A new stage of repression: Ekaterina Schulmann on the Kremlin’s changing approach to silencing dissent [Meduza]

18 July 2022

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.” Meduza asked political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann 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.

Ekaterina Schulmann [Photo: Facebook]

Judging by which organizations have been deemed “foreign agents,” women’s rights groups, minority rights groups, and organizations that fight domestic and sexual violence rank high on the government’s list of “enemies.” They’ve simultaneously been persecuted by both local and federal law enforcement. As Yulia Tsvetkova’s case made clear, working on these issues is dangerous.

Nobody can say for sure why authoritarian political regimes take such interest in their subjects’ personal lives. But it’s important to remember that the list of authoritarian personality traits compiled by [German sociologist Theodor] Adorno included authoritarian submission (a tendency to associate oneself with the strong), authoritarian aggression (a tendency to attack those who are different), intellectual simplicity, and an obsession with other’s sex lives. Perhaps this is because [others’ sex lives represent] a realm of uncontrollable freedom, which always irritates the authoritarian nature. Perhaps they really do see some kind of threat to the fabric of society there.

A somewhat inappropriate interest in other people’s sex lives is characteristic of [individual] authoritarian personalities, not just authoritarian regimes. In democracies, too, conservative-leaning people tend to be disproportionately concerned about what others are doing, with whom, and how; they see in it a threat to future populations and, consequently, the future of the country.

In our case, the current government views the younger generation with suspicion and mistrust, believing they’ve been indoctrinated with the wrong values, including those connected to family and sexual life. As a result, anything that might influence young people is watched closely and regarded with skepticism. […]

Around 2019, people who were used to fighting foreign spies [FSB agents] suddenly found themselves in charge of managing [Russia’s] domestic politics. […] Since then, we’ve seen how the individual “foreign agents” registry has appeared, how it’s grown, and how “foreign influence” has become the explanation for all domestic troubles.

[Russia’s] domestic policy has been projected onto its foreign policy and its foreign policy onto its domestic policy to the point that the two have merged together completely. The new amendments to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code talk not only about treason but also about espionage; they introduce the concept of “secret cooperation,” and not just with foreign intelligence agencies, but also with international organizations or simply with [foreign] citizens.

These innovations complement the new version of the “foreign agents” law, which greatly expands the definition of a “foreign agent.” Now, being one doesn’t require any evidence of foreign funding; it’s enough to have “foreign influence,” which can be exerted on an organization or individual, magically — and unbeknownst to the target — making it a “foreign agent.”

In our case, these kinds of rules aren’t intended for widescale use; they’re intended to intimidate. People were told they could get up to 15 years for saying the wrong thing about the special operation; now they’ll be told they can get up to 20 years for communicating with foreigners — so they have to be as careful as possible and stop communicating with everybody. […]

For the first three months of the special operation, there was a lull in intra-elite repressions; we can now see it in retrospect. Until [Russian Presidential Academy head] Vladimir Mau was put on house arrest, we didn’t seen any high-ranking figures get persecuted, and any rumors of that happening (such as those about [Defense Minister Sergey] Shoigu, [Army General Staff Chief Valery] Gerasimov, or the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service [Sergey Beseda] falling from grace were quickly refuted. […]

It [the lull] ended with the charges against Mau. In addition to him, a number of security officials have found themselves targeted over the last two weeks. That includes [Interior Minister Vladimir] Kolokoltsev’s aide in St. Petersburg [Sergey Umnov] as well as two St. Petersburg police generals [Alexey Semenov and Ivan Abakumov]. If there was, in fact, a pause, it’s clearly over. We can now say with certainty that they [the Russian security forces] have woken back up.

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