The Denounced and Their Denouncers

This is my detailed summary — for the Russian-impaired — of Proekt’s grim but poignant short new documentary about Russians denounced to the police for their anti-war actions and statements in the last month and the people who denounced them (neighbors, relatives, pupils, etc.). It’s worth watching and reading, I think, especially because it humanizes the whole ugly business in a very moving, personal and easy to grasp way. While I wouldn’t say that it gives me hope, it is inspiring to see how such seemingly different people in terms of their backgrounds (businessman, artist, university student and blogger, district council deputy, ex-policeman and teacher) behave bravely in harrowing circumstances that have silenced many other people, or worse. It’s also to Proekt’s credit that in the case of several of the film’s protagonists they interviewed them where they live, including in public (which leads in two cases to run-ins with the powers that be). It goes to show that however frightening things have become, Russia is not yet “North Korea.”  ||| TRR

Proekt, “How the war in Ukraine has triggered a wave of denunciations in Russia,” 24 April 2022.
Published on Proekt’s website on 25 April 2022 under the title “Your denunciation is very important to us”

  1. Mikhail Zheltonozhsky, a businessman and “extreme travel” enthusiast from Bryansk, was denounced by a neighbor lady for flying Ukrainian pennants from his window. His denouncer, Elena Ruchkina, a midwife at a local outpatient clinic, wrote in her complaint to police, “[The pennants] seemed suspicious in light of recent events.” That was grounds for sending three police cruisers and a high-ranking police colonel to their apartment building to detain Zheltonozhsky.
  2. Elmira Khalitova, a university student and political blogger from Moscow, was denounced by her father, Timur, who telephoned police and demanded that they bust down the door to her flat to detain her. He claimed that his daughter had been urging her readers to “murder Russians.” His denunciation was captured on tape. Elmira claims that her father has extreme pro-Putinist views. Among them are his view that Ukraine is “one big fiction” and that it should be merged with Russia. A heavy drinker, Timur is a fan of the rabid pro-Putin TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov. Fortunately, Elmira was able to convince police (for the time being?) that she had not urged anyone to “murder Russians.”
  3. Sasha Skochilenko, an artist from Petersburg, was arrested and remanded in custody for replacing price tags with anti-war messages at a Perekrestok chain supermarket in Petersburg. Her friend Alexei shows Proekt’s film crew around the store as he talks about the circumstances of her arrest. They are confronted by a store employee, who angrily orders them to leave the premises, explaining that she doesn’t want to be “imprisoned and murdered” like Skochilenko. Alexei explains that the Perekrestok customer who reported Sasha was a woman from the neighborhood born in 1947, whom the voice-over narrator claims is the target audience of this particular anti-war campaign because, supposedly, they peruse supermarket price tags more intently than younger shoppers.
  4. Alexandra Arkhipova is an anthropologist. She explains that the authorities have three methods for ferreting out anti-war dissidents. First, so-called Center “E” (the federal “anti-extremism” police, established by the “liberal” Dmitry Medvedev during his term as president) monitor social media for “extremism” posts. Second, the authorities cook up such charges against well-known activists who are in their sights, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, recently arrested in Moscow on the same criminal charges as Skochilenko. Third, “alert” citizens among the general public report such dissidents to the police. This segment features clips from a recent speech made on TV by President Putin in which he warned the Russian public that a “fifth column” and “national traitors,” as puppets of the west, would oppose his invasion of Ukraine.
  5. Sonya is Sasha Skochilenko’s live-in girlfriend in Petersburg. She explains that they met two and a half years on a dating website and fell in love almost immediately. They live together in Parnas, a neighborhood in Petersburg’s far north, on the border with the Leningrad Region. The voice-over narrator explains that Sonya and her friends are now focused on making sure Skochilenko survives her ordeal in remand prison, where she will be held at least until the end of May. Sonya explains that since Skochilenko is her “family” and closest friend she now feels lost and desperate. We see Sonya on an escalator in the Petersburg subway, which is festooned with Zwastikas. Sonya says that it’s strange that people pretend not to notice them, although the city is covered with them. The voice-over narrator cites the human rights organization Agora, which has recorded one hundred anti-war-related criminal cases launched by the Russian authorities between February 24 and April 20. He goes on to explain that the number of administrative cases filed during this same period would be hard to tally since over 15,000 people have been arrested at anti-war demonstrations since the war began on February 24. The anthropologist Arkhipova returns to explain that denunciations played a role in the prosecution of dissidents and demonstrators in previous years, but now the practice was been gaining more notice because everyone is paying attention.
  6. Andrei Shestakov is an ex-police officer and, now, ex-history teacher in the town of Neryungri (Sakha Republic). Shestakov was forced to quit the police after he publicly supported Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” campaign. Now he has been forced to quit his teaching position for having “anti-war conversations” during class with his pupils. He was denounced to the authorities either by one or more of them or their parents. Shestakov says that he doesn’t even want to know who informed on him. 
  7. Elena Kotenochkina is a deputy on the Krasnoselsky District Council in Moscow. Kotenochkina called Russia a “fascist state” during a recent council meeting, which was videotaped and posted on YouTube. The video came to the attention of Russian State Duma deputy Oleg Leonov, who denounced Kotenochkina to the authorities. The security forces have also included in her case file a video for draft-age young men that she made in her capacity as district council chair and co-chair of the district’s draft board. In the video, she explained that conscripts were being sent into combat in Ukraine, but by law they were not required to sign the contracts that made their combat deployment there possible. Although she has not been formally charged with any crime (an official “inquiry” into her actions is underway), loyalist politicians like Leonov are making a fuss that might be lead to her being charged, especially as she is well-known opposition politician in Moscow. The nationally known opposition stalwart Ilya Yashin, shown in the footage, is a deputy of the same district council and her ally. He has pointedly chosen to stay in Russia and speak out publicly against the war.
  8. Zheltonozhsky compares the top-down campaign of support in Russia for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to a “general psychosis.” The voice-over narrator explains that Zheltonozhsky has had trouble with the authorities since Soviet times, when he refused to join the (Communist) Party. The business he started in the nineties — a network of kiosks — was destroyed in the 2010s when Bryansk city hall carried out a “beautification” campaign that outlawed such commercial outlets. As he is explaining how one of his kiosks was torched as part of this municipal campaign, police officers approach him and Proekt’s film crew and ask him to go with them to a nearby police box (in the Bryansk city center). On their way, they pass a banner, featuring the Zwastika as its key graphic element, that reads, “For peace! For Russia! For the president!” At the police box, the officers ask Zheltonozhsky why his (blue and yellow) clothes are that color (he claims he ordered orange pants, but was sent yellow instead), and they ask to see his cellphone. The voice-over narrator explains that the authorities have placed Bryansk and other Russian cities near the Ukrainian border on high-level terrorism alert. The narrator then talks on the phone with Elena Ruchkina, the midwife and neighbor lady who denounced Zheltonozhsky to the police, asking her why she did it. She responds by asking whether the narrator thinks that Zheltonozhsky’s actions were “normal.”
  9. Khalitova says that while she had always been aware of the danger of being persecuted for her political outspokenness, she was now acutely aware of the threat. She has broken off all contact with her family after her father turned her in. She says he did it because he wanted to feel “important.” In a recorded phone conversation, Timur Khalitov claims to the narrator that he panicked when he got an “anonymous” phone call about his daughter’s alleged extremist activities. Walking through a park, Elmira tells Proekt that she has been thoroughly disappointed by the Russian public’s reaction to the invasion because she had been convinced that the widespread notion that there was a “Putinist majority” in Russia who supported the president was a “myth.” Now, she says, she understands that most people are willing to let young men die in battle as long as nothing else changes in their lives.
  10. Sonya reads aloud the first letter that Sasha Skochilenko wrote from remand prison. In the letter she says that while her accuser might get a “miserable reward” for denouncing her, Skochilenko herself will gain “immortality.” Sonya claims that none of the letters that she and other friends have sent to the remand prison have been delivered to Sasha, nor has she received the food care packages that she needs as someone who suffers from celiac disease. Her friend Alexei explains that patients with this diagnosis must not eat bread and pasta, but since the disease is not officially recognized by the authorities as a “serious” ailment, they are not obliged to meet her dietary requirements. Sonya explains that, when celiac disease is not managed properly, it can lead to cancer, osteoporosis and other life-threatening ailments. 
  11. Arkhipova argues that the practice of denunciation that has now come to the fore in Russia is “for art’s sake” in the sense that it is motivated neither by the need to protect oneself nor by the prospect of monetary gain. On the contrary, Russia’s new-model denouncers are “exercising their civic muscles” because they feel “needed.” The narrator says that the number of denunciations in wartime “civil society” will only grow, citing the United Russia party’s launching of a special bot for filing denunciations, which Rostelecom has promised to support by passing the denunciations on to the authorities. Elmira Khalitova says that she feels she is surrounded by people who, although they behave normal in everyday life, are quite willing to “condone a crime.” She says that because of this new sense of what her society has become, she feels “empty inside” and that the country has no future. Shestakov says that he has become more careful about what he says to whom. Zheltonozhsky says that he also no longer talks about political topics to certain people. Sonya says that everything has been changed by the war, but that this wasn’t clear at first. She says that Skochilenko loves Russia, is a “genuine Russian patriot,” and had hoped that things could be changed for the better. Kotenochkina says that although people are afraid, such a war in the twenty-first century is so wrong that they have no choice but to act. As she begins crying, the screen fades to black and the message “No war” appears on the screen.
“‘Your denunciation is very important to us.’ A film about how the war in Ukraine has revived the fashion of denouncing people in Russia.” A screenshot of the documentary film’s page on the Proekt website.

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