VOLOGDA, Russia -- Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s military into Ukraine in late February, Vladimir Rumyantsev began posting and even broadcasting news from independent media about the invasion from his apartment, highlighting many of the atrocities Russian troops were alleged to have committed.
Rumyantsev, who lives in Vologda some 500 kilometers north of Moscow, says he is no admirer of Putin or his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He says he began his posts and broadcasts because Russians needed independent information -- much of which contradicts the official narrative -- “to evaluate the actions of the authorities.”
The authorities didn’t agree. Like others before him, Rumyantsev has been targeted for his anti-war views. A court found him guilty of spreading “false information” about the Russian Army and sentenced him to three years in a penal colony.
Rumyantsev denies any wrongdoing and vows to appeal the court decision.
In early March, days after Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, Putin signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.
On May 30, a court in Russia’s Far East handed down the country’s first guilty verdict for spreading “fake news” on the war in Ukraine.
“Today, Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. The authorities crack down on critical media, harass peaceful protesters, engage in smear campaigns against independent groups, and stifle them with fines. Foreign organizations are increasingly banned as “undesirable,” and Russian nationals and organizations are penalized for supposed involvement with them,” Human Right Watch has said.
On December 22, the Vologda Municipal Court issued its guilty verdict against Rumyantsev for allegedly disseminating “deliberately false information about the Russian Armed Forces,” and sentenced him to three years in a penal colony.
According to the court, Rumyantsev posted six videos between March 18 and June 22 on his VKontakte page containing what the court ruled was “false information” that “members of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine, rob, kill, and rape civilians, destroy hospitals, maternity hospitals, schools, and kindergartens.”
'I Do Not Admit My Guilt'
At the time of the ruling, Rumyantsev had already spent five months in pretrial detention. He denied any wrongdoing, saying he just wanted to get information to people.
“In order to evaluate the actions of the authorities, a person needs information, and not just official. As for the official version, life has already taught me not to trust it. I do not admit my guilt,” Rumyantsev told the court.
The court also ruled that between April 7 and April 13 Rumyantsev had broadcast on radio from his apartment in Vologda more allegedly false information about Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine, including news about the rape of school-aged girls.
Rumyantsev was a “man of the proletariat,” according to his lawyer, Sergei Tikhonov, who said his client had worked several different blue-collar jobs over the years in Vologda, from trolleybus driver to the assembly line of a machine-tool factory. His last job was as a stoker, tending furnaces at local enterprises. He was an exemplary employee, who didn’t drink or smoke, and always showed up to work on time, according to Tikhonov, who said his client will appeal the ruling.
Over the years in his free time, Rumyantsev began to dabble in ham radio. He bought low-power FM transmitters and eventually launched his own radio show from his high-rise apartment -- Radio Vovan -- as he jokingly called it.
Much of that airtime was devoted to broadcasting music, from classical to pop, nearly all of it downloaded from old Soviet archives, according to Tikhonov.
The signal was never strong, probably reaching no further than the neighboring apartment buildings where Rumyantsev lives.
Rumyantsev changed his all-music format after February 24, when Putin launched what has become the largest conventional conflict in Europe since World War II.
Rumyantsev scooped up and rebroadcast audio tracks from independent and opposition Russian bloggers and journalists, including from Meduza, and Ekho Moskvy, both long in the crosshairs of the Kremlin’s campaign against independent media.
The Latvia-based independent Meduza outlet was designated as a foreign agent by the Russian government in April 2021, a move that required it to label itself as such.
Ekho Moskvy, which first aired on August 22, 1990, in Moscow, announced on March 3 that it was shutting down amid moves by the government to restrict its outreach.
Who was tuning in was unclear, but it appears that among his listeners was the local branch of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
By early April, his broadcast equipment was confiscated, Tikhonov said.
“They came to Vladimir with a search warrant and seized all the transmitters. He was not arrested but he was told to stop broadcasting all these opposition materials. He said that he would be ashamed, as if he had chickened out, if he stopped doing this,” Tikhonov explained.
Rumyantsev was later interrogated by the FSB, after which he posted a statement, all in caps, on VKontakte, which is known as VK and is Russia’s largest social-media company, stating that he believed that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were a violation of international law and a war crime as well as genocide.
The FSB also discovered that, in addition to his radio broadcast activities, Rumyantsev was also posting anti-war videos on his VKontakte page, which had no more than 20 followers in the early days of the invasion.
On July 12, Rumyantsev was detained by police for allegedly spreading information to discredit Russia’s armed forces and a criminal probe was launched.
Among other things, the investigation looked at material posted and broadcast by Rumyantsev about Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol.
The cities of Bucha and Irpin in the Kyiv region were both heavily damaged during the brief but brutal occupation by Russian forces at the start of their invasion of Ukraine.
Mariupol was turned to rubble by Russian bombing, and the precise number of civilian fatalities is still unknown, with estimates in the thousands.
During his interrogation, Rumyantsev shared his less-than-sympathetic views on Putin, the transcript of which was read out in court during his trial.
“I am strongly opposed to the current government of the Russian Federation, including President Putin V.V. (Vladimir Vladimirovich). I believe that he has been in power for a very long time…and lives not in the real world, but in illusions,” Rumyantsev said before slamming Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine, where “before the invasion of Russia, no one killed anyone there and everything was calm.”
In court, Rumyantsev freely admitted to posting and broadcasting anti-war materials, but said he didn’t feel his actions were criminal.
During the trial, the prosecutor had demanded Rumyantsev be handed a six-year prison term, pointing to his other opposition activities, including taking part in anti-war picketing, earning fines of 60,000 rubles, and supporting the imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
Rumyantsev’s activities and opinions were always something his brother Sergei struggled to understand.
“I told him that such activity will not lead to good, that it is a criminal offense. In the spring we talked, but we didn’t find any common ground,” Sergei Rumyantsev said. “He is always in eternal opposition to the authorities; he has his own opinion on everything going on in the country. I don't know why he believes these people and doesn't believe the government point of view. He believes Navalny and others.... Then he deleted me and my wife from friends on social media.”
Despite their differences, Sergei backed his brother during his trial and delivered packages to him at the pretrial detention center.
On the day the court delivered its verdict, OVD-Info, a Russian NGO that monitors police arrests nationwide, published a letter from Rumyantsev in which he spoke of his past and the reasons why he started his modest micro radio station.
He mentioned Moscow 2042, the 1987 dystopian novel by the famed satirist and former Soviet dissident Vladimir Voinovich in which the country is ruled by a "Communist Party Of State Security, " which combines elements of the Soviet Communist Party, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the KGB secret police.
“I didn't expect it to become a reality," Rumyantsev said.