New laws aim to crush even mild forms of protest in Russia

In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Marat Grachev and his staff at his computer repair store in Moscow discussed how to voice their opposition in an environment where any dissent is silenced.

Grachev, 35, thought taking to the streets seemed futile, as demonstrators were being dragged away by the police moments after brandishing signs. 

Marat Grachev, 35, stands in his computer repair shop in Moscow where he was forced to change a screen that said ‘No War’ and was fined 100,000 rubles (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

So they came up with a digital solution. 

On one of their computer monitors, they put the words “No War” in Russian, in the hopes the act would send a longer-lasting message to those who frequented his business. 

The sign lasted until March 31.

“We are pleasantly surprised that we were able to work for a whole month and our clients did not turn us in,” Grachev told CBC in an interview at his store in Moscow. 

A screen shot from a video recorded by Grachev when police showed up at his computer repair store in Moscow after a passerby reported he had a screen that read ‘No War’ in Russian. (Submittet by Marat Grachev)

But that changed when a passerby noticed the screen and told the staff he would call the police if they didn’t take it down. 

When they didn’t, officers showed up on March 31. Grachev recorded the interaction as a police officer grabbed the remote to turn off the monitor and started questioning all his staff, demanding they come down to the station.  

When Grachev asked if they could refuse, an officer told him that if they did, the police could take them by force. Grachev was eventually fined 100,000 rubles, the equivalent of about $1,500 Cdn.

Hundreds arrested 

Grachev is one of at least 400 people who have been fined or detained under new Russian laws that target anyone deemed to be discrediting the military or publishing and sharing fake news, according to OVD-info, a Moscow-based human rights group that is providing legal support in about a quarter of the cases.

Authorities have cracked down even on benign forms of protest, including a person holding up a piece of paper, which apparently represented “No War” in Russian, and a man giving away copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984

A woman in Crimea was also reportedly detained after someone thought her blue and yellow manicure was too political — because her nails were done in the colours of Ukraine. 

Legal watchers say there has been a change in rhetoric from government officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, encouraging citizens to root out those who don’t support what the country insists on calling its “special military operation” in Ukraine. 

Priests, teachers and activists have all been detained and fined. Some face the prospect of years in custody. 

Grachev was kept at the police station for four hours and had his phone confiscated, but said officers originally warned that he would have to stay in custody overnight and would be fined close to $5,000. 

He said the tone of the police officer he was dealing with changed dramatically when a “human rights defender” with OVD-Info showed up at the station. 

Alexanddra Baeva, the head of OVD-info’s legal department, says in one case, police were called to a bar after a woman made a comment related to the war in Ukraine. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

The organization, which has been declared a foreign agent by the Russian government and had one of its websites blocked, runs a hotline for people facing political prosecution. 

Alexandra Baeva, who heads the legal department for OVD-info, said her group is aware of 15,000 arrests for anti-war demonstrators and more than 400 administrative cases associated with the new laws since Feb. 24. 

Online, it publishes a running list of the cases that include a handyman from Crimea charged for printing and distributing leaflets allegedly containing “fake information” about the Russian military, and a Moscow man jailed for driving around the city with an antiwar flag on his car. 

A criminal case was opened against a teacher from Penza, a city 650 kilometres southeast of Moscow. 

In an audio recording shared on Russian social media, Irina Gen, 55, was recorded by someone in her class when one of her Grade 8 students asked why they could no longer participate in a European sporting event. 

She could be heard explaining that she thought the banning of Russia was “right” and would continue until the country started acting in a “civilized way.”

Encouraging denunciation 

Baeva said she is aware of another case where a woman made a comment about the Russian military in a bar, and the police were later called. 

“It is possible that we will return to this time of where people joined this political persecution,” said Baeva, adding that she understands who so many are currently evoking comparisons to Stalin-era repression in modern day Russia. 

During an address on March 17, Putin signalled a shift to an even greater crackdown when he referenced “national traitors” who made a living in the country, but whose minds were aligned with Western thinking. 

He talked about the need for Russians’ to differentiate “true patriots from scum”  and how society would only be strengthened through self-purification. 

That same week, independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has since suspended operations after receiving warnings from Russia’s communications regulator, reported that residents in Kaliningrad had received text messages urging them to send in information related to any “provocateurs” in connection with the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

High-profile arrest 

While Russian residents are facing charges for even the mildest criticism, high-profile government opponents remain at great risk, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was arrested on April 11 after pulling up to his apartment building in Moscow. 

Kara-Murza, a close ally of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemstov who became gravely ill twice after suffering from suspected poisoning, is a fierce Kremlin critic and frequently speaks with Western media. He also contributes to the Washington Post.

Canada’s Ministry of Global Affairs tweeted out that his arrest was “deeply troubling.”  

Kara-Murza, who visited Canada many times, spoke to the House of Commons about Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax adviser who died in prison after being jailed for exposing widespread corruption. 

A few hours before his arrest last week, he was interviewed by CNN and described Russia as a “regime of murderers.”

In an interview with CBC, Evgenia Kara-Murza said she is worried her husband, Vladimir Kara-Murza, could be charged with additional offences and kept in custody much longer. (Submitted by Evgenia Kara-Murza)

His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, who lives in the U.S, told CBC News that he was sentenced to 15 days in jail for trying to evade police. 

“The charge is magnificent in its absurdity,”  she said. 

“You know when you get this special treatment from the Russian regime, you realize that your voice is actually heard.”

She said the official police report stated that he tried to change his direction and quicken his pace to get away from the officers, but he told her police came up to his car after he parked and arrested him. 

Her fear is that the two weeks in jail could just be the beginning of a longer period of detention, as authorities could conjure up additional charges to keep him in custody. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza stands in court beside his lawyer, Vadim Prokorov, on Tuesday as he is sentenced to 15 days in custody. (Submitted by Vadim Prokhorov)

Kara-Murza, who spends part of his time outside the country, was recently in London and had dinner with Bill Browder, author and chair of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign. 

“It’s extremely worrying he’s in custody,” Browder told CBC. 

“All we can do is pray for his safe release from this terrible situation.”

Browder, who at one time was the largest foreign investor in Russia and just wrote his second book detailing money laundering and murder in the country, said Putin has shifted his regime from authoritarian to totalitarian.

“There’s effectively martial law and full scale war. No media, no information. Anybody who raises their voice in any small way gets arrested.”

Boost to business 

For Grachev, he and a lawyer are planning to appeal the fine he received in order to get it reduced, but he said a fundraiser organized by a friend raised more than enough money to cover the penalty.

The ‘”no war” sign is no longer up in his computer repair store, but instead, another screen reminds his customers of the business’s stance. 

It reads that the company used to have a poster up, but took it down after being fined. 

“Quite a lot of customers are coming to us now … because of this situation.

“This episode has affected our business only positively.”