Skip to main content

Edward Snowden’s Russian lawyer says his client wants to start learning Russian. Now that the American whistleblower has finally left Sheremetyevo airport for “temporary asylum” in Russia, he might find himselfiz ognya da v polymya – out of the frying pan and into the fire. After all, Russia is hardly a bastion of free speech defense. We recommend including a few key terms in any vocabulary lesson:

Khuliganstvo: Translated as “hooliganism,” this word can mean anything from getting into fistfights to shouting political slogans and jumping around in a Moscow cathedral. Two women from the punk group Pussy Riot are currently serving out a two-year prison term for their khuliganstvo. (Pussy Riot, in case you’re wondering, is “Pussi Raiot” in Russian.)

Ekstremizm: This one is easy for an American to pronounce, but hard to define. It can mean just about anything that is controversial or generates “discontent,”especially if it criticizes the authorities. There’s a whole section of the Russian police dedicated to fighting ekstremizm. One example of their work: the prosecutor’s office recently tried to ban a book calling for an international tribunal on war crimes committed in Chechnya because of its ekstremizm.

Proverka: This is a term that critics of the Russian government know well. The exact translation is “audit” or “inspection,” but often a proverka looks more like a raid: officials from the tax inspectorate, health inspectorate, Federal Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Migration Service, prosecutor’s office, or possibly even the fire inspectorate swoop down without notice into the office of a non-governmental organization and ask lots of questions and demand loads of documents. Recently, Russia’s prosecutor general reassured the public that their purpose is just to “get to know” what NGOs do. This cozy exercise has resulted so far in at least nine court cases against NGOs for various alleged infractions.

Propaganda: Yup, same word! But it doesn’t mean quite what you might think. In Soviet days, this was a respectable Communist Party pursuit. This summer, the word has taken on a sinister new meaning with the passage of a law forbidding propaganda for homosexuality. Don’t reassure any miserable Russian teenager that “it gets better” – that could qualify as propaganda.

Inostrany agent: “Foreign agent” is a Cold War term for a spy, but even though Snowden was a card-carrying consultant to the U.S. National Security Agency, it won’t apply to him. A new Russian law requires that NGOs who get funding from abroad and engage in unspecified “political activity” register as inostrany agenti. Several NGOs have gone to court to fight the application of this term to them, which they describe as tantamount to being branded as a traitor.

Predstavlenie: This is another one of those innocuous Russian words that has taken on a spooky new meaning. Technically, a predstavlenie is any kind of notice. These days, for NGOs, it means the prosecutor thinks you’ve violated the law, possibly by engaging in politicheskie deyatel’nost (political activity) such as holding a roundtable, making a policy recommendation to a state official, or raising awareness about corruption. Most likely, it probably means you’re going to court.

Preduprezhdenie: It means “warning.” It’s a milder form of the predstavlenie above, but it’s no joke. The prosecutor may suspend an NGO that gets more than two of them.

Zalozhnik: Not long before his death, Russia's most famous whistleblower described himself as a “hostage” to a Moscow judge. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and accountant, had alleged that Kremlin insiders were involved in a massive scheme to defraud the Russian government of more than $200 million in taxes. Instead of investigating his allegations, the authorities arrested Magnitsky, who died of untreated pancreatitis in a pretrial prison in 2009. This summer, Magnitsky was posthumously convicted of tax evasion.

Edward Snowden may feel like a zalozhnik to geopolitical forces much greater than himself. He certainly deserves to have his asylum claim heard. But if he stays in Russia for any length of time, he will probably want to familiarize himself with how critics fare with the government that has given him shelter.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.