The ‘Unreliable Citizens’ of St. Petersburg

feature photo

This article is based on a piece by Vyacheslav Kozlov at Moskovsky Novosti with additional material from the editors at

In Russia, taking part in a demonstration that hasn’t been sanctioned by the government can cost citizens their right to work in federal agencies. Officially dubbed “unreliable” citizens, opposition activists and other political protesters are entered into special blacklists drawn up by law enforcement agencies for purposes that are not entirely understood. It was on such a blacklist that Vera Sizova, a retired resident of St. Petersburg, unexpectedly found herself – upon being told that she was banned from working for the 2010 Russian Census because of her son’s opposition activities.

Sizova first got the idea to work as a census-taker when she received a call from the Russian Federal State Statistical Service (Rosstat) asking about her son, Maksim Malyshev. “The commissioner for the census in the Kalininsky District of St. Petersburg, Elena Sviridkina, called,” explained Sizova. “She proposed that Maksim work for the census as a group leader. He had already worked for the 2002 census as a deputy group leader – he had experience. But Maksim is very busy with work, so I decided to ask for the job myself. They accepted me, inviting me to go through training and build up a team.”

Her first day of work was typical: Sizova was registered into her new position, given the necessary documents, and promised an employment contract. “But in the evening Sviridkina called me and said that I wasn’t going to get the contract because my son and I were on a list of people that the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Regional Main Department of Internal Affairs (GUVD) has compromising information about,” Sizova said.

Maksim Malyshev is the head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Left Front, a socialist opposition organization that holds a variety of sanctioned and unsanctioned anti-government protests. Their members are often arrested for participating in and organizing rallies such as the Day of Wrath, which is held monthly as a venue for Russians to voice their general grievances against local authorities. In its time, Garry Kasparov’s Other Russia opposition coalition included the Left Front within its ranks.

The news that her son’s opposition activity would bar her from working the census came as a shock to Sizova. She sent three inquiries to Rosstat demanding an explanation, and in the end got a response with a different reason altogether – that she had failed to take a pre-training test on time. The pensioner said that while this was true, it was because she was sick on testing day and in any case had been told by on-staff statisticians that “it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Sizova attempted to fight the decision in court. At the end of January 2011, she filed suit against the local Rosstat branch in St. Petersburg’s Petrogradsky Regional Court. “According to the Civil Code, you can see how they hired me; since I worked there for one day, they admitted that I was fit for that position,” Sizova explained the essence of her case.

The suit, however, was thrown out. During the hearing this past June, Elena Sviridkina again invoked the blacklist of unreliable citizens. “Before the beginning of the census, all branches of Rosstat were given an order to do checks on the census-takers against the GUVD databases – if there were issues with anyone, they wouldn’t be allowed to take part in the census,” Sviridkina said. “We checked Sizova – she turned out to be on the list. We don’t have the right to let her go out to people.” A copy of the blacklist for the Kalininsky District obtained by the Moskovsky Novosti newspaper did indeed include Sizova and her son on it, along with four other people.

The Petrogradsky Regional Court did not see the existence of such a list as particularly unreasonable. According to the court’s judicial ruling, checking lists of people with the police is not a violation of Vera Sizova’s rights, “since by its very nature it’s meant to protect an unlimited group of people who are going to give over personal information about themselves during the census.” Sizova has already appealed the decision in St. Petersburg City Court. “I’m prepared to go to the Supreme Court,” she insisted.

But Rosstat appears to be intent on holding its ground. “There is nothing surprising in that Rosstat would check out the backgrounds of the people who are going to collect citizens’ personal information, go to their house – no,” a source in the agency told Moskovsky Novosti, also confirming that the order to do the checks against the police database was indeed sent to all regional Rosstat branches. The St. Petersburg and Leningrad Regional GUVD did not deny the existence of the blacklist, either. “But I can only say anything about it to citizen Sizova, and at that, only in response to an inquiry,” said Vyacheslav Stepchenko, head of GUVD public relations.

Malyshev is puzzled as to why his mother should suffer from his own unapologetic adherence to oppositionist views, especially considering that they did nothing to prevent him from working for Rosstat in the past. “I took part in protests, but that didn’t bar me from working for the 2002 census. Now, clearly, the authorities have decided to secure themselves against unreliable persons, so that the public doesn’t get any information about violations,” Malyshev told Moskovsky Novosti.

A situation in which a mother has to answer for her son’s opposition activity is manifestly unlawful, says Anatoly Kucherena, representative of Russia’s federal Public Chamber commission on law enforcement agencies control and judicial-legal system reforms. “And in general – what does ‘compromising information’ mean? If the police have suspicions upon which to begin criminal proceedings, they should work to file that case. If there’s no basis to do so, then a person and their relatives have the right to live a normal life,” Kucherena said.

Director Pavel Chikov of the Agora human rights association believes that the blacklist itself is a gross violation of the presumption that one is innocent before proven guilty. “The state has the right to collect any sort of information about citizens, particularly if it’s negative, only when they are suspected of having committed a criminally punishable offense and only with the goal of investigating that particular crime. De-facto, the St. Petersburg police have introduced a state of emergency that limits the constitutional rights of city residents and punishes them with a blow to their rights, however it wants to, without a court or investigation,” Chikov told Moskovsky Novosti.

The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that it is illegal for Russian law enforcement agencies to draw up blacklists of unreliable citizens – at the end of June 2011, the court declared a police transport database in the Volgo-Vyatsky region called “Watchdog Control” to be unlawful. The successful case was filed by Sergei Shimovolos of the Nizhny Novgorod Human Rights Society, who was arrested in 2007 under suspicion of “extremism” as a result of being included in the database.