andrey Isaev about the Gudkov case, he told me it was done with the Duma’s prestige in mind. “I think it was absolutely the right decision and if we hadn’t made it, millions of citizens would have decided that being in the Duma is a lucky break,” Isaev told me. “They’ll think that deputies can do whatever, violate whatever laws. Today’s decision showed that that’s not the case.”

Actually, Duma deputies enjoy legal immunity—the criminal investigation against Gudkov that the government’s Investigative Committee is now considering would never have been possible had he not been forced to relinquish his seat in parliament. But that’s not even the point. The point is that, if the Duma has little legitimacy after the widely and loudly falsified December parliamentary elections and the mass protests it sparked, it has even less legitimacy now. (After the vote, Russian-language Twitter buzzed with the anger of those who had voted for Gudkov and his party and December, and now felt cheated and silenced.) The case becomes yet another reason for Russians to come to the very reasonable conclusion that the law and the Russian judicial system are its enemies. As Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group once wisely pointed out to me, the law in Russia does not exist as a neutral framework of guarantees and protections designed to level the playing field. In Russia, the law doesn’t exist until it is needed to take out an opponent, or a traitor. In Russia, the law is a weapon.

Gudkov and anyone watching the fast unraveling of his career—first the business, then the Duma seat—knew that once the system aims itself at you, there is no chance you’ll escape whole. The outcome of this case was obvious months ago, when government inquiries into Gudkov’s business first appeared this summer. Perhaps this is why Gudkov’s speech in parliament focused on an unspecified future in which he could claim vindication—and why he answered the heckle “Judas!” with a full-throated “Go fuck yourself!”

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers [TNR]

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

On July 26, the heads of two of the most famous human rights groups in Russia sent President Barack Obama an open letter with a pressing issue: were they, or were they not his spies?

It was a strange move, but also quite a clever one. In May, in the last week of its session, the Russian parliament kicked into overdrive and passed a raft of measures widely seen as trying to pull the rug out from under the increasingly vocal and increasingly numerous opposition. One of the new laws required that Russian NGOs that received money from abroad and did political work inside Russia register as “foreign agents.” It would also require them to add this label to all their publications, and to subject themselves to strict government oversight. Because it’s hard for Russian human rights groups to get money at home, they often turn to Europe and the U.S.; now the money would come with a tag that would make them even more alien and suspect at a time when the government has stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric. It would also make money even harder to get. This left the human rights community—as well as those groups that monitor elections, corruption, and police brutality—in a bind: Take the money and face domestic harassment and public hostility, or tighten their belts even further.

But then Lev Ponomarev, of “For Human Rights,” had an idea. “The law was sloppily written,” he explained. “It uses the word ‘agent,’ but doesn’t define it.” But the civil code already has a definition, and for someone to be classified an agent, there has to be a contract with the principal on behalf of whom the agent is working. Because Ponomarev’s organization takes money from three American funds—MacArthur, Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy—he decided to ask his supposed principal whether or not they had this contract.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded. “I would like to thank you for your letter. President Obama asked me to answer you,” she wrote in a letter that was posted, in Russian, on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, and a co-signer on the July letter. “Every American administration has always supported the important work of your organization in defending human rights in Russia,” Clinton went on:

In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so. The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.

The fairly quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years. He was an Oxford graduate student in Moscow when the Soviet Union started to crumble, and befriended a lot of the players on both sides of the barricades. He is also extremely close with the president, on whom he prevailed, early in his term, to give Russian-American relations far more ram space than most anyone expected, or thought they deserved. Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow, and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.

The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharanasky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.

“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told me. (In fact, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party called Clinton’s “a love letter.”) “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”

There was another aspect that particularly tickled Ponomarev: the international scandal aspect. Come fall, the law will go into effect and Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” will have to register as a foreign agent. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you get your money from? Whose agent are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘America,’” Ponomarev says. “I register as an agent, and Obama says, ‘Hey, that’s not my agent!’ That’s a little awkward, don’t you think?”

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton [TNR]