In multiple instances, non-Russians who contacted relatives in Russia have reported that their relatives genuinely do not know there is a war harming innocent Ukrainian civilians. “They really believe that this is a limited special operation and that the Ukrainian government is run by Nazis,” states Sophie Bushwick in a Scientific American article focusing on Russia’s methods of digital and physical repression. “That set of beliefs is not something you conjure in a moment—it’s a set of mistaken beliefs that Putin and the Russian regime have been working on for a while.” These erroneous thoughts are not a product of individual ignorance; rather, they are bred by the restriction of information and the propaganda distributed by the Russian regime.
In 2012, when Putin resumed his presidency after a four-year joint tandemocracy with Medvedev, repressive laws heightened in severity. Although the Russian government claims to guarantee freedom of speech, anti-government sentiments were framed as a threat to public safety, silencing the voices of Russian citizens and limiting the flow of oppositional ideas. Unsanctioned rallies in Russia are a criminal offense, and a permit is now required to hold large demonstrations. Additionally, Russian law outlines the offense of “hooliganism,” which disallows “public insult of a representative of authority in the performance of his official duties or in connection with their performance.” The punishment for hooliganism can be up to seven years.
Even more severe than the jail times given out to critics of the Russian government, certain activists have been victims of assassination or have narrowly escaped death. Boris Nemstov, a critic who called for protests of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine in 2015, was shot dead on February 27, 2015. The Russian government purported that they had no involvement in the incident and vowed to prosecute the shooters. However, the two men who were charged with the crime later retracted their statements, revealing that their confessions were extracted under torture.
Another critic and popular activist from Russia, Alexei Navalny, nearly died due to an attempted poisoning in 2020. He was recently released from jail after being sentenced for violating parole when he left the country for poison treatment. After his release, he fled Russia. There are countless other incidents of Russians being violently targeted by the Russian government, which minimizes opposition not only by killing certain voices, but by instilling fear and obedience in others with similar ideas.
The media in Russia is tightly controlled, going as far as to ban all independent media sources in Crimea and others on the Russian mainland. Laws against “foreign agents” prevent groups and organizations from receiving funding from outside of Russia, making it difficult for foreign groups to assist freedom of speech initiatives in Russia. The Kremlin runs a media organization that feeds Russians propaganda and misinformation about the situation in Ukraine, using the term “special military operation” to discuss egregious warfare and prohibiting the use of “war” and “invasion” to describe the situation in Ukraine.
The accessibility of information among Russians is greatly impaired by the legal obligation of service providers to put software on devices that allows the government to restrict content without the knowledge of the user. Due to a 2016 law which allows internet companies to retain people’s text messages, fear clouds the transmission of anti-government ideas, making it “easier for the authorities to identify users and access personal information without judicial oversight, unjustifiably interfering with privacy and freedom of expression,” reports Adam Maida in an article for Human Rights Watch.
Russia also instills fear in its citizens through random incidents of Moscow police stopping citizens and forcing them to show their text messages. This acts as a performative measure of repression rather than a practical one, sending the message to all Russians that their information is not private, and that they are being watched.
Polls depicting widespread support for the actions of the Russian regime by the Russian people are skewed due to a multitude of reasons: propaganda and censorship that limit the accuracy of available information about the war and people’s fears over jail time, death, losing their jobs, and having themselves and their families targeted by the government. In a society where citizens are being fed lies and mistruths, opposers are killed, jailed, or punished, and one’s conversations can be tapped and lead to prosecution, people’s thoughts are not truly their own.
Bushuev, Mikhail. “Boris Nemtsov: The Man Who Dared to Criticize Vladimir Putin.”
DW.COM, 27 Feb. 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/boris-nemtsov-the-man-who-dared-to-criticize-vladimir-putin/a-52561085.
Bushwick, Sophie. “Russia Is Using 'Digital Repression' to Suppress Dissent.” Scientific
American, Scientific American, 15 Mar. 2022, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/russia-is-using-digital-repression-to-suppress-dissent/.
Eckel, Mike. “Polls Show Russians Support Putin and the War on Ukraine. Really?”
RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Polls Show Russians Support Putin And The War On Ukraine. Really?, 7 Apr. 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-support-ukraine-war-polls-putin/31791423.html.
Maida, Adam. “Online and on All Fronts: Russia's Assault on Freedom of Expression.” Human
Rights Watch, 6 Sept. 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/18/online-and-all-fronts/russias-assault-freedom-expression.
Mayorquin, Orlando. “Thousands of Russian Anti-War Protesters Arrested: What Are the
Freedom of Speech Laws in Russia?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 3 Mar. 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2022/02/28/anti-war-protesters-jailed-freedom-speech-russia/6947053001/.
About the Author:
Nidhi Rao is a high school sophomore and the current secretary of her class. Since childhood, Nidhi has been passionate about gaining new perspectives on political issues and hopes to inform and inspire others by writing in The Alcott Youth Magazine. In her spare time, she is interested in painting, hiking, kayaking, reading, and listening to music.