Russian crackdown: Why it takes tremendous courage to protest

Newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov is a rare voice speaking out against Putin’s ‘purpose-built, repressive system’

The Russian newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov had just boarded the train from Moscow to his home city of Samara, 857km to the southeast, when a man burst into his sleeper car and doused the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and his belongings with blood-red paint laced with acetone.

"Muratov, here's one for our boys," said the assailant, referring to Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Muratov was treated for chemical burns to his eyes. Colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper which Muratov co-founded in 1991, identified his attacker, but the authorities refused to open a case. The Washington Post and New York Times quoted security sources who said the assault was orchestrated by Russian intelligence agents.

The attack is one of dozens of incidents of suppression of opposition to the war in Ukraine catalogued by the Russian human rights group OVD-Info in an online report in April. OVD is the Russian acronym for a police station.

"There is real censorship now in Russia. In just a few weeks, the government forced all independent media to either leave the country or stop writing about the war," Daniil Beilinson, co-founder of OVD, said in an interview in Paris.

Beilinson says Russian authorities have blocked 1,500 websites since the war started on February 24th, including those of 180 media and virtually all human rights groups. More than 15,500 Russians have been detained. Most were forced to pay fines and released after an average of 11 days. Criminal charges have been levelled against more than 100 people.

Many of the arrests took place at anti-war gatherings, sometimes with the help of facial recognition technology. Detainees have been beaten with batons, knocked to the ground, strangled, punched and had their heads banged against walls. OVD has recorded bruises, fractures, dislocated limbs and fingers. In St Petersburg, an 80-year-old survivor of the siege of Leningrad was dragged on the ground and her son’s finger was broken.

Freedom of assembly

Muratov and Novaya Gazeta are emblematic of Vladimir Putin's crackdown on freedom of assembly and speech and due process of law. Six journalists from Novaya Gazeta have been murdered, including Anna Politskovskaia, who was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building in 2006 for writing about Russian atrocities in Chechnya.

Muratov, who shared the Nobel prize with the crusading Filipina journalist Maria Ressa for "efforts to safeguard freedom of expression", announced that he would donate his medal to the relief effort for Ukraine.

In a speech on March 16th, Putin called for the “self-purification” of Russian society and said that people should “distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths”.

Novaya Gazeta reported that SMS messages were sent by the authorities to residents of Kaliningrad, urging them to provide the phone numbers and email addresses of "provocateurs" who oppose Putin's "special operation" in Ukraine.

For a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were opportunities for civil society. Then the window began to close

Incitements to inform on others are a disturbing throwback to Stalinist times. In at least two Moscow police stations, detainees were ordered to hand over contact details for other opponents of the war.

Novaya Gazeta was accused of breaking draconian censorship laws passed in March. The final warning came days after a journalist in a group interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked a question on behalf of Muratov.

Indoctrination

In its last issue, dated March 25th, Novaya Gazeta denounced the indoctrination of school children to conform with the Kremlin's version of events. On April 7th, the day Muratov was attacked, exiled colleagues from Novaya Gazeta announced that they were about to launch a new title, Novaya Gazeta Europe, from Latvian capital Riga. Muratov refuses to leave Russia.

OVD-Info was founded by Beilinson, a computer programmer, and the journalist Grigory Okhotin in 2011. Beilinson prefers not to talk about his own difficult circumstances, because he wants to protect OVD employees remaining in Russia.

The human rights group employs a core staff of 70 and receives information from more than 3,000 volunteers and 300 lawyers across Russia. An OVD hotline which was called by 65,480 Russians last year dispenses free legal advice. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders says the organisation receives more than 100 million annual views and is the source for over 75,000 media publications annually.

Was there ever a free, democratic Russia? I ask Beilinson. "For a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were opportunities for civil society," he replies. "Then the window began to close. The government presented itself as democratic, but after the first Chechen war in 1995 it was basically over... Personally, I think that Vladimir Putin's departure would not change very much, because it is a purpose-built, repressive system."

The procedures used against OVD are typical of those employed to intimidate and shut down other media and human rights organisations. Last September, the group were charged with being foreign agents, because a tiny portion of funding comes from abroad. Beilinson and Okhotin have twice appealed the designation in a Moscow court.

In December 2021, the human rights group received a summons by email to attend court the following day in Lukovitsy, 150km from Moscow. Officials told OVD’s lawyer they wanted to know who was running the organisation.

“The very next morning, they blocked our website and our social media accounts,” Beilinson says. “They claimed they didn’t know who was in charge of OVD, and our lawyer had just told them.”

Incriminating articles

The human rights group was not allowed to participate in the mockery of due process carried out by a prosecutor and the media watchdog Roskomnadzor. The court concluded that the group was “promoting terrorism and extremism”. Secret court documents alluded to five incriminating articles which OVD was not allowed to see, but which were subsequently released to the UN special rapporteur.

The articles were about human rights abuses, including violations of the freedom of assembly when the dissident leader Alexei Navalny returned to Russia and was imprisoned after surviving a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning.

Three days after the war started, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that “the provision of financial, logistical, consulting or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organisation or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation” would be regarded as high treason, punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment.

In March, Russia passed three amendments to the codes of criminal and administrative law, prescribing fines and/or imprisonment for disseminating false news about the Russian military, discrediting the military, organising unauthorised public gatherings or calling for sanctions against Russia. A fourth offence – "denying the decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission of the USSR in the liberation of Europe" was added in April.

Even the semblance of legality which was used to shut down OVD is disappearing. "A law now before the Duma will allow prosecutors to block websites for fake news or discrediting the military without any warning and without any possibility of appeal," Beilinson says.

The government threatens people – if you go there, you will be beaten

The mere use of the word “war” instead of “special operation” has been construed as “discrediting the military”. Possession of a Ukrainian flag, wearing a green ribbon or being near an anti-war rally are also grounds for prosecution.

Vladimir Ovtchinnikov ( 84), a retired construction engineer who covered the walls of his hometown, Borovsk, with colourful murals, was fined 35,000 rubles (€390) for "discrediting the military" by painting a child holding a doll surrounded by falling bombs and the word "Stop!!!"

Sasha Skochilenko (32), an artist in St Petersburg, is held in pretrial detention until May 31st for having substituted news blurbs about the bombing of the art school and drama theatre in Mariupol for supermarket shelf labels. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Criminal prosecution

At least two English language teachers from opposite ends of Russia were turned in to the authorities by their own students, who had recorded their statements about the war in class. One teacher was fined the equivalent of €380. The other was warned that she risked criminal prosecution and up to 15 years in prison for saying that Russian forces bombed the maternity hospital in Mariupol.

The owner of a computer repair shop in a Moscow shopping mall was fined the equivalent of €1,380 for displaying the words “No to War” on a screen in his shop. Carrying a placard with a quote from Tolstoy or holding up the Russian equivalent of a Visa card – called Mir, meaning peace – have also been grounds for arrests.

A poll by the Levada Centre, considered Russia’s most reputable, independent polling group, found that 53 per cent of Russians strongly support and 28 per cent somewhat support the war in Ukraine, about the same percentage who view Putin favourably.

It takes tremendous courage to protest in Russia, Beilinson says. “The government threatens people – if you go there, you will be beaten. You will receive a big fine and you may be imprisoned on criminal charges. This is done in a very Kafkaesque way. Unfortunately, they have been very successful. This is why you no longer see mass protests in Russia.”

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