Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist and author of memoirs about Chechnya. Source: Arkady Babchenko / Facebook.
Do you want to know what political harassment feels like in Putin’s Russia? I’ll tell you my own experience. I’ve been harassed before, but the campaign against me is particularly strong.
Two weeks ago, a Russian TU-154 transporting the world-famous Alexandrov Ensemble to Syria crashed into the Black Sea. They were going to perform for pilots involved in Russia’s air campaign on Aleppo. I wrote a post about this on Facebook. It was neutral. I didn’t call for anything or insult anyone. I merely reminded my readers that the Russian military was bombing Aleppo without paying attention to civilians, without recognising that dozens of children were dying in those bombs, without realising that photographs of these dead children were making their round the whole world, and that Russia is an aggressor.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied part of Ukraine, starting a war which has led to the death of at least 10,000 people. Prior to that, Russia occupied part of Georgia, bombing cities there too. And I, after all these wars and deaths, felt only one thing when the news that these representatives of Russia’s military had died — indifference. But for someone, this Facebook post did not appear patriotic enough. And so it began.
The first to speak out was Vitaly Milonov, a State Duma deputy who is famous for his homophobia and obscurantism. He has initiated laws that limit the rights of sexual minorities, and has personally participated in attacks on representatives of Russia’s LGBT community. Milonov called on the powers that be to deprive me and Bozhena Rynska, another journalist who wrote an insufficiently patriotic post on Facebook, of Russian citizenship, to deport us from the country and confiscate our property (link in Russian). Then Senator Frants Klintsevich spoke out, calling for us to be dealt with “according to the law” and who assured us that there would be a “reaction”. And so the campaign began to snowball.
All the elements of the propaganda machine were engaged (link in Russian). Channel One, Russia’s most powerful state channel, called on its viewers to create a petition in support of removal of our citizenship and deportation. One hundred and thirty thousand people signed it in 24 hours. Then, the tabloid channel LifeNews chose to commit a criminal offence and, with the help of court bailiffs, issued me a fake administrative fine — apparently for not buying a bus ticket. (I am a war veteran, and enjoy free public transport as a result.) Fines are a familiar practice in Russia, and are issued to stop someone from leaving the country due to debts.
The faked fine against Arkady Babchenko. Source: LifeNews.
Someone plans to release an online beat ‘em up game where players are asked to “deal with the enemies of the homeland using your own fists and boots”. These enemies have to be “beaten until they fall”. I’m one of them — I feature in the game (link in Russian).
The General Prosecutor’s Office is now checking out Bozhena Rynska’s post. Practice shows that the result of this “inspection” will be a criminal case — and that’s up to five years in prison. Take note, the General Prosecutor’s Office isn’t investigating the causes of the airplane crash on Christmas Day, but a post on Facebook. Meanwhile, there are pro-government thugs waiting outside Bozhena’s home — from time to time they try and break into her apartment.
Covering dissidents with ink or faeces is another familiar practice in Russia. Yuliya Latynina, a journalist, was recently covered in faeces for her work. And my activist friends, like Mark Galperin, have been covered in ink several times for going out on the street with anti-war placards. The patriots attacked him for protesting against war. What is this but a Remarque novel?
My home address has been published on the internet, together with an invitation “to visit”. I receive threats to me and my family by the thousand — in my mailbox, on Facebook and by telephone. Attacks and beatings against dissidents in Russia have been happening for a long time — there must be hundreds of such incidents now. They usually use baseball bats, crowbars or bottles.
The last such incident wasn’t so long ago. In September, my friend Grigory Pasko, a journalist, was attacked by unknown assailants in Barnaul. And that’s on top of the four years that Pasko, a former navy officer, served on trumped-up espionage charges in the late 1990s.
The pro-government ultranationalist TV channel Tsargrad recently released a list of the “Top 100 Russophobes” — I’m number 10, and I fought twice for his country.
The entry for the author in Tsargrad's Top 100 Russophobe's list. Source: Tsargrad.
It continues. On the day of the crash, one of the most popular Russian newspapers published an article with the title “We should revoke citizenship from the inhuman people who take joy in catastrophe”. But no one, I repeat, took joy in the TU-154 crash.
The article itself was written with such style, it has to be quoted:
“How long do we have to put up with those who, on social media, take joy in this tragedy that has happened in Russia? They take joy on purpose, openly, with insults. Today of all days, you want to make these reprobates answer and punish their dirty words with just compensation. And to start removing citizenship from those Russians who are openly gloating [over the tragedy]. Today, the war is not only in Syria, where our military plane was transporting civilians. The war today is in Russia — sure, an information war, but still, a war. And we have to defend ourselves according to the laws of wartime. Shouldn’t there be a law ‘On the impermissibility of gloating over events that are tragic for Russia’?”
Yes, the author is suggesting Russia pass a law against gloating. Moreover, several lawmakers have already approved this initiative! I suspect this law will be passed. And then it can be used to imprison people who aren’t sufficiently mournful on legal grounds.
On the whole, that article isn’t so far from the newspapers of the 1930s, when writers called for “enemies of the people” to be “shot like wild dogs”. By the way, there’s also mention of that in this article (published on 25 December, 2016) — it calls for the return of the death penalty. It seems our colleagues from the era of Stalinist terror aren’t so far away.
The newspaper also conducted a readers’ survey: “What do you think about Russians who gloat over catastrophe?”. The first answer was “These inhuman people, people like them should have their citizenship revoked.” Forty percent of those who voted believe that us, people who think differently, are “inhuman”. The second most popular newspaper in Russia, also pro-government, writes in a similar style: “vile globule of spit”, “holy fools”, “five years in a women’s prison”. The official representative of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova uses similar terms.
To top it off, Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of the Russian president, believes that our actions are “ugly manifestations of madness”. I’m not joking. The press secretaries of the foreign ministry and the president call me and people like me “dirt”, “scum” and “mad”.
I’m only giving you the most notable instances of this behaviour. All the state TV channels have been involved, there’s dozens of them. This incredible stream of dehumanisation is impossible to stop. Propaganda and “the war on enemies” in Putin’s Russia is a state priority, and there’s huge amounts of money involved.
Harassment is a very effective instrument. It exhausts you. After several days, it can lead to nervous exhaustion. They know how to do this in the KGB. They had a good school in the past.
You haven’t had to wait to be arrested? God forbid you have to find out. Waiting to be arrested, or searched, or when they plant drugs on you or accuse you of paedophilia (for instance, Yury Dmitriev in Karelia, or Vladimir Bukovsky in the UK), to be beaten up in the entrance to your apartment, on the street, shots in the back.
When I studied history at school, I could never understand how Germany, a whole country, could lose its mind. How could a whole country persecute Jews, organise pogroms, chase people out of their homes, kill them in alleyways and eventually get to the point of burning people alive in death camps. I couldn’t understand how the Soviet Union, a whole country, could go crazy. How could the country write millions of denunciations, destroy people based on their class, to declare whole peoples “enemies” and deport them. I was sure that this time would never come back. Ever.
Now I can observe this process of a country losing its mind for real — I’m the target. It hasn’t got to the stage of concentration camps, but everything else in Putin’s Russia is already in place.
This article originally appeared in Russian on the author's blog.