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Russia's 470-dollar word How calling Vladimir Putin a ‘fuckwit’ became illegal

Source: Meduza

On April 22, a court in the Novgorod region fined local resident Yuri Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles (about $470) for violating Russia’s new law against insulting state officials. The man was found guilty of sharing two posts on the social network VKontakte where he allegedly wrote “Putin is an unbelievable fuckwit.” Kartyzhev’s sentence marks the first known enforcement of this new curtailment of free speech.

A man in the Novgorod region wrote two posts about Putin. He says the police tampered with the evidence and planted the obscenities.

Yuri Kartyzhev, 34, lives in Malaya Vishera, a town in the Novgorod region’s Malovishersky District. He recently got out of prison, where he served two years for theft. After confessing to the charges, he was ultimately released on early parole. Kartyzhev told Meduza that he currently works a few side jobs, but officially he’s unemployed. He blames Putin, who “brought the country to this,” for the fact that he can’t find steady work.

In posts on VKontakte, Kartyzhev constantly criticizes the Russian government. Based on the evidence in his case (copies of which Meduza has obtained), Kartyzhev was at home on March 31 when he shared two videos about the Russian authorities, one about Moscow deciding to send $30 million in foreign aid to Kyrgyzstan and the other about a survey of the political party United Russia’s popularity in Kostroma. According to screenshots of both VKontakte posts, Kartyzhev added the comment “Putin is an unbelievable fuckwit” to each video.

Kartyzhev told Meduza that he did share both videos, but he insists that he never spelled out any full obscenities, writing only: “Putin is an unbelievable f***wit.” He says the police apparently hacked his VKontakte account and edited the posts, so the word “fuckwit” appeared uncensored.

Why would the authorities frame Kartyzhev for swearing at the president? He suspects it’s because of his ongoing conflict with local law enforcement. The terms of his early parole require him to be at home from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Kartyzhev says the police came to his home in the middle of the night in late March to verify that he’s complying with these rules. Outraged by the late visit, he got into a heated argument with the officers, who claimed that they’d come to his home earlier that evening, but he hadn’t opened the door. Kartyzhev denies this.

In the end, the police formally warned Kartyzhev that he could be arrested, if he fails to observe the terms of his parole. He told Meduza that he got into another argument with the court bailiffs, at the hearing where this official warning was issued. Kartyzhev says the bailiffs even attacked him during the altercation, which he then reported to local state investigators. He believes this is why the police supposedly framed him for calling President Putin a “fuckwit.”

Police brought witnesses to an ISP’s office and recorded angry testimonies

Russia’s new law against insulting state officials entered force on March 29. Kartyzhev published the “fuckwit” posts two days later. By April 2, a Malovishersky District police captain with the surname Mentovsky filed a report identifying posts on Kartyzhev’s VKontakte page that “offend public morality” and “demonstrate obvious disrespect for the state.” Mentovsky, incidentally, works in an economic crimes and anti-corruption unit, making it unclear why he was busy combing social-media posts for Putin insults.

According to the case evidence, police officers decided the very next day to “authenticate” the social-media posts, summoning several witnesses to the local office of the “Novline” Internet service provider, where they showed them Kartyzhev’s two “fuckwit” posts. The evidence says one of the witnesses stated that Kartyzhev’s “unacceptable” comments “deeply hurt” him, and this witness called for “the most severe punishment” because the Internet posts “insult the state in general and every concerned citizen in particular.”

Kartyzhev says he suspects that the police coordinated the witnesses’ testimony in advance. He doesn’t know why the witnesses were summoned to an Internet provider’s office to view his VKontakte posts.

Immediately after the witnesses reviewed Kartyzhev’s social-media posts, the authorities formally charged him with the misdemeanor offense of insulting a state official. All this happened within a day of Captain Mentovsky discovering the VKontakte posts on April 3.

Kartyzhev plans to challenge his 30,000-ruble fine in the European Court of Human Rights

Kartyzhev told Meduza that the police demanded that he confess to the charges, but he insisted that he never spelled out the word “fuckwit.” This defense didn’t impress Chudovsky District Judge Igor Ivanov, who described Kartyzhev’s testimony as “a confession of guilt but without remorse.”

On April 22, Judge Ivanov fined Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles (about $470). In addition to his testimony, the case evidence also included screenshots of his VKontakte posts, Captain Mentovsky’s original report, and the witnesses’ testimony. (Officials did not consult linguists to confirm the offensiveness of Kartyzhev’s language.) When reading Kartyzhev’s posts aloud, the judge literally said, “Putin is an unbelievable obscenity.”

Kartyzhev even filed a motion trying to remove the judge at his hearing, arguing that he is unqualified for the position, but Ivanov overruled him. Kartyzhev told Meduza that he plans to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. On April 24, the international human rights group “Agora” announced that it will represent Kartyzhev. Russian Internet users have responded to the verdict by sharing links to news coverage and adding the comment “Putin is an unbelievable fuckwit.”

“Fuckwit”?

What's Russian for “unbelievable fuckwit”? Because of Russia's media censorship laws (which only apply to Russian-language news stories), we can't tell you. Meduza's Russian-language edition has to report this phrase as “Putin — skazochnyi ******.” The phrase is famously spoken during a scene in the 2001 Russian comedy “Down House.” Alternative translations might be “incredible fuckhead,” “monumental asshole,” and whatever else English-speakers might grumble at someone both stupid and deplorable.

This is the first known enforcement of this new curtailment of free speech. Identifiable Internet users are at risk of being next.

“Agora” head Pavel Chikov says the Kartyzhev case might be Russia’s first enforcement of the new ban on insults against state officials. (He’s aware of no other such prosecutions.) Chikov told Meduza that the law should only apply to Internet content posted before March 29, when the ban entered force. “But in practice you can’t rule out anything in [this] country,” Chikov added, citing the enforcement of “anti-extremism” statutes, where judges often convict Internet users of misdemeanor offenses for old posts on social media, arguing that they’re still available to the public, which makes them ongoing infractions.

Chikov says the people most at risk of charges under this new statute are social-media users who can be identified easily. “Considering VKontakte’s administrative policy of providing users’ personal information to the police, these people are clearly easier to identify than others,” Chikov explains. “But if you write something on Facebook, under your own name and other concrete information that can be used to identify you, then you could be charged, as well.”

Before recent reforms, VKontakte posts were one of the most common reasons for felony extremism charges in Russia. In 2017 (before the changes to Criminal Code Article 282), Russian courts handed down at least 138 sentences because of content shared on VKontakte, compared to two sentences because of Facebook posts, two on LiveJournal, two on YouTube, and three because of remarks published by online news outlets. In March, Mediazona published a detailed report (read Meduza’s summary here) about the creative tactics Russian law enforcement uses to identify people on Facebook and Telegram, including questionable applications of molecular genetic testing.

Lawyers say writing online about Putin is probably riskiest

Pavel Chikov says Russian Internet users worried about being prosecuted for violating the new speech law should refrain first and foremost from writing anything offensive about Vladimir Putin. “Obviously, this law was adopted to protect him specifically. From there, everything moves in concentric circles: it’s posts about State Duma Speaker [Vyacheslav] Volodin, Prime Minister [Dmitry] Medvedev, and other public figures who often attract all the latest words on the Internet,” Chikov says.

Chikov expects a “hunt” for such offensive speech, and the likeliest offenders will be people who address specific state officials with plainly obscene insults. (In these cases, judges can issue rulings without waiting on analysis from linguists.) Unlike in extremism cases, the police don’t even need to meet with these suspects, let alone arrest them. Officers can simply file the misdemeanor charges with a local court, which then subpoenas the defendant.

From a legal point of view, there are some questions about the new law’s constitutionality, Chikov says. “Free speech should grant people the right to cuss out state officials. When people cuss out the president, they’re not swearing at an individual but expressing their attitude about the government,” the human rights lawyer explains. “If Mr. Putin were to file a defamation lawsuit and testify as the victim in a case, it could even lead to felony charges of insulting a state official. But instead the police are using this administrative statute to defend His Majesty, and His Majesty doesn’t lower himself to the level of the mere mortal who files the police report. Never mind the fact that it’s written nowhere that everyone must love, coddle, cherish, and say only sweet words about the authorities.”

Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock