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How Russia prosecutes its own people for ‘falsifying history’

Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

This week, lawyers from the “Agora” international human rights group published a new report on prosecutions in Russia against people accused of “falsifying history.” The study reviews 100 cases over the past 10 years that either directly or indirectly related to writings about history. Most of the cases involved the 20th century, and the “riskiest” topics were the Second World War and the USSR’s role in that conflict. In Russia, being convicted of “falsifying history” can mean administrative or even criminal penalties. Courts can also ban “informational materials” on the pretext of fighting extremism, and they can classify documents in archives.

“Rehabilitating Nazism”

When it comes to criminal liability for remarks about history, Russians are usually charged with “rehabilitating Nazism” — a crime that only appeared in 2014. Slowly but surely, the number of convictions under this statute has been rising: none in 2014, five in 2015, another five in 2016, and eight in 2017.

Agora found that Russians are prosecuted for “rehabilitating Nazism” both for statements in support of the Third Reich and for making ordinary arguments about the Soviet Union’s role in the war, including comments about the USSR’s early pact with Adolf Hitler. An Internet user in Perm, for example, was fined 200,000 rubles ($3,230) for sharing an article that referred to the “joint attack on Poland by the USSR and Germany” in September 1939. In Magadan, an Odnoklassniki user was charged with rehabilitating Nazism because he criticized Soviet wartime leaders.

“Propagating Nazi symbols”

In most cases, however, judges hand out administrative punishments for “propagating Nazi symbols.” Between 2012 and 2017, the number of annual convictions under this statute exploded ninefold from 238 to 2,063. Prosecutions really took off about four years ago, when amendments to the administrative code made the statute applicable wherever the Nazi symbols were propagated or shared publicly. (Previously, officials could only prosecute if the symbols were propagated and shared publicly.) Over the past five years, Russia has penalized 6,622 people for displaying Nazi symbols, and in roughly 75 percent of these cases the defendant was jailed briefly.

Some people have been convicted of propagating Nazi symbols simply for sharing historical photographs. A woman in Smolensk, for instance, was fined for posting an old photo on Vkontakte showing her home under Nazi occupation (Wehrmacht soldiers and the flag of the Third Reich were visible in the background). Another woman living in Krasnodar was fined for sharing wartime cartoons by the famous Soviet caricaturists Mikhail Kupriyanov, Porfiri Krylov, and Nikolai Sokolov (known collectively as “The Kukryniksy”).

Sometimes, the courts actually side with the defendants. An appellate judge in Arkhangelsk overturned a fine imposed on Mikhail Listov, an activist who shared photos of the 1945 Victory Day parade in Moscow, where Soviet soldiers carried Nazi banners lowered to the ground.

Agora’s researchers found that the Russian authorities resort to censorship and ban unwelcome content on the pretext of fighting extremism. After these prosecutions, the content is then added to the federal registry of extremist materials. In the decade that it’s existed, this registry has come to include several dozen historical studies and commentaries devoted to various historical issues, from research on Zionism’s influence in the 20th century and relations between Russian emigres and Nazis to archival documents related to Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.

Story by Grigory Levchenko, translation by Peter Marshall