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Los Angeles Times
July 28, 2003
Moscow Dusts Off Informers
The KGB ended up in the trash can of history. But its tactic of spying on the neighbors is getting a shot at a new enemy terrorism.
By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW For decades, nothing went unnoticed inside these crumbling apartment blocks or in the weedy courtyards outside. The KGB had secret informers in every building, and if a neighbor seemed suspect a late-night visitor? a drunken tirade against a factory boss that leaked through the hollow walls? someone quietly picked up the telephone.

The line between being the subject of a stukachi's report and being labeled an enemy of the people was perilously thin. Millions were arrested during Josef Stalin's purges of the 1930s, and it wasn't until 1991, when the feared Soviet spy agency cut loose an informer force that once numbered in the millions, that Russians could consider their hallways, playgrounds and courtyards largely outside the reach of the government's inquiring eyes.

Of all the new freedoms that swept through the former Soviet empire in the 1990s, few were as personal and immediate as the knowledge that no longer would the man sweeping the sidewalks also be watching which newspapers got put out in the trash, what guests showed up for dinner, what treats were offered one's cat (when the nation, everyone knew, was hungry). No longer could a man be sent to prison based on the report of a neighbor who, when all was said and done, simply wanted the other guy's apartment.

Now comes the war on terrorism. In recent months, the once-invincible Russian security services have faced a series of deadly attacks, from the takeover of a packed theater by Chechen rebels last October to a pair of terrorist bombings this month that left 17 dead, including a police officer and two suicide bombers. A booby trap attached to two grenades was found near a downtown soccer stadium entrance a little more than a week ago.

What to do? The KGB may have been consigned to history replaced by two new security agencies with more modern faces but its methods are getting dusted off for a fresh shot at a new enemy. The Moscow city Duma this month considered a bill to create a major new network of neighborhood informers whose job would be to keep a discreet eye on their own apartment blocks and report "suspicious activity" to the police.

A pilot program is already getting underway in the Taganka neighborhood, five miles southeast of the Kremlin, where organizers say volunteers some of whom will be paid informers will be on the lookout not only for terrorists, but also for thieves, drunks, loiterers or overly boisterous youths who warrant a precautionary call to police.

Authorities say it is no more sinister than Neighborhood Watch or phone-in-tips programs long in place in the U.S. and Europe.

"Really, since the first day I came here we have been dealing with people we call responsible volunteers. These are people who out of the realization of their social responsibility help the police do their job. Now, the official practice is coming back to life again," said Lt. Col. Anatoly Shlykov, chief precinct officer in the Taganka district and a Moscow police officer since 1967.

Hanging on the crumbling paint outside Shlykov's office is a poster depicting a formidable looking police officer in heavy gear leveling a sniper rifle at eye level. "Terrorism is an illness," it says. "Meet the doctor."

"It is absolutely necessary to be in close contact with the population if we want to prevent these acts of terrorism, and people have generally been very receptive and approving of the practice being revived," Shlykov said. "And it is not enough for the people merely to feel responsible about sharing information with the police. It is also important for them to know that they will be materially rewarded."

The bill presented this month, which has the support of Moscow's mayor and could come up for a final vote Sept. 3, would pay citizens watch council chairmen 3,000 rubles a month, or about $300. Their informant forces would serve mostly unpaid, though police said they would probably reward fruitful tips.

The proposal has not been universally welcomed. In a country still battling its gulag past, it has called up unwelcome memories for some. Public debate, ironically, has not been unlike the controversy faced in the U.S. Congress over passage, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, of the USA Patriot Act, which provides American law enforcement agents, among other things, the right to secretly search homes and learn what books citizens have purchased if they suspect that someone is connected with foreign terrorists.

"The road to hell is often paved with the best intentions, given the acute danger of terrorism and the urgent need to combat it productively," said Yevgeny Bunimovich, a legislator who spoke against the Moscow bill during debate here. "There is one important factor: It is the history of Russia. In our country, anything can be treated with suspicion, given our rich history of mistaking people who are simply different for terrorists and saboteurs."

Tatyana I. Kasatkina, executive director of the human rights group Memorial, said that after a pair of apartment house bombings in Moscow in 1999, she came home and found a sign on the door of her building: "Report those who live here unregistered."

"It scared me," she said. "Especially this word, 'report.' What does it mean to report? For example, I can report on my neighbor, whom I don't like. This we know from our history."

Pavel I. Voshchanov, then-President Boris N. Yeltsin's press secretary, warned that the measure threatens to arm the ubiquitous old grandmothers who spend their days gossiping in the courtyards of Moscow apartment houses with the new weapon of suspected terrorist threats.

"Like everything else today, this would be just another farce-like repetition of what we had in this country back in the past. I can tell you who will join these councils. Old and aggressive babushkas who have nothing to do but a lot of negative energy to persecute us with," Voshchanov said.

"I can imagine how you invite to dinner a friend who incidentally happens to be an Armenian, and you're sitting at a nicely laid table sipping good wine and having a friendly conversation while this watchful babushka frenetically dials the local police office, and shortly an angry policeman escorted by the delighted babushka knocks on your door, checks the papers of your guest and spoils the dinner."

Taganka is a middle- and working-class neighborhood of about 96,000 pensioners, laborers and intellectuals that lies next to several large factories and a meat processing plant. It was chosen for the pilot project because it represents such a broad cross-section of Moscow society, said Inna Svyatenko, the city's Duma deputy who introduced the informant bill.

"I'm a lieutenant colonel in the air force. In my line of duty, I am in charge of flight safety. But I also live in Moscow. I have two little kids, and I realize that our city has changed distinctly in the last 15 or 20 years. I used to walk to school every day. Now, I have a daughter in the sixth grade, and I have to walk her to school every day, holding her hand all the way," Svyatenko said.

"We've got locks on almost every door in Moscow. We're trying to introduce a system of video surveillance. Sixty percent of Moscow households have steel entry doors. But it will be impossible for us to live only in our apartments. We will have to step outside at some point. And to make our courtyards safe, there would have to be at least four policemen in every courtyard in Moscow. Our city would turn into a police state."

That, she said, is what started her thinking about making citizens themselves the police or at least the eyes and ears of law enforcement.

"In almost every courtyard, there's a person or a group of people sitting on the benches, and they know exactly who comes and goes, who visits whom, who takes their children to school in the morning, who walks their dog.... With the theater hostage-taking, if the people in the neighborhood had been more attentive, they would definitely have noticed some armed people moving around, and they might have prevented this action."

The first citizens watch council will be housed on the bottom floor of an apartment building that is also home to the local police precinct.

Anna Barsutskaya, a 69-year-old grandmother of three who is helping lead the effort, acknowledges that it's a return to the past. And what, she asks, is wrong with that?

"Not all things were bad from the past. At least everybody had a job, and everybody was sure of tomorrow," she said. "We're not trying to poke our nose into the private affairs of people. But if we see a stranger, if we see an unknown face renting a flat here, we would like to find out who it is. And if there's a concern, we will seek the help of the police."

That not everyone appreciates the new inquisitiveness already is obvious. Barsutskaya said she got a telephone call recently from a man with "a very coarse voice" and a vague accent, who told her that police had just searched an apartment based on information she had provided.

"He burst into invectives, calling me a snitch, a spy and a despicable person. His speech was peppered with criminal jargon," she recalled nervously. "He then continued: 'You probably hope to strike it rich by ratting on people. Instead, we will make a solid oak coffin for you, old rat. And we will bury you at a good cemetery. You will have to pay for being an informer. Informers must be killed.' "

Barsutskaya tried to sound confident, but she was quaking a little.

"I will not allow someone to terrorize me for simply doing my civic duty," she said. "But everybody knows that there are plenty of people in Moscow who have got something to hide from the law enforcement bodies. And Taganka is not an exception in this respect. Such people will stop at nothing."

In the courtyard outside, where about a dozen residents sat quietly in the gloomy midday breeze, most seemed willing to give the project a try.

Larisa Grishchenko, 41, said three young women suddenly moved into the apartment formerly inhabited by her ex-husband and have given confusing information about his whereabouts, saying only that he is in an unspecified mental asylum. Perhaps a watch council could help ascertain her ex-husband's safety, she said.

"I have a neighbor who drinks heavily, and this happens on a daily basis. There's mayhem, there's [noise] why should this kind of thing not be reported? My personal opinion is I'm not against these public watch councils," said another neighbor, Vladimir Alexy, 42.

But Yelena Shubina, a 31-year-old homemaker, interjected: "Of course, if they start reporting unobjective information to the police, that won't be good either. There are some people who are totally consumed by envy, and they report everything about their neighbors ... to the police, whether it's useful or not."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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