Russian newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov had just boarded the train from Moscow to his hometown of Samara, 857 km to the southeast, when a man burst into his sleeping car and sprayed the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and his blood red paint affairs laced with acetone.
“Muratov, here’s one for our boys,” the attacker said, referring to Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Muratov was treated for chemical burns to his eyes. Colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper Muratov co-founded in 1991, identified his attacker, but authorities refused to open a case. The Washington Post and New York Times quoted security sources as saying the assault was orchestrated by Russian intelligence agents.
The attack is one of dozens of incidents of repression of opposition to the war in Ukraine listed by the Russian human rights group OVD-Info in an online report in April. OVD is the Russian acronym for a police station.
“There is real censorship now in Russia. In just a few weeks, the government forced all independent media to leave the country or stop writing about the war,” OVD co-founder Daniil Beilinson said in an interview in Paris.
Beilinson says Russian authorities have blocked 1,500 websites since the war began on Feb. 24, including those of 180 media outlets and virtually every human rights group. More than 15,500 Russians have been arrested. Most were forced to pay fines and released after an average of 11 days. Criminal charges have been brought against more than 100 people.
Many arrests have taken place at anti-war rallies, sometimes with the help of facial recognition technology. Detainees were beaten with batons, thrown to the ground, strangled, punched, and had their heads banged against walls. OVD recorded bruises, broken bones, dislocated limbs and fingers. In St. Petersburg, an 80-year-old survivor of the siege of Leningrad was dragged to the ground and her son’s finger was broken.
freedom of assembly
Muratov and Novaya Gazeta are emblematic of Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on freedom of assembly and expression and due process of law. Six Novaya Gazeta journalists have been murdered, including Anna Politskovskaia, who was shot in her apartment building in Moscow in 2006 for writing about Russian atrocities in Chechnya.
Muratov, who shared the Nobel Prize with crusading Filipino journalist Maria Ressa for “her efforts to safeguard freedom of expression,” said he would donate his medal to the Ukraine relief effort.
In a March 16 speech, Putin called for the “self-purification” of Russian society and said people should “distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and just spit them out like a fly that has accidentally stolen from their mouths”.
Novaya Gazeta reported that authorities in Kaliningrad sent SMS messages urging them to provide phone numbers and email addresses of ‘provocateurs’ who oppose Putin’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine.
For a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were opportunities for civil society. Then the window started to close
Incitements to inform about others are a troubling throwback to the Stalin era. In at least two Moscow police stations, detainees were ordered to hand over contact details of other war opponents.
Novaya Gazeta has been accused of breaking draconian censorship laws passed in March. The latest warning came days after a reporter in a panel interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy posed a question on Muratov’s behalf.
In its latest issue, dated March 25, Novaya Gazeta denounced the indoctrination of schoolchildren to conform to the Kremlin’s version of events. On April 7, the day Muratov was attacked, fellow exiles from Novaya Gazeta announced that they were about to launch a new title, Novaya Gazeta Europe, from Riga, the Latvian capital. Muratov refuses to leave Russia.
OVD-Info was founded by Beilinson, a computer programmer, and journalist Grigory Okhotin in 2011. Beilinson prefers not to talk about his own plight, as he wants to protect OVD employees who remained in Russia.
The human rights group employs a core of 70 people and receives input from more than 3,000 volunteers and 300 lawyers across Russia. An OVD hotline that was called by 65,480 Russians last year provides free legal advice. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders says the organization receives more than 100 million views a year and is the source of more than 75,000 media posts a year.
Was there ever a free and democratic Russia? I ask Beilinson. “For a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were opportunities for civil society,” he replies. “Then the window started to close. The government presented itself as democratic, but after the first Chechen war in 1995, it was practically over… Personally, I think that the departure of Vladimir Putin would not change much, because it is a repressive system built for this purpose.
The procedures used against OVD are typical of those used to intimidate and shut down other media and human rights organizations. Last September, the group was accused of being a foreign agent, because a tiny part of the financing comes from abroad. Beilinson and Okhotin have twice appealed the designation in a Moscow court.
In December 2021, the human rights group received an email summons to appear in court the following day in Lukovitsy, 150 km from Moscow. Officials told OVD’s lawyer that they wanted to know who ran the organization.
“The next morning, they blocked our website and our social media accounts,” Beilinson says. “They claimed they didn’t know who was in charge of the OVD, and our attorney had just told them.”
The human rights group was barred from participating in the parody of due process conducted by a prosecutor and media watchdog Roskomnadzor. The court found that the group “promoted terrorism and extremism”. Secret court documents alluded to five offending items that OVD was not allowed to see, but were later released to the UN special rapporteur.
The stories focused on human rights abuses, including violations of freedom of assembly when dissident leader Alexei Navalny returned to Russia and was imprisoned after surviving near-fatal nerve agent poisoning.
Three days after the start of the war, the attorney general’s office announced that “the provision of financial, logistical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization or their representatives in directed against the security of the Russian Federation” would be considered high treason, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
In March, Russia passed three amendments to criminal and administrative law codes, prescribing fines and/or imprisonment for spreading false news about the Russian military, discrediting the military, holding unsanctioned public gatherings authorized or called for sanctions against Russia. A fourth offense – “denying the decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission of the USSR in the liberation of Europe” was added in April.
Even the semblance of legality that was used to stop the OVD is disappearing. “A law currently before the Duma will allow prosecutors to block websites for false news or discrediting the military without any warning and without any possibility of appeal,” Beilinson said.
The government threatens people – if you go there, you will be beaten
The mere use of the word “war” instead of “special operation” has been interpreted as “discrediting the army”. Possession of a Ukrainian flag, wearing a green ribbon or being near an anti-war rally are also grounds for prosecution.
Vladimir Ovchinnikov (84), a retired building engineer who covered the walls of his hometown Borovsk with colorful murals, has been fined 35,000 rubles (€390) for “discrediting the ‘army’ by painting a child holding a doll surrounded by falling bombs and the word ‘Stop!!!’
Sasha Skochilenko (32), an artist in Saint Petersburg, is detained until May 31 for replacing supermarket signs with information about the bombing of the Mariupol School of Art and Drama Theater . She faces up to 10 years in prison.
At least two English teachers from opposite ends of Russia were reported to the authorities by their own students, who had recorded their statements about the war in class. A teacher was fined the equivalent of €380. The other was warned she faced criminal prosecution and up to 15 years in prison for saying Russian forces bombed the Mariupol maternity hospital.
The owner of a computer repair shop in a Moscow shopping center has been fined the equivalent of 1,380 euros for displaying the words “No to war” on a screen in his store. Carrying a sign with a quote from Tolstoy or waving the Russian equivalent of a Visa card – called Mir, meaning peace – were also grounds for arrest.
A poll by the Levada Center, considered Russia’s most reputable independent polling group, found that 53% of Russians strongly support and 28% somewhat support the war in Ukraine, about the same percentage who view Putin favorably.
It takes enormous courage to protest in Russia, says Beilinson. “The government threatens people – if you go there, you will be beaten. You will receive a large fine and you could be imprisoned for criminal charges. This is done in a very Kafkaesque way. Unfortunately, they are very successful. That’s why you don’t see mass protests in Russia anymore.