Circling the Lion's Den

The Kremlin’s Anti-Crisis Package: How and Why “Black Lists” Are Made

Irina Borogan

It comes as no surprise that political and civil society activists in Russia are harassed by the police. Members of the opposition have long complained that they have been followed, detained as they travel by train, or even threatened by the “militsiya” (police). Yet the scope and systematic nature of such activities is just beginning to come to light.

As it turns out, the Russian police are creating databases used to the track the movements of law-abiding citizens. The project is overseen by a new department within the Russian Interior Ministry for countering extremism, but which often targets individuals for no reason other than their political views or social activism. This is the third in a series of articles documenting the government campaign to battle extremism and strengthen control over the public.

Since spring 2009, thousands of policemen throughout the entire country have been forced to engage in the hunt for extremists. It is already plain to see that there aren’t enough extremists to go round: according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ [MVD] Central Informational-Analytical Center (GIATs), in 2008, 379 people in Russia were identified as having committed “extremist” crimes. That is clearly too few for a whole MVD Department, which has units (E centers) in almost every single region. This in turn means that the number of extremists has to be supplemented somehow. But doing this legally, through the courts, would prove difficult: over the past year, the courts refused to recognize extremist motivation in nearly half of all cases brought: cases which subsequently fell apart.

In a situation like this, policemen need to work on “preventing” crimes, as Minister [Rashid] Nurgaliev is constantly urging them to do. And that in turn calls for different methods for the covert surveillance of suspects: tapping telephones, opening and inspecting mail, monitoring travel within the country and outside its borders, and so forth. But first, the circle of people suspected of extremism must be determined, people whose potential crimes consist of spreading radical views or who simply hold points of view that don’t coincide with the authorities’ views must be identified.

The fact that these “black” lists of citizens exist has not only been stated by human rights activists, but by policemen themselves as they report back on work done. But now one can confidently assert that secret surveillance and data gathering is being carried out on citizens who end up on such lists. And this has recently been deemed lawful.

Details emerged in court

In April 2009, when it was announced that the creation of anti-extremist units in the country had been completed, a court ruled the MVD’s tracking of the movements of Sergey Shimovolos , which was done on order from the local UBOP (now – the Center for Countering Extremism) to be lawful. During the trial, it came to light that 3,865 Russians were under this type of surveillance in 2007.

All these people, including Sergey Shimovolos, chair of the Nizhny-Novgorod Human Rights Society, were put on a police list, and subject to so-called “watchdog surveillance” (storozhevoy kontrol). Now, their names come up in the very same electronic card files that have data on wanted criminals.

The concept that the police and the FSB were creating “black lists” of political and social activists emerged several years ago. People began to notice that not a single trip to a public function, whether a “March of Dissent” or a human rights conference, happened without their encountering problems with the police. Moreover, people in uniform sometimes sprang up at nearly every stop along the social activist’s whole itinerary.

In May 2007, for instance, when Sergey Shimovolos was making his way from Nizhny Novgorod to Samara in order to conduct an independent investigation of the restrictions placed on protests during the G-8 summit, he was checked three times: in the Nizhny Novgorod and Samara Oblasts, as well as mid-trip – in the Republic of Mordovia. Each time, a transit police officer asked him to explain where he was headed and what he planned to do there. Clearly, the checks were planned and initiated, and notably in three regions at once. But how?

“In Samara I was lucky: the policemen wrote honest reports, that they detained me on the grounds of a telegram (teletypogram) they received, and had to question me in line with crime prevention measures for conducting protest actions,” Sergey Shimovolos told Yezhednevny Zhurnal. Afterward, through the court, I received materials that bore witness to the fact that I had been put under “watchdog surveillance” by order of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast UBOP [Organized Crime Unit], allowing them to strategically monitor my movements through the ticket sales database.”

Shimovolos decided to protest his surveillance in court. He asked the court to recognize that these measures violate a person’s rights, and to compel the MVD to destroy all records of him and all citizens who had not been deemed extremists by a court, but who had still been entered into this database. On April 22, 2009, the Nizhny Novgorod District Court refused the human rights activist on all counts. What is “watchdog surveillance” ?

Shimovolos lost, but thanks to his lawsuit, we learned how the system of surveillance on law-abiding citizens is carried out.

Information about Shimovolos made its way into the “Rozysk-magistral” (“Wanted Line”) electronic database of the Russian Federation’s MVD (Interior Ministry) on March 19, 2007. The decision to include his information in the database was made by officers in the UBOP GUVD for the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, for strategic reasons related to state secrets, say the police. Shimovolos himself assumes this happened because he was among the organizers of a “March of Dissent” in Nizhny Novgorod. Having put Shimovolos’s details into the “Wanted Line” database, the policemen put him on “watchdog surveillance” a type record that exists to track someone’s movements.

At first, the MVD’s “Wanted Line” hardware and software suite (PTK) was created to automatically assist in the search for criminals on the federal and local wanted lists. The PTK is “linked” to the “Express” and “Magistral” databases, which constantly receive information about train and airline tickets purchased by Russians. When a criminal buys a ticket, the information makes its way into the PTK server. Next, it is communicated to the local transport police (OVD), located along the passenger train route and in airports. The objective is clear – to arrest the criminal.

At the same time, data about law-abiding citizens, like Shimovolos, was also entered into the PTK. They were then also put on “watchdog surveillance.” The whole procedure is the same, except that instead of an arrest, policemen receive instructions of what they should do with these citizens who are not suspected of a criminal offense.*

Yezhednevny Zhurnal received further proof of how this system works from Roman Dobrokhotov, a participant in the “For Human Rights” movement. On May 6, 2009, Dobrokhotov travelled by train from Volgograd to the capital’s Paveletsky Rail Terminal, where he was detained by a policeman waiting for him by the rail car’s exit. The UVD officer was ordered to have a preventative talk with him. As it turned out, Dobrokhotov was arrested on the basis of an [official] message, which spelled out in black and white how the Center for Investigative Information of the Moscow UVD for Transport reported that Dobrokhotov had been put on “watchdog surveillance” by the Department for Countering Extremism of the RF MVD. As result, the efforts of at least three police units were expended to track Dobrokhotov’s route. The activist has never been indicted on criminal charges, but has taken part in different non-mainstream political movements.

New technologies

As far as one can judge from the circumstances of Dobrokhotov’s arrest, it was conducted in the old way, without the use of the ultra-modern technologies that the MVD already has at its disposal. These include, for instance, portable “Wanted Line” PTK terminals. Externally they resemble a smartphone and weigh less than 200 grams, but in addition to text information, it can transmit photo and video-images. This pocket device is designed to give police officers real-time access to federal and regional databases like “Wanted persons,” “Passports,” “Weapons,” “Theft,” “Automotive Transport Wanted by Interpol,” and others.

In their technical manual, the manufacturers write that this pocket terminal has access to the nearest database server in real-time over existing communication channels, which allows for the broadcast of digital information, including the use of WEB-technology.

Aside from that, practically every large rail terminal and airport in Russia, as well as a part of trains and commuter trains, are equipped with “Videolock” face recognition systems – with cameras in rail cars, waiting rooms, cash dispensers, tills and on platforms. In principle, Dobrokhotov could well have been detained with the help of such a system. A policeman could have received his image, marked with a special symbol, on the hand-held console.


In such a way, the Interior Ministry Department for Countering Extremism is currently creating “black lists.” Data is added to them on the basis of “strategic reasons,” that are not even revealed in court. Once on these lists, citizens find themselves under the microscope of electronic surveillance systems which monitor their movements but which were designed to capture actual criminals. Furthermore, a court has found this type of action to be absolutely legal.

* – “watchdog surveillance” is also used by the Court Bailiffs Service to search for debtors, and the FSKN [Federal Drug Control Service] to track the movements of suspected drug couriers.

Agentura.Ru, September 2010