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The Whole Hog: New Russian Law Aims To Put Kremlin's Critics To Pasture

"Vladimir Vladimirovich" on the grill
"Vladimir Vladimirovich" on the grill

MOSCOW -- In the village of Verkhovazhye, in Russia's north, Yury Shadrin keeps a modest homestead. Oinking in his pigsty are the namesakes of Russian officials.

Dima Rogozin, a skinny piglet with black spots, is named after the head of space agency Roskosmos; Valya Matviyenko, the other, after the chairwoman of Russia's Federation Council.

A hog christened with President Vladimir Putin's patronymic, Vladimirovich, was eaten weeks ago. "Patriarch Kirill" suffered the same fate. Shadrin, who doles out dark humor like an inveterate dissident, says the names make the swine easier to butcher.

"You grow close to them," he told RFE/RL over the phone. "But when you give them such names, it's less of a shame to stick the knife in."

Shadrin, needless to say, is no fan of the Kremlin.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in the wake of a referendum the West declared a sham, he has relentlessly criticized its leadership.

On June 7, he may finally be made to pay.

The 44-year-old farmer is due in court to face charges under new legislation, signed by Putin on March 18, that forbids the spread of language expressing disrespect toward public officials, state organs, and symbols. He faces a fine of up to $1,500.

On May 3, Shadrin had taken to VK, Russia's Facebook equivalent, to write: "Putin is a real f***wit, not an incredible one." Ten days later, police came to his home with a summons.

The post, which has since been removed, was among hundreds by Russian web users involved in an Internet flash mob to express solidarity with Yury Kartyzhev, an unemployed Russian carpenter who was fined $470 in April for describing Putin as an "incredible f***wit."

Kartyzhev's case soon paved the way for others, fueling a clampdown that is bringing new charges almost daily.

On May 31, a 25-year-old blogger was detained in the Moscow region in connection with a mural calling Russia's Federal Security Service a "bitch," which appeared on the facade of a building in Russia-annexed Crimea.

On June 2, police in Chita launched a search for the author of graffiti drawn on a strip of asphalt in the city center on May 31 that read: "Putin is a thief!!!"

Passive observers are susceptible, too. On May 31, a man in Yaroslavl who photographed graffiti calling Putin a "faggot" was fined $460.

"They've stolen everything and taken it out of the country, and now they say we can't criticize them?" Kartyzhev told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from his home in the Novgorod region.

Yury Shadrin: "You grow close to [the pigs]. But when you give them such names, it's less of a shame to stick the knife in."
Yury Shadrin: "You grow close to [the pigs]. But when you give them such names, it's less of a shame to stick the knife in."

"Our constitution defends freedom of speech. And what's happening in reality? The ravens are coming after us," he said, using a popular name for the black cars in which Stalin's secret police would take away political prisoners from their homes at night.

A survey carried out in April by the independent Levada Center found that 64 percent of Russians see the new law as an effort to ban criticism of the government, amid widespread allegations of corruption. Only 23 percent of those polled said they support it.

Pavel Chikov, the head of rights group Agora, has described the legislation as "atavism from past epochs."

Two of Yury Shadrin's pigs: Dima Rogozin and Valya Matviyenko
Two of Yury Shadrin's pigs: Dima Rogozin and Valya Matviyenko

"This law, first and foremost, defends the country's president. It's clear someone from his circle initiated this defense of his good name," he told Business Online. "In my view, in the age of computer technology, the effect will be reversed: Forbidden material will immediately spread on social media. And our archaic lawmakers don't take that into account."

If Kartyzhev and Shadrin are any indication, critics of the Russian government don't seem deterred. Both men said they would have gone ahead with their social-media posts even if they'd known a fine was coming, though Shadrin said he would have written his differently.

In Verkhovazhye, Shadrin says the patriotic euphoria that followed Crimea's annexation has faded, replaced in some quarters by disillusionment with Moscow's promises and anger over controversial policies like a recent hike in the retirement age.

When he posted images to VK on May 27 of his two new pigs, mentioning the names he'd given them, people were quick to pick up on the joke.

"No need to offend swine with the names of animals," one person wrote.

Another went further.

"Yury, you'd do better to butcher those who they're named after. People would remember you fondly."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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