— You’ve said that it is crucial to talk about the costs faced by anti-war protesters in Russia. Could you elaborate?
— My statement was prompted by a global debate, in the wake of February 24, about Russians’ responsibility and why it is they don’t oust Putin right away. Various comments published in the Western press make me think that those who live in more democratic countries simply do not understand what Russian protest is as a [social and political] phenomenon. There’s a commonplace perception that Russians are apolitical, disengaged and disinterested because the current situation in the country is allegedly comfortable for them. They are ostensibly familiar with the regime and the way Putin works — the rules of the game are clear to everyone, not having changed for decades. Taking all this as a given, those abroad tend to think that it’s necessary to shake the Russians out of their stupor, turn off their Netflix, have Ikea withdraw from the market, and, eventually, the Russians will finally come to and overthrow those in power.
True, Russians’ involvement in politics is not high: grassroots initiatives aren’t all that popular, people are not particularly interested in power and do not have much faith in it. This is a generalization of course but it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of it. I myself resent that there weren’t more of us out protesting between 2011-2021. After all, back then we were still able to protest! And yet, this kind of generalization is unacceptable because it skips over the most important pages of the country’s history and is very selective in its emphases. People protested, organized rallies, voted and participated in independent election monitoring. In the 2010s, it was possible and indeed necessary to speak of Russians’ insufficient involvement in politics. But now the situation is different. Engaging (or not) in protests is no longer a choice between “freezing your ass off at a rally or lounging in front of the TV.”
“Now, when we call on those in Russia to protest, we call on them to serve time in jail”
This prospect is very different from going to a rally and perhaps paying a smallish fine as a consequence. Now any protest action is fraught with the likelihood of a significant prison term.
When the laws prohibiting the dissemination of “unreliable information” (or “fake news”) and “discrediting” the Russian army were adopted in early March, it wasn’t at first clear how these laws would be enforced or what exactly would fall under these new definitions. However, my colleagues, human rights lawyers, foresaw pretty accurately how these laws would work: any statement that did not align with the position of the Ministry of Defense would be treated as “fake”; slogans such as “no to war,” “no to fascism,” or statements in support of Ukraine would be considered a “discrediting” of the Russian army. From the charges that have been brought against Sasha Skochilenko, Alexei Gorinov, Ilya Yashin and others, it’s clear that as a result of any truthful publication about the massacre in Bucha or even just a statement that children are being killed in Ukraine, you can wind up in a detention center and be served with a seven-year term in a penal colony.
I think it’s important to convey this simple information to those in the West. If you feel you can speak of the need to educate Russian citizens, telling them that they have not yet sufficiently internalized democratic values, you need to take into account the costs they will bear for their political choices. Otherwise, it turns out that as long as they’re willing to serve a seven-year sentence they can count on the international community’s respect but if they’re unwilling to sacrifice themselves and their freedom, they merit no respect at all.
— Can you elaborate on how the law against any “discrediting” of the Russian army is enforced?
— According to the law, any public statement condemning the “special operation” can be considered to be “discrediting the Russian army.” That said, while your first picket with a poster “No to War!” will cost you a 30-50,000 ruble administrative fine, a repeat of this picket can trigger a criminal case that would send you to prison for three years.
In these circumstances, we, ironically, begin to miss that “freedom of speech” we had before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Of course, even then we had to stay within certain limits when it came to our public statements. If you advertised a rally you could be detained for its allegedly illegal organization; any hint of an appeal to violence against state officials or to “separatism” (in fact, any speculations about an independent future for territories within the Russian Federation) could potentially become a pretext for criminal charges. These were the main things that could land you in trouble for posts on social media. It’s different now. If you are in Russia, it’s no longer enough to avoid openly appealing to people or to speak about what’s happening in Aesopian language. To be sure of your safety, it’s now necessary to not raise certain themes at all. To take a case from my recent juridical practice: a man was prosecuted for “discrediting” the army after he responded with a sad smiley to someone’s post about the war. You can be held liable for making any public statement on the war, peace, or Ukraine, especially on social networks. Before the war, the most absurd cases were administrative fines for using the symbol associated with the Navalny team: for example, being fined for a reposted Instagram story that included a tiny exclamation mark [note: Navalny’s symbol]. Today there are hundreds of absurd examples: any use of the slogan “*** *****” [note: asterisks, used to signify self-censorship, and equal to the number of letters in the slogan “no to war” in Russian, “net voine”], a priest’s anti-war sermon, even a small placard with a verbatim quote from Putin. Let me remind you that repeating an action of this kind carries the risk of a real sentence.
A large number of these prosecutions for posting on social media can be explained by a certain laziness on the part of law enforcement officers: it’s much easier to scroll through posts on VKontakte [note: Russian social network, similar to Facebook] than to go somewhere. Online, everything’s ready for them to initiate criminal or administrative proceedings.
Moreover, persecutions for posting on social media are a cheap and effective scare tactic. Not everyone is eager to make a public anti-war statement offline but anyone can “like” something or share a post. This creates a sense of insecurity, insofar as any social media user can relate to those who are under threat just for liking a post or sharing it.
— We recently published an essay on repressions in Russia, in which the author claims that it’s impossible to parse their logic — this creates the effect of a “randomizer,” as she puts it. And yet, we see many people posting publicly about the Russian army’s war crimes in Ukraine and only a few of them are later prosecuted. How do law enforcement officials choose who to convict?
— The state acts cunningly to achieve its goals. Had political laws only been applied to leaders of the opposition, they would not have frightened the “ordinary citizen.” When Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza are imprisoned, it’s still within the rules of the “authoritarian pact” that existed in Russia until the mid-2010s. Citizens were not supposed to “interfere” with politics, while the state would not interfere in their lives. They were allowed to say or write whatever they wanted and in return, they were not supposed to participate in politics or claim power. The grounds for repression lay in non-compliance with this unspoken pact. All this was characteristic of a previous stage in our history. Today the state has an altogether different task. It’s no longer a question of discouraging people from participating in elections.
“Today, the state aims to create an image of a monolithic Russian people, supportive of Putin and the “special military operation” in Ukraine”
I can single out three directions in which state is orienting its repressive force. First, leaders and prominent figures from the opposition are either (already) imprisoned or being forced to leave Russia. Second, media personalities who have nothing to do with politics. They are being persecuted so that politics won’t sidle its way into the cultural and lifestyle scene (take the example of Nika Belotserkovskaya, publisher of the magazine “Sobaka,” who was among the first to be prosecuted under article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code). Third, people who are intended to appear completely random so as to make every citizen feel unsafe. These tactics free the state from the need for mass repressions in the style of the Great Terror. It’s enough to create an image of citizens’ absolute vulnerability through these manifestly absurd criminal cases. The authorities do not try (as they sometimes did before) to cast in this role someone who might somehow seem murky or unpleasant to the “spectator,” or someone who has actually taken actions deemed socially unacceptable. On the contrary, they prefer to choose someone who evokes sympathy and compassion, or even someone totally inconspicuous, in order to create a feeling that no one can hide. Recent examples include Sasha Skochilenko, Boris Romanov and Victoria Petrova. It’s no coincidence that the state demonstrates particular cruelty in these cases, imposing pre-trial detention and qualifying these acts as being “motivated by political hatred.”
— Wasn’t it like that before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine? After all, repressions of random people have happened before.
— The key difference, I think, lies in the fact that before, the authorities stubbornly pretended that political cases were not political. For example, they tried to imprison people not for their participation in rallies but for their alleged acts of “violence” against police. Of course, all of these cases were not really intended to protect police officers from some kind of monstrous violence on the part of protesters, since these rallies were usually peaceful. The purpose was to show that any protest action can bring about a criminal case, even if you accidentally touch a police officer. Yet the authorities tried to disavow the political nature of these cases, maintaining the posture that they don’t imprison people for protesting as such. This was evident in the early trials of Alexei Navalny: the authorities tried to demonstrate that they were putting him in jail not because he was an opposition politician but because of his alleged embezzlement from a state timber company.
The rubicon was crossed, in my view, with the criminal case against Andrei Pivovarov, at which point repressions became manifestly political. He was accused of running an “undesirable organization” (Open Russia) — this was one of the first openly political criminal cases.
Now we live in a reality in which no one pretends that there are no political prisoners and the government’s aim is to show that anyone can become one.
— What do you, as a lawyer, have to deal with in this new post-February 24 reality? What does the defense of human rights mean amidst this quasi-state of emergency?
— The strategy for handling cases has not changed much. Even though, until recently, the state tried to pretend that political articles did not exist, my colleagues and I always understood our human rights practice to be one that involves political cases. Winning them was always something of an exception to the rule. The cases of administrative offenses that I work with are usually won “on procedural grounds”: for example, when a report is drawn up with mistakes, when the disk of a video recording has been physically damaged with a stapler, or when the same police officer is called Golovotyapov on one page of the file and Golovorezov on another [note: to roughly translate, Mr. Headman and Mr. Hangman]. When the media reports that “the case has been dismissed for lack of corpus delicti,” the wording they use is absolutely correct and the reader often gets the impression that the court has agreed with our beautiful words about the primacy of some fundamental right — that is, the right to protest. But an insider can see that the case was dismissed simply because a police officer made a mistake in drawing up the report.
“When we deal with political cases, we talk about fundamental rights and issues but often rely upon technical errors in the case’s handling”
However, even these victories are less likely now because pointing out this or that mistake in the case file doesn’t produce the same results as before.
The defense of human rights has also changed due to the new articles introduced [into the Criminal and Administrative Codes] in the spring of 2022. The number of criminal lawsuits has increased dramatically and in the organizations I cooperate with, the work they are now dealing with, points to the same tendency. Over the spring, we were inundated with cases of administrative offenses. For example, in March alone I had 70 new cases under the Administrative Code. By mid-spring, however, many of my colleagues had to deal primarily with political criminal cases.
Another feature is the increased pressure on human rights defenders and the legal community. The way in which the law on foreign agents is applied or, for example, the case of lawyer Dmitry Talantov — who was sent to a detention center after “spreading fake news” about Kharkiv, Mariupol, Irpen and Bucha — is illustrative here. In the legal community, this case is perceived as a serious warning to all lawyers. The conditions of Talantov’s pre-trial detention were monstrous: the legal community literally fought to ensure that he was at least given a bed. This is how they tell us that lawyers who work on political cases and speak out about political matters are no longer untouchable. A lawyer holds a special position in our legal system and, in the past, except in isolated cases, they tried not to mess with lawyers so explicitly. As I see it, the first harbinger of the new repressions was the case of Ivan Pavlov and “Team 29” [note: Pavlov is the founder of Team 29, a group of independent lawyers, advocacy experts and journalists. He also defended the Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, who was trialed for treason]. Given the constant struggle between the state and human rights NGOs, the fact that the organization itself was virtually destroyed didn’t surprise anyone. Yet they took Pavlov on personally, which was very telling. Pavlov’s lawyer, Valeria Vetoshkina, was also on the receiving end of this lawsuit and was also declared a foreign agent.
— What is the gender composition in the cases you deal with? Are we seeing more women at anti-war protests and in detention than before?
— This is a complicated issue. In early May, Doxa magazine published statistics showing that women were 2.2 times more likely to be prosecuted for anti-war resistance than for other political criminal cases. Indeed, before the war men clearly outnumbered women among political detainees. In the aftermath of February, women still don’t represent a majority but there are many more of them. If you look at the cases that I’ve dealt with, you can see that the protests in support of Navalny were more “male-dominated” than those against the war. My impression is that among anti-war activists, the number of male and female detainees has been almost equal. But my data, of course, is not representative. In my opinion, it would be more accurate to consider women’s participation in anti-war resistance not in absolute numbers (for example, 40% of women and 60% of men) but in its dynamics, i.e. to assess how and in connection with what women’s interest in politics is growing.
“The anti-war agenda is particularly compelling for women, as we are well aware of the price we will all pay in the long run for this war”
Moreover, the war undercuts the many gains won in the struggle for gender equality, as it renders gender roles much more rigid. Still, women find it especially difficult to take to the streets and risk their freedom, because they are usually the ones who have to take care of elderly relatives and children, even if they are over 14 (if her children are under 14, a woman cannot be placed in detention for an administrative offense). If a woman is arrested, her children and elderly relatives may be left without any support.
In Saint Petersburg, those who first faced criminal charges for “fake news” were exclusively women: Sasha Skochilenko, Victoria Petrova, Olga Smirnova, Maria Ponomarenko. It was only later that men began to appear among the defendants. It’s worth mentioning the anti-war initiatives undertaken by women. Feminist Anti-War Resistance has become one of the leading voices of the anti-war movement in Russia and beyond. Of course, it’s by no means the only anti-war group but it’s a significant one. As it’s impossible to protest on the streets, people seek other ways to express their views: for example, they help Ukrainians who have been forcibly deported to Russia to find things they need or to escape to Europe. And this kind of help is mainly provided by women. At the same time, such activism is often anonymous: people are afraid to talk about it publicly, as even purely humanitarian work can now carry the risk of persecution.
— How do people react to detention and what do they have to deal with?
— This varies depending on the consequences. But one should understand that even a couple of days of arrest can result in, for example, losing one’s job and all income. Psychological and health problems tend to be compounded. Sometimes a citizen of another country is arrested and no one can give them the hygiene products or food they require. There are also other difficulties. For example, I will mention again the case of Sasha Skochilenko, whose case is important not only because of its intentional absurdity but also because it reveals many problems in our penitentiary system. Sasha is openly lesbian but the state does not consider her regular partner a “close relative” and she will have to constantly fight for the right to communicate with Sasha. Moreover, as Sasha has coeliac disease, her confinement in the pre-trial detention center is a direct threat to her life and means constant hunger. The system does not know how to deal with such illnesses yet they refuse to let Sasha go. This story helps us see that the potential consequences of taking an anti-war stance in Russia encompass not only imprisonment but also losing contact with loved ones and putting one’s life at risk.
— How do you see the mission of human rights defenders in these circumstances?
— For a lawyer, civic engagement is, first and foremost, her professional activity. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that lawyers remain safe and are able to work freely, insofar as it’s possible. We understand that we won’t win most cases but it’s important to be there for the defendant and to fight to the end, no matter what. Besides, the lawyer has become the only link between the prisoner and the outside world, including their family, as well as between the courtroom and the public, since the latter are denied entry to it. This role now has a tremendous importance. Another source of distress for Russian human rights defenders this year is Russia’s imminent withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which for many years remained the last hope for all unjustly convicted Russians [note: Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe on March 16, 2022 and will cease to be a High Contracting Party to the ECHR on September 16]. For now, we still have the possibility of appealing to the ECHR and we hope that one day things will change in Russia, that we will rejoin the Council of Europe and that ECHR rulings will be enforced here. But there are no guarantees because perhaps we are facing decades of isolation and repression. It’s not inconceivable that the Russian authorities will not concern themselves with ECHR rulings until the twenty-second century.
“I see my role in human rights defense as, among other things, that of a chronicler, i.e. documenting court proceedings and keeping a record of people’s ongoing resistance”
Having a corpus of anti-war cases means that we can share with the world at least some part of the picture of the domestic opposition to the war, since we have documented evidence that in Russia, people resist the war against all odds. Of course, many Russians support it: I have no illusions about that. Still, I think we should see the thousands of “anti-war” cases not as a drop in the ocean if compared to the total population of the country but rather as thousands of really existing individuals who knew they were risking time in jail but protested all the same. Helping these people and spreading information about them is what I take to be the greatest purpose of our work today.