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Led by Putin, Russians turn around during the war

A truck bears the Z symbol, which represents support for the war in Ukraine, seen in a Moscow suburb, March 14, 2022. (The New York Times)

Marina Dubrova, an English teacher on the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, showed an uplifting YouTube video to her eighth-grade class last month in which children, in Russian and Ukrainian, sing a “world without war “.

After playing her, a group of girls stayed during recess and asked her about her views.

“Ukraine is a separate country, a separate country,” Dubrova, 57, told them.

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“Not anymore,” retorted one of the girls.

A few days later, the police came to his school in the port town of Korsakov. In court, she heard a recording of this conversation, apparently made by one of the students. The judge imposed a $400 fine for “publicly discrediting” the Russian armed forces. The school fired her, she said, for “unemoral behavior.”

“It’s like they’ve all gone into some kind of madness,” Dubrova said in a phone interview, reflecting on the pro-war vibe around him.

With direct encouragement from President Vladimir Putin, Russians who support the war against Ukraine are beginning to turn against the enemy within.

The episodes are not yet a mass phenomenon, but they illustrate the growing paranoia and polarization of Russian society. Citizens speak out against each other in an eerie echo of Josef Stalin’s terror, spurred on by the state’s vicious official rhetoric and enabled by sweeping new laws that criminalize dissent.

There are reports of students reporting teachers and people talking about their neighbors and even diners at the next table. In a shopping center in western Moscow, it was the text “no to war” posted in a computer repair shop and reported by a passerby that had the store’s owner, Marat Grachev, arrested by the police. police. In St. Petersburg, a local media documented the furor over alleged pro-Western sympathies at the public library; it erupted after a library official mistook the image of a Soviet scholar on a poster for that of Mark Twain.

In the western region of Kaliningrad, authorities sent text messages to residents urging them to provide the phone numbers and email addresses of ‘provocateurs’ in connection with the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, Russian newspapers reported. ; they can do it easily through a specialized account in the Telegram messaging app. A nationalist political party has launched a website urging Russians to report “pests” in the elite.

“I am absolutely sure that a cleanup will begin,” Dmitry Kuznetsov, the MP behind the website, said in an interview, predicting the process would speed up after the end of the “active phase” of the war. He then clarified, “We don’t want anyone shot, and we don’t even want people to go to jail.”

But it is the story of Soviet-era mass executions and political imprisonment and state-sponsored denunciation of fellow citizens that now weighs on Russia’s worsening climate of repression. Putin set the tone in a March 16 speech, saying Russian society needed “self-purification” in which people would “distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that would have accidentally stolen from their mouths”.

In the Soviet logic, those who choose not to denounce their fellow citizens could be considered as suspects themselves.

“Under these conditions, fear sets in again in people,” said Nikita Petrov, a prominent Soviet secret police specialist. “And that fear dictates that you report.”

In March, Putin signed a law punishing up to 15 years in prison for public statements contradicting the government’s line on what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. It was a harsh but necessary step, the Kremlin said, given the West’s “information warfare” against Russia.

Prosecutors have already used the law against more than 400 people, according to rights group OVD-Info, including a man who held up a piece of paper with eight asterisks on it. “No to war” in Russian has eight letters.

“It’s kind of a huge joke we’re living in, to our misfortune,” Aleksandra Bayeva, head of OVD-Info’s legal department, said of the absurdity of some war-related lawsuits. She said she had seen a big increase in the frequency of people reporting on their fellow citizens.

“The crackdowns are not just the work of state authorities,” she said. “They are also made by the hands of ordinary citizens.”

In most cases, sanctions related to war criticism have been limited to fines; for the more than 15,000 anti-war protesters arrested since the February 24 invasion began, fines are the most common punishment, although some have been sentenced to 30 days in jail, Bayeva said. But some people are threatened with longer prison terms.

In the western city of Penza, another English teacher, Irina Gen, came to class one day and found a giant “Z” scrawled on the board. The Russian government promoted the letter as a symbol of support for the war, after it was seen painted as an identification marker on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine.

Gen told his students that it looked like a half swastika.

Later, an eighth-grader asked him why Russia was banned from sports competitions in Europe.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Gen replied. “Until Russia starts behaving in a civilized way, this will go on forever.”

“But we don’t know all the details,” said one girl, referring to the war.

“It’s true, you don’t know anything at all,” Gen, 45, said.

A recording of this exchange appeared on a popular Telegram account that often posts inside information about criminal cases. The Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB, called her and warned her that her remarks accusing Russia of bombing a maternity ward in Mariupol, Ukraine, last month were “100% a criminal case”.

She is now being investigated for causing ‘serious consequences’ under last month’s censorship law, which carries a possible 10 to 15 years in prison.

Gen said she found little support among her students or from her school and quit her job this month. When she spoke in class about her opposition to the war, she said she felt “hate” towards her from some of her students.

“My views didn’t resonate with anyone’s hearts and minds,” she said in an interview.

But others who have been the target of denunciations by their fellow citizens have drawn more encouraging lessons from the experience. On Sakhalin Island, after local media reported on Dubrova’s case, one of her former students collected $150 a day for her, before Dubrova told her to stop and she would pay the fine itself. On Friday, Dubrova donated the money to a local dog shelter.

In Moscow, Grachev, the owner of a computer repair shop, said he finds it remarkable that none of his hundreds of customers are threatening to report him for his ‘no to war’ text. displayed prominently on a screen behind the counter for several weeks. after the invasion. After all, he noted, he was forced to double the price of some services because of Western sanctions, surely angering some of his customers. Instead, many thanked him.

The man who apparently surrendered to Grachev was a passerby he calls a “grandfather” who he said twice warned his employees in late March that they were breaking the law. Grachev, 35, said he believed the man was convinced he was fulfilling his civic duty by reporting the store to the police and that he probably did not have access to information other than propaganda from the ‘State.

Grachev was fined 100,000 rubles, or more than $1,200. A Moscow politician wrote about the case on social media, including Grachev’s bank details for anyone willing to help. Enough money to cover the fine arrived within two hours, Grachev said.

He received 250,000 rubles in total, he said, from about 250 separate donations, and he plans to donate the surplus to OVD-Info, which has provided him with legal aid.

“In practice, we see that everything is not so bad,” he said in an interview.

Grachev is now considering how to replace his “no to war” sign. He considers: “There was a sign here for which a fine of 100,000 rubles was imposed.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company


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