The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s purge of ‘traitors’ scoops up pensioners, foodies and peaceniks

Police in St. Petersburg detain antiwar protesters on Feb. 27, 2022. (For The Washington Post/FTWP)
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RIGA, Latvia — There was a message to all Russians in the first cases under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hunt for what he calls “scum and traitors.”

That message is that no one is too small to escape notice.

Authorities arrested an Interior Ministry technician for talking privately on the phone. They also nabbed people holding blank placards implying opposition to the war; a woman wearing a hat in Ukraine’s yellow and blue colors, and a Siberian carpenter in Tomsk named Stanislav Karmakskikh who was holding a poster of an 1871 Vasily Vereshchagin artwork called “The Apotheosis of War.”

A popular food blogger, Nika Belotserkovskaya, was among the first three to face charges under Russia’s law against “fake” war news after her Instagram feed went from truffles and rosé to posts about Ukrainian refugee children. (She is outside Russia.)

The speed of Russia’s transformation to Soviet-style “self-purification” has been astonishing. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, state TV went to wall-to-wall propaganda blaming Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and “nationalists.” Now, shadowy pro-Putin figures are daubing the words “traitor to the motherland” on the doors of peace activists and others.

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A pile of animal excrement was left outside the door of St. Petersburg activist Daria Kheikinen on Friday, and a severed pig’s head and an antisemitic slogan were left Thursday at the door of Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the now-disbanded liberal radio station Echo of Moscow. The station was forced to close earlier this month by state-owned Gazprom, which controlled its board.

Websites with names have sprung up encouraging Russians to denounce “traitors,” “enemies,” “cowards” and “fugitives” who oppose the war.

One of the first three people charged under Russia’s tough wartime censorship law was Marina Novikova, a 63-year-old pensioner with 170 Telegram followers. A day after the invasion, she fixed her gaze on the camera, a lock of red hair flopped over one eye. “Those who want to think and can think will be able to get out of darkness,” said from the closed Russian nuclear city Seversk (formerly Tomsk-7).

In what she called a “shock psychotherapy” session, she said Russians “all approved the war in Ukraine. This is our silent, total agreement.”

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Others have headed for the borders. Actors, celebrities, business executives, singers, dancers, writers. IT workers and independent journalists are among those who have left Russia.

State television staffer Marina Ovsyannikova — the Channel One producer who made global headlines on March 14 when she held up an antiwar poster during a news broadcast — feared she could face 15 years in jail. But on Friday, she was charged with a misdemeanor offense of discrediting the military. Earlier, Kirill Kleimyonov, the station’s head of news, suggested on air that she was a British spy.

“Treason is always someone’s personal choice,” he said, claiming she acted not out of passion but “for 30 pieces of silver.”

But a conversation with Ovsyannikova leaves a different impression. Her words tumble out, one thought after another. She hesitates about saying something that might land her in more trouble but says it anyway.

“Propaganda in Russia has become ugly. Our country is in a total darkness now. Anyone can be called a national traitor or a ‘fifth columnist’ now for just taking part in a rally,” she said in an interview before the court decision.

Marina Ovsyannikova posted a video message to social media on March 14, calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a "crime." (Video: Marina Ovsyannikova)

For years, she looked away as repressions piled up, taking a good state salary telling herself she was doing it for her family. “But you get to the point of no return when it’s beyond the limit of absolute evil. And a normal person can’t stand it any longer. You just can’t go on.”

That point came when she woke up to hear the invasion had started.

“I was so shocked. I could not eat or sleep.” At work, “the atmosphere was very depressing and stressful. I saw these breaking news reports all the time. I realized that I could not work there anymore.”

In the end, she burst onto the national state television news with her antiwar poster in an act of defiance.

“They’re lying to you here,” the poster said in Russian. And in English: “No war.”

“I don’t have any regrets, and I am not recanting any of my words or acts. I am glad that it sounded out loud,” she said.

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Despite the risk of fines and jail time, others keep protesting. More than 15,000 people have been arrested since the war started.

Anastasia, wearing a jacket with the words “No to War,” was grabbed by riot police earlier this month as she walked toward a small group of protesters in Moscow. She was arrested and fined.

“It makes me really angry,” said Anastasia, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons. “On top of anger, I feel a kind of desperation and sadness and regret, specifically a regret that there is nothing good in the future any more.”

Cars carrying imperial flags and bearing the letter Z, a symbol of support for the war, have appeared in Russian cities and towns.

“It’s hard to believe that these people are real and that they actually believe that this military operation is a way to save Russia, because none of this is going to bring any good,” she said.

Kirill Martynov, political editor of Novaya Gazeta, was denounced as a traitor and dismissed recently by two universities where he taught two philosophy courses. A parent had heard him tell students that civilians were being killed in Ukraine.

Martynov, who later left Russia, fears the purges are just getting started, amid deepening social tensions over the war.

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“Russian authorities and people who support the war need to find someone who is guilty, because when society and the economy is collapsing, you have to find some enemy to take responsibility,” he said.

“There will be a kind of hunt for traitors in the next months and we’ll see a lot of criminal prosecutions, because they need some explanation of what is happening in Russia and, if Russia is so great and Putin is such a wise person, why is life in Russia so bad now,” he added.

But there is a thread of messianic rhetoric from top Russian officials, pro-Kremlin journalists, religious figures and academics, laying out the mission to revive Russian greatness. They revile Western liberalism and applaud conservative, authoritarian orthodoxy.

A prominently featured article on state-owned RIA Novosti news site by conservative commentator Pyotr Akopov bore the headline, “Russia of the future: Forward to the USSR.” He wrote that “the spirit of Russian history, the spirit of our ancestors gives us a chance not just to atone for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It gives us a chance to fix it through creation, through the rebirth of the great Russia.”

Calling for new Russocentric thinking, he argued that Russian intellectuals and oligarchs were mental slaves of the West, who wanted to copy it and reform Russia.

“What does this mean?” tweeted historian Ian Garner, who specializes in the study of Russian propaganda. “In sum: a rooting out of anyone accused of being ‘un-Russian’ in thinking or culture.”

Olga Irisova, editor in chief of independent media outlet Riddle, said that Putin’s call for Russia’s self-purification marked an ominous turning point, making it dangerous to oppose the war. (Irisova is outside Russia, and the Riddle website is still operating.)

“Even my acquaintances who are still in Russia are scared to speak out now,” Irisova said. They’re scared even to talk to people about the war because they believe that other people might report them to the authorities or just might call them traitors.”

Irisova said the marking of “traitors” on activists’ doors reinforced the government’s message. “If you do not agree with us, you are a minority,” she said. “You should stay silent. And people are afraid.” Thousands would emigrate, but most would not be able to leave.

“I don’t see any positive scenario for Russia,” she added. “I see more repressions.”

But one protester, Valetin Belayev, sees a sliver of hope from his home in Kazan, 510 miles east of Moscow. “Now Russia is at a crossroads,” he said. “Either we will sink into the abyss of a hopeless nightmare, or we will be able to avoid this scenario.”

“We’re at a point where history could go in completely different directions,” he continued, “and all of us now have a personal responsibility for what the future of our country and the world will be like.”

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