After 50 trips in 12 years, UCF Professor Mike Reynolds is transforming the Russian legal system, one visit at a time.
Wherever Dr. Mike Reynolds goes in Russia, the Federal Security Service (FSB)—modern-day Russia’s equivalent of the Soviet KGB—is close on his tail.
“It took years for my friends to admit to me that every time I left, an FSB officer would come knocking to ask, ‘What did he say? What was he here for?’ I guess my visits were a bit of an issue.”
The issue could stem from the fact that Reynolds’ friends include people like Dr. Anatoly Nikonov. As director of international relations at the Volgograd Academy of the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry, Nikonov is one of the most influential men in Russia (the ministry, abbreviated MVD, is the Russian police force). When Reynolds, a UCF criminal justice professor, met Nikonov in 2001, the meeting touched off a cultural exchange that would deepen over the next decade.
“The Russian culture is all about personal relationships,” Reynolds explains. “It takes numerous dinner meetings and spending time with one another to develop respect and acceptance. But once that is established, it is very hard to destroy. Then, you have insiders that help facilitate your programs and make the previously impossible possible.”
What Nikonov made possible was a groundbreaking partnership between UCF and the Volgograd Academy of the MVD, which serves as the premier training institute for anyone planning a career in the Russian legal system. The partnership allowed Reynolds to establish a network of contacts that included police officers, investigators, prosecutors, judges and generals. Over the years, the contacts became friends, and the friends became valuable contributors to Reynolds’ research, which focuses on the Russian police system.
“Russians don’t really trust their legal system,” Reynolds says. “In focus groups of Russian citizens, we would ask, ‘If your child was lost by themselves and they needed help, would you tell them to go to a policeman?’ The answer was ‘absolutely not.’”
Reynolds is quick to add that it would be unfair to judge the Russian system for its current shortcomings. “Yes, there is police corruption. Yes, there are human rights violations. But this is a young country that came out of rough conditions. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Russia didn’t really re-emerge until 1991. They’re not going to build a new system overnight. We (the United States) certainly didn’t.”
In 2007-2008, Reynolds was awarded a Fulbright grant to support his Russian research. During that period, he taught the first crime analysis and mapping course in the history of the MVD higher educational system. He also became the first American scholar to live on an MVD academic compound.
“The Moscow Fulbright office thought it was a mistake at first,” Reynolds recalls. “They’d never heard of the MVD allowing an outsider to live on the grounds.”
“Russians could learn what Americans do to build that trust.”
Reynolds credits his unprecedented level of access to his approach. “Understanding what we do, how we do it, and how we got to where we are is very helpful for the Russians,” he says. “But instead of lecturing them about our outstanding societal achievements (and in the process, demeaning theirs), we have to become trusted confidants and share our experiences—warts and all. So that has always been my approach. Let’s be friends, learn to trust one another, and then see what mutual benefits we can share.”
The benefits of such friendship are vast, according to Sergey Lyapin, a Russian construction engineer who met Reynolds at the American Information Center in Volgograd.
“We’ve lived in seclusion for so long,” Lyapin says. “The idea of human rights didn’t even exist under the Soviet Union. After all these years of dictatorship, this exchange is very important … it gives us new inspiration to improve our country.”
“We’ve had more than 200 years to deal with our problems. We fought a civil war over human rights. We lived through a human rights movement. Russia is following the same journey that we followed.”
Opening Eyes and Changing Lives
In addition to research collaboration, a hallmark of UCF’s partnership with the Volgograd Academy of the MVD is the student and faculty exchange program. Over the past eight years, 166 UCF students have visited Russia, and UCF has hosted 21 academy cadets.
“We attended lectures, toured juvenile detention centers, sat in on court proceedings, and met public defenders, prosecutors and judges,” says Rachel Wimmer, a UCF criminal justice student. “It was a great way to learn about the Russian government at all different levels.”
Ivan Zamylin, a cadet who graduated from the Volgograd Academy of the MVD in 2008, was surprised to discover that “in the U.S., 95 percent of people trust the police. Russians could learn what Americans do to build that trust.”
According to Reynolds, the learning has already begun. In addition to cadets, UCF has hosted academy presidents, senior faculty members and generals. “Our guests visited the Oviedo and Ocoee (Fla.) police departments, went on ride-alongs, and some even witnessed arrests. Here, they see police officers treating everybody humanely regardless of their social status. They see a very efficient criminal justice system where everybody is innocent until proven otherwise.”
Though the visits last only a few weeks, Reynolds believes they will have a long-term impact on Russia.
“These cadets are now working their way into the Russian police system,” he says. “One day they will emulate and implement what they saw here to improve the human condition there.”
Dr. Sergey Zhevlakovich, major general of the MVD and deputy head of the Moscow University of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, was recently tasked to reform small city police systems to make them more humane and effective. After seeing community policing units in action in America, he implemented the practice himself.
“It was the first time that rural Russian police were trained to become proactively involved in the community in a positive way, rather than simply look for crime,” Reynolds says.
In 2010, Volgograd Academy of the MVD General Vladimir Tretyakov awarded Reynolds an honorary faculty appointment—the third in the academy’s history, and the first ever to be given to an American.
“I was really shocked,” Reynolds says. “An appointment like this requires the unanimous approval of a faculty member committee. It was quite an honor. And it demonstrates the value in developing working relationships that evolve into colleagues and friends.”
“The work that Dr. Reynolds has done is simply extraordinary,” says Dr. Michael Frumkin, dean of UCF’s College of Health and Public Affairs. “It’s a perfect match for the mission of the college: strengthening communities and changing lives.”
The Power of Politics and Friendship
“I get really frustrated at people who say that the American legal system is somehow superior to Russia’s,” Reynolds says, dismissing the offending statement with a wave of his hand. “We’ve had more than 200 years to deal with our problems. We fought a civil war over human rights. We lived through a human rights movement. Russia is following the same journey that we followed.”
The journey picked up pace in 2011, when Reynolds, in partnership with the Volgograd Academy of Public Administration, secured a $645,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State to establish three human rights centers that would offer legal services to citizens in southern Russia. They established the first center by expanding resources at an existing legal clinic in Volgograd.
“We quadrupled the number of students there. And we had four professional, bar-certified lawyers working in the clinic,” says Reynolds.
Over the course of 2011, the clinic dealt with 160 cases. “It ranged from people not getting their pensions on time to people who were beaten by the police and held in jail,” says Reynolds. “About one-third of the cases dealt with serious matters of police abuse. Two cases are at the European Court of Human Rights.”
Shortly before the grant was due for renewal in December 2011, Russia held their parliamentary elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party retained dominance despite capturing less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Across the country, protesters took to the streets, alleging vote rigging and manipulation.
The effect, according to Frumkin, was “a sea of change in the political sphere … Putin’s overwhelming and indisputable authority was challenged for the first time.”
The Kremlin had also announced numerous reforms that hampered the ability of Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—including universities—to work with foreign partners.
“They passed some laws making it more difficult for NGOs to get foreign funds. Some NGO activities became potentially criminal,” Reynolds explains. “We were supposed to establish two more clinics in two more locations, but no one would touch it.”
Frumkin explains, “Once the new rules were in place, potential partners were very reluctant to get involved in a program supported by the State Department.” Lacking the partners required for fulfillment, Reynolds’ U.S. Department of State grant was not renewed. However, he remains actively engaged in Russia.
UCF recently formalized new education and research partnerships with the Volgograd Academy of Public Administration and the Volgograd State Pedagogical University. Despite the unstable political climate, these partnerships—a product of Reynolds’ strong network of friends and successful collaboration with the Volgograd Academy of the MVD—are expected to proceed as planned. ✦
Reynolds’ research will be published by CRC Press in the upcoming book, Understanding the Modern Russian Police (co-authored by research partner Dr. Olga Semukhina, an assistant professor at Marquette University), due out in January 2013.