How the Kremlin intimidates Russian citizens who speak out against war and persecutes them through new repressive laws
The “special military operation” in Ukraine, which the Kremlin has prohibited calling a war, has shocked the Russian society. Protests are taking place daily, and people are speaking out on social media. Putin’s government has responded to these actions with more repression.
In the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, the Russian authorities launched an unprecedented campaign of pressure against Russians who oppose the war. After the outbreak of hostilities, the State Duma adopted, in record time, a law banning activities that “discredit” the Russian armed forces, effectively outlawing any statements that deviate from the official line on the “special military operation.” At the same time, the authorities began blocking social networks and independent media, cracking down on protests, and putting more pressure on people who oppose the war through their employers. Most independent media outlets covering the war have been blocked. Many media outlets have stopped working or refused to cover the topic because of the adoption of a law imposing imprisonment for up to 15 years for “disseminating false information about the actions of the Russian armed forces.” The main social networks — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — were also blocked by the authorities.
Below are the most important things that are happening to Russian civil society right now.
Silencing of the Media
On February 24, 2022, the Kremlin’s censor agency Roskomnadzor informed the media that when preparing materials concerning a “special military operation,” they must use only the information and data received from official Russian sources. Otherwise such media outlets can be fined up to 5 million rubles for disseminating knowingly false information under Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offences. In addition, such materials are subject to immediate blocking in accordance with Article 15.3 of Federal Law № 149-FZ “On Information, Information Technology and Information Security”, which was amended in late 2021 to tighten censorship.
On February 26, 2022, Roskomnadzor sent notices demanding to restrict access to “inaccurate information” to 10 media outlets (among them were Echo of Moscow, Mediazona, The New Times, TV Channel Dozhd, and others). Among the reasons for the restriction, Roskomnadzor indicated that these media outlets distributed “materials in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, an invasion, or a declaration of war.” A similar notice was sent to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, with claims to the article “Russian Invasion of Ukraine (2022)”.
After that, some media outlets began adding notes to their materials stating that, at the request of Roskomnadzor, they were quoting information about the war in Ukraine based on Russian official sources.
By March 4, Roskomnadzor had blocked 16 media outlets in Russia: Meduza, BBC Russian Service, Deutsche Welle, Current Time, The New Times, The Village, DOXA, Taiga.info, Dozhd, Echo of Moscow, TV2, Radio Liberty, and six related projects: “Idel.Realii,” “Siberia.Realii,” “Sever.Realii” and “Radio Azatlyk.”
On March 6, it became known about the blocking of the media outlets Mediazone and Republic, as well as websites of Snob, Sobesednik, Agent, 7×7, Echo of Moscow in Chelyabinsk, and Echo Kavkaza.
Later, due to numerous blockages and the threat of criminal prosecution, many media outlets have announced closure. The online journal “The Village” has released a statement about the office closure in Russia. TV Channel “Dozhd”, Tomsk agency TV2, Znak.com, Bloomberg, CNN, BBC,ABC, CBS and CBC and others announced a temporary suspension of work in Russia.
Radio station “Echo of Moscow” has also stopped broadcasting. Yet, the decision to close the radio station was made not by the editorial board, but by the board of directors controlled by the state corporation Gazprom. Frequency of “Echo of Moscow” was transmitted for broadcasting to the state channel Sputnik.
Media outlets The Bell, Novaya Gazeta, It’s My City, Republic, Snob, Advocate Street, Silver Rain Radio and others decided not to cover Russia’s armed hostilities in Ukraine and delete (or change) existing publications on this topic.
On March 21, 2022, the Euronews website and the broadcasting of the TV channel itself were blocked in Russia.
According to the RoskomSvoboda project, which tracks updates to Roskomnadzor’s registry of banned sites, more than 500 different resources have been blocked in total since the war began.
Attack on the Social Media
In addition to silencing the traditional media, the authorities began restricting access to popular social networks. Thus, the Prosecutor General’s Office has recognized that the social network Facebook was involved in violations of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. The corresponding decision was made following Article 3.3 of the Federal Law “On measures to influence persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation” in connection with the “discriminatory actions” of the administration of this social network (owned by the American company Meta Platforms Inc.) to impose restrictions on the accounts of individual Russian mass media such as “Lenta.ru”, “Zvezda” and “RIA Novosti”. In this regard, Roskomnadzor first began to slowdown traffic, then restricted access, and then blocked Facebook in Russia.
Roskomnadzor also blocked Twitter. The agency considered that false information about military operations in Ukraine is being distributed on the social network. In addition, Roskomnadzor demanded that TikTok exclude military content from the recommendations for minors and explain the reasons for the removal of news stories published on the official account of “RIA Novosti”. Subsequently, TikTok itself restricted its work in Russia due to increased legal risks.
Roskomnadzor also demanded that Google and YouTube remove “fakes” about the situation in Ukraine, distributed as contextual advertising.
Instagram Facebook’s parent company, Meta, was declared an “extremist organization” by the Prosecutor General’s Office on March 11, 2022, and Instagram was banned in Russia.
On March 21, Tverskoy District Court of Moscow satisfied the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office and declared “extremist organization” the company Meta, which owns the social networks Facebook and Instagram, as well as the messenger WhatsApp. At the same time, the court decided to block both of the company’s social networks. The decision to declare Meta “extremist” will take effect in a month if the company does not challenge it in court, or immediately after an appeal if the company loses. But the decision to block Facebook and Instagram went into effect immediately.
From now on, Russian media outlets must not display the logos of Meta, Facebook and Instagram. They will have to mark Meta as a banned organization in the Russian Federation.
Blocked media outlets, however, continue to operate and many Russians keep reading them using anti-blocking tools, such as VPN clients or plug-ins. In addition, the Tor browser in traffic obfuscation mode is used to bypass blocking. Telegram news channels are extremely popular: the number of subscribers of some of them has exceeded one million these days.
Harsher Punishment for “Discrediting” the Military
On March 2, 2022, amendments to the Criminal Code and the CAO were introduced to the State Duma, providing for penalties for:
1. public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation;
2. public actions discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, including calls for uncoordinated public events;
3. calls for sanctions against Russia.
The public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian armed forces as a new type of crime is now provided for in Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code. The punishment varies from a fine of 700 thousand rubles to imprisonment for three years and under aggravating circumstances up to five years. For the same acts that have entailed aggravating consequences, a penalty of up to 15 years in prison may be imposed (with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for up to five years).
The new article 20.3.3 of the CAO establishes punishment for public actions “discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” in the form of a fine of up to 50 thousand rubles for citizens, up to 200 thousand for officials and up to 500 thousand for legal entities. In the presence of qualifying signs (among them are calls for “unauthorized” public events, as well as the creation of a threat to the life and health of citizens, public safety, etc.), the fine increases to 100 thousand rubles for citizens, up to 300 thousand for officials and up to 1 million for legal entities.
If a person brought to administrative responsibility under this article repeatedly commits such an act within a year, criminal liability ensues following the new Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code. Punishment varies from a fine of 100 thousand rubles to imprisonment for up to three years (with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for the same period). If these actions caused death by negligence and/or harm to the health of citizens, property, mass violations of public order and/or public safety, or interfered with the functioning of life support facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industry or communications facilities, the maximum penalty increases up to a fine of 1 million rubles or imprisonment for up to five years (with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for the same period).
According to the new article 20.3.4 of the CAO, calls for sanctions against Russia are punishable by a fine of up to 50 thousand rubles for citizens, up to 200 thousand for officials and up to 500 thousand for legal entities. In case of repeated violations within a year, a person will face criminal liability under the new Article 284.2 of the Criminal Code. The maximum penalty for this crime is imprisonment for up to three years (with or without a fine).
The State Duma and the Federation Council approved the amendments on March 4, and on the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that criminalized “fakes” about the actions of Russian military personnel.
The Ominous Letter Z: War Propaganda Inside Russia
The first pictures and videos of Russian military vehicles with obscure markings appeared on social networks a few weeks before the start of the war. The Latin letter Z, with or without a square, was the most common, but a V was also seen. Most likely, the letters were used as tactical markings to distinguish equipment from different Russian military districts — but in a few days Z and V (but especially Z) became almost the official symbols of the “special operation.”
The Russian Defense Ministry itself has issued no public explanation, and when it finally released several posts mentioning Z and V in its social networks, it did not become any clearer. The markings of military equipment in these statements were used in propaganda slogans: for example, “Zakanchivayem voyni” (“we finish wars”) or “Za mir” (“For Peace”) (first in the usual spelling, and then with the replacement of the Cyrillic Z and V in the hashtags with the Latin Z and V).
Russian gymnast Ivan Kulyak, who took third place at the March 5 competition in Doha, went to the awards ceremony with the letter Z on his uniform (the International Gymnastics Federation demanded to open a disciplinary investigation in connection with “shocking behavior” of Kulyak). The governor of the Kemerovo region Sergey Tsivilev announced that since March, 2 the name of the region will be written as “KuZbass” in the official materials of the regional government. According to Tsivilev, Z is “a sign of support for our fighters” involved in the “military special operation” in Ukraine. The letter Z was put on the logo on its website by the Legislative Assembly of the Kemerovo region.
At the same time, events were organized in several Russian regions in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine, with participants lining up in the shape of the letter Z.
Two events in Kazan were particularly discussed. First, on March 5, the local children’s hospice lined up its wards with the letter Z. Then, on March 9 in the Kazan Mall an action took place, in which students of Kazan State Institute of Culture (KazGIK) took part: dressed in white hoodies with St. George ribbons pinned on them in the form of letter Z, students were throwing in the air their right and left hands alternately with clenched fist and chanting the slogan “For peace!”
There have been cases of pro-war actions and demonstrations. On March 6, 2022, a motor rally in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine was held in 12 regions of Russia. In some regions, people — mostly from a state-financed organization such as schools and hospitals — lined up in the shape of the letter “Z” for a photo.
The letter Z was also found on the door of his apartment by film critic Anton Dolin, who announced his departure from Russia on March 6, as well as a theatre critic Marina Davydova.
On March 18, 2022, a rally of many thousands was held in Moscow to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. A concert at a full Luzhniki Stadium with star supporters of Russian power was shown on all major Russian TV channels. President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a million and a half rubles down jacket, began his speech with a quote from the Constitution, continued by acknowledging Russia’s merits in developing Crimea, and then once again explained the need for a military operation in Ukraine. Then Putin quoted the Bible: “There is no greater love than that someone should give his life for his friends.” This, as it turned out, was about Russian servicemen who “help, support each other, and if necessary, like a brother cover their own body from a bullet on the battlefield,” Putin concluded.
War propaganda has also touched the youngest Russians. In the first days of the war, Russian schools received recommendations for conducting lessons for students from grades 7-11 about the war in Ukraine. These lessons were supposed to convey the official point of view of the government about the reasons for the “special military operation”, as well as to condemn anti-war rallies to the children. The training manual sent to teachers quotes the speech of President Vladimir Putin and emphasizes that there is not a war, but a “special military operation”, which is a “forced measure” taken to “save people” and “deter nationalists who oppress the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine”.
On March 3, the Ministry of Education held an All-Russian open lesson “Defenders of Peace”, where schoolchildren were presented with the background of current events in the official interpretation and also explained what danger the “NATO infrastructure” poses to Russia and how to distinguish lies from the truth.
In addition, similar conversations were recommended to be held at some Russian universities. For example, on March 1, 2022, Saint Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation (SUAI) published a decree calling to take “measures to prevent crimes and other anti-social activities of students” and “to ensure that the educational work aimed at the formation of students all-Russian civil identity, patriotism, civic responsibility, a sense of pride in the history of Russia, the preservation of historical memory, respect for the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and the exploits of Heroes of the Fatherland.”
The administrations of some Russian universities, including Moscow State University, have publicly expressed support for Russian military actions in Ukraine.
On March 21, 2022, a resident of Krasnodar city was fined with 30 thousand rubles under article on discrediting Russian military. He spit in the letter Z in the form of a St. George’s ribbon. In court, Alexander Kondratyev confirmed that he spit in the letter Z, which he perceived as a swastika, and that “spitting on a swastika does not discredit the armed forces. Kondratyev did not admit guilt, but “explained that by his actions he wanted to show his attitude towards the special operation conducted by the Russian military, in which people from both sides were killed.”
Squashing Anti-War Initiatives
A broad anti-war public campaign, despite the official rhetoric of the authorities, manifested itself quite noticeably from the very beginning taking various forms.
Petitions, open letters and statements against the war were being launched on the Internet. A petition created by human rights defender Lev Ponomarev on the Change.org has gained more than a million signatures. At the moment, there are around 100 such documents from representatives of various professions and other associations of citizens. The Economist analyzed 50,000 posts on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #nowar, determined the geolocation of 7,000 of them and found publications in 83 Russian regions and 50 cities all over the country — the geography and scale of support are unprecedented.
After the publication and dissemination of such statements, reports began to arrive concerning visits by law enforcement officers to the people and organizations that signed the petitions.
There are also some cases of dismissals. Managers and employees of state-funded or government-affiliated structures — theatres, museums, or large companies — resign due to moral considerations and disagreement with the policies of organizations. There are examples of forced dismissals and pressure on employees of various institutions who spoke out against the war.
A special attitude was also shown to the citizens of Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens detained at anti-war rallies since February, 24, 2022, are being questioned separately by security forces. Two citizens of Ukraine, permanently residing and working in Moscow, applied for legal assistance because of the district police officer’s visit. He asked questions about their purposes of staying in Russia, collected their data, photographed the documents, motivated the procedure with the “war with Ukraine”, warned against “information on the Internet” and suggested not to interfere “in things like sabotage and terrorism.”
On February 27, 2022, it became known that more than 10 Ukrainians living in Russia were detained, allegedly for violating migration legislation.
Marina Ovsyannikova of the news outlet Channel One, who broke into a live broadcast of Russia’s state TV channel during prime time on March 14 with an anti-war poster was arrested and fined for inciting people to participate in protests. In addition, the Investigative Committee launched an investigation into her case.
The Russian authorities Refuse to Approve Anti-War Rallies. Police Unleashes Violence Against Protesters
The authorities of Russia’s largest cities consistently refuse to permit anti-war actions and individual pickets, explaining this by the continuing pandemic of the coronavirus. At the same time, “OVD-Info” stresses that virtually all other events involving large gatherings of people have long been held without restrictions.
The number of arrests at rallies is unprecedented. Between February 24 and March 13, almost 15,000 people were detained in 155 cities across Russia. The reasons for the detentions were not only mass actions, but also any other forms of protest, such as the use of anti-war symbols, laying flowers or dressing in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The detentions, contrary to legal requirements, were also carried out by unmarked security forces.
In addition, the police meticulously look for any anti-war statements of any kind. This includes personal correspondence on the devices of detainees and even bystanders. While vandalism can be prosecuted regarding anti-war graffiti, arrests and administrative prosecution can be initiated for placing pacifist symbols on clothing or backpacks.
As of March 12, 2022, 21 criminal cases are known, allegedly related to the people’s reaction to a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Detailed information about cases is not always available.
At least six cases have been initiated against people who took part in anti-war rallies. All of them were initiated under the article on the use of violence against a representative of the authorities (Article 318 of the Criminal Code provides for punishment, depending on the part from a fine of up to two thousand rubles to imprisonment for up to 10 years). Three cases were initiated in St. Petersburg, two in Yekaterinburg, one in Moscow.
On March 16, 2022 the Investigative Committee announced the first criminal cases under the article on “discrediting” the army. The defendants are two residents of the Tomsk Region and Nika Belotserkovskaya, a well-known blogger and influencer. The latter, according to the agency, “discredited the state authorities and the armed forces. According to the IC, Belotserkovskaya is currently abroad; the issue of her international wanted list is being resolved.
Veronika Belotserkovskaya commented on the opening of the case: “I have been officially declared a decent person!” She continues to write about Ukraine and says that she will not be intimidated.
Probably the most high-profile criminal case brought to trial so far is that against the famous Russian publicist and social activist Alexander Nevzorov. On March 22, 2022, the criminal case was opened on article “public dissemination of intentionally false information about the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”
According to the investigation, on March 9, 2022, Nevzorov published “deliberately false information about the intentional shelling of a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on his page on Instagram, which is banned in Russia, and on March 19 on his YouTube channel. The publication was accompanied by unreliable photos of civilians injured by the shelling. The sources of distribution of these images are the Ukrainian media.” The statement of the Investigative Committee notes that measures are being taken to establish the whereabouts of Nevzorov. According to the media, Nevzorov himself, like many other Russian journalists and public figures, left Russia.