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'Discrediting' The Armed Forces: The Russians Caught Up In A Draconian Law 

Local Pskov lawmaker Nikolai Kuzmin is just one of a growing number of people across Russia who have fallen afoul of new laws that criminalize virtually all criticism of the war in Ukraine. (file photo)

PETROZAVODSK, Russia -- For Tatyana Kuznetsova, the decision to criticize her country’s war in Ukraine -- what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” –was a simple one: She has relatives in the Donetsk region, a principal target of Russia’s offensive, and she is very worried about them.

“We call them up almost every day; they’re eyewitnesses to all this,” she said by telephone from the northwest Russian town of Lakhdenpokhya, near the Finnish border. “I feel badly for the people who have to sleep under the stairs. And while we’re talking, it’s constantly: ‘Air raid, air raid!’ People have to leave everything and run…. And with this in mind, these emotions, I spoke out.”

On February 25, the day after the invasion began, Kuznetsova, 52, posted a comment in a local chatroom on VKontakte, the Russian social media giant, criticizing the war. A couple of weeks later, on March 12, in another online chatroom, she commented that, if she had a son or husband, she would not have sent them to Ukraine, and she condemned sending Russian troops into a neighboring state.

The result? On May 23, a local court fined Kuznetsova 30,000 rubles ($450) for discrediting the Russian armed forces.

“When I was called to the prosecutor's office, I was shocked. I didn’t commit any crime,” she told North Realities. “I had no idea what ‘discrediting the Russian Army’ was. Out of the corner of my eye, of course, I heard about this law, but didn’t think too much about it.”

Tatyana Kuznetsova
Tatyana Kuznetsova

Kuznetsova is one of a growing number of people across Russia who have fallen afoul of new Russian laws that criminalize virtually all criticism of and independent reporting on the war in Ukraine, now in its fourth month with no end in sight.

The two laws adopted on March 4, just eight days after President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion, make it illegal to spread what the state deems “false information” about the Russian military and its activities. The measures also criminalize protesting the war, or supporting Western sanctions imposed in response to the offensive against Ukraine. In some cases, the maximum penalty is 15 years in prison.

At least 1,938 cases of “discrediting the armed forces” had been opened by Russian authorities as of mid-May, according to OVD-Info, a watchdog group that monitors protests, police action, and prosecutions.

In Karelia, a sprawling northern region that borders Finland, about two dozen such cases have been investigated by authorities, according to a regional police official who spoke to a North.Realties correspondent on condition of anonymity. Some of the accused have been fined, like Kuznetsova, while other cases are still being processed.

Kuznetsova’s defense lawyer said that her comments were only value judgements -- her opinions -- and that according to Russian law, she cannot be punished for them.

“There were no calls [for action], no discrediting,” Maria Zyryanova said in an interview. “She expressed her opinion, and there were no negative consequences as a result of her actions.”

Zyryanova said she planned to appeal the fine, which Kuznetsova, who is disabled and lives on a small monthly pension, said would be crushing.

Regardless, though, Kuznetsova said she has learned her lesson: she will now only express her opinion in a narrow circle of friends.

'It's Just A Job'

In Karelia’s regional capital, Petrozavodsk, one of those who have been prosecuted and are now awaiting trial on charges of discrediting the military is Vladimir Malegin, a well-known activist who regularly stands alone in the city’s center holding signs in protest at the government or its policies.

He said he had written several posts criticizing the Ukraine war.

Activist Vladimir Malegin
Activist Vladimir Malegin

“In one of them I wrote: ‘the animal anger with which the small seaside town of Mariupol is being bombed with super-heavy bombs, is surprising,’” he said, referring to the Ukrainian port that has been destroyed by Russian bombardments and where thousands have been killed. “The police said that this would be considered discrediting the armed forces.”

On May 24, he was issued a criminal warrant.

Sergei Filenko, a carpenter, writer, and local activist, has also been hit with a fine -- his second in as many months. In April, he became the first person in Karelia to be punished for violating the law on discrediting the armed forces.

A year earlier, in April 2021, he gained a measure of fame when he was arrested while attending a protest in Petrozavodsk. As he was being carried to a police wagon by four riot officers, he recited a poem by Rudyard Kipling out loud, a feat captured on video.

Sergei Filenko
Sergei Filenko

In the new charges dated May 24, Filenko said the police officers pointed to his posts on VK which he said he deleted long ago. In the posts, he said he spoke out against the war in Ukraine and called the Russian soldiers occupiers.

“The [police] captain who drew up the warrant has materials on a half dozen other residents of Petrozavodsk. He shuffled their papers right in front of me,” Filenko said. “So I ask him: ‘So, do you catch normal criminals?’ And he replied: ‘It’s just a job.’”

“They are not bad people. Polite, curious,” he said.

Filenko said he had no intention of paying the fine.

'I Didn't Mean To Discredit'

In Kaliningrad, the small Baltic Sea exclave that is home to several military installations, authorities have aggressively prosecuted “discrediting the military” cases.

Anna Boikova, a veteran activist, has been hit twice with criminal warrants: once for organizing an unauthorized public event.

The other was for forwarding a message -- from the Telegram channel Feminist Anti-War Resistance -- to a group of 70 people.

The text described how anti-war activists could mark Victory Day, Russia’s May 9 holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The message suggested that people wear black clothes outside at a certain time or craft homemade memorials dedicated to Ukrainians in their yards. The message also called the Russian Army “occupiers” and referred to the so-called “special military operation" as a war crime.

Anna Boikova
Anna Boikova

Boikova forwarded the message in a Telegram chat, thinking that there were no strangers among the recipients. It turned out that a military officer was among the group, she said.

She told North.Realities that she confronted the police officer who issued the warrant to her, asking him: “’Do you think that making a repost constitutes some sort of organization?’”

“He answered, ‘Yes,” she said. “It turns out that, according to the policeman’s logic, if his wife even just once sends information about a New Year's party to her girlfriends in a conversation on a kindergarten website, then she has organized it.”

She said she broke no law, arguing that the Russian Constitution give her the right to share her opinion.

“I didn’t mean to discredit, I just wanted to discuss how to express grief,” she said.

During the May 26 hearing in a Kaliningrad district court, Boikova told the court that in Karelia, where she previously lived, she had organized various public protests and demonstrations in the past, and police there had never had complaints against her.

She said that prompted a question from a prosecutor in the court hearing, who said: “Yeah, so this is not the first time for you?!"

“What does ‘not the first time’ mean?” Boikova said she told the court. “You mean is this the first time I've broken the law?”

Elsewhere in Russia, prominent political activists have also been hit with warrants and fines under the “discrediting the military” law, including veteran opposition politician Lev Shlosberg and his wife, Zhanna.

In the northwestern city of Pskov, home to a major paratrooper unit whose members are actively involved in the Ukraine war, three people have been fined 30,000 rubles (US$450).

Sergei Overkin, who was accused of "posting and publicly demonstrating information in the form of photographs and video files with comments on them," was fined 32,000 rubles.

Another Pskov man, Dmitry Salnikov, was fined 15,000 rubles, for “placing on the windshield of his car a paper poster with an inscription discrediting the tasks of using the armed forces,” according to a court press release seen by North Realities.

The poster “was clearly visible to an indefinite circle of people, thereby demonstrating it to others" it said.

Nikolai Kuzmin, a local Pskov lawmaker, was fined 30,000 rubles for a post on VKontakte that applauded the action of Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer on the state-run Channel One who interrupted a live broadcast with a poster saying, "You are being lied to."

Kuzmin posted a comment on the video that said: "A very brave woman."

“The court considered this to be discrediting,” Kuzmin told North.Realities. “It is noteworthy that the judge is very young, in her first year of work. I mean, Putin's power will end in her lifetime, and with such decisions on the so-called discreditation, her career as a judge may also end.”

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by RFE/RL’s North.Realities