On July 15, a judge in Komsomolsk-on-Amur acquitted artist and LGBT activist Yulia Tsvetkova after three years of legal proceedings. Tsvetkova was accused of “distributing pornography” after she published drawings of vulvas on a social media page called the “Vagina Monologues.” Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine, the number of absurd cases like Tsvetkova’s has only grown; Russians can now be charged for as little as putting quotation marks around the phrase “special [military] operation.” For insight into how the authorities’ censorship methods are evolving, Meduza asked human rights advocate Pavel Chikov, head of Agora International human rights group, about the purpose of cases like Tsvetkova’s.
Source: Meduza. Reprinted by kind permission. An extract from ‘A new stage of repression Three experts weigh in on the Kremlin’s changing approach to silencing dissent.’ Interviews by Alexey Slavin; abridged transltaion by Sam Breazeale.
People have always reported and denounced others. This didn’t appear out of nowhere, and it’s not limited to Russia. All kinds of indignant citizens have always gone to law enforcement agencies with complaints about things that don’t fit their perfect idea of how the world should be. It’s not a question of people complaining — it’s a question of how the government reacts.
If the government reacts to some complaints and not to others, thereby creating a policy of encouraging complaints about some things while ignoring others, that’s a problem.
If a person complains about local police officers beating homeless people, it’s likely that the government won’t react, or that its reaction will be insufficient. But if a person complains about someone putting up a Ukrainian or a rainbow flag [in a window, for example], the reaction will be immediate and even excessive.
The government’s selective attention has become obvious in recent months. Everyone understands perfectly well which things the government will respond to instantly. That spurs concerned citizens to seek out [problems] and report them. Thus the problem isn’t with the citizens, it’s with the government.
I’ve worked on politically motivated cases for almost 20 years and can tell you that ordinary citizens have always faced more [political] persecution than activists. Activists’ cases are more high-profile; everyone reports on them. That’s not the case with ordinary people. They often plead guilty, and the cases are held in silence. I know of an extremism case from the aughts, or of cases against people for statements they made online that were opened 10-15 years ago. Or the first few dozen cases of “disrespecting the authorities,” when that article was added to the Administrative Code: most of them were opened against ordinary people and Internet users who spoke out about their frustrations with the authorities and the president. It’s incorrect to say the repressions only started after the war began.
As for criminal charges, a total of about 200 criminal cases under twenty different criminal code articles have been initiated since the start of the war; only two of those articles were passed as “wartime censorship” legislation. All the others are laws that have been applied against government critics for years. The only difference is that now, all of these cases are being filed in connection with anti-war protests, which can look like anything from Internet posts to street demonstrations, performances, and street art.
The question of intimidation against politically active citizens is a question of interpretation. Some might say people really are being intimidated. The Investigative Committee and supporters of the government will tell you that they’re suppressing criminal activity. Overall, this all appears to be an attempt to punish people for opposing the authorities’ policies and to create a society-wide chilling effect.