Ivan Davydov: The New Greatness Trial

new greatness.jpegDmitry Poletayev, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, and Pyotr Karamzin, defendants in the New Greatness trial, during a court hearing. Photo by Pyotr Kassin. Courtesy of Kommersant and Republic

Russia’s Most Important Trial: The New Greatness Case as a Model of Relations between State and Society
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 11, 2019

The term “hybrid war” has been in vogue for a while. The folks on Russian TV, who long ago unlearned how to do anything good or, maybe, never knew how to do anything good constantly mention the “hybrid war against Russia.” The term is infectious. At any rate, I have the sense you could not coin a better phrase for describing the Russian state’s attitude toward Russian society.

The Russian state has been waging a hybrid war against Russian society, and it has also been a guerrilla war. It is as if the state has been hiding on the edge of the woods, lying in ambush, sometimes leaving the woods on forays to do something nasty, like hitting someone over the head with a billy club, fining someone, passing a law that defies common sense and threatens the populace or just blurting out something terrifying and stupid. Then it goes to ground in the woods again. The sound of steady chomping is audible and, occasionally, peals of happy laughter.

Russian society sometimes tries to fight back, of course. Actually, society exists only when it tries to fight back. When there is no fightback, there is no society, only confused, atomized individuals whom the “guerrillas,” happily chomping their food in the woods, consider food. Society rarely tries to fight back, and it scores victories even more rarely. This summer, it managed to drag reporter Ivan Golunov out of jail before the guerrillas could chew him up. I cannot recall any other victories.

Although I am mistaken. Last summer, for example, society secured house arrest for the two teenaged girls, Maria Dubovik and Anna Pavlikova, accused in the New Greatness case. They were nearly killed in remand prison, but they were finally released. There was a tidal wave of articles in the press, an angry buzz on the social networks, and a March of Mothers that the authorities decided not to disperse.

It is not clear why: the riot cops would have made short work of the mothers. The tough guys who constitute the rank and file of the OMON would have enjoyed beating up women armed with stuffed animals.

Even Margarita Simonyan emerged from the woods to shout something about the “serious people” in the Kremlin who cut short their summer holidays to make the right decisions. Then it was back to the woods, whence the steady sound of chomping and slurping could be heard.

I still cannot get used to the fact that we in Russia consider house arrest for the victims of police lawlessness a victory for our side and incredibly good luck. I mean to say I understand why people think this way, but I cannot get used to it.

And now all of them—Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, Sergei Gavrilov, Pyotr Karamzin, Maxim Roshchin, and Dmitry Poletayev—are on trial.

Pavel Rebrovsky and Rustam Rustamov have already been convicted. They made a deal with investigators and prosecutors before the case went to trial. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison and two years probation, respectively.

It is not as if there is no buzz in society about the case, but it amounts to background noise at most. Our society is short of breath: it has enough air in its lungs to make one attempt at resistance. Meanwhile, amazing things have been happening at the trial.

Courtroom Miracles
In brief, the story is that young people who were not entirely happy with their lives shared their thoughts in chat rooms. (By the way, have you ever seen young people who were completely satisfied with their lives? Didn’t you feel like going out of your way to avoid them?)

A nice man emerged in their midst. He suggested they organize a group to fight for everything good and oppose everything bad. They met in real life a couple of times. Prompted by the nice man, they drafted a charter for their movement. The nice man, it transpired, was a police provocateur, and the members of the so-called New Greatness movement were detained by police, not without a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, right before the 2016 presidential election.

And how could the security services get by without pomp and fanfare? They had apprehended dangerous criminals and exposed an entire group of “extremists.” If you believe the case investigators, New Greatness were planning “mandatory participation in popular uprisings, revolutionary actions, [and] clashes with authorities of the current Russian regime.”

Can you imagine someone using the phrase “voluntary participation in popular uprisings”? Security services officers who specialize in such matters have decided to destroy the lives of these unfortunate young people. In fact, they have already destroyed them. But these same security services officers have a slippery grasp of Russian and are not terribly worried whether what they write makes any sense. The takeaway message is that the New Greatness kids have to be sent to prison whatever the cost and the words used to do it play an auxiliary role.

The goings-on at their trial leave no one in doubt that this is the point. None of the defendants has pleaded guilty. Pavel Rebrovsky testified against his friends as part of the pretrial deal he made with prosecutors. In court, he testified he had been promised probation, and so he had agreed to say what state investigators wanted him to say, not tell the court what had actually happened.

“You call me. Do you have Whatsapp? I’ll send you the testimony you need to give in court,” Investigator Anton Malyugin had said to Rebrovsky to encourage him.

I don’t know how to judge Rebrovsky’s actions. It is easy to feign you are an honorable person when you are not locked up in remand prison. Rebrovsky was locked up in remand prison. Nevertheless, the investigator pulled the simplest trick in the book on him. Rebrovsky was sentenced to actual prison time, not probation, but he had the guts to tell the truth in court.

Except the court does not want the truth. Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva petitioned the court to examine the witness again, and Judge Alexander Maslov granted her motion. Investigators now have the time they need to explain clearly to the defenseless Rebrovsky how wrong he was to do what he did and what happens to people who pull what he pulled so everything goes smoothly the second time around.

It is vital we know the names of all these people. They should become household names. We should not think of them as generic investigators, judges, and prosecutors, but as Case Investigator Anton Malyugin, Judge Alexander Maslov, and Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva, who pulled out all the stops to send these young people down on trumped-up charges.

Rustam Rustamov, whose testimony is also vital to the investigation’s case, mysteriously vanished the day he was scheduled to testify in court. He was in the court building, but he did not appear in court. Apparently, the prosecution decided not to risk putting him on the stand. There are also ways of making a person on probation realize that the desire to tell the truth can be quite costly. It is better to coach the witness properly. There is no hurry.

The Russian State’s Self-Defense
The whole story is quite pointed. The case has been cobbled together haphazardly. This was already clear last year, but now it has become completely obvious. No one plans to retreat, however. When the Russian state’s guerrillas come out of the woods, they always bag their prey. Otherwise, their prey might get funny ideas.

This is a story about decay, you see. It is not that Russia’s law enforcement agencies have nothing else to do. Unfortunately, there are real criminals aplenty. Nor have the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad been a panacea for terrorists. But it has been harder and harder for Russia’s law enforcers to find the time to deal with real criminals and real terrorists.

Recently, a friend’s elderly mother was taken to the cleaners by scammers. When he went to the police, they worked hard to persuade him there was no point even trying to investigate the crime. Everyone remembers the case of the serial poisoner in Moscow, who was released by police after he was detained by passersby. He was apprehended again only when a scandal erupted, the press got involved, and the big bosses voiced their outrage.

Who has the time to work on silly cases like that if you have been ordered to take down a reporter who has been snooping around? And why should you bother when you can “solve” a terrible crime you concocted in the first place and you also had the good sense to detain your homemade “extremists” right before an election?

All you have to do is remove one rotten log from this house for the whole thing to come tumbling down immediately. The Golunov case, which cost several police commanders their jobs, was an excellent illustration of this fact.

By the way, there are no suspects in the new Golunov case, which has been entrusted to the Russian Investigative Committee. The drugs planted themselves on the reporter. They were treacherous drugs. No wonder they say drugs are bad.

The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor handling the New Greatness case understand this perfectly well. They will use all the means at their disposal to put away the defendants, most of whom have been locked up in remand prison for over a year. As they themselves like to say, it is a matter of honor or, simply put, a matter of self-defense. The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor are defending themselves: if the case comes unglued, a scandal would be inevitable, and a scandal could cost them their cushy jobs. It would also do irreparable damage to the system, to the fabled woods, because the more such unhappy endings there are, the less comfortable it will be for the guerrillas to chow down in the woods.

This is a curious aspect of what I have been describing. When the current Russian authorities engage in obvious wrongdoing, they do not experience discomfort. Of course, they don’t: when they defend themselves in this way they only aggravate the injustice. The lives of villagers who are raped and pillaged by brigands hiding in a forest mean nothing to the brigands, naturally. What the big men of the woods do not like is noise. The sound of their own slurping is music to their ears. If a hullabaloo arises, they could lose the little things that make life in the woods so pleasant.

So, I would like to write that the New Greatness case is the most important criminal case in Russia at the moment. The lawlessness and injustice evinced by the Russian authorities have been obvious and flagrant. But there is also the Network case, whose takeaway message is that the FSB can torture anyone it does not like, and it is nearly legal for them to do it.

There is also the case of the Khachaturian sisters, in which the lesson is that “traditional values” are interpreted in Russia in a way that can tear society apart.

There is also the war on environmentalists who have been trying to prevent the opening of a giant landfill for garbage from Moscow near the town of Shies in Arkhangelsk Region.

And there is the case of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva.

Finally, there is a mountain of smaller cases, which are no less terrifying even though they have generated less buzz or no buzz at all.

The menu of the forest brothers is too extensive, while Russian society is short of breath, as I wrote earlier. All arguments about Russia’s future boil down to a simple question: are their appetites hearty enough to eat all of us? None of them have complained about a lack of appetite so far.

And yet it would be unfair not to mention Anna Narinskaya, Tatyana Lazareva, and the other women involved in March of Mothers, who have been forcing their way into the courtroom and supplying accounts of what has been going on there. This is no easy task: the Lyublino District Court simply lacks room, but the judge has refused to have the trial moved to another court.

Then there are the musicians (Alexei Kortnev, Boris Grebenshchikov, Andrei Makarevich, Roma Zver, Pyotr Nalich, Vasya Oblomov, Maxim Leonidov, and MANIZHA) who recorded a video with Lazareva in which they performed an old song by the group Chizh & Co. about the “commissar contagion” as a way to draw attention to the case.

Finally, there is the website Mediazona, which has scrupulously chronicled the deeds of Russia’s law enforcers. It has also attempted to make the investigators, the prosecutor, and the judge in the New Greatness case household names.

It says a lot about Russia that a news website wholly devoted to covering the lawlessness of so-called law enforcers can function here and enjoy well-deserved popularity. Thank you, colleagues.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Guided Tour of a Torture Chamber

torture-1Darya Apahonchich, just one big torture chamber, 2019. Photo courtesy of Ms. Apahonchich

Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
July 8, 2019

Here’s a little about torture chamber.

My Words Have Been Recorded Correctly, an art exhibition in solidarity with imprisoned anarchists and antifascists, took place July 5–7, 2019, at Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center in Petersburg.

The show was sad and daring. During the three days it was up, it was visited by both regular cops and the “anti-extremism” police from Center “E” [known in Russia as eshniki or “eeniks”].

Our group {rodina} [“motherland“] did a performance, and there were concerts and discussions as well. I also had a piece in the show, entitled just one big torture chamber.

I really liked how Jenya [Kulakova] talked about it simply and calmly during her guided tours of the show.

“According to the latest surveys by Levada Center, ten percent of Russians have been tortured.”

True, it’s a really simple figure, but when I hear it I want to hear more figures. What percentage of Russians have tortured someone? What percentage of Russians have ordered someone tortured? What percentage of Russians said nothing although they knew someone was being tortured? What percentage of Russians share a home with people who torture other people at work? Do torturers beat their wives, children, and elderly parents?

At first, I wanted to fashion Russia from a single piece of cardboard, but then I realized I had no sense of how I could unify the country except with borders, frontier guards, and barbed wire. I know tons of different Russias. I know academic Russia and literary Russia. I know the Russia of forests and mushrooms. I know the Russia of poor people and factories. I know the elegant Russia of rich people. All of these Russias have one thing in common: the violence of torture and the fear of torture. So, I assembled the map from scraps of cardboard.

torture-2Ms. Apahoncich writing the names of Ukrainian and Crimean political prisoners imprisoned in Russian jails and prisons on the wall below a hand-drawn map of occupied Crimea. Photo courtesy of Ms. Apahonchich

I didn’t know what to do with Crimea. I couldn’t include it since I don’t consider its presence on a map of Russia legal, but I also had no choice but to include it because people are tortured there as well, and the people doing the torturing have Russian passports. So, I drew Crimea on the wall in pencil and wrote a list of Ukrainian political prisoners under it. The list was terrifyingly long.

I spelled the word “torture chamber” as it is pronounced in received Moscow standard [pytoshnaya instead of pytochnaya], although maybe no one speaks that way anymore. I would imagine I don’t need to explain why.

It’s a sad piece. If it were carnival now, I would burn it instead of a straw puppet.

Thanks to Alina for the photographs.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ms. Apahonchich for her permission to translate and publish her post here. Thanks to Nastia Nek for the link to the article on the Levada Center study.

______________________________________________________

[…]

Policemen visited the exhibition at the end of its first day. Witnesses said it was the coolest performance in the show. The soloist was Senior Lieutenant Ruslan Sentemov aka Mister Policeman. According to people who took part in the protest action Immortal Gulag, Sentemov insisted this was how the president obliged them to address him when he was detaining them.

The phrase turned into a meme, and Sentemov became the target of parodies and epigrams. It is rare when people are detained at protest rallies in Petersburg and he is not involved. In 2017, 561 people were detained during a protest against corruption. All of them were charged with disobeying the lawful demands of a police officer, and in all 561 cases, that officer was Lieutenant Sentemov. Petersburg civil rights activist Dinar Idrisov claimed each of the ensuing 561 court case files contained a copy of Sentemov’s police ID and his handwritten, signed testimony.

words-1Ruslan Sentemov (right) and another police officer at My Words Have Been Recorded Correctly, July 7, 2019, Pushinskaya 10 Art Center, Petersburg. Photo by Elena Murganova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

In interviews with the press and when he is on camera, Sentemov likes to maintain the image of a “good cop.” He was true to this image at Pushkinskaya 10 as well, upsetting activists, who surrounded him and peppered him with questions about why he had come to the exhibition.

“This is Russia’s cultural capital. But you, young lady, have a very nasty habit of interrupting people and horning in on the conversation,” he said to one of them.

Reassuring activists he was in no hurry, Sentemov set about perusing the show. The police officer who was with him photographed each exhibit in turn.

Jenya Kulakova volunteered to give Sentemov a guided tour.

“These are drawings made by Dmitry Pchelintsev in the Penza Remand Prison. He was tortured with electricity. Here is a banner with the slogan ‘The ice under the major’s feet.’ Perhaps you are familiar with the music of Yegor Letov and Civil Defense?”

“Perhaps.”

Yegor Letov and Civil Defense (Grazhdanskaya oborona) performing the song “We Are the Ice under the Major’s Feet” at a concert at the Gorbunov Culture Center in Moscow in November 2004. Courtesy of YouTube

“Here is Viktor Filinkov’s account of being tortured, handwritten by a female artist. This is a postcard made by Yuli Boyarshinov. Did you know that, in prison, defendants are prohibited from using colored pencils and pens?”

“No, I didn’t know that, unfortunately. I will probably have to study up on the topic.”

spinach“We have no money and machine guns, but we do have a herbarium of spinach leaves.” Photo by Jenya Kulakov. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

“These are drawings from the trials in the Network case. We have an artist who attends the hearings and draws them. This next piece also draws on the case files.”

“I got it. Let’s speed things up.”

“No, you should read a bit of it. Here’s a passage about how someone was hit on the legs and the back of the head. And this is what the tortures said to Viktor Filinkov as they were torturing him. After that, they gave him a Snickers bar to eat. That was probably humane of them, don’t you think?”

“I’ve already read it.”

After strolling around the room containing works by the [Network defendants], Sentemov admitted what interested him most of all was whether the art had been forensically examined for possible “extremism.”

“Look,” said Ms. Kulakova, “all of this was sent to us from remand prisons. By law, all correspondence going in and going out is vetted by a censor. Do you see this stamp here? Have you ever sent a letter to a remand prison?”

“Unfortunately, I haven’t. Or maybe I should say, fortunately. If you say all of this was vetted by the censor, we will definitely have to verify your claim.”

“You seriously want to verify whether remand prison censors working for the FSB have been doing their jobs?”

“At very least, I’d like to send them an inquiry.”

“Here is an installation entitled just one big torture chamber. You may have heard that Levada Center recently did a survey on torture. One in ten people reported they had experienced torture in their lives.”

jenyaJenya Kulakova (center) gives Lieutenant Sentemov and his colleague a guided tour of My Words Have Been Recorded Correctly, July 7, 2019, Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center, Petersburg. Photo by Elena Murganova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta 

“Have you been tortured by chance?” Sentemov suddenly asked Ms. Kulakova, staring unpleasantly at her.

“My friends have been tortured,” she replied.

“I was asking about you.”

“Why would ask me about that?”

“You just talk about it so enthusiastically.”

Sentemov appreciated the interest among exhibition goers aroused by his appearance and laughed smugly.

“I think I’m getting more attention than all these pictures,” he said.

He brushed aside questions about what had brought the police officers to the exhibition and how they had heard about it.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he said.

“We gave you a whole guided tour, but you’re just one big mystery,” said Ms. Kulakova disappointedly, fishing for an answer.

“Thank you for such a comprehensive tour. I am quite pleased with the attentiveness of you and your gadgets. Nevertheless, I must leave this wonderful event. I am very pleased you welcomed us so warmly,” Sentemov said in conclusion, turning towards the exit.

“See you soon,” he said as he left.

Source: Tatyana Likhanova, “A Guided Tour of a Torture Chamber,” Novaya Gazeta, July 8, 2019. Translated by the Russian Reader

Marrying the Mob

DSCN1068

On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

Torturing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a Career Booster

yermolayevVladimir Yermolayev, head of the Russian Investigative Committee in Surgut

Russian Investigative Committee Investigators Accused of Torturing Jehovah’s Witnesses Recognized as Outstanding in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region
Znak.com
April 23, 2019

Vladimir Yermolayev, head of the Russian Investigative Committee office in Surgut and Investigator Sergei Bogoderov, whom followers of the religious organization Jehovah’s Witnesses, banned in Russia as “extremist,” accused of torturing them, have been recognized by their superiors as among the most outstanding employees in the committee’s regional directorate.

The recognition for their outstanding work was reported on website of the Russian Investigative Committee’s Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region Directorate, to which the Surgut office reports. According to the directorate, Yermolayev was among the top three heads of local offices in 2018 in terms of professional outcomes, ranking second overall. He yielded first place to Dmitry Kuznechekov from Pyt-Yak while outpacing Alexander Zakharov from Kogalym.

Bogoderov was also awarded second place by his superiors in the category “Best Investigator.” First and third places were awarded to Investigator Ruslan Mukharyamov, from Yugorsk, and Stanislav Tomak, from Nizhnevartovsk.

“The staff of the investigative directorate congratulates the winners and wishes them further success in their professional careers,” reads the press release issued by the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region’s Investigative Directorate.

On February 15, 2018, raids were carried out on the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut. Criminal charges were filed against two dozen adherents of the religious doctrine. They were charged with establishing an “extremist” community and involvement in an “extremist” community. Three of the believers were remanded in custody. Three weeks later, one of the men was released. After they spent two months in a remand prison, the other two men were released on their own recognizance by a court, which denied Yermolayev and Bogoderov’s motion to extend their time in police custody. All three men still face criminal charges, however.

A few days after the February 15, 2018, dragnet, several of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been detained claimed that, while they were in custody at the Russian Investigative Committee’s Surgut Investigative Branch, they had been strangled with plastic bags, doused with water, tasered, injected with a life-threatening unknown substance, and threatened with sexual violence.

In late March, lawyers representing the Surgut Jehovah’s Witnesses held a press conference in Moscow at which they presented reporters with the findings of an investigation of the torture, undertaken by independent experts. The lawyers and the accused also identified the investigators who, according to them, were involved in torturing them in Surgut.

The lawyers noted Yermolayev’s particular role in humiliating the detainees and forcing them to testify. They claimed it was Yermolayev who ordered Investigative Committee investigators and field officers to torture the detainees until they supplied them with the testimony needed to file criminal charges for establishing an “extremist” community.

The Surgut Investigative Office and the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region Investigative Directorate have consistently denied accusations they employed torture. They explained the injuries on the bodies of the suspects, as documented by experts, were caused by “vigorous resistance.”

Last week, it transpired that the Yugra District Court found the searches carried out by the Investigative Committee in the homes of two suspected Jehovah’s Witnesses, Yevgeny Kayryak and Vyacheslav Boronos, had been illegal. According to the defense lawyers, this underscores the “professionalism” of investigators.

Kayryak and Boronos have also claimed they were tortured on the day they were detained.

Artyom Kim, arrested by Investigator Bogoderov on February 15, 2019, on suspicion of “extremism,” recounted how he was tortured by law enforcement officers at the Surgut Investigative Office in a video posted on Russia human rights activist Lev Ponoromaryov’s YouTube channel on April 3, 2019.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ivan Ovsyannikov: How Russia’s New Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Will Play Out

markischer bunny

Russia: How Will the Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Play Out?
Ivan Ovsyannikov
Eurasianet
March 26, 2019

Six months after easing punishments for speaking out on the internet, Vladimir Putin has signed laws that would restrict freedom of speech in Russia, argue civil rights activists.

People who are deemed to have disrespectfully criticized the Russian authorities and disseminated fake news face blocked websites and stiff fines.

The new laws do not explain how to distinguish ordinary criticism of the authorities from disrespectful criticism, and fake news from honest mistakes or the truth, in cases in which the authorities have decided to declare it fake. Defining disrespect and unreliable information has been left to the discretion of the authorities.

How the New Laws Are Worded
According to Russian Federal Law No. FZ-30 and Russian Federal Law No. FZ-31, which have amended the previous law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Security” (Russian Federal Law No. FZ-149, dated July 27, 2006), people who disseminate “unreliable socially significant information in the guise of reliable news” could be fined, under the corresponding amendments to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, between 30,000 rubles and one million rubles, while people who voice their “flagrant disrespect” for society, the state, its authorities, and its symbols “improperly” could be fined between 30,000 rubles and 300,000 rubles.

On March 18, 2019, Putin signed the corresponding law bills, as previously passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, into law.

Russia’s federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor now has the power to restrict access to a website that has published “false” or “disrespectful” claims, according to law enforcement agencies, without a court’s sanction.

Both law bills were tabled in the Russian parliament by Andrei Klishas, who formally represents Krasnoyarsk Territory in the Federation Council, the parliament’s nominal upper house. Klishas had previously coauthored law bills on making the Runet autonomous, on stiffening punishments for advocating separatism, on breaking rules for holding political rallies, on desecrating the national anthem, and on declaring media outlets “foreign agents.”

klishasAndrei Klishas, a member of the Russian Federation Council for Krasnoyarsk Territory. Photo courtesy of Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti and RBC

The Russian Government Will Be Able to Pinpoint and Block Bad News
Despite the prohibitive bent of MP Klishas’s lawmaking, he heads United Russia’s “liberal platform,” stressing that his law bills are not attempted crackdowns. When discussing the law criminalizing disrespect for the state and society, Klishas pointed to European precedents.

“The rules existing in Europe say you can criticize the authorities as much as you like and demand their resignation. […] But when you communicate with the authorities, you should show respect, because they did not appear out of the blue. They are the outcome of people’s choices,” Klishas told Znak.com in an interview published in February 2019.*

As for the law on so-called fake news, MP Klishas stressed only people who distributed knowingly false information that engendered panic and endangered society had to fear prosecution, not reporters and bloggers who made honest mistakes, he told the website.

Klishas’s stance is not shared by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which described his law bills as unacceptable, anti-constitutional, and a threat to the public.

“The way in which these innumerable, insane law bills are tabled reveals a simple desire to curry favor with the regime. They generate a sense of legal uncertainty. First, swearing was criminalized. Then ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’ were targeted. Now fake news and ‘disrespect for the authorities’ have been added to the list. Give the well-known practice of selectively charging and convicting people for these crimes, no one knows what might get them in trouble,” says journalist and presidential human rights council member Leonid Nikitinsky.

The law on fake news does not stipulate how real news should be differentiated from counterfeits, which makes the law a bogeyman, argues Nikitinsky. The authorities can use it to trip up undesirable journalists and silence unwanted news.

Nikitinsky notes that, while Russian state propaganda is chockablock with fake news, it is is independent media that are primarily at risk of being penalized for violating the new law.

New Prohibitions Make Up for Easing of Old Bans
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, argues the penalties for disrespecting the authorities and fake news are meant to compensate for the partial decriminalization, in November of last year, of “extremist” statements published on the internet.

After first-time convictions for public incitement to hatred or enmity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) were reclassified as administrative offenses, Russian police lost part of their workload. Under the so-called quota system, in which law enforcers are evaluated according to the number of crimes they have solved, the introduction of new offenses in the Administrative Offenses Code can generate new possibilities for fudging the statistics on cleared cases and conviction rates.

On the other hand, the amended law appears “liberal” only when compared with its earlier redaction, which stipulated a maximum of five years in prison for careless statements on the internet.

Improper Does Not Mean “Obscene”
If the law against fake news would probably be applied selectively, administrative charges of disrespect for the authorities and society could be a large-scale phenomenon within a few years, argues Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center.

“People are punished five times more often under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles in the Administrative Offenses Code than under the corresponding articles in the Criminal Code. The partial decriminalization of Criminal Code Article 282 shifts the proportion even more heavily toward administrative punishments. The introduction of new articles in the Administrative Offenses Code means there will be fewer criminal prosecutions and many more administrative prosecutions,” Verkhovsky predicts.

Last year’s easing of anti-extremist laws was justified by the fact that the mechanical application of Article 282 had produced a proliferation of inmates who had no relation to extremist groups. The administrative prosecution of “disrespect for the authorities” could also balloon into a crackdown against rank-and-file Russians.

“It is difficult to predict the extent to which such cases will be politically motivated,” says Verkhovsky.

Prosecuting people of disrespect for the authorities is complicated by the lack of clarity over what can be said and what cannot. According to Roskomnadzor’s official clarification, which was not issued in connection with the new law, “four well-known words (kh.., p…., e…., and b….), as well as the words and expressions derived from them,” are considered obscene.**

Verkhovsky stresses, however, that improper does not mean obscene. The new law does not define what it means by “improperly.”

Nikitinsky agrees.

“You can arbitrarily call anything improper,” he says.

The Authorities Are More Sensitive to Criticism 
According to Chikov, the passage of Klishas’s law bills is the regime’s knee-jerk reaction to its dwindling popularity. After the pension reform of summer and autumn 2018, the ratings of Russia’s supreme executive and legislative authorities took a severe hit. Also, according to a poll done by VTsIOM, a year after the last presidential election, in March 2018, Putin is trusted by 33.4% of Russians, a drop of 21.9% from March 2018.

For example, in March 2018, a court in Naberezhnye Chelny sentenced activist Karim Yamadayev to twenty-eight days in jail for erecting a fake headstone for President Putin by way protesting the law bill that would create a “sovereign” Runet, if passed into law.

putin doa“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 1952–2019.” Image courtesy of BBC Russian Service

In summer of 2018, Petersburg activist Varya Mikhaylova was fined 160,000 rubles for publicly displaying the picture 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, which also depicts Putin, during the city’s annual May Day march. Despite the fact the march itself was legal, the picture had not been vetted by the police. As Mikhaylova admits, she was completely surprised when she was detained, since she has a poor sense of the line between what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

The Kremlin is likely to use the new laws to crack down on its most audacious critics.

varyaVarya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in last year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

_________________________

* Members of the Federation Council are not “chosen by people” in the sense of free and fair elections, but appointed by President Putin via highly stage-managed “elections” in the legislatures and parliaments of the Russian regions they only nominally represent. Aided and abetted by lazy journalists and political spin doctors, the thoroughly non-elected members of the Federation Council, whose only function is to rubber-stamp destructive law bills like the two described in the article, have taken to calling themselves “senators” in recent years, although Russia has no senate or senators. TRR

** I.e., khui (“dick”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat‘ (“fuck”), bliad‘ (“bitch”), all of which are indeed incredibly productive roots in colloquial Russian. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) and a trade union organizer. Lead photo and translation by the Russian Reader. All other photos featured in the translation were selected by me and were not included in the original article, as published on Eurasianet.

Yulia Tsvetkova: Blues and Pinks

“He Threatened to Kill Us for Perverting Children”
A Feminist Staged a Children’s Play. She Has Been Accused of Extremism and Interrogated by Police
Larisa Zhukova
Lenta.ru
March 15, 2019

The police department in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has been investigating the work of feminist Yulia Tsvetkova, producer of the activist comedy theater Merak. The ostensible cause of the investigation is her production of a children’s play about gender stereotypes, Blues and Pinks, which the people who denounced Tsvetkova to the police regarded as promotion of homosexual relations among minors. The suspicions of the authorities have also been piqued by the anti-militarist dance productions Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and Prague Spring, and the VK community page Komsomolka. Lenta.ru recorded Tsvetkova’s account of why regional activists have grown accustomed to threats of real violence and how the local extremism prevention center (Center “E”) inspects children’s dances and drawings.

“Are You Against the Soviet Union?”
Everyone who has known us for a long time agrees that something completely insane has been happening. We have pupils who have been working with us for almost sixteen years, starting with my mom’s early development workshop.

Our theater is me, the actors, and my mom, our manager. We are a tiny theater company in a really small city and the only young people’s theater of its kind. We are not a classic theater company, but a horizontal (egalitarian) and activist theater. We highlight societal problems and look for ways of solving them. We established the theater a year ago. We decided to call it Merak, with the stress on the first syllable. In Serbian, mérak means a buzz, a high, life’s little pleasures.

The actors are twenty-one children aged six and up. They write poems, contribute to the scripts, build scenery, and choreograph the dance numbers. As director, I supply the overall outline, but then I leave the creativity to them. How do you feel in this scene? I ask them. What should it be like? How should the dialogue sound? What words would  you use to say that? How would you dance it? Some find it odd I deal with children as equals, but I believe it has to be this way. We use improvisation, forum theater, gags, and free dance.

Everything was fine until February, until we decided to stage four danced-based plays, which we had been rehearsing for six months. Two plays are staged one day, while the other two plays are staged the next day. We came up with the idea of calling them a festival by way of combining them. It would have been the first activist art festival in the region. A week before the first performance we got a phone call from city hall. The next day, the Youth Center, a venue we had already confirmed, told us they were booked up on the dates we needed, and there were no openings for the next six months.

The telephone conversation with city hall lasted over an our. City officials went over our poster point by point. Why was our play called Blues and Pinks? We wrote, “We can do it again”: were we against the Soviet Union or something? We were asked what we meant by the word “individual.” Obviously, there was something about what we were doing they didn’t like. We also suddenly got the cold shoulder at other venues.

pic_08ab34d1a9a5f76eb7ff4c96411bec73Detail of a poster for The Color of Saffron Festival of Activist Art. The inscription reads “We can do it again. We can ban it!” 

After the news that the festival had been shut down was published, city hall called us and said we had misunderstood them. Actually, they supported our undertaking. They invited us to a meeting at which they made it understood that if we denied the news reports, they would help us find a venue. Since I don’t like having my arm twisted, and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong by talking about the connection between their first phone call and the sudden refusals to give us a venue, I was not about to refute any of the reports. That was when they interrogated the kids.

“The Kids Are Feared like Terrible Dissidents”
To be honest, I thought we would be called on the carpet for our anti-militarist production Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. It is a translation of a song by Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down. He often voices his opposition to war and the arms industry. The big dance number in the play is set to his song. It’s an urgent problem for us, because all the boys who attend our workshop, which has been functioning for over twenty years, try to smuggle in toy pistols at first. But we have a ban on weapons, even toy weapons. Why? We are trying to make sense of things. During the big dance number, one dancer acquires a “pistol.” Then another gets one, too, as a means of defense. A third dance gets hold of a machine gun, and the atmosphere heats up. It is satirical and exaggerated, of course, but it is a quite dramatic play as well.

pic_dc844038f81c1c5c70e0d764a49c0a98

Merak Theater’s poster for its four-play, two-day festival, The Color of Saffron. Originally scheduled for March 16 and 17, it was to have featured (in descending order) Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Spring [sic], Untouchables, and Blues and Pinks

But when we came up with the play, the shooting at the college in Kerch occurred. The kids were scared: the shooting affected them greatly. We talked a lot about what they thought about the incident and how it could have been avoided. No one at school discussed the incident with the children at all, although it should be said adults generally avoid discussing really important things with teenagers. The kids came up with the play’s finale on their own: it showed how the situation could have been avoided.

Prague Spring is a production based on Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We pay homage to Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography and Maurice Béjart’s 1955 choreography, using music by John Cage. Coincidentally, I got the idea during the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops: the two “springs” came together in my mind around the subject of human rights and resisting oppression. It’s a simple, obvious subject, but when you grow up in a small city like Komsomolsk, it can seem quite remote and forbidden. But this is just what I read into it, inner thoughts not meant for viewers. The kids simply dance spring. That’s it. Six-year-olds hop up and down and run around in circles, making up half of it as they go along.

Our fifteen-minute play Untouchables focuses on bullying at school and kindergarten. A lot of what the kids told us themselves about their own experiences went into the play. The more we talk things through, the easier it is for them to deal with them.

pic_eda40eabbbb3ba6a6ff95708693a0148Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

Blues and Pinks is a play that illustrates stereotypes about girls and boys. According to the script, we run through the list of clichés: girls like pink, boys like blue; boys are messy, girls clean up after them; boy are defenders and warriors and shouldn’t cry, while girls are future mothers who dream only of getting married; girls and boys can never understand each other. This is presented on stage as a lighthearted dance. We try and show the notion that if a boy pulls your pigtail, it means he likes you is a step away from the idea that if a man beats a woman he must love her.

We continue by suggesting a solution. One of the boys dances, releasing his pent-up feelings as it were. The other boys follow his example, realizing that, whether they dance or not, it does not make any more or less guys. The girls share their dreams. One of them wants to be a businesswoman, while another wants to be a director. They recite the names of great women: the first woman to climb Everest, the first woman to win an Oscar, and so on.

Sophisticated audiences in the western half of Russia would probably find it quite naive, but in our city it is timely and relevant. For example, the other day, a local radio presenter, Tatyana Zhemerenetskaya, announced she planned to run for mayor. She was fired: her bosses were outraged by her excessively “unfeminine ambitions.” Women are supposed to stay home and make soup. In the final scene of our play, the kids say they are individuals. They have dreams and passions.

The funny thing is I didn’t even think about the connotation of the play’s title, which the police caught. One of our pupils came up with it. I have hung out with female LGBT activists, and none of them ever call themselves “blues” or “pinks.” They are just colors to me. Honestly, if I had had doubts, I would not have bothered using the words in the title.

Our actors are between six and seventeen, but the authorities fear us as if we were terrible dissidents. Miraculously, we found a woman interested in contemporary young people’s theater who was not afraid to provide us with a venue. We intend to hold the festival there as planned, on March 16 and 17. But we have nowhere to seat viewers: we cannot find people who will give us chairs. One person said yes, but later he was scared off, apparently.

“She Drew the Rainbow of Her Own Free Will”
The policewoman who came to my office could not say out loud the reason for the investigation. The complaint read that we were promoting homosexuality among minors. She showed me the complaint and blushed.

During my interrogation, I was told I was at the local department for extremism and terrorism prevention (Center “E”). Three complaints had been filed against me: for promoting homosexual relations among minors, for inciting hatred towards men, and for “extremism,” I think.

The interrogation lasted nearly four hours.

First, the officers gave me screenshots of various posts and photos from my personal social media page and the community page Dandelion Field, where I write about really simple things like contraception, HIV, and condoms, things that, unfortunately, not all teenagers know about. There was also stuff from Komsomolka, which deals with feminism. By the way, there I don’t write at all about men: it’s a community page about women.

One of the screenshots showed a workshop from last year at which a girl had drawn a picture, and there was a rainbow in her picture. I was forced to write two paragraphs explains that my underage female pupil had drawn the rainbow of her own free will. No one had pressured and coerced her to draw it.

Next, we got hung up on the phrase “gender stereotypes.” The police officer thought gender had something to do with transgenders. I explained to him what gender stereotypes were, what I meant by the term, and gave examples of stereotypes, as if I were sitting for an exam at school.

Then I was shown a screenshot of a post in which I had negatively assessed the “gay propaganda law,” and I had described the persecution of the lesbians in Chechnya and the “corrective” rapes to which they had been subjected.

The detective asked whether I engaged in propaganda. He asked was sex education was, and who needed it and why. He asked what feminism was. He asked what intersectional feminism was. Ultimately, I had to describe to him how I imagined traditional family values, what I thought about families. I wrote that I wasn’t against traditional family values like love, acceptance, and warmth. This ridiculous testimony took up four pages.

This was followed by the persecution of our children and personal attacks on them. There is no other way of putting it.

“The Police Have Come for You. Let’s Go”
The police officers running the investigation are clueless about the questions they have been asking, and this incompetence has only exacerbated the circumstances.

On March 10, they came for one of boys and one of our girls. It is not clear why they were chosen. There are seventeen teenagers in our theater, and they attend different schools. The police did not pick on our oldest and youngest pupils.

The 15-year-old girl was summoned after school from her house and grilled for two hours by five adults: two police officers and three female school employees. They put the screws on her and descended into semi-insults. They quizzed her about LGBT. Did she know what it meant? they asked. How had she found out? Was I promoting homosexuality? Did I encourage girls to sleep with girls, and boys with boys? The subjects they discussed were such that they would have earned an 18+ rating, but the interrogation took place without the girl’s parents present.

pic_7bc908930662b55a0cdbabb1976b5037Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

The 13-year-old boy was kept after school. He was summoned to the headmaster’s office. “The police have come for you. Let’s go,” he was told. No one had the presence of mind to call his parents. The police officers showed him the likes I had awarded a post I no longer remembered, but they were showing this to a child! The absurdity was off the charts. They asked the boy and the girl about each other. Maybe they had picked the through the list of  numbers in their telephones.

When, the next day, they came for another of our boys, we warned him to call his parents immediately. He called his dad, who works as a beat cop, so he was not grilled for two hours, but twenty minutes, and the conversation was more polite and less biased.

Everyone is scared. Naturally, it is frightening when you’re interrogated for two hours. For now, no one wants to quit the theater, because everyone is aware of my work. They know I am opposed to violence, and I treat boys and girls equally. But, first of all, the subject itself scares the kids, because they are still kids and not tuned into all these issues. Second, they feel the pressure: they are afraid to say something wrong and inadvertently throw me under the bus.

Their parents and I have now been trying to understand the legal grounds of why we have been persecuted. We have been poring over the laws.

“Rewind to Fifty Years Ago”
Until recently, everyone really loved our theater and told us how cool we were. We did two productions wholly in English about the history of the English language, which were unprecedented in our city. At the Drama Theater, we did a dance performance about the problems of teenagers entitled Evolution. It was about how society puts pressure on carefree kids, but ultimately their friends help them and their problems are solved. This was all performed to poems written by one of the girls involved in the production. The show was a benefit for disabled children and the local organization Lighthouse of Hope. Not a bad track record for a single year!

Children grow up, and the problems they face get more complicated. First of all, they deal with domestic violence. I have had whole black months when it was one story after another, and I cried because I felt so helpless. It’s really scary: dad’s beating mom, dad’s beating me, dad’s beating my brother. Gender stereotypes are also something our kids deal with up close and personal. My fifteen-year-old female pupils are already pestered now with questions of when they are getting married and having kids, and why they should bother with careers. Homophobia is also a force. I know there are LGBT teenagers out there, and I cannot imagine how hard it is for them to cope alone. The streets in Komsomolsk are a really dangerous place, just as in most typical provincial towns, I would guess.

Komsomolsk is one half a factory town, and one half a gangster town. When you hear about us, rewind to fifty years ago. It is not the twenty-first century here, but the twentieth century. I think what really spooked the police was that I had been talking about activism and feminism. These words scare people.

Our local feminist community consists of two volunteers and me. I have an audience of a thousand some subscribers on our community page, but between two and twenty people in Komsomolsk itself. That is the number of people who come to our events. Unfortunately, that is our audience for the time being. It is a infantile scale.

But there have always been plenty of haters. When I decided to do a lecture on abuse, there were threats: we will come and show you what real violence is like, I was warned. Instead, a group of women showed up who sabotaged the lecture by insisting victims had only themselves to blame or something of the sort.

Even our women’s tea party was disrupted. We wanted to make it women-only, without men, so we could talk about our problems. Men wrote to us that they would come and show us what feminism was. There were so many threats that even the young women themselves got scared, along with the venue where we had scheduled the tea party. They asked us not to come.

I have stopped responding to death threats. Now, as we have been chatting, I have received three messages from a young man. The only word in the messages you can print is the word “you.” Yesterday, a man wrote on the community page of our theater workshop threatening to kill us for “perverting children.” This the general background.

After I was interrogated for four hours by the police about feminism and sex education, I felt I had a claim to the hashtag #FeminismIsNotExtremism. Six months ago, I would insert in posts in connection with the case of Lyubov Kalugina, when I was not even remotely in harm’s way. It is one thing to read about persecuted activists, but it is another thing to become one of them. People keep asking why I do it. What is the point?  My run-in with the police makes me think hard about the kind of country we live in. But I can name at least twenty-one people for whom what I do is not pointless. I can name even more people, actually.

pic_55145f4a6ff0238f1689b54bfaa9dccbPhoto from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK 

What scares me most is the kids think they did something wrong. I ask them, You believe in what we do? Yes, they reply. Do you see anything bad about it? No, they answer. But the whole situation puts them under psychological pressure. It is a really terrible precedent, because the kids have been rapped on the knuckles as it were. They really work their butts off staging our plays. They invest a tremendous amount of energy in them. They are sincerely looking for ways to change the world for the better. These kids are really delicate and sensitive, and they are close to each other as group. They volunteer their time, they visit orphanages, they support other social projects. They are totally maxed out: they try and get straight A’s at school, and they are involved in academic competitions. In the midst of all their activities, they manage to come to four-hour-long, physically draining rehearsals.

But then adults tell them activism is bad, activism is evil, without even fully understand what activism is. And when these adults show up a week before our festival and tell us to get lost, both the kids and I are stressed out. They are really worried.

I have not slept or eaten for three days. I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I have been summoned again to the extremism prevention department. The phone is tapped, and calls with my lawyer are cut off. But I dream of opening a women’s crisis center in our city and an alternative independent school where the children would be not be bullied and hounded, and continuing to move the theater forward. In late spring, we are doing a production based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Last Witnesses, about children during the Second World War, and in the summer we are staging a new English-language production.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader.

UPDATE. DVHab.ru reports that, despite the fact the local authorities ostensibly canceled Merak Theater’s Color of Saffron Festival, the festival went ahead way anyway at “closed” venues. DVHab.ru included a full video of Merak’s performance of Blues and Pinks in its article. I have reproduced it below.

Alexander Verkhovsky: Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism”

yaltinskoe_delo_hizb_ut_tahrir_1.jpgRussia has used its official ban on the Muslim movement Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea, such as these six men, charged in the so-called Yalta Case. The fact that the defendants are neither terrorists nor members of Hizb ut-Tahrir has not stopped Russian authorities from prosecuting them for these imaginary crimes. Courtesy of Crimean Tatar Resource Center

Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism” Has Been Expanding: It Should Be Reined In
Alexander Verkhovsky
Nezavisimaya Gazeta
March 5, 2019

The dramatic events of recent weeks surrounding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the harsh prison sentence handed down to Dennis Christensen, and the torture of detained believers in Surgut, make us wonder how unique what has been happening to them has been.

First, we should recall the bare facts. The Russian authorities have banned numerous texts published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including their translation of the Bible into Russian. All their local branches have been banned and their property confiscated. More than forty criminal cases are underway, cases in which 120 people, aged 23 to 84, have been charged. Twenty-five of those charged have been remanded in custody. All of them have been charged with going on with the work of a banned “extremist” organization (punishable under Article 282.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code), although this amounted only to holding prayer meetings and group discussions

The Russian Supreme Court decided to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses completely on April 20, 2017. Criminal cases based on the ban were launched a year later, that is, over a hundred suspects were charged in a matter of ten months, and yet not a single case has gone to court yet.

In fact, Christensen was convicted on the basis of an earlier ban of a local Jehovah’s Witness branch. There were eight such bans of local branches. Unlike his co-religionists, convicted earlier under the same ban, Christensen was sentenced to actual prison time. After the so-called Yarovaya package was adopted by the Russian parliament, he had to be sentenced to no less than six years in prison, and this was what happened. It should make us extremely concerned about what will happen to current and future suspects, especially the ones now jailed in remand prisons.

But what has happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is not unique. In exactly the same way, the peaceable followers of the fundamentalist movement Tablighi Jamaat and the peaceable followers of the quite moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi have been banned in Russia and persecuted under the same law in the Russian Criminal Code.

The pattern was the same. First, the texts published by the groups were banned because, allegedly, they claimed the superiority of their religious doctrines to others and contained hostile descriptions of non-believers. Then, the organizations themselves were banned for the same reasons, including using the banned texts in their worship services. Finally, the Russian authorities prosecuted believers for “going on with the work” of their now-banned organizations. Moreover, the courts usually gave defendants probation sentences at first. Subsequently, however, people convicted on the same charges were sent to prison and the sentences handed down were harsher.

The Muslim activists were also tortured by Russian law enforcement. The current shock over events in Surgut can be put down to the fact that Russian society is in some sense inured to the torture of Muslims suspected of “radicalism.”

The Russian Supreme Court banned all three groups: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the followers of Said Nusri, and Tablighi Jamaat. For some reason, it paid no mind to the fuzzy definition of “extremism” to which it resorted in all three rulings. It is true that all three religious doctrines claim only their way is the true way and that all other ways are false, and their texts occasionally contain rather harsh descriptions of non-believers. The current Russian legal definition of “extremism” is such that these things can be considered evidence of “extremism,” but you could find more or less the same things in nearly all religious doctrines. Such claims are typical of confessions of faith, and, as such, they are protected by the Russian Constitution.

With regard to criminal cases of incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that criticism of religious convictions, religious rituals, and religious groups is not a criminal offense. For some reason, however, this ruling has not been applied in civil cases banning religious literature and organizations, although the conflict between the procedure for banning religious “extremism” and Russia’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of conscience is striking. Perhaps unraveling this conflict is a job for the Russian Constitutional Court?

Returning to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we should again pay attention to the scale of their persecution. The number of accused Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of one calendar year has been much greater than the numbers of the two Muslim groups mentioned. It is more comparable to the persecution of the radical movement Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islaami.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in 2003 as a terrorist group, although it has not been implicated in terrorism. The Russian authorities were clearly in a hurry to ban it, so the actual danger it posed or did not pose to the constitution was not even at issue. Members of the movement have been charged under the anti-terrorist laws in the criminal code, and so their prison sentences have been even harsher. But there are similarities with the other religious groups we have been discussing: participating in group gatherings and reading the same texts were offered as evidence of their criminal deeds.

Another serious conflict emerges in this case between the Russian Constitution and the articles in the Russian Criminal Code dealing with “extremist” (Article 282.2) and “terrorist” (Article 205.5) groups. Let us assume for simplicity’s sake that a group has been banned altogether legitimately. When this happens, the group’s formal and informal members are obliged to honor the court’s ban. But they have not changed their views, and they still associate with the same group of people. It is likely they would want to discuss what to do in the circumstances: perhaps, for example, establishing a new group based on slightly different principles. If we are dealing with a dangerous group that has been rightfully outlawed, such discussions and meetings could not help but interest the police and security services, but they are hardly criminal in their own right, for these people have not been deprived of their basic civic rights, including the right to assemble. Besides, not only active members could take part in these meetings but also outsiders, and yet law enforcement does not especially distinguish between the two groups of people in practice.

These problems are more apparent when we speak of religious communities. The Russian Constitution enshrines the right to practice one’s religion both alone and in the company of others. The work of any religious organization mainly consists in praying together and other joint activities, such as confessing and preaching as part of religious services. If a religious association has been banned, its members are in effect barred from exercising their constitutional right. If Russia’s current anti-“extremist” laws are meant to enact such severe restrictions of a fundamental human right, this have never been explicitly stated. So, again, one would like the Russian Constitutional Court to issue a clarification. It is, after all, a matter of tens of thousands of Russian nationals potentially facing criminal charges.

Since there have not been any clarifications, and the current crackdown has only been picking up steam, many have wondered how it happened. There is hardly a single, simple answer to this question. We might say that in their campaign against potentially dangerous movements, the Russian authorities have gone much too far and made a considerable number of mistakes. One of the reasons is that they listened to politically and religiously biased “experts,” and they continue to heed their advice, judging by the way the anti-“extremist” campaign has progressed in the religious realm. Our many years of experience with these cases have shown that counterarguments by religious studies scholars and legal experts rarely reverse the current tendency. They prove useful only when the authorities are willing to listen to them for reasons of their own.

The growing campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been horrifying, but there is also the chance that this time someone in the elite will finally come to their senses and change their mind. The Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly pose no threat whatsoever to Russian national security. Moreover, it is clearly just as impossible to eradicate their religion in Russia, since it would be wrong to jail or force over 100,000 people to emigrate, especially since Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses did not give up their faith in the worst of times.

The problem, however, is whether the officials who make key decisions about large-scale crackdowns could find acceptable means for reconsidering their earlier decisions. If this does happen, it matters, given the constitutional conflicts described above, whether anti-“extremist” policies will be reconsidered, if only in the religious realm.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center. Thanks to Nikolay Mitrokhin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader