On March 14, a brave woman barreled into the frame of a newscast on Russia’s Channel One, a notorious source of state propaganda.
While the female announcer was speaking, Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor of the channel, was holding a sign in both Russian and English: “No War. Stop the War. Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here. Russians against war.”
Ovsyannikova was arrested and held in police custody for 24 hours. After her court hearing, which resulted in a 30,000 ruble ($280) fine, the editor told media that she had not slept for two full days and was interrogated for 14 hours.
“Don’t be afraid of anything. They can’t imprison us all,” she said.
“It’s clear that the police and the courts will not put all people who call the war a war in jail, but they will jail some of them. As usual,” Ilya, a 27-year-old contractor (name has been changed), said. “It’s also possible that some of these people work for state enterprises and they are afraid they will be fired.”
I was living in Moscow until March 1 when I was forced to leave the country due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Of my friends, who are generally progressive, most of their dear ones and acquaintances believe the invasion is a horrible mistake. They repeat the same words: it is a nightmare, a catastrophe.
Despite recent bans on calling a spade a spade – it is illegal for Russian media, for example, to use the terms “war,” “invasion,” and “assault,” and the term “special operation” is applied instead – they know that what is happening is “war.”
But many in Russia are terrified of openly stating their views. Some attempt to do so indirectly, whereas others – including important media figures such as Ivan Urgant, a late-night host who ran one of the most popular shows on Russian television that has been canceled since his dissent – are immediately punished. (While the show was taken off the air on February 21, before Russia invaded Ukraine but after Urgant had voiced anti-war views, Russia’s Channel One denied canceling the show for this reason).
Media restriction in Russia is nothing new. Free speech and political activism has been increasingly curbed over the past eight to ten years, which has included Putin’s hijacking of the country’s television system, the repression of protests, the murder of opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov, the poisoning of activist and opposition candidate Alexei Navalny, and the “foreign agent” designation for journalists, media outlets, and nongovernmental organizations.
“The government is finding it very convenient to use the pandemic regulations that make it very easy to say that any kind of protest is a violation. Even if there is one person standing [on the street] with a sheet of paper, they can say that there is a risk that a crowd will gather around this person, and this crowd will create pandemic risks,” Sergei Utkin, a Russian researcher who has worked as the Head of Foreign and Security Policy Department of the Centre for Strategic Research as well as the Russian Academy of Sciences, said.
Lera, a 29-year-old professional (name has been changed) who has attended nearly every protest in Moscow since 2011, did not participate in the anti-war protests out of fear. “I don’t agree with what’s going on… but I have not gone to the anti-war protests because I’m afraid, afraid that I will be beaten, afraid that I will have fifteen days [in prison]… If I go to jail, I can’t help anyone.”
At the beginning of March, Russia’s Federation Council expanded Article 275 of Russia’s Criminal Code that determines what might be considered “high treason,” which can result in a prison sentence of up to twenty years. While it is unclear exactly how the law will be applied, as in the past it was rare for ordinary citizens “who do not have special knowledge and skills, as well as access to secret information” to be charged with treason, there is reason to believe that even the average Russian may be jailed disseminating certain types of information.
There are concerns that those who work for Russian state services or government bodies may fall under this category if they speak out against war. The Russian government has also passed a law that threatens fines and up to fifteen years in jail if a media organization or individual spreads “false information” about the war in Ukraine, calls for sanctions, or otherwise opposes the invasion.
Utkin does not believe that the average Russian citizen has no recourse to speak out.
“I understand that it is getting increasingly complicated, but in my opinion, there is room to speak against the war without violating these rules. At least, from the position of a citizen, rather than an investigative journalist… you are against this whole thing as a citizen, you don’t do investigation… you don’t argue about details that can be reported right or wrong…”
“You don’t try to present an alternative picture of what’s happening on the ground, you don’t say that the armed forces are doing something wrong because that’s what they were ordered to do, you’re saying that the political decision to start it was the wrong one.”
While it is true, Utkin says, that the law prevents people from calling for sanctions against Russia, “it does not prohibit [people from criticizing] the president.” This, he says, is where Russian civil society can maneuver.
Journalists, however, are trapped. “I understand that many journalists decided to leave, or decided that they cannot operate, because they have to get information from the ground, in the war zone ideally, and report it. And if this doesn’t correspond to the Russian official line, they can get in trouble. For their profession, it is indeed a direct and very high risk, and I understand that they are leaving in order to continue working on this issue,” Utkin said.
Vasily Gatov, 57, is a Russian-American media analyst with over thirty years of experience in Russian and international media. He holds a more condemning view of those who choose to speak out about the war in roundabout ways, though he has declared that it is his moral compass that had guided him to this understanding.
“If you are afraid to say an important truth, then it is better to be silent than to come up with an excuse for why you’re not telling the truth… even if [Russians who are now posting on social media] believe that the closure of Instagram ruins their life, either they don’t know that Russia bombed into ashes seas of Ukraine, killing dozens of thousands of people already, and are killing your brothers as soldiers, and you are crying that you cannot now communicate your beauty tricks… for me, it is the worst form of hypocrisy.”