Spurred by Putin, Russians Turn on One Another Over the War

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 country apart, a country apart,” Ms. Dubrova, 57, told them.

“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,” Ms. Dubrova said in a phone interview, referring to the pro-war mood surrounding her.

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

The incidents are not yet a mass phenomenon, but they illustrate the growing paranoia and polarization of Russian society. Citizens denounce each other in a strange echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by the state’s vicious official rhetoric and made possible by sweeping new laws that criminalize dissent.

There are reports of students reporting teachers and people reporting their neighbors and even dinners at the next table. In a shopping center in western Moscow, it was the text “no to war” displayed 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, as well as state-sponsored denunciation of fellow citizens, that now looms large over Russia’s escalating climate of repression. Mr Putin set the tone in a March 16 speech, saying Russian society needed ‘self-purification’ in which people would ‘separate true patriots from scum and traitors and just spit them out like a fly which accidentally flew into 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 Gayeva, 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 invasion began on February 24, fines are the most common punishment, although some have been sentenced to up to 30 days in jail, Ms Gayeva 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.

Ms. Gen told her 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,” Ms. 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.

“That’s right, you don’t know anything at all,” Ms. Gen 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 comments accusing Russia of bombing a maternity hospital in Mariupol last month were “100% a criminal matter”.

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.

Ms Gen, 45, 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 Ms Dubrova’s case, one of her former students collected $150 a day for her, before Ms Dubrova told her to stop and said that she would pay the fine herself. On Friday, Ms Dubrova donated the money to a local dog shelter.

In Moscow, Mr. Grachev, the owner of a computer repair shop, said he found it remarkable that none of his hundreds of customers threatened to report him for the ‘no to war’ text. which he displayed prominently on a screen behind the counter for a few 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 clients. Instead, many thanked him.

The man who apparently reported Mr Grachev was a bystander he calls a “grandfather” who he said twice warned his employees in late March that they were breaking the law. Mr 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 of state.

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

He received 250,000 rubles in total, he said, from about 250 separate donations, and he plans to donate the excess 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.

Mr. 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.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Istanbul.