Putin’s ‘traitor’ hunt sends message: We’re watching everyone

Popular food blogger Nika Belotserkovskaya was among the first three to face charges under Russia’s law against ‘false’ war news after her Instagram feed went from truffles and rosé to posts on Ukrainian refugee children. (She is out of Russia.)

The speed of Russia’s transformation into Soviet-style “self-purification” has been astonishing. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, state television launched into widespread propaganda blaming Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and “nationalists”. Today, gloomy pro-Putin figures daub the words “traitor to the fatherland” on the doors of peace activists and others.

A pile of animal feces was left outside the door of St. Petersburg activist Daria Kheikinen on Friday, and a severed pig’s head and an anti-Semitic slogan were left outside the door of Alexei Venediktov, editor of the now-disbanded liberal Echo of Moscow radio, on Thursday . The station was forced to close earlier this month by state-owned Gazprom, which controlled its board.

Named websites have sprung up encouraging Russians to denounce “traitors”, “enemies”, “cowards” and “fugitives” who oppose the war.

Marina Novikova, a 63-year-old retiree with 170 Telegram followers, was one of the first three people charged under Russia’s wartime censorship law. A day after the invasion, she fixed her gaze on the camera, a lock of red hair falling over one eye. “Those who want to think and can think will be able to come out of darkness,” said from the closed Russian nuclear city Seversk (formerly Tomsk-7).

In what she called a “shock psychotherapy” session, she said that the Russians “all approved of the war in Ukraine. This is our silent and total agreement.

Others headed for the borders. Actors, celebrities, business leaders, singers, dancers, writers. Computer scientists and freelance journalists are among those who have left Russia.

State television staffer Marina Ovsyannikova – the Channel One producer who made world headlines on March 14 when she held up an anti-war poster during a news program – feared be sentenced to 15 years in prison. But on Friday, she was accused of discrediting the army. Earlier, Kirill Kleimyonov, the station’s news chief, hinted on air that she was a British spy.

“Treason is always someone’s personal choice,” he said, claiming she did not act out of passion but “for 30 pieces of silver.”

But a conversation with Ovsyannikova leaves a different impression. His words tumble, one thought after another. She is hesitant to say something that might cause her more trouble but says it anyway.

“The propaganda in Russia has become ugly. Our country is now in total darkness. Anyone can now be called a national traitor or a ‘fifth columnist’ just for participating in a rally,” she said in an interview ahead of the court ruling.

Marina Ovsyannikova posted a video message on social media on March 14 calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “crime”. (Video: Marina Ovsyannikova, Photo: Marina Ovsyannikova)

For years, she looked the other way as the crackdowns piled up, taking a good salary from the state telling herself she was doing it for her family. “But you come to the point of no return when it’s beyond the limit of absolute evil. And a normal person can’t take it anymore. You just can’t go on.

That moment came when she woke up to hear that the invasion had begun.

“I was so shocked. I couldn’t eat or sleep. At work, “the atmosphere was very depressing and stressful. I saw these news bulletins all the time. work there.

In the end, she burst onto the national state television news with her anti-war poster in an act of defiance.

“They are lying to you here,” read the poster in Russian. And in English: “No war”.

“I have no regrets and I do not deny any of my words or my actions. I’m glad it sounded out loud,” she said.

Despite the risk of fines and prison sentences, others continue to demonstrate. Over 15,000 people have been arrested since the start of the war.

Anastasia, wearing a jacket with the words “No to war”, was nabbed by riot police earlier this month as she walked towards a small group of protesters in Moscow. She was arrested and fined.

“It really makes me angry,” said Anastasia, who asked that her last name not be used for security reasons. “In addition to anger, I feel a kind of despair, sadness and regret, especially regret that there is nothing good in the future.”

Cars bearing imperial flags and bearing the letter Z, a symbol of support for the war, appeared in Russian towns and villages.

“It’s hard to believe that these people are real and that they actually believe that this military operation is a way to save Russia because none of this is going to do anything good,” she said. declared.

Kirill Martynov, political editor of Novaya Gazeta, was denounced as a traitor and fired recently by two universities where he taught two philosophy courses. A parent had overheard him telling students that civilians were being killed in Ukraine.

Martynov, who later left Russia, fears the purges are just beginning, as social tensions worsen due to the war.

“The Russian authorities and the people who support the war must find someone who is guilty, because when society and the economy collapse, you must find an enemy to take responsibility,” he said. .

“There will be a kind of traitor hunt in the next few months and we will see a lot of criminal prosecutions because they need an explanation of what is happening in Russia and if Russia is so big and Putin is a person so wise, why is life in Russia so bad now,” he added.

But there is a thread of messianic rhetoric from senior Russian officials, pro-Kremlin journalists, religious figures and academics, laying out the mission to rekindle Russian greatness. They despise Western liberalism and applaud conservative, authoritarian orthodoxy.

An article prominently featured on the public news site RIA Novosti by conservative commentator Pyotr Akopov was headlined “The Russia of the Future: Forward to the USSR.” He wrote that “the spirit of Russian history, the spirit of our ancestors gives us a chance not only to atone for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It gives us a chance to fix it through creation, through the rebirth of greater Russia.

Calling for new Russocentric thinking, he argued that Russian intellectuals and oligarchs were mental slaves to the West, which wanted to copy him and reform Russia.

“What does it mean?” tweeted historian Ian Garner, specializing in the study of Russian propaganda. “In short: an uprooting of anyone accused of being ‘non-Russian’ in their thought or their culture.

Olga Irisova, editor of independent media outlet Riddle, said Putin’s call for Russia’s self-purification marked a worrying turn, making it dangerous to oppose the war. (Irisova is outside of Russia and the Riddle website is still working.)

“Even my acquaintances who are still in Russia are afraid to speak out now,” Irisova said. They are even afraid to talk to people about the war because they think other people might report them to the authorities or simply call them traitors.

Irisova said the marking of “traitors” on activists’ doors reinforced the government’s message. “If you don’t agree with us, you’re a minority,” she said. “You should remain silent. And people are afraid. Thousands would emigrate, but most could not leave.

“I don’t see any positive scenario for Russia,” she added. “I see more repressions.”

But one protester, Valetin Belayev, sees a glimmer of hope from his home in Kazan, 810km east of Moscow. “Now Russia is at a crossroads,” he said. “Either we sink into the abyss of a hopeless nightmare, or we can avoid this scenario.”

“We are at a point where history could go in completely different directions,” he continued, “and we all now have a personal responsibility for what the future of our country and the world will be.”