Decent dissent within Putins Russia

If your Putin you try not to worry about the power of your opposition from within your own country you can always criminalising any that oppose your point of view and threaten all that oppose you with a 15-year jail sentence. The west finally has a cause worth uniting and fighting for whilst Russia on the other hand looks to legislate, dictate and indoctrinate those that are forced to watch and listen to why it thinks the invades of Ukraine is wrong.

While the west will not put boots on the ground or planes in the sky over Ukraine, Putin claims his war is not even a war and his occupation and bombing of civilians is not even taking place. One super power says it cannot commit, whilst another claims’ it has not committed to a war in Ukraine and the atrocities it clearly repeatedly does for Putin are not actually happening.     

Thousands of people have been arrested in cities across Russia for protesting at the bloodshed in Ukraine. New laws have forced the BBC, CNN and other media organisations to suspend their reporting from the country. They are not allowed to describe Russia’s assault on Ukraine as an invasion.

In a Russia, the truth of the war on Ukraine is available. The risk comes in sharing it. Putin’s Russia has brought a new intensity to its crackdown on independent news.

As mentioned it is now a crime — punishable by up to 15 years in prison — to publish “fake” information about the all-out attack on Ukraine. The government has blocked Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and news websites aimed at Russians, such as Latvia-based Meduza. It is a crime for the average citizen to publicly post information that contradicts the government line.

In a meeting on March 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of a “necessary self-purification” and called on Russians to cast out any dissenting voice. 

“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a bug that accidentally flew into their mouths,” Putin said. 

Natasha Rastova, a former Russian journalist and author of two histories of Russian journalism, said the restrictions on free speech marked a turning point, even by Russian standards. 

“In a matter of days, Putin went from being the leader of an authoritarian state to becoming a full-scale dictator,” Rastova said.

Despite the new restrictions, Russians can still access news from outside. The risk comes in sharing it.

Russians who want outside news have to be adaptable. Facebook is banned, but with software called virtual private networks, users can circumvent restrictions. 

That said, special apps are not essential. Broadly, the internet still operates. Connection speeds might be slower after a leading internet service provider dropped its service, but Russians can read articles from the BBC, CBS News and other news organizations. They can watch videos on YouTube.

“Despite all the efforts of the Russian authorities to clean up the information space, alternative sources of information still exist in Russia,” said Viktor Muchnik, who ran the independent news website TV2 in Tomsk, Siberia, with his wife Viktoria.

We reached Muchnik in Armenia, where he fled after the government shut down TV2 on March 7.

Many younger Russians use the encrypted messaging app Telegram to follow Russian-speaking reporters they trust. They can see reports, photos and videos within the app, or open links they find there.

Russians know they might be stopped by police who demand to see their phones.

“In the event that someone is stopped and searched, even just having those apps on one’s phone could be risky,” said Paul Goode, the McMillan Chair of Russian Studies at Carleton University in Canada. 

Russians risk severe penalties if they are caught sharing banned information.

“Russians can be fined and prosecuted for facilitating the dissemination of ‘fake news’, discrediting Russia’s army, and supporting international sanctions on Russia,” Goode said. “This includes posts and re-posts made on social media, including even posts made by other people on one’s discussion thread.”

While younger Russians get their news from the internet, older Russians watch television.

“A lot of people still watch television, which is completely controlled by the state,” said  Anton Shirikov, researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “These people tend to be older, from smaller towns or villages.”

Television delivers the government’s message. When Putin made false claims about the people of Donbas facing genocide at the hands of the Ukrainians; of the U.S.-backing bioweapons labs in Ukraine; and of Russia having “no other option for self defense,” that is what Russian television reported. 

The massive bombing of Ukrainian cities and civilian deaths are minimized.

When younger Russians show their parents videos of missiles hitting apartment blocks in Ukraine, they face denial. Michnik said it goes against the message their parents have been hearing virtually every day for eight years, since Russia annexed Crimea.

Jonathan Becker, a political scientist at Bard College, shared a message he got from a friend inside Russia. The friend’s wife installed Telegram on her mother’s phone. The mother is a Putin supporter.

“She still thinks that all the videos she watches are Ukrainians bombing themselves,” the email said. “What can one say?”

The Russians we contacted all said that these intergenerational splits are common. 

They and other observers also raised the concern that international efforts to pressure Russia economically could undermine access to outside news. When Visa and Mastercard stopped processing credit cards in Russia, that affected some internet users.

“It is increasingly difficult for Russians to pay for foreign services like virtual private networks, so it’s conceivable that this escape hatch could be closed off eventually by the impact of international sanctions,” said Goode.

There is also the fear that some of YouTube’s restrictions on advertising revenues inside Russia could make it harder for independent journalists to finance their work.

Russian journalist Mikhail Fishman was an anchor for the independent station TV Rain until he left Russia on March 3. He said unintended ripple effects could become even more important as Russians begin to feel the sting of economic sanctions.

“The more impact the sanctions have, the more will be the demand for alternative sources of information,” Fishman said.

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