Russia’s Informers. A discussion with Sergei Medvedev, Olga Romanova and Aleksandr Cherkasov [Radio Svoboda]

26 April 2023

Olga Romanova and Aleksandr Cherkasov on how the culture of denunciation has been reborn in Russia

Source: Radio Svoboda

Sergei Medvedev: In a year of war, denunciation culture has returned to Russia. Everyone is informing: passengers on the Metro on their fellow passengers; restaurant customers on the people at the next table; teachers on pupils; students on professors. Does this compare to the Soviet culture of informing? Is the denunciation a traditional form of relations between the individual and the regime in Russia? We have as our guests human rights activist Aleksandr Cherkasov and Olga Romanova, head of the human rights centre Russia Behind Bars.

Correspondent: People are being fined and put in prison for songs, jokes, and private conversations. Very often, cases involving so-called “fake news” and “discrediting the Russian army” come out of denunciations. In the first half of 2022, Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] received around 145,000 such letters.

Recently, the Muscovite Yury Samoilov was arrested for pictures of the Azov battalion found on his phone. A passenger saw allegedly banned images on his phone, photographed it, and then reported it to the police. Criminal charges were brought against Ryazan region resident Vasily Bolshakov over a joke on social media. The man had posted a hypothetical conversation between President Putin and Defence Minister Shoigu. Now he is threatened with three years in prison.

Psychologists compare this phenomenon to trying to vent one’s anger, to having the last word in an argument, and to the pleasure of having power — more rarely on ideological grounds, and sometimes simply because of an insult or for revenge. The average statistical informer has no specific age or portrait. Virtually all social groups inform.

Sergei Medvedev: Olga, is this a qualitative change or has this been building up over the years?

Olga RomanovaIn the prison sphere, I’m seeing a serious shift toward informing. Our penitentiary system was never reformed in any way. Today it is formally part of the Justice Ministry but is in fact under the FSB [Federal Security Service]. The operational and prison service and the FSB now run the show in the prison zones, hence the torture as well. Torture and photographing torture constitute coercion to collaborate. Six guys rape you with a broom while a seventh photographs it, and then you sign a agreement and they tell you, “Make trouble and we’ll show the film to your fellow villagers” (somewhere in the Caucasus). It works.

Aleksandr Cherkasov: Back in the 1990s, I heard that from the standpoint of our cop higher-ups, civil society means those who cooperate with operatives. Just how reprehensible or laudable this phenomenon is is a different matter. And also, not every letter that comes into the organs gets acted upon. It does if it fits the leadership’s current directives. Usually it’s very hard to get a statement of a crime registered. But if a campaign arises in accordance with a decree from above, incoming statements are used. Another aspect of the matter is in what proportion of these instances a denunciation worked and in what proportion a denunciation was cited in order to cover up other surveillance methods. This is a well-known way to legitimize operative information, by saying “we received a signal.”

Sergei Medvedev: In my opinion, the relationship between the individual and the state is changing. The individual is increasingly eager to start informing on their neighbour. If people from the late Soviet era were united against the state, then now each person individually sides with the state against their neighbour.

Olga Romanova: I wouldn’t even say individually: instances speak to informers’ solidarity. The instance with Masha Moskaleva shows the generational connection. After all, the drawing teacher who wrote the denunciation against the little girl is 82 (she has now retired post-haste)! Then there was the class teacher—she’s about 30 and was school principal—the same age as I am, she had children, Masha’s classmates, and there were their parents, that is, absolutely the entire age spectrum took part in this.

And how many cases we’ve seen of children recording their teachers and then going to the police with their parents. Writing a denunciation against a teacher has to be one of the most terrible things. And we are also seeing mothers denouncing their children. A mother brings her son by the hand to the military enlistment office and says, “Take him into the army. He’s gay. Let him at least die like a man!” I’m sorry, but this has to be the ultimate form of denunciation…

Sergei Medvedev: How much is all this reproducing Soviet practices, Dovlatov’s famous, “Who wrote the four million denunciations?”

Aleksandr CherkasovSergei Dovlatov has this figure of speech: even my father I wouldn’t spare to display my wit. If you take the broader context, Dovlatov was writing about everyone’s personal responsibility: start with yourself, don’t blame society and the state. The problem is that denunciations never played a decisive role under Soviet power. Most Soviet citizens were repressed by the state within the context of major campaigns, mass operations, where you might find a denunciation in three out of a hundred cases. To a significant degree, though, the discussion of Soviet repressions and the 1950s, and later ones, came down to the fact of who informed on whom, who locked up whom… And that distracted us from the main point, from the fact that the main actor here is, after all, the state.

Sergei Medvedev: Here are the thoughts of analyst Andrei Kolesnikov.

Andrei Kolesnikov: The increase in the number of denunciations is one of the indicators that our state is balancing somewhere between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This is the awakening of the sleeping totalitarian instincts of the population, which it seemed had long ago disappeared. But as it turns out, they haven’t. All this was stored somewhere in the distant corners of the soul, and as soon as the atmosphere turned amoral (and the military atmosphere is absolutely amoral, it provokes the lowest instincts in humankind), people began to conform to the situation, that is, to behave in the way the state encourages. After all many people do not benefit at all from this. Rather, as in the case of Moskalev and his daughter, in the course of a teacher’s fulfillment of their duty (or how the teacher understands their duty) it is necessary to denounce, to act in accordance with the rules that exist in this society.

This system is based on bayonets and denunciations, because from a certain point on, Putin deprived the people of their right to passivity within the framework of the old social contract: “Above all, don’t you interfere with us!” It is no longer enough to remain silent; it is necessary to act or speak. This is already the situation of a totalitarian regime. The atmosphere in society is darkening, and people are beginning to behave more cautiously.

Sergei Medvedev: Olga, you live in Berlin. How much are denunciations a part of German everyday culture?

Olga Romanova: In this sense, Germany is a country of informers, snitches, or people who react sharply to any violation of order. Here a complete stranger can start teaching you how to live your life. The difference is in the consequences and the message: you don’t sort your garbage correctly, and we do; you’re an irresponsible person – we’ll teach you how; you exceeded the speed limit and created a public danger – we’ll work with you so that you don’t speed anymore. But there’s no desire here to jail anyone for these things. If a person writes to the police when he hears his neighbour beating his wife behind the wall – that’s not snitching, of course, but normal civic behaviour, the prevention of crime.

If the message is like the famous Soviet movie about the new apartment, with the eternal meme: “It’s a good thing the old tenants were shot,” then of course we are talking about a denunciation, about settling scores, about an immoral act. But if you want to improve public order and don’t assume that the offender will go to jail for it, and you’ll have some bonus, then you’re just improving the world around you. And here there are no consequences such as someone going to jail, getting fired from their job, being declared a “foreign agent,” having to flee the country. There are other consequences and other motives.

Aleksandr Cherkasov: There is a long tradition into which this campaign fits quite well in our country. Yes, these patterns of the past are being exploited, and denouncing a neighbour or someone else in some cases can result in social mobility for the denouncer, and if we are talking about a professional job, then there may be a small financial benefit or a way to avoid unpleasantnesses if you are recruited and are forced to cooperate under pressure. But after all, every time the situation is one that leaves the possibility of free choice. In the mid-1970s, a man named Dvoryansky was put in the same prison cell as Mustafa Dzhemilev, the future leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, and was supposed to testify against him. Instead, Dvoryansky told Dzhemilev about the plan and, as a result, he suffered a lot. You can put everything down to a regime that absolves people of responsibility, and here we go back to Dovlatov, or you can say that in any regime a person still has a personal choice.

Sergei Medvedev: I have the sense that over the course of this year, a kind of crystallization of the repressive machinery and support for repression within the population is taking place. People are psychologically driven into a dead end. In this atmosphere, maybe out of fear, they choose the option of cooperation and support. Don’t you think public support for the machinery of repression is growing?

Olga Romanova: I sit in chat rooms with relatives of prisoners from all over the country, and I see the mood of that Russian people shown to us by the painter Surkov, excuse me, the depths of the people of the real Russia. Yes, indeed, the moods are changing. I saw this in relation to Prigozhin, to the Wagner PMC. In just a few months he went from being a “bald prick from the mountain” (excuse me for the expression, I’m quoting), to suddenly being almost like Danko, the hero [of one of Gorky’s storiestrans] who calls his people to freedom with a burning heart, and sacrifices himself in so doing. They have come to love him very much, not immediately, but quite suddenly. In parallel with this, other things began to happen. We refuse to help people who support the war, and we explain to them why. The reaction is, “And we’ll report you for that!” And this reaction comes after a pause: people are trying to figure out how it could be that someone openly says things that are forbidden to them.

Sergei Medvedev: Last week’s news: two wives of prisoners recruited to the Wagner PMC denounced a lawyer in St. Petersburg. They had approached the lawyer with questions they had about payments and terms, and the lawyer expressed doubts as to whether they had done the right thing by going to war. They immediately denounced her and a criminal case was filed against the lawyer.

Olga Romanova: In many ways it’s also fear: a man saw an “alien” who is against the war, who does not like Putin. This is strange and, apparently, it is necessary to report that a spaceship landed, and there are devils of some kind there. This is the fear of something very unusual, because they don’t see anything like that around them.

Sergei Medvedev: Maybe the traditional Russian sense of the collective, the community, has been awakened? The war has formed a new historical, political community of the Russian people, which self-actualizes, asserts its identity by supporting this war, or not even supporting it, but by not rejecting it. They do not think outside the framework of this war, within which, in fact, Putin is offering a new version of identity. I’m not saying that all of Russia supports this, but the manifestations that we see are quite widespread.

Aleksandr Cherkasov: The informer acquires power, as it were, and receives a part of the power that is delegated to him. And in a society where everyone, in general, is humiliated, this is a powerful thing. And another powerful thing, if you turn to the Soviet experience: sometimes the informer thinks he is a more complex person than those on whom he informs. This, too, gives him a certain amount of perverse self-esteem. These are false psychological mechanisms, but they work. And sometimes in a gathering of very decent people there is one person like that. What will happen to him next? What does he get in the upshot? That’s a separate story. But once triggered, these psychological mechanisms are not so very widespread, but sufficient to give birth to a new stratum of people who previously had not been aware they had properties of this kind.

Sergei Medvedev: Indeed, I wouldn’t like to say now that Russia has turned into a country of informers. On the other hand, sadly, there seems to be a law of society which says that a society and individual collectives are defined by their worst member. So let’s say there was a gathering of 10-20 people, but the institutional consequences came from the fact that one person there was an informer who informed on everyone else. It seems to me that our picture of society is being formed by the lowest common denominator, which is this new stratum of informers.

Aleksandr Cherkasov: Yes, there are criminal cases that are based on denunciations, but to project that on to everyone else… Not everyone is to be judged by what Judas did! Yes, that is what the present time is like. But we remember another story when it was said: if you find 20 righteous men in the city, the city will be saved.

Sergei Medvedev: Olya, if Putin were no longer in power, would the political system of power change, would denunciations disappear too? Do people just read the signals from above?

Olga Romanova: I think so. Human nature will not change, of course, but I think that many things will disappear, for example, the desire to kill… It will not be simply a case of ‘Putin no longer being in power.’ The system itself that we are now living under, Putinism, will be gone. When I meet people from Russia in the West who have come here and are about to leave again, we talk to them in cafes or on the street, and when they hear Russian speech spoken by strangers, they stop speaking and say, ‘Let’s not talk about it here.’ People have already begun to see danger everywhere.

Sergei Medvedev: People write from Russia that a society of silence is forming, people are learning to be silent. This is probably one of the most terrible phenomena, like a mist that has fallen over Russian society. Perhaps this is a characteristic of Putin and Putinism – they bring out the worst in people, in the country, in culture. It is amazing how one person and one political system can change the behaviour of a nation!

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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