Changes to Russia’s “anti-extremism” laws may mean more extreme censorship
It was 6:30 a.m. on June 16, 2018, when Andrey Shasherin, his wife and 5 year-old son were woken by shouts of “Police, open the door!” coming from outside their apartment in the Siberian city of Barnaul.
When they opened the door, three armed men with face masks pushed their way in, followed by two more in plainclothes. The boy hid under his blanket, crying as he asked what was going on. But no one answered. The men with guns were special forces from Russia’s national guard force. They handcuffed his father and, without any explanation, took him away. Shasherin is now facing up to six years in jail, or compulsory psychiatric treatment.
It sounds like an operation to arrest a violent criminal. In fact, Shasherin — a self-employed builder — had been arrested for posting “memes” on a social media site deemed insulting towards the Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.
He is one of thousands of Russians ensnared by the country’s so-called “anti-extremism” laws because of their online activity, and in some cases literally “jailed for a like.” This Orwellian legislation has a special kind of menace because people charged with “extremism” are immediately placed on a government list of “terrorists and extremists” without any judicial process, which leads them to being blacklisted for jobs and even restricted from using their bank accounts.
Russians from all walks of life are being affected, from builders, to engineers, photographers and students. The ultimate goal, activists say, has been to smother dissent online, the medium that the Kremlin has found hardest to control.
But President Putin has now decided that his online crackdown has gone too far. He recently proposed a partial softening in the way the legislation is enforced, reducing some “crimes” to an administrative offense. The Russian parliament, or Duma, is due to start reviewing the amendments this week. Yet activists fear the outcome will simply be a new kind of “Big Brother” regime — with the changes giving the security services more leeway in how to use the law, therefore leaving Russians even less certain about what will get them into trouble online.
“It was terrifying,” said Shasherin, as he recalled the early morning raid, and being snatched away from his family. The first time he was interrogated, without a lawyer, his courage melted.
“If I refused to sign a confession, they would send me to detention right away. And so in my son’s kindergarten they would know his father is a criminal.” Andrey Shasherin, designated “extremist”
“I was threatened with prison,” he remembered. “They said I could only help myself if I signed a confession. If I refused, I was going to be sent to [pre-trial] detention right away. And so in my son’s kindergarten they would know his father is a criminal.”
Shasherin signed the confession and, for his cooperation, was promised a suspended jail term. But the next day, after talking to his lawyer, he changed his mind and withdrew his signature. The prosecutor ordered him to be sent to a mental institution for a mandatory examination.
The memes that had got him into this legal nightmare included an image with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, making derogatory references to Putin. Shasherin had posted these on Vkontakte, Russia’s biggest social media platform.
He had also uploaded a photograph of Kirill wearing a Swiss Breguet watch with a retail value of $30,000. The original had actually been digitally altered — after an outcry at the Patriarch’s un-priestly spending — but you could still make out a reflection of the watch in the table at which he was seated. Shasherin had posted a version with a mocked-up Jesus holding the Patriarch’s shoulders and asking: “What time is it?” The church leader’s answer was: “Fuck off Jesus.”
Some might laugh, some might find the post offensive, but in Putin’s Russia it was also considered a crime. Shasherin was accused — with no apparent irony — of “discrediting the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
There are four possible counts in the country’s criminal code under which citizens can be charged with “extremism.” They are: “inciting hatred and animosity,” “rehabilitation of Nazism,” “encouraging separatism” and “insulting the feelings of believers.”
Shasherin has been charged with both inciting hatred and insulting the feelings of believers. But what shocked him even more was that his posts were five years old — and until he was arrested he had not heard any complaints about them. He had totally forgotten about the memes, he said, until his interrogator produced them.
Last year, 411 criminal cases were brought against internet users in Russia according to the Agora human rights group, resulting in 48 people being sent to prison. But in total there were 1,500 cases involving so-called “extremist crimes,” according to figures from the Russian prosecutor general — and all the people concerned were placed on the “extremists” list. And while some of the nearly 9,000 people on the “extremist” list may be terrorist suspects, the vast majority are there for a like, a share or a post.
While some of the nearly 9,000 people on the “extremist” list may be terrorist suspects, the vast majority are there for a like, a share or a post.
It is totally arbitrary, said Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer with Agora. “There is no specific definition in the legislation of “extremism,” which gives the police room to define it almost any way they want.” But there’s a clear pattern in the prosecutions for online activity, according to Agora’s figures: most are for posts deemed critical of the government, the church and other key institutions, as well as the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
It’s hard to get any comment from the Russian government on what is going on. But there was a rare statement in July, from a senior official at Center E, the Ministry of Affairs department that oversees anti-terrorist and “extremist” cases.
“We always say that a charge only follows if a suspect intended to commit a crime [of inciting hatred],” said Vladimir Makarov, the deputy head of Center E. “A simple repost or like shouldn’t be a reason for a criminal case”. But there are many cases where people have been prosecuted for just these acts.
With the Kremlin signalling that enforcing these laws matters, police and prosecutors have been under pressure from their bosses in the Ministry of Interior (MVD) to show results. That means hitting targets, Gainutdinov said. “The only reason for many criminal proceedings is MVD and FSB [the domestic intelligence agency] statistics. They must report how successfully they fight extremism.”
Once added to the publicly-available extremist list, people find their life ruined — with many being sacked, and then shunned if they try to approach other employers. Even if they have money, they are not allowed to withdraw more than 10,000 rubles a month (about $147) from their bank account.
Another common theme to this censorship drive is that it has mostly involved users of Vkontakte, according to SOVA, another NGO focusing on human rights. Vkontakte is Russia’s largest social media platform (with around 100 million monthly users) and has a close relationship with the government, via its owner, the internet giant Mail.ru.
But with so many of its users affected, the ultra-loyal Mail.ru has been pushing back, calling for an amnesty for people charged with simply sharing or liking posts online. In short, the crackdown was becoming ridiculous — and helped prompt Putin’s intervention.
There have been signs of a slowdown in prosecutions this year, with a drop in the number of cases for “inciting hatred,” according to police figures. But it’s not clear how much difference this will make for those already caught up in this virtual dragnet.
Daniil Markin, a student photographer, was first placed on the extremist list more than a year ago, when he was 18, for saving memes on his Vkontakte page that were deemed “insulting to believers.” Among them was an image of Jon Snow — who plays one of the main characters in the “Game of Thrones” TV series — depicted as Jesus with the caption “Jon Snow is risen! Risen indeed!”
He wrote about the experience on his Twitter account of being detained, recalling how the police laughed when they first looked through his collection of memes. “It took the heat off,” he said, but then added: “my biggest mistake was to trust the policemen that nothing would happen to me if I signed a confession.” Now he said, he cannot fall asleep each night because he is so scared the security services will return. “Anyone can be in my place in Putin’s Russia, as I found out the hard way,” Markin said.
Spurred by Putin’s call for the laws to be revised, he wants to travel to Moscow to lobby for his case, and has been trying to raise money.
But lawyers for activist groups believe there is a lot of manipulation going on — and that Putin is trying not so much to soften the censorship regime as to make it smarter. He wants to make “inciting hatred” an administrative offense, opening up the possibility of amnesty for those who were previously given jail terms. But other offenses will still be treated the same way, leaving people just as intimidated and wary about expressing their opinions online.
Putin is not so much trying to soften the censorship regime, as to make it smarter.
Under the new law being considered by the Duma, a first offense, such as a post flagged for “inciting hatred,” could result in an administrative penalty, such as a fine or community service. But if someone is charged a second time with a similar offense, they will go straight to jail. “It allows the police always to keep you on a short leash,” said Damir Gainutdinov of Agora.
This spring, Maria Motuznaya was making plans to travel to China, to find work and join her boyfriend there. Her plan was to teach English for a year, and see how things worked out. Also from the Siberian city of Barnaul, she is a film student and an activist with strong views, and she often posted comments on her Vkontakte page about things she read, or shared other posts.
But two days before she was due to go to the Chinese consulate for a visa, masked men burst into her apartment. For a moment, she thought it was some kind of prank — until they took away her phone and searched the room. And then she was taken away for questioning. This summer, she shared what happened online in a series of Twitter posts.
“Hi,” she wrote. “My name is Masha, I am 23 and I am an extremist.” The thread has since been shared and liked thousands of times. In her post, Motuznaya said she had been charged on two counts of extremism for memes she had uploaded to Vkontakte — among them one showing a priest sitting at a table full of food, with the caption “Did you also dream of becoming a businessman in childhood?”
Her interrogation followed a familiar path. She was promised a suspended sentence or community service if she signed a confession, and prison time if she didn’t — a sign of investigators’ desire for quick results.
She felt she had no choice, but she is now on the extremists list and barred from traveling. She can’t get a job, and now even has to use her mother’s bank card to withdraw cash — putting her at risk too. Motuznaya’s boyfriend in China is no longer waiting for her. They broke up, she said. “All my hopes crumbled, I was in a terrible depression.” But when she told her story on Twitter, she said many people applauded her for speaking out, calling her an inspiration.
Putin’s proposed amendments to the law offer scant comfort. On one hand, the changes should mean that the “inciting hatred” charge Motuznaya faces will be handled as an administrative offense. But as she has also been charged with “insulting believers’ feelings,” she will remain a designated extremist. Many other Russians are likely to be trapped in this legal limbo — serving as an intimidating reminder to anyone else thinking of criticizing the government online.
Many Russians who have been declared “extremist” for their internet activity have concluded there is no hope of getting the sanction lifted. Two years ago, Andrey Bubeev, an engineer from Tver, a city just north of Moscow, shared several posts on Vkontakte from pro-Ukrainian groups that were critical of Russia’s seizure of Crimea. That led to two cases against him under the “anti-extremist” legislation, and a two-year prison sentence. When he was released, he fled the country with his wife and young son.
So the anti-extremist legislation is also contributing to a brain drain from Russia, something it can ill afford.
Shasherin is still in Siberia, but has lost all his previous building clients, and now only gets occasional cash work. His wife, Elena Shasherina, a furniture designer, is now the main breadwinner, but she said they are struggling: “My salary is not enough to feed the family and pay the mortgage.”
Everything in their tiny apartment was bought on credit, she said. Her husband’s credit card is blocked — but they are also being hit by penalty charges for missed payments on the card.
But there is no sign of the authorities easing up. After ordering Andrey Shasherin to be examined at a mental hospital, the doctor said he could be sent for compulsory treatment depending on the results. A growing number of Russians deemed to be critical in some way of either officialdom or the official narrative have been sent for psychiatric assessment and treatment — a practice some campaigners have compared to Soviet times, when it was frequently used against dissidents.
“There is no future for me in this country,” said Shasherin. “Cracking down on dissent has started.” He said he had first heard speculation that an amnesty could be granted for some “extremists” back in the summer.
But he said he is not interested. “I am not guilty and I want full rehabilitation.”
Illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya.