Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Soviet Union is a mental condition and mindset

Why Russians are denouncing opponents of Ukraine invasion

Denunciations in Russia began soon after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of neighboring Ukraine. DW spoke with an anthropologist, a psychologist and a historian about people's motivations for turning dissidents in.

Young female anti-war protester holding a sign and being escorted by two police officers

Authorities have cracked down on dissent; now, neighbors and family members do it, too

A father turns in his daughter because she is against the invasion of Ukraine. A man reports a co-worker to police after the two argue about the war. Another man lodges a complaint against a friend following a post on the social media network VKontakte mocking the letter "Z," which has been established as the symbol of the Kremlin's "special military operation" in Ukraine. In each case, denunciations were followed by police questioning, but none have led to trial.

Nevertheless, such denunciations can have grave consequences. In one of the most well-known cases, an elderly woman lodged a complaint about anti-war slogans printed on supermarket price tags. As a result, Sasha Skochilenko, the artist behind the tactic, sits in pretrial detention, facing up to 10 years in prison.

Alexandra Arkhipova, who runs the Telegram channel (Non)Entertaining Anthropology, said denunciations came in two forms: "One where a person reports something directly to the police — for instance, they might say, 'Peter listens to Ukrainian radio at night.' The second form is when people make public declarations — such as on social media platforms."

Psychologist Maria Potudina sits on a sofa with a pen in her hand

Psychologist Potudina says people who denounce others may have low self-esteem

'Letting aggression out'

The psychologist Maria Potudina told DW that denunciations can serve as a vent of sorts. "In Russia, it has been impossible to directly express one's discontent for quite some time," she said. "Denunciations are a reliable means for letting aggression out — even if they are not directed at any one individual. It allows people to differentiate themselves from others, protect their own surroundings from alternative opinions, to create order, practice control, and punish 'evil' people the state sees as 'traitors.'"

More than anything, Potudina said, denunciations are about having power over the fate of others. She said that by denouncing others people with low self-esteem can "deputize themselves" to assume greater authority.

The psychologist cited Gaspar Avakyan, a blogger who denounced the popular Russian actor and comedian Maxim Galkin for speaking out against the invasion. Investigators are currently reviewing the complaint. Galkin fled to Israel shortly after the invasion began on February 24.

Arkhipova said there were multiple motivations for reporting people. "Denunciations are also made to facilitate material advance, exact petty revenge or fulfill a perceived need for self-preservation," she said. "During the Soviet era, not reporting someone was a crime. Thirdly and most difficult, is when someone denounces for ideological reasons."

She said ideologically motivated denunciations were extremely widespread in Russia. "We're talking about reporting political offenses on which there is no consensus in society and for which one can be harshly penalized," Arkhipova said.

More than 2,000 cases of "discrediting" the Russian army have been opened since early March. According to activists from the independent Russian project OVD-Info, which is dedicated to fighting political persecution, fines issued in these cases have averaged 35,000 rubles (€530/$540).

Pavel Tschikov, who runs the human rights project Agora, said Russian courts dealt with roughly 40 such cases each day. There are also dozens of investigations into "fake" accounts of the war. No one has been convicted to date, but maximum sentences can be up to 15 years in prison. Most of the cases now being heard began with denunciations.

Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova smiles and looks into camera

Anthropologist Arkhipova says denunciations are increasingly ideologically motivated

Incentives to denounce?

Sergey Bondarenko, a historian with the human rights organization Memorial, said denunciations were taking place in a much more public way than during the Soviet era, which treated such actions as a hidden instrument of power. He said the situation was now more complicated — but the fact that people can end up in prison makes it no less dangerous.

People who engage in denunciations are often seeking to settle scores or gain favor with authorities, Bondarenko said, and they do so with the expectation that the government will act. "The state's threats and promises give people the clear impression that it is possible or even necessary to denounce others," Bondarenko said. "It incentivizes them."

Potudina and Arkhipova share Bondarenko's assessment. "The president's speeches about traitors to the nation embolden people to come forward with denunciations," Potudina.

Arkhipova called people who engage in denunciations at the behest of President Vladimir Putin "a tool in the cold civil war that is raging in Russia." 

"The president says we have domestic enemies and we need to find them," Arkhipova said. "The people go looking for them and find them, thus comforting themselves. It allows them to show their true political allegiance and that makes them content."

Arkhipova said there was no general age or gender profile for Russians who engage in denunciations. "One would think this is something only elderly people might do, but more or less everybody does it," she said. Recently, in the Kaliningrad region, a denunciation bot was tested on Telegram. This immediately led to a flood of denunciations for "discrediting the army" in what had been a relatively quiet region.

People are being denounced with ever greater frequency for casual talk on the street or in schoolyards or even singing the wrong songs, Arkhipova said. In such cases, the denunciations themselves are the only evidence available.

Historian Sergey Bondarenko

Memorial historian Bondarenko put current denunciations on a par with the Soviet era's

"For many Russians there is no war," Arkhipova said. "They just have their weekend house, garden, children and grandchildren — but no war. For them, war is when one's own kids go hungry, when you have to go to the front and when your house is bombed. That is a very comfortable perspective."

Arkhipova said such denialism allowed people to cope with life in contemporary Russia. "It's very difficult to admit being the citizen of a country under whose name an insane and schizophrenic war is being waged," she said. "That all destroys the basis for loyalty to the state."

Bondarenko said television had blurred the lines between real and unreal for many Russians. "Lots of people have no idea what horrific crimes are being committed," he said. "Most of the time, they convince themselves that such news is fabricated."

Potudina also credited propaganda for people's unwillingness to engage with the facts. And, she said, many Russians also feel powerless. "If you see that you have done great damage, you have to do something to correct it," she said. "But what can the average Russian do? Grab a pitchfork and head for the Kremlin? They won't get very far. It is difficult to constantly be forced to live with the knowledge that one's own country is killing innocent people."

Potudina urges avoiding categories such as "good" Russians and "bad" Russians. People in Russia, she said, are clinging to false narratives in a desperate attempt to avoid confronting the truth.   

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This article was originally written in Russian.

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