‘It’s a record to be proud of’ How a Siberian city prosecutes Russian Internet users for ‘criminal’ memes
On August 15, judges in Barnaul heard arguments in the criminal cases against 19-year-old Daniil Markin and 23-year-old Maria Motuznaya, two locals charged with inciting extremism and insulting religious sensitivities because they shared satirical Internet content. At Meduza’s request, Batenka.ru special correspondent Petr Manyakhin visited Barnaul to find out how the city prosecutes people for sharing “criminal” memes.
“There are fewer people this time. Remember how many came with cameras last time?” a friend said to Daniil Markin, a 19-year-old man charged with inciting extremism on the Internet. The friend’s attention drifted immediately, and he added, “Why am the only one standing around like an idiot and vaping?”
“I’ll get mine, too, now,” Markin said, comforting his companion. A few hours earlier, Barnaul’s Industrial Central Court reviewed his case. Markin’s lawyers asked the judge to order a psychological examination to determine their client’s attitudes about the church and religion at the time he committed the “crime,” when he was just 16 years old. This evidence, the attorneys say, will prove that he intended no act of extremism.
Daniil Markin is on trial for sharing several memes on Vkontakte that satirized religion, such as one based on the television show Game of Thrones, featuring Jon Snow and the caption, “He is risen! Indeed he is risen!”
The state prosecutor protested against the lawyers’ request, and asked Markin a series of questions about his worldview. “She asked me if I go to church, what I think about church, and if I’d like to go there, sit down, finish praying, and seek penance,” Markin told Meduza. “To sit down! In a Russian Orthodox church! I guess she’s a Catholic.” Despite the prosecutor’s objections, the judge agreed to order a psychological evaluation, scheduling the next hearing for October 15.
Not long after Markin’s hearing, another trial got underway at Barnaul’s Industrial District Court, where 23-year-old Maria Motuznaya is accused of inciting extremism by sharing several pictures on Vkontakte. Markin showed up outside the courthouse in a display of support, but he deliberately kept his distance, saying he didn’t want to learn any details about the case and risk being named as a witness. The police reports against Markin and Motuznaya were both filed by the same two law students from a local branch of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. Neither Markin nor Motuznaya had ever heard of their accusers before their trials.
Motuznaya’s case started with a request from Alexey Bushmakov (a lawyer from the Agora human rights group who serves on her defense team) to postpone the trial, because he has to attend a different hearing in Yekaterinburg. The suggestion was quickly rejected, however, not least because Motuznaya and her other attorney said they were happy to proceed without Bushmakov. The defense also asked the judge to downgrade the charges against Motuznaya to a misdemeanor (Russia has a civil code against “desecrating religious symbols”), and return the case to the district attorney’s office, arguing that the defendant was never informed about the collection of expert testimony. Prosecutors objected, and the judge sided with the state, reciting the prosecution’s arguments almost verbatim.
“Being an adherent of nationalist ideas, Motuznaya shared an image on the social network Vkontakte, wishing to make it available for viewing and copying,” the prosecutor said, reading out the charges and explaining that the young woman saved two pictures on Vkontakte that “show linguistic signs of propagating the superiority of the European race over the Negroid [sic].” Specifically, Motuznaya is on trial for sharing a picture of black children with empty plates and the caption: “Black humor is like food: not everyone gets it,” as well as a photograph showing a black child screwing up a math problem in front of a blackboard labeled “Black Bookkeeping.” In addition to the extremist hate speech charges under Criminal Code Article 282, Motuznaya is also being tried under Article 148 for offending religious sensitivities by sharing “an image showing a man resembling Jesus Christ releasing cigarette smoke through a hole in his hand.” (The prosecutor was apparently referring to a meme showing Jesus smoking a blunt and blowing a smoke ring through one of his crucifixion wounds.)
After Motuznaya declared her innocence, the court was supposed to hear from witnesses, but nobody showed up, except an employee from the mobile operator MTS, who confirmed that he received a visit from a police investigator and shared Motuznaya’s telephone records. With no one else to question, the judge postponed the trial and asked to summon the witnesses a second time.
The witnesses may have been no-shows, but several locals who have been in Motuznaya’s shoes were present in the courtroom. For example, there was Natalia Telegina, a neopagan prosecuted last year for offending religious sensitivities (thanks to a police report filed by another neopagan who belongs то the same cult). “You can recruit anybody with this stuff!” Telegina complained after Motuznaya’s hearing. “And then you walk into a bank to apply for a job, and you have to tell them that you’ve got a criminal record.”
“You need to say directly that you’ve got a record; it’s a record to be proud of,” said Anton Angel, another local who’s now on trial for hate speech. He’s being charged under Criminal Code Article 282 for sharing materials that “show signs of hating the Jews”: on Vkontakte, he wondered why “those Muscovite idiots don’t put a stop to the observance of Jewish holidays,” and wrote that Jews “deserve to be obliterated before they’re ever born.”
Angel also maintains his innocence. “In the documents, I was talking about Zionism. Having studied facts about Zionism, I can say that international organizations, including the U.N., define Zionism as a radical movement aimed at the degradation of certain nationalities. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has the same position,” Angel told Meduza, adding that he still hasn’t made up his own mind about Zionism. “I’m not saying whether they’re right or wrong — that I don’t know,” he says. On August 13, a judge instructed him to visit a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation of his mental health. Angel says he’s preparing to challenge this court order.
“I expected the witnesses not to come,” Maria Motuznaya told journalists after Wednesday's hearing. “The witnesses are really shady, and it would take only a few questions to tie them up.” She says the court had summoned two people who were “pulled out of a nearby store and showed these [Vkontakte] screenshots,” in addition to the two law students who filed the original police report and the officer who logged their complaint.
Daniil Markin says the prosecution’s witnesses showed up to one of his hearings, and it was apparently very easy to poke holes in their testimonies. “When they answered, they stuck to a script,” Markin explained. “We’d ask them: what’s the address of the police station where you filed the report. ‘Over on such-and-such street,’ they’d say. Then the judge says, ‘I live on that street, and there’s no police station there.’ Well, then it must have been some other street. Basically, they started bullshitting left and right.”
Meduza managed to reach just one of the witnesses against Maria Motuznaya: Daria Isaenko. She says she never received a court summons and refused to answer any further questions. Motuznaya’s case resumes on August 28.