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 had sworn while in police custody," Nedvetskaya told RFE/RL's North.Realities, adding that when she went to the 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 held at the facility for at least one month.
Fifty-nine-year-old Olga Nedvetskaya was arrested on March 13 in the center of the city, the capital of the Russian exclave, at a small protest against Russia's war against Ukraine. At the demonstration, which was billed as a spontaneous gathering to feed the pigeons, she sang and danced to Ukrainian folk songs.
"She is an absolutely normal person," said local activist Lyudmila Zelinskaya, who was at the same protest. "It is an absurd situation when an unarmed person who is not making any 'extremist' statements or insulting the armed forces is nonetheless detained. She was 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 increasingly commonplace across Russia as the Kremlin implements a harsh crackdown on any dissent regarding the war in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin eggs on his supporters by ranting 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" that was adopted on March 4, said local rights lawyer Maria Bontsler.
"They just haven't gotten around to me yet," Bontsler said. "I think the way they have treated Olga is just one of their methods of terrorizing people."
'Giant Steps Toward A Harsh Dictatorship'
On March 20, Marina Savvateyeva, a liberal activist and lawyer in the Siberian city of Chita, emerged from 10 days in jail after being convicted of the administrative offense of "popularizing" Nazi symbols.
Her crime was reposting a repost of a social media post by Chita professor and historian Oleg Kuznetsov that noted an uncanny similarity between the Kremlin's pro-war symbol -- a stylized Latin letter Z -- and the official insignia of the 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 a part of the system. Nonetheless, she was sentenced to three days in jail," also for purportedly promoting Nazi symbols.
"And Kuznetsov himself deleted his post from Facebook on March 5," she said.
Savvateyeva counts herself lucky that she made her repost before the new statute on "discrediting the armed forces" was adopted, along with a similar felony criminal law that calls for up to 15 years in prison.
"If those changes were in force, I would still be sitting in pretrial detention," she said. "They would have put me in jail right away and for a long time."
"We are moving in giant steps toward a harsh dictatorship," she added.
The Apotheosis Protest
On March 6, in the center of the Siberian city of Tomsk, local resident Stanislav Karmakskikh was arrested at a small demonstration against the war.
"Through a megaphone, the police began trying to scare us," he told RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities. "They claimed we were 'discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.'"
Karmakskikh was holding a print of a 19th-century painting by Vasily Vereshchagin called The Apotheosis Of War. The painting shows vultures circling over a vast pile of sun-bleached skulls against a background of the Central Asian steppe that eerily reproduces the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
"I went up to the police officers myself," Karmakskikh recalled. "I showed them Vereshchagin's picture and said, "Guys, this is our future if we don't stop.' They looked at one another. And then one guy said: 'Well, should we take him? Let's take him.' And they took me. In all, 20 of us were arrested."
All of them 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 expressed silent support for the illegal goals of the event," which the court had earlier ruled was intended to "form a negative opinion…among the population of Tomsk regarding the special military operation of the Russian armed forces in defense of the interests of Russia and its citizens in support 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 prosecution under the much harsher felony charge.
'An Idiotic Excuse To Ruin People's Lives'
At about 7 a.m. on March 18, security forces in the northwestern city of Pskov began conducting searches of the offices and residences of several prominent local politicians and journalists and their relatives. Among those targeted were local Yaboloko party coordinator Lev Shlosberg, municipal lawmaker Nikolai Kuzmin, the parents of Pskovskaya Gubernia newspaper Editor in Chief 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 bureau, Center E, were investigating a case of alleged slander against Pskov Oblast Governor Mikhail Vedernikov, said human rights lawyer Tatyana Martynova. The case was provoked by an anonymous Telegram post that criticized Vedernikov's policies toward the media and the publication on Vedernikov's Instagram account of reports about local soldiers killed in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"There were about 10 of them…," recalled Prokopyeva in an interview with North.Realities. "They broke in in masks. Broke open the door…. They flew in shouting, 'On the floor!' They threw me on the floor and slapped on some handcuffs. They grabbed the telephone out of my hand…looking for something…. They didn't even tell me at first what was the reason for the search.
"I didn't know anything about that stupid Telegram channel that they are using as a pretext for the searches," she continued. "It is just an idiotic excuse to ruin people's lives. They came to all of us as if working from a list -- politicians, activists. It is our security apparatus reacting to Putin's order to seek out national traitors."
Librarian Novikova was feeding breakfast to her two children when four security officers arrived.
"I wanted to call a lawyer, but they wouldn't let me," she said. "Of course, this is just pressure on me because I am one of the few people in Pskov who have publicly stated opposition to the 'special operation.' I participated in one-person pickets. They were legal at the time.
"Now they are cleaning out the information space so that no one can ever say anything," Novikova added. "Now I have no means of communication. I can't get on social media. There is nowhere where I can say what I think about Russia's policies. But my position is the same. I didn't start thinking that the 'special operation' is super just because they took away my computer and telephone."
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 regarding the population of Russia.' They are moving in parallel and bolstering one another. I think the repressions are just going to get worse.
"They are going to look for people to blame," he added. "They are going to look for a 'fifth column,' like Putin said when he was talking about 'national traitors.' This is practically a carte blanche for the security forces to step up the work that they have already begun."
"National traitors," Kolesnikov concluded, has become the modern-day equivalent of the fatal label "enemy of the people" from the darkest days of dictator Josef Stalin's rule.
According to OVD-Info, a civic group that monitors political repression, more than 15,000 people have been detained in Russia for anti-war activity since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.