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‘Distorted and discredited’ From the peace sign to scare quotes, these are the gestures that now trigger prosecution in Russia

Source: Meduza

In the week after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, federal lawmakers raced to pass legislation that effectively abolishes the freedom of expression regarding criticisms of the “special military operation.” The strictest new law criminalized the dissemination of “knowingly false information” about the military. Under aggravated circumstances, the maximum penalty for violating this new statute is 15 years in prison. According to researchers at the OVD Info project, investigators across Russia have opened at least 75 felony cases against people accused of “spreading fakes” about the army.

While this is Russia’s most extreme domestic wartime policing measure, it is the less utilized sibling of another offense that more commonly leads to prosecution. By late July, the Russian authorities had opened at least 3,400 cases for violations of another law adopted in the invasion’s immediate aftermath: the misdemeanor ban on “discrediting” the armed forces. Punishable by fines as high as 100,000 rubles ($1,600), repeat “discrediting” offenses and rare aggravating circumstances (for example, provoking riots) can result in felony charges, but this has happened only eight times, so far. Meduza reviews several examples of the “discrediting” displays and performances that have triggered administrative cases.

According to Alex Lokhmutov, a lawyer for OVD Info, the law defines “discrediting” as “belittling” the military’s authority, while outright false information is “inaccurate, publicly significant information” about the actions of the armed forces.

The fuzziness of this wording has cultivated enormously arbitrary enforcement. In different cases, nearly identical statements have been prosecuted as both “felony fakes” and “misdemeanor discrediting.” The police themselves struggle to understand the difference between these two offenses, Lokhmutov told Meduza.

The types of antiwar speech that provoke police responses demonstrate both the justice system’s loose grasp of how to apply these new laws and how protests in Russia against the war in Ukraine have gradually retreated to cyberspace.

In the weeks after the February invasion, most people charged with “discrediting” the army were arrested at antiwar demonstrations and charged with the dual offenses of assembling in public without a permit and belittling the military. Later, as protests dwindled, the police refocused on single picketers and reports filed by random citizens against their own compatriots for remarks in public (and sometimes even in private). Today, most new charges involve comments or even reposts on social media, discovered by officers who make it their jobs to scour websites for antiwar content.

Below, Meduza reviews some examples of antiwar protests that triggered misdemeanor charges for “discrediting” the military and its “special operation” in Ukraine. This story also features depictions of these events by Volya, a photographer from Belarus now living in Georgia who worked in the fashion industry before opposition protests in 2020 and 2021 nearly toppled the Lukashenko regime. During that unrest, she witnessed police brutality and the perils of living apolitically. She also saw the ridiculous degrees to which Belarusian law enforcement suppressed even the hint of opposition. She sees that same cruelty guiding Russia’s current campaign to frighten the opposition and keep antiwar sentiment hidden.

What the police have treated as “discrediting” Russia’s military. (Actual cases.)

“Silent support”

The authorities in Tomsk arrested Stanislav Karmarski at a public square during an antiwar protest. He didn’t hold any signs, pump his fists, or chant any slogans, but a judge determined that he knew about the rally in advance and showed up to express his support (albeit silently) for this illegal assembly to “discredit the military.” For this offense, Karmarski was fined 45,000 rubles (about $720). The court slapped the same fine on a few others arrested at the protest, as well.

Nekrasov’s “tolls of war”

Translator Lyubov Summ “perpetrated public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation” by standing in Moscow’s Pushkin Square and reading aloud from Nikolay Nekrasov’s “As I Hearken to the Horrors of War,” speaking of “the mourning mother’s eyes” and her son “who lies beneath a sodden, bloody hillock.”

A judge ruled that this performance “aimed to cultivate a negative attitude” about Russia’s troops and its “special military operation” in Ukraine, “essentially mirroring content posted online that expresses negative attitudes about these events.” The court fined Summ 50,000 rubles ($800).

Paint

In Novosibirsk, Stanislav Karzanov splashed blue and yellow paint on the doorstep of the local city administration building. He called it a “gesture of peace,” but a judge determined that Karzanov was really alluding to the colors of the Ukrainian flag in an effort to “distort the true goals” of Russia’s invasion. He was fined 48,000 rubles ($780).

The coat

For a few weeks in March, Demyan Bespokoev managed to roam St. Petersburg in a trench coat with the following message scrawled across his back: “This is my grandfather’s coat. During WWII, he was a hungry child in occupied territory. Why have the gruesome ghosts of his past come back to haunt us? I’m hurting, and I’m scared. I don’t want war!”

In the end, he was arrested in the subway. Bespokoev says it was one of the metro workers who reported him to the police. A judge fined him 45,000 rubles ($725), ruling that the message on the coat “discredited” the Russian army.

Yellow-blue buttons and hat

During her arraignment, a woman arrested in Moscow for wearing Ukraine’s national colors told the judge that her buttons showing the peace symbol and a heart “could not possibly pose any public danger.” The court sided with the police, however, and ruled that her provocative dress was meant to attract the attention of passersby. For that act, she was fined 30,000 rubles ($480).

A busted letter Z

The governor of Russia’s Stavropol region has urged locals to volunteer their Saturdays for cleanup work in their hometowns. After one of these civic outpourings in Pyatigorsk, several dozen volunteers assembled more than 100 “tree cookies” into the shape of a giant “Z” — the unofficial symbol of the “special military operation” to “liberate” whatever bits of Ukraine the Russian military manages to occupy.

Afterward, a local man named Dmitry Semin came along and scattered the pieces of tree trunk, “damaging” the monument to Russia’s invasion.

Like numerous others prosecuted for defacing displays of the “Z” (and the “V”), Semin was convicted of “discrediting” the military and fined 30,000 rubles ($480). (In Krasnodar, another man was fined the same amount for spitting on a “Z” banner.)

Barbed wire and Tolstoy

In mid-March, a young theater student in Ufa was fined 30,000 rubles for appearing in the city’s center with a crown of flowers atop her head and barbed wire wrapped around her dress. She taped her mouth shut and carried a copy of Lev Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The judge determined that this “visual image expressed disagreement with the special operation carried out by Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine.”

Green ribbons

At least three people in Veliky Novgorod were fined between 32,000 and 40,000 rubles (about $580) for wearing green ribbons around their wrists (one of the many antiwar symbols that’s surfaced since the February invasion). The judge decided that this gesture was designed to discredit the military and even accused the defendants of endangerment. “The offense committed here,” read the verdict, “encroaches on the protection of [others’] constitutional rights, freedoms, morality, and public order.”

Scare quotes

Alexey Podnebesny lives in Nizhny Novgorod and recently complained on social media about the sorry state of the local public utilities, noting that the authorities could have connected all the homes in the city to centralized hot water for the money spent on Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine. By putting the phrase in quotes (like we just did here), Podnebesny conveyed to readers that the “special operation” is in fact a euphemism for something sinister. “According to the rules of the Russian language and the context [of the remark],” the judge ruled, “it clearly indicates an ironic, reverse, and disparaging meaning.”

As a result, Podnebesny was fined 30,000 rubles.

A bag over the head

Back in Veliky Novgorod, a district court convicted one man of “distorting and discrediting” the purpose of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by lying on the pavement with a blue-and-yellow bag over his head as he repeated the names of Ukrainian cities targeted by airstrikes and occupying troops: Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Lviv.

The fine was 45,000 rubles ($725).

Photographs by Volya, text by Kristina Safonova, and abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock

Meduza thanks the human rights project OVD Info for assisting in the production of this story.