Moscow opposition councilor Alexei Gorinov has just spent his 61st birthday in jail. His crime? To criticize the organization of an event for Children’s Day in light of the war in Ukraine.
“How we can be discussing a children’s drawing contest for Children’s Day when children are being killed every day?” he said at a filmed council meeting. “I can tell you that 100 minors have died in Ukraine, and other children have been orphaned. These are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who participated in World War II.” This outspoken opinion on the war in March has led Gorinov to be sentenced this month to seven years behind bars.
Just days prior to the meeting held in Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district on March 17, a law had been passed stipulating prison sentences for any Russian “discrediting the Armed Forces” or “knowingly spreading false information.” This law was promptly used against several of the seven politicians who took part in that particular council meeting, all of whom are well-known political figures in Moscow: Gorinov is the first to be jailed under the new law; Elena Kotionochkina, the incumbent president, has fled the country but has a warrant out for her arrest; and opposition activist Ilia Yashin was taken into custody a week ago on account of a video he posted on his YouTube channel concerning the Bucha massacre last March in which 1,300 Ukrainian civilians were slaughtered, and is now looking at years behind bars. Only one councilwoman voted in favor of the children’s contest.
You hear about fines and charges being brought against more or less famous people, but there are also a significant number of lesser-known individuals who are being reportedNikolai Rybakov, leader of independent party Yabloko
Gorinov was sentenced under Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code, adopted on March 4 which allows for prison sentences of up to 15 years. According to the judge’s 26-page ruling, Gorinov and his colleague Kotionochkina, had misled Russians, triggering “anxiety and fear” about the “special military operation” in Ukraine, a crime driven by “political hatred, disdain, antipathy and aggressiveness towards the organs of power of the Russian Federation.”
The prosecution brought various pieces of evidence against Gorinov during the trial at the Meschhanski district court, including Defense Ministry war logs that defined the Russian action in Ukraine as a special military operation “and did not mention the death of children”; an article published by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova entitled The Special Operation Is Not the Start of a War, But its Prevention; and the agreements signed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine.
On March 17, while the Moscow district was discussing the children’s contest, the UN Human Rights Commission – of which Russia itself is a member – reported that at least 22 teenagers and 36 children had been killed during the offensive in Ukraine, “though the actual numbers are significantly higher.”
The video, which is still available on YouTube, shows Kotionochkina suggesting that her country is on its way to becoming “a fascist state” and proposing the modification of the contest along the lines of “children against the war in Ukraine.”
Gorinov can be seen adding, “I believe all efforts of [Russian] civil society should be aimed only at stopping the war and withdrawing Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine.” Their stance was met with the following response from the one district councilwoman to vote in favor of holding the contest in its original form: “You are obsessed!”
Following Gorinov’s conviction, more than two dozen well-known Russian lawyers and human rights activists published an open letter accusing the new post-invasion law of violating the Constitution. Specifically, they alleged that it fails to recognize ideological and political diversity as the basis of Russia’s constitutional order, according to article 13 of the Basic Law; the freedom to hold and share one’s own convictions – article 28; freedom of thought and speech – article 29; and the prohibition of arbitrary criminal prosecution – article 54.
“You can’t sentence a politician to jail for declaring his position at a meeting,” states Nikolai Rybakov, the leader of Yabloko, one of the few surviving independent parties in Russia, which is calling for the war in Ukraine to stop. “We are trying to continue to bring pressure to bear while we still can, but it’s not easy,” he tells EL PAÍS. “They were killing politicians representing Yabloko for political and human rights activities in the 1990s, including under Boris Yeltsin’s government. This is not new, it’s just the logical continuation of everything that has happened so far.”
Under the new law, speaking out is dangerous. Independent media such as Novaya Gazeta have had to delete editorials that use the term “war” for what Putin has insisted on referring to as a “special military operation.” Meanwhile, there have been several high-profile cases of whistleblowing. In April, a teacher at a school in Penza, in the center of European Russia, was reported to the police by two students who had secretly filmed her blaming her country when asked why Russian athletes could not compete in Europe.
That same month, Dmitry Bayev, a priest from a small Russian town, fled the country after being arrested and charged for demanding an end to the conflict and for Putin to be brought before an international court. Bayev managed to escape, but another St. Petersburg cleric, Ioann Kurmoyarov, was not so lucky. He has been held in custody since June 7 and could face a prison term for a YouTube video of himself pronouncing that “those who unleashed this conflict will not go to heaven” and “if you are not bothered by what is happening in Ukraine, you are not Christian.”
“You hear about fines and charges being brought against more or less famous people, but there are also a significant number of lesser-known individuals who are being reported,” says the Yabloko leader, Rybakov, who observes that “people are turning to the authorities and accusing others and it is not known what is happening to them.”
The protests at the beginning of the offensive have been largely silenced due to the crackdown under the new legislation. The OVD Info portal, which specializes in monitoring protests, has confirmed 16,380 arrests since February. For its part, towards the end of June, the independent polling center Levada found that barely 55% of Russians follow news on Ukraine, and a large proportion of those who do are elderly.
The outlawing of demonstrations is said to be a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, despite the fact that the authorities hold mass propaganda events, claiming they are private “festive, sporting or tribute” events, according to Rybakov, who adds that due to the number of arrests already made, “we will only call demonstrations if we know it’s safe.”
In order to tighten the crackdown, Putin passed another piece of legislation regarding foreign support on July 14. Now the Kremlin will not only be able to outlaw organizations or activists receiving funding from outside the country, but also those it considers to be “under foreign influence,” from journalists to NGOs and political parties – anyone and anything that does not support Putin’s Russia. The already extensive blacklist of foreign agents was expanded further last week, a move that prompted actress Tatiana Lazareva to write on Telegram that she felt “finally relaxed” about being part of the club of critics recognized by the Kremlin.