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You Can't Do That Here: Nine Things That Can Get You Into Trouble In Putin's Russia


A Moscow court has just handed down a four-year suspended sentence to Ukrainian librarian Natalya Sharina for "inciting ethnic hatred."

A Moscow court has handed Natalya Sharina, the former director of the city's Ukrainian library, a four-year suspended prison sentence for "inciting ethnic hatred" because some of the books in her library's collection were purportedly banned as "extremist."

Such run-ins with the law are far from rare in President Vladimir Putin's Russia, where vague laws such as those against extremism or against "insulting the feelings of religious believers" leave prosecutors and judges considerable leeway for cracking down.

RFE/RL has compiled a small collection of recent cases that demonstrate some of the more interesting ways Russians are finding themselves in trouble with the law.

Writing Letters To Putin

Russian opposition activist Darya Kulakova
Russian opposition activist Darya Kulakova

On May 9, 23-year-old Darya Kulakova finished a 10-day jail sentence for organizing a letter-writing campaign urging Putin not to seek a fourth term as president. She was charged with resisting a police order when she tried to hand in the letters at Putin's representative office in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan.

Painting Easter Eggs

Russian schoolteacher Yelena Blinova (bottom right) landed in hot water when she signaled support for an opposition blogger. (file photo)
Russian schoolteacher Yelena Blinova (bottom right) landed in hot water when she signaled support for an opposition blogger. (file photo)

In April, a court in the Republic of Chuvashia fined former nursery-school teacher Yelena Blinova 20,000 rubles ($350) for decorating about a dozen Easter eggs with the slogan "Freedom for Maltsev" to signal her support for popular blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, an opposition activist who faces charges of attacking a police officer at a protest in Moscow in March.

The Chuvash Supreme Court on June 1 reduced that fine to 10,000 rubles, but confirmed Blinova's conviction for participating in an illegal demonstration.

Blinova argued that, because she painted the eggs in a section of a public park that has been reserved by authorities as a free-speech zone, she didn't violate any laws. Because the court disagreed, 11 other protesters who were with her at the time could also face charges.

Writing Poetry

Russian poet and teacher Alexander Byvshev (file photo)
Russian poet and teacher Alexander Byvshev (file photo)

​​Even Russia's rich tradition of writing poetry can get a person into trouble these days. In 2015, Oryol teacher Aleksandr Byvshev was convicted of "inciting ethnic hatred" for a poem he wrote called To Ukrainian Patriots. He was fired from his teaching job and sentenced to 300 hours of community service.

In January, prosecutors announced a new investigation of Byshev for a poem he wrote about Soviet-era dissident poet and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky that investigators alleged could have "extremist connotations.

Combating Child Abuse

Kindergarten teacher Yevgenia Chudnovets (composite photo)
Kindergarten teacher Yevgenia Chudnovets (composite photo)

​Kindergarten teacher Yevgenia Chudnovets was sentenced in the Kurgan region in November 2016 to five months in jail for reposting a child-abuse video aimed at raising awareness of what she argued was a serious social issue.

The Russian Supreme Court ordered the case reviewed and, on March 6, the court overturned its conviction and ordered Chudnovets released with just weeks left in her sentence.

The reposting of the video in question helped the authorities to catch two adults who were themselves convicted of child abuse and sentenced to three and six years in prison.

Playing Pokemon

In a case that made international headlines, Yekaterinburg-based blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky was convicted in May of "inciting hatred" and "insulting the feelings of religious believers" for posting videos online, including one showing him playing the popular game Pokemon Go in a church. He was given a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence. The court found that several of his videos offended religious believers by mocking organized religion and denying the divinity of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad.

Russia's controversial 2013 law on insulting the feelings of religious believers was at the heart of a case in Stavropol in 2015. A man named Viktor Krasnov was tried under the law for posting the words "there is no God" in an online discussion that he was having on the social-media site VKontakte. He spent a month in a psychiatric hospital undergoing a court-ordered evaluation. When the case finally came to trial, none of the people whose feelings were allegedly insulted agreed to come to the hearing. The case was finally dropped in 2017 when the statute of limitations expired.

Posting Cool Photos

In February 2015, armed police came to the apartment of Polina Petruseva in Smolensk and arrested her. Her crime was reposting a historical photograph showing the building where she lived as it looked during the two years that the city was occupied by Nazi Germans during World War II.

Petruseva was fined 1,000 rubles ($18) because the photo showed a Nazi flag and several Nazis officers in uniform. Her crime was "disseminating Nazi insignias.

Posting About Your Previous Cases

Russian opposition activist Dmitry Semenov
Russian opposition activist Dmitry Semenov

In March, a court in Cheboksary, Chuvashia, convicted opposition activist Dmitry Semyonov of the "mass distribution of extremist materials" for reposting a news report about his earlier conviction for reposting "extremist" content. He was fined 150,000 rubles ($250), but the court immediately amnestied him, clearing the conviction from his record.

In March, a court in Novocheboksarsk, also in Chuvashia, convicted Dmitry Pankov of "extremism" for posting an article about how a previous accusation of distributing extremist material against him had been dismissed.

Both the Semyonov and Pankov cases involved the posting of a 2013 photograph showing then-St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, who is now a State Duma deputy, wearing a shirt bearing an Orthodox slogan that has been ruled extremist.

Criticizing Things

Chechen reporter Zhalaudi Geriyev was sentenced to three years in prison in 2016. (file photo)
Chechen reporter Zhalaudi Geriyev was sentenced to three years in prison in 2016. (file photo)

There have been a large number of cases involving the criticism of things. In October 2016, Daghestani imam Magmednabi Magomedov was sentenced to five years in prison for "inciting hatred" after he visited a local police station and demanded the release of several locals whom he believed to be wrongly held.

In September 2016, Chechen journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev was sentenced to three years in prison for marijuana possession, a charge he denied. Russian and international activists have said he was punished for his critical writing about Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

In December 2016, a Tyumen region court sentenced Aleksei Kungurov to 2 1/2 years in prison for "publicly justifying terrorism" for a blog post he wrote criticizing Russia's intervention in the war in Syria.

In 2011, former Interior Ministry Major Igor Matveyev was convicted in Vladivostok of "abuse of office" and sentenced to four years in prison for posting a video in which he claimed that Interior Ministry troops in the Far East were being given dog food to eat.

Although investigators later justified his claim, he served his entire sentence and was released in 2016.

Trashing An Airport

Officials said damage worth millions of rubles was done when a man drove his car hundreds of meters through Tatarstan's international airport in Kazan.
Officials said damage worth millions of rubles was done when a man drove his car hundreds of meters through Tatarstan's international airport in Kazan.

We'll end this list with a case that is a little bit different. In December 2016, a viral video showed a driver smashing into an airport terminal in Kazan, and driving through it for hundreds of meters. The man caused 6 million rubles ($100,000) in damages and injured several airport security officials.

According to police reports, the driver was under the influence of drugs and 3.9 grams of marijuana were found in the vehicle at the time. Yet just two days after the incident, a district court sentenced the man -- whose name, for some reason, has never been released -- to just 15 days of administrative detention on charges of violating traffic rules, endangerment, and drug-trafficking.

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