oDR: Opinion

Putin can’t live with dissent – that’s why he’s trying to silence his critics

The Russian government’s crackdown on independent media and civil society has reached a dangerous new peak. We must provide help and money

Tatyana Margolin Yelena V. Litvinov
3 March 2022, 12.00am
Vladimir Putin has presided over the Russian government's crackdown on anti-war rhetoric
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American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Vladimir Putin is currently fighting on two fronts: his brutal military assault on Ukraine is accompanied by relentless repression against any hint of opposition inside Russia itself.

His crackdown on Russian civil society started a decade ago, and has peaked since the invasion. More than 7,000 anti-war protestors, including children, have been detained since the start of the invasion, on 24 February. It is also now illegal to use the words ‘attack’, ‘invasion’ or ‘war’ in any publication discussing – well, the war. 

Post-Soviet millennials who emigrated to the US in the late 1980s/early 1990s have many memories in common, one of which is of our parents listening religiously to Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL). We learned about the Chernobyl disaster from RFE and RL, not from our government. We got our news from transistor radios. Television was mostly for learning about the next day’s weather (and even those reports were altered – when rain was forecast for Victory Day but the public needed to be brought out to applaud the military parades). Newspapers were for holding sunflower seeds or wrapping fish at the market. 

Today, the majority of state-sanctioned Russian media is again only fit to serve as food packaging. But we are no longer in the era of transistor radios, and brave journalists have been risking imprisonment, death threats or exile to provide factual reporting to the Russian public and to the world.

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Over the past five years, Russian independent journalists have become global leaders in open-source intelligence investigations and in bringing complex stories to the public in creative and engaging ways. It has been awe-inspiring to watch small start-ups with tiny budgets break stories that reverberate in headlines across the world. It’s no wonder the Russian government is so fearful of an independent media.

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On Monday, the prosecutor general’s office ordered two of the remaining independent media broadcasters with a physical presence in Russia – Echo Moskvy radio station and Dozhd TV – to be taken off air and their websites blocked. They were accused of inciting hatred against citizens of Russia with their war coverage. On Thursday, Dozhd announced that it is suspending its broadcasting and Echo Moskvy’s board voted to close the radio station. Both have pledged to continue reporting via social media channels, but this may not be possible for long.

Both broadcasters were providing up-to-the minute updates from Ukraine, and giving a platform to Ukrainian journalists and to Russians who oppose the war. This solidarity used to be the norm. Ukrainian and Russian activists and journalists worked together on issues of human rights and justice until 2014 – when Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea drew a wedge between the two countries’ civil societies. We were beginning to see signs of trust being slowly rebuilt.

Now, despite their divisions, both are bravely collecting the evidence needed for any future accountability for Putin’s war crimes. When the war ends, and the long and arduous journey of rebuilding begins, they will have to be on the front line of any reconciliation efforts.  

The damaging effects of isolation

The world has reacted to Putin’s aggression by slapping its most severe sanctions yet on Russian officials and oligarchs, and many global brands and companies have vowed to stop doing business in Russia. Almost all of Europe’s airspace is now closed to Russian planes. But this inevitable isolation does not bode well for Russian civil society, nor for the brave resistance efforts of its nascent anti-war movement.

Many of the sanctions imposed will have little impact on the complex network of overseas shell companies and foreign real estate where oligarchs continue to hide their assets. Ukraine’s request to ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a key organisation for the operation of the internet), to shut down Russia’s primary servers, would be deeply damaging, leaving the Russian public with government-run platforms as their sole information source. 

A decade ago, Russia’s civic activism was by far the most promising in Eurasia. Already operating in a challenging and increasingly restrictive environment, Russian activists were savvy and creative, and incredibly brave. They fought for antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS patients, staging die-ins in front of city halls. They scrutinised local government budgets to discover where the money had gone and why their playgrounds were being built on paper only. Human rights activists turned increasingly to the European Court of Human Rights as a mechanism to deliver justice to victims who had exhausted domestic remedies. And independent journalists were reporting on it all. 

Journalists banned or in exile

Since then, this professional and vibrant field has been systematically decimated. Many movement leaders are either in exile or their work has been severely circumscribed. Russia has poisoned and jailed most of the remaining elements of the opposition; looked the other way at widespread and factually substantiated allegations of torture in its prisons; and co-opted civil society by cutting off foreign donor funding and replacing it with government-sponsored NGOs.

Many top journalists have been forced into exile, after relentless persecution by the regime over the last year, ranging from the designation of individuals and outlets as ‘foreign agents’ to outright bans

More than ever before, Russian independent media deserves our solidarity and financial support

More than ever before, Russian independent media deserves our solidarity and financial support. The West’s social media platforms, which have become a lifeline for Russian journalists, must keep their critical role in mind as they respond to the increasingly punitive penalties and demands of the Russian government. Without a doubt, the Kremlin will not let the recent ban of Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik by tech giants such as YouTube and Facebook go unpunished

Since he came to power at the end of the 1990s, Putin’s rule has been premised on saving Russia from that ‘wild’ decade, when oligarchs ran wild, crime was rampant and people were living in abject poverty. Twenty-two years later, his country is run by oligarchs, the ruble has sunk to historic lows and Russia is mired in a vicious war with its closest cultural and physical neighbour.

Plunging the country back to the era of transistor radios – now in the form of VPNs and secure messaging platforms – will not liberate the people held hostage by Putin’s authoritarian rule. Lack of information helps only dictators. Even in a time of war, we need to support the independent journalists standing between Russian society and a dark tunnel of isolation and propaganda.

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