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“We are the prerequisite for progress,” Dmitry Muratov told the crowd at Oslo’s city hall in December. “We are the antidote to tyranny.” The veteran editor of the Russian liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta had just scooped the Nobel Peace Prize, and his impassioned defence of the free press was proof that his country’s fragile independent media would stand up to anything the Kremlin could throw at it.
Or almost anything. In the three long months that have followed, President Vladimir Putin has launched a catastrophic invasion against neighbouring Ukraine, become a pariah on the world stage and begun a brutal crackdown on dissent back home. Now, Muratov’s team has become a lone and increasingly isolated voice reporting from within the country.
Earlier this week, Novaya Gazetta was issued with a formal warning by the government, urging it not to break the new laws imposed since the start of the war. Under their terms, reporters and editors face up to 15 years behind bars if convicted of printing “fake news” or discrediting the Russian military. In practice, that means a total ban on publishing anything but the line coming from the Kremlin – which is still telling the public that the ill-fated fight is going well. In response, the newspaper has gone to press with blank pages, preferring to print nothing than comply with the measures.
In the West, Russia has long been thought of as a tyrannical autocratic state. But the reality of the country’s messy tangle of vested interests and political influence created loopholes for independent media and criticism of the authorities. Novaya Gazetta itself was bankrolled by former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachov, giving it protection – in Russian parlance, a “krysha”, or “roof”.
Now, though, anything but total support for the government is a sign of treachery, and any progress made by Muratov and the strain of free media he represented has been undone. Many independent news outlets have left the country, while foreign services like the BBC, Bloomberg and Radio Free Europe have suspended their operations in the wake of the new laws that prevent them from doing their jobs.
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It isn’t just journalists feeling the brunt of the crackdown. Ordinary Russians are in the firing line as well. Human rights group OVD.info estimates that the police have carried out 15,095 detentions in the weeks since the offensive began. Many were taking part in anti-war protests, like 78-year-old Yelena Osipova, a survivor of the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, who took to the streets with hand-painted signs and was promptly arrested. Others, however, were seemingly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, with clips showing bicyclists and passersby being led off by police in riot gear.
The machinery of the state has also renewed its focus on opposition figure Alexei Navalny, jailed earlier this year on fraud charges that many external observers say were trumped up in an effort to silence his political activities. Appearing in court on Wednesday, the anti-corruption activist was handed another nine years behind bars on new embezzlement charges. Just days before, investigative news site The Insider found that Putin had issued an executive decree promoting the judge presiding over the case, Margarita Kotova. Navalny’s case was the last she would oversee before receiving her new role.
There had been signs in the weeks leading up to the war that the mood music was changing and a government that tolerated little dissent was tolerating even less. Memorial, an NGO dedicated to the memory of as many as the 1.2 million victims of Stalinist purges and the gruelling GULAG system, was liquidated by a court in Moscow, accusing it of failing to comply with “foreign agent” laws. Now, it seems history is on the verge of repeating itself.
Tens of thousands of Russians have already left the country – wealthy businessmen, young students and skilled workers – while a top IT executive warned this week that the exodus is only just beginning. New communities of exiles have sprung up in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Czechia and the Baltic states, with people fearing economic chaos as their country is shut off from the West and political repression back home.
Putin, however, has been unrepentant. Branding those who have leftas “traitors,” he has doubled down on his chilling rhetoric, saying it is just part of a “natural and necessary cleansing of the nation.” Meanwhile, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has insisted that those who are ashamed to be Russian because of the war “simply aren’t Russian.” Just weeks ago, this kind of attack on a vast section of the population would have been unimaginable but, with the increasingly lacklustre performance of its troops in the field, it seems the Kremlin is more worried about losing the home front than ever before.
And it is easy to see why. Expecting a quick victory and the disintegration of Ukraine’s armed forces, little was done to prepare the population for a long and bloody conflict or the impact of crippling sanctions. Now, though, with the glory of the armed forces in tatters and more and more young men coming home in body bags each day, it is getting harder to sell the attack as a “special operation.” Russians now want to know why their country went to war and whether their livelihoods and living standards were really worth sacrificing in the name of their President’s historical grievances, which many didn’t understand to begin with. Given many have friends, family and colleagues across the border, the news of savage war crimes, besieged cities and lives cut short will outrage the public – if the information gets through.
Those in the inner circle aren’t safe either, having clearly told their President what he wanted to hear, only to have their predictions of an overnight conquest fall far short. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, one of the veteran strongman’s closest confidants, hasn’t been mentioned in state media dispatches for almost a fortnight despite an unprecedented focus on his department. The heads of key security service departments, including the FSB, have also seemingly fallen from grace, with two top-ranking officials reportedly placed under house arrest. Sergey Naryshkin, the quiet but influential head of the SVR foreign intelligence agency, has similarly not been mentioned by government-backed news network RIA Novosti for more than a week.
As Putin lashes out at everyone – from his advisors to his opponents, from his generals to ordinary citizens – it is clear he is prepared to purge anyone he can pin the responsibility for the war on, and do anything to avoid taking the blame himself.