On March 14, Maria Nedvetskaya was informed by police in the western Russian city of Kaliningrad that her mother had been taken to a local psychiatric hospital.
“Supposedly she swore while in police custody,” Nedvetskaya told RFE/RL’s North.Realities, adding that when she went to hospital she was not allowed to see her mother. , supposedly because of anti-COVID restrictions. Instead, hospital officials told her that her mother would be detained at the facility for at least a month.
Olga Nedvetskaya, 59, was arrested on March 13 in the center of the city, the capital of the Russian enclave, during a small demonstration against Russia’s war against Ukraine. At the protest, billed as a spontaneous gathering to feed the pigeons, she sang and danced to Ukrainian folk songs.
“He’s a completely normal person,” said local activist Lyudmila Zelinskaya, who was taking part in the same protest. “It’s an absurd situation that an unarmed person who doesn’t make ‘extremist’ statements or insult the armed forces is still being detained. They were just singing songs from our childhood. It was ridiculous to detain her and even worse to send her to a psychiatric hospital.We are all concerned.This is clearly punitive psychiatric treatment.
Stories like Olga Nedvetskaya’s are becoming more common across Russia as the Kremlin implements a harsh crackdown on any dissent over the war in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin lashes out at his supporters. declaiming against “scum and traitors” and urging Russians to “spit them out like a fly that has accidentally flown into their mouths.”
In Kaliningrad alone, there are currently 58 active cases under the administrative statute against “discrediting the armed forces” which was passed on March 4, local rights lawyer Maria Bontsler said.
“They just haven’t contacted me yet,” Bontsler said. “I think the way they treated Olga is just one of their methods of terrorizing people.”
“Giant steps towards a harsh dictatorship”
On March 20, Marina Savvateyeva, a liberal activist and lawyer from the Siberian town of Chita, was released from 10 days in prison after being found guilty of the administrative offense of “popularizing” Nazi symbols.
His crime was to repost a social media post by Chita professor and historian Oleg Kuznetsov which noted an eerie similarity between the Kremlin’s pro-war symbol – a stylized Latin letter Z – and the official insignia of the Kremlin. 4th Motorized Police Division of the Nazi SS during World War II.
“I didn’t even repost Kuznetsov himself,” Savvateyeva told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. “I reposted a very well-known person in Chita. She was even a former regional minister, that is, a person who is politically absolutely loyal to the regime and part of the system. Nevertheless, she was sentenced to three days in prison,” also for allegedly promoting Nazi symbols.
“And Kuznetsov himself deleted his post from Facebook on March 5,” she said.
Savvateyeva considers herself lucky to have made her publication before the adoption of the new law on the “discrediting of the armed forces”, as well as a similar criminal law which provides for up to 15 years in prison.
“If these changes were in effect, I would still be on remand,” she said. “They would have put me in jail right away and for a long time.”
“We are moving by leaps and bounds towards a harsh dictatorship,” she added.
The protest against the apotheosis
On March 6, in the center of the Siberian city of Tomsk, local resident Stanislav Karmakskikh was arrested during a small protest against the war.
“Through a megaphone, the police started trying to scare us,” he told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. “They claimed that we were ‘discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation’.”
Karmakskikh was holding a copy of a 19th century painting by Vasily Vereshchagin titled The Apotheosis of War. The painting shows vultures circling a vast pile of sun-bleached skulls against a Central Asian steppe backdrop that eerily replicates the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“I went to the police myself,” Karmakskikh recalled. “I showed them Vereshchagin’s photo and said, ‘Guys, this is our future if we don’t stop. They looked at each other. And then a guy said, ‘Well, should we take it? Let’s take it. And they took me away. In all, 20 of us were arrested.”
All were charged under the new administrative statute. Karmakskikh was fined 45,000 rubles ($420). The judge ruled that he “in the presence of a group of citizens had expressed silent support for the illegal aims of the event,” which the court said was aimed at “forming a negative opinion…among the population of Tomsk regarding the special army operation of the Russian armed forces for the defense of the interests of Russia and its citizens in favor of international peace and security”.
In Tomsk, 24 people have already been convicted under the new statute, while another eight cases are pending. Two local residents are facing criminal charges under the much more severe felony charge.
“A silly excuse to ruin people’s lives”
Around 7 a.m. on March 18, security forces in the northwestern city of Pskov began raiding the offices and residences of several prominent local politicians and journalists and their relatives. Among those targeted were local Yaboloko party coordinator Lev Shlosberg, city legislator Nikolai Kuzmin, parents of Pskovskaya Gubernia newspaper editor Denis Kamalyagin, librarian Yekaterina Novikova and RFE/RL North.Realities editor and journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva.
Authorities from the regional office of the Interior Ministry’s anti-extremism office, Center E, were investigating an alleged defamation case against Pskov Oblast Governor Mikhail Vedernikov, human rights lawyer Tatyana Martynova said. The case was sparked by an anonymous Telegram message that criticized Vedernikov’s policies towards the media and the posting on Vedernikov’s Instagram account of reports of local soldiers killed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“There were about 10…” Prokopyeva recalled in an interview with North.Realities. “They entered masked. They opened the door… They came in shouting: ‘Down!’ They threw me on the ground and put me in handcuffs. They snatched the phone from my hands… looking for something… They didn’t even tell me at first what the reason for the search was.
“I didn’t know anything about this stupid Telegram channel that they use as a pretext for the searches,” she continued. “It’s just a silly excuse to ruin people’s lives. They came to all of us as if they were working from a list – politicians, activists. It’s our security apparatus reacting to the crisis. Putin’s order to search for national traitors.”
Librarian Novikova was feeding her two children breakfast when four security guards arrived.
“I wanted to call a lawyer, but they wouldn’t let me,” she said. “Of course, it’s just pressure on me because I’m one of the few people in Pskov who publicly declared my opposition to the ‘special operation’. I participated in individual pickets, it was legal at the time.
“Now they are cleaning up the information space so that no one can ever say anything,” Novikova added. “Now I have no means of communication. I cannot access social media. There is nowhere where I can say what I think about the politics of Russia. But my position is the same. I didn’t start thinking Special Ops’ is great just because they took my computer and my phone.”
Stalin’s “Enemy of the People”
Political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center told Current Time that repression in Russia is “already accelerating.” Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
“We actually have two fronts,” Kolesnikov said. “One front is called a ‘special military operation outside the borders of Russia’. The other is called a ‘special security operation concerning the population of Russia’. They go in parallel and reinforce each other, I think. repression will get worse.
“They are going to look for culprits,” he added. “They’re going for a ‘fifth column’, as Putin said when he was talking about ‘national traitors’. It’s practically carte blanche to the security forces to speed up the work they’ve already started.”
“National traitors,” Kolesnikov concluded, have become the modern equivalent of the fatal “enemy of the people” label from the darkest days of dictator Josef Stalin’s regime.
According to OVD-Infoa civic group that monitors political repression, more than 15,000 people have been detained in Russia for anti-war activities since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.