First came a court summons alleging Mikhail Samin had discredited the Russian army. Then came the threatening calls.
Samin, a 22-year-old from Moscow who has been posting commentary about the war in Ukraine on social media, shared details of those chilling calls with VOA.
In one expletive-laden call, a man warned that Samin had 24 hours to delete his posts, saying that only then, “you may sleep peacefully.”
When Samin tried to reason with the caller, saying that people, children, were dying in Ukraine, the caller replied, “If you don’t stop being stupid, we will throw you off the balcony.”
The legal action and threats are becoming the new normal for those in Russia who defy the strict censorship around the war in Ukraine. Moscow in March passed a law to limit coverage of the military and invasion, and a mix of fines and website blocks has resulted in most independent news outlets being forced out.
With traditional media limited, citizen journalists and activists like Samin are filling the void, but at great personal risk. Samin and student Ilya Kursov have both faced legal action for posts about the war and protests.
That new law was cited by authorities when Samin was summoned to court for “discrediting” the Russian army.
He had condemned the invasion in a March 6 Facebook post.
“A terrible thing is happening right now on behalf of [Russian] people,” Samin had posted. “My compatriots — brainwashed or following criminal orders — have invaded the territory of a foreign country, destroying houses and killing people. Thousands of people are dying and suffering needlessly. There can be no justification for this. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who started this war, cannot be justified.”
For Samin, the death threats were more concerning than the threat of prison.
The door to his apartment was defaced with the letter Z, a pro-Kremlin symbol of war against Ukraine. Samin’s sister was scared when she saw the mark as she left to walk the dog.
Samin was at a loss for words when describing his view of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
“Nothing discredits the armed forces of the Russian Federation more than the war crimes they commit, like torturing people, killing civilians,” he told VOA.
“There was a feeling of some unreality of what was happening because, before that, I was convinced that Putin would not do this,” said Samin. “It was apparent that this [war] would immediately destroy the future of Russia.”
When Ilya Kursov heard details of an anti-war protest in Barnaul, a city in the Altai Krai region of Siberia, at the end of February, the 24-year-old student shared the information on Instagram.
His post quickly came to the attention of police.
“I was abducted at 8 a.m. by [Russian police], right from my bed in the dormitory,” said Kursov, who was studying at the Altai State Pedagogical University.
At the police station he was questioned about the social media post. The police officers pressured him, threatening him with a prison term, Kursov said. He wasn’t allowed to call either his parents or lawyer and his laptop was confiscated.
The student believes the authorities are reacting so aggressively to any protest activity because, despite what the propaganda suggests, many Russians disapprove of the war.
Although many residents were afraid to join the protest openly, people approached the anti-war activists and spoke out for peace with Ukraine, he said.
Like Samin, Kursov is accused of “discrediting” the Russian army. Under the law, if the offense is repeated within a year, it can result in criminal prosecution, with a maximum punishment of up to 15 years in prison.
But the posts cited by police in Kursov’s case were published before the law was enacted.
“I have two fines for 50,000 rubles [approximately $700],”said Kursov.
The fine is about 1½ times the median monthly income for his city, according to the Federal Service for State Statistics in Russia.
The student said that in court documents he saw, authorities had flagged more of his social media posts on the war.
“I am afraid the prosecutors would have an opportunity to use it against me, which leads to a criminal case,” he said.
Both he and Samin have since left Russia, fearing for their safety.
‘Next to be targeted’
With independent media blocked off in Russia, ordinary citizens like Samin and Kursov have become a key source of war information in Russia, media freedom experts said.
“After this huge blow against independent media, the next to be targeted are the citizen journalists,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders.
“We can draw a parallel with what happened in Belarus, because when all major independent media were blocked and journalists were in prison or exile, the Belarusian authorities started to target citizen journalists,” Cavelier told VOA.
Another factor is the chilling effect. As well as making arrests and blocking platforms, Russia wants to extend its foreign agents law to citizens as well as media.
“It frightens people; it makes them think twice before sharing any information, even if they feel very strong in their opinions or their criticism of the Russian authorities, so that’s always a downside of any crackdown and repressive measures,” said Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But while Kursov and Samin have been forced to leave their homes, both are adamant they will keep using social media to inform Russians about the war.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.