Moscow: Russia's vast security apparatus often displays its power through brutal actions: burly police officers in riot gear pummelling protesters or mysterious thugs assaulting and occasionally assassinating opposition politicians and journalists.
A gentler, more insidious face of the system, however, belongs to the courteous, smiling, well-dressed man who, carrying a bouquet of flowers, showed up early last month out of the blue at the ninth-floor Moscow apartment of Nataliya Gryaznevich.
The man, who introduced himself only as "Andrei," told Gryaznevich, a 29-year-old employee of a pro-democracy group called Open Russia, that he would like to invite her out for coffee and a friendly chat. "It seems that you really like coffee," he said, hinting that he knew lots of other things about her, too.
"He acted like an old friend I didn't recognise," Gryaznevich recalled.
Although initially mystified, she recognised what was going on when they met, and he peppered her with questions about her trips abroad and her foreign contacts. "Andrei," she realised, was trying to recruit her as an informer.
"'Let's be friends,'" she remembers him urging. "'Think about yourself. You want to make a career, and you can go far with us on your side.'"
Her account of the recruitment pitch, which she said was made without menace, opens a small window into one of the most secretive and sinister aspects of Russia's security system.
Known in Russian as stukachi — literally, "knockers"— a Soviet term of uncertain etymology, informers basically serve as spies for the Russian state at home and abroad. They are nowhere near as omnipresent today in Russia as they were in East Germany or the Soviet Union, where millions snitched on their friends and colleagues.
But after being banned in the early 1990s, the practice of luring Russians into informing on their fellow citizens again seems to have become widespread.
The authorities have been thirsting for inside information about their domestic opposition since large anti-government demonstrations exploded from nowhere in the winter of 2011, severely unnerving the Kremlin. A new surge of protests that started in May 2017, while smaller than the previous round, also caught the authorities by surprise — and increased the value of inside information.
How many people are serving as informants is impossible to know: The only people who talk about recruitment pitches are those who balked.
Viktor Voronkov, the director of the Centre for Independent Social Research in St Petersburg, told the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta early this year that four members of his staff had told him of recruitment approaches by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor of the KGB.
Contacted last week, he said he had not heard of any further attempts but assumed that many more of his employees had been approached. "Believe me, it is rare that people report such things," he said, adding that many of those who are approached are asked to sign nondisclosure agreements.
A clear sign that the security services are again in the market for informers came in 2016 when Life, a Russian news service that is often used by the FSB as a conduit for leaks, revealed that retired informers would receive state pensions in return for their service. In the past, that incentive had been offered only to full-time employees of the intelligence agency.
The principal incentive for serving as an informer, however, is rarely money but the promise that legal or other problems will suddenly go away.
Convinced that discontent in Russia is largely the work of hostile foreign forces, Russia's law enforcement apparatus has increasingly focused on infiltrating organisations with real or imagined links to foreign organisations and governments, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security system at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
The hunt for informants, he said, "has become much more focused" than it was in the Soviet Union, when the KGB padded its roster with people who passed on useless office gossip and domestic tittle-tattle. The emphasis today, he said, is on finding informers who might have real inside information about terrorist groups like the Islamic State as well as peaceful foreign groups that promote democracy, which the Kremlin views as a dangerous threat.
A long list of foreign nonprofit groups has been declared "undesirable" and a threat to Russia's national security, including a London-based outpost of Gryaznevich's organisation, Open Russia.
The Kremlin is particularly concerned about groups like Open Russia, Galeotti said, because of its links to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian billionaire who, after nearly a decade in Russian prison camps, now lives in London and finances a wide range of projects intended to promote democracy and civil liberties inside Russia.
Open Russia, whose Moscow office has been raided twice by the authorities, says it receives some funding from Khodorkovsky but not from his London groups that have been declared "undesirable." Representatives for Open Russia in Russia have insisted it is not so much an organisation as an alliance of small and wholly Russian civil society groups.
Unnerved but also intrigued by the motives and identity of the stranger who appeared at her door with flowers, Gryaznevich took his phone number. After calling her boss at Open Russia to ask for advice, she agreed to meet him.
"I had no idea who he was or what he wanted, but he was very polite and well-spoken," recalled Gryaznevich, who had recently returned from the eastern city of Vladivostok after spending a night in police detention for helping to organise a conference there sponsored by Open Russia.
Over coffee, "Andrei" quickly made clear that he knew all about her troubles with the police in Vladivostok — and a disconcerting amount about her life in general, including her trips abroad on behalf of Open Russia.
The man offered to help her solve her legal issues, explaining that her lawyer "cannot protect you, but we can"— so long as she reciprocated with help of her own.
His proposition, she said, was this: If she agreed to meet once a week to provide information, especially about her foreign contacts — who they were, what they were doing and why — she would no longer need to worry about being pursued by the police and threatened with jail time. "We can solve all these problems," she recalled being told.
She said "Andrei" showed little interest in Open Russia's activities inside Russia, about which he already seemed to know a great deal, but focused instead on its interaction with foreigners.
The only time he dropped his studiously courteous manner, she added, was after she declined to serve as an informant and refused his request that she keep their meeting secret. And even then, she said, he did not veer into the crude threats often associated with Russia's secret police. "It was obviously not the first time he had done this kind of thing," she said.
Galeotti said that being polite was "standard tradecraft" in security services around the world. "Everyone knows that coercion is the least effective way of getting people on your side," he said.
Gryaznevich's mystery charmer never said exactly who he was. "He didn't answer a single one of my questions concretely," she said, but he left her with no doubt that he was working for the FSB, the principal pillar of a Russian security system dedicated to keeping President Vladimir Putin in power.
A few days after the meeting, she posted about it on Facebook, explaining that she wanted her experience known by as many people as possible so that "maybe snitches in our ranks will be fewer."
Offering advice to other recruitment targets, she warned: "Don't try to outsmart them. They're not idiots."
And don't by fooled by the recruiter's charm, she added: "This is not the cops who grab you on the street and push your face onto the ground. This is someone with intelligent greetings, compliments and gallantry. But the essence is the same."
New York Times