TVER, RUSSIA – Anastasia Bubeyeva shows a screenshot on her computer of a picture of a toothpaste tube with the words: “Squeeze Russia out of yourself!” For sharing this picture on a social media site with his 12 friends, her husband was sentenced this month to more than two years in prison.
As the Kremlin claims unequivocal support among Russians for its policies both at home and abroad, a crackdown is under way against ordinary social media users who post things that run against the official narrative. Here the Kremlin’s interests coincide with those of investigators, who are anxious to report high conviction rates for extremism. The Kremlin didn’t immediately comment on the issue.
At least 54 people were sent to prison for hate speech last year, most of them for sharing and posting things online, which is almost five times as many as five years ago, according to the Moscow-based Sova group, which studies human rights, nationalism and xenophobia in Russia. The overall number of convictions for hate speech in Russia increased to 233 last year from 92 in 2010.
A 2002 Russian law defines extremism as activities that aim to undermine the nation’s security or constitutional order, or glorify terrorism or racism, as well as calling for others to do so. The vagueness of the phrasing and the scope of offenses that fall under the extremism clause allow for the prosecution of a wide range of people, from those who set up an extremist cell or display Nazi symbols to anyone who writes something online that could be deemed a danger to the state. In the end, it’s up to the court to decide whether a social media post poses a danger to the nation or not.
In February 2014, when Ukraine was in the middle of a pro-European revolution, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill tightening penalties for non-violent extremist crimes such as hate speech. In July of that year, three months after Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula, he signed a bill making calls “to destroy” Russia’s territorial integrity a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison. The new amendment makes the denial of Russia’s claims on Crimea an even greater offense if the statement is made in the press or online, even on a private social media account.
Many of the shares that led to the recent rash of convictions were of things critical of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
This was true of the articles and images shared by Bubeyeva’s husband, a 40-year-old electrician from Tver, a sleepy provincial capital halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“Andrei Bubeyev thinks that he was charged as an example so that other ordinary citizens would be discouraged from expressing their opinion,” said his lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina.
Bubeyev spent a lot of time online, sharing links to various articles on his VKontakte page and engaging in political debates on local news websites, his wife says.
In spring 2015, he left town to work on a rural construction site. After investigators couldn’t get through to him on the phone, they put him on a wanted list as an extremism suspect. When Bubeyev stopped by to visit his wife and young son at their country cottage, a SWAT team stormed in and arrested him.
His wife now lives alone with their 4-year-old son in a sparsely furnished apartment on the ground floor of a drab Soviet-era apartment block. After her husband was arrested, Anastasia Bubeyeva, 23, dropped out of medical school because she couldn’t find affordable day care for her child, who still wears an eye patch for an injury he suffered when he bumped his head during the raid.
Several months after his arrest, Bubeyev pleaded guilty to inciting hatred toward Russians and was sentenced to a year in prison. His offense was sharing articles, photos and videos from Ukrainian nationalist groups, including those of the volunteer Azov battalion fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Among them was an article about the graves of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and a video describing Russia as a “fascist aggressor” and showing Russian tanks purportedly crossing into Ukraine.
Less than two weeks after the verdict, Bubeyev was charged again. This time, he was accused of calling for “acts of extremism” and “actions undermining Russia’s territorial integrity.” He had shared the picture of a toothpaste tube and also an article under the headline “Crimea is Ukraine” by a controversial blogger, who is in jail now, calling for military aggression against Russia.
“He was interested in politics, read the news, shared things, but he did it for himself. It was like collecting newspaper clippings,” his wife said. “His page wasn’t popular — he only had 12 friends. He couldn’t have aimed to coerce anyone into anything.”
The new charges were soon followed by a damning report on local television station Tverskoi Prospekt. The program showed an anonymous blogger complaining about social media users who voiced their support for Ukrainian troops and were “ready to back a coup in Russia and take up arms and kill people as the Nazis did.” The television report claimed that the blogger’s complaint had prompted the prosecution of the electrician.
On May 6, Bubeyev was convicted and sentenced to two years and three months in prison.
Also this month, a court in the Caspian Sea city of Astrakhan sentenced a man to two years in prison for his social media posts urging Ukrainians to fight “Putin’s occupying forces.”
In December, a court in Siberia sentenced a man to five years in prison for “inciting hatred” toward residents of eastern Ukraine in his video posts. In October, a court in southern Russia sent a political activist to prison for two years for an unsanctioned picket and posts on social media criticizing Putin and calling for southern Russia to join Ukraine.
The articles, photos and videos that landed Bubeyev in prison were posted on his page on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social media network with 270 million accounts.
VKontakte founder Pavel Durov sold the site and fled Russia in 2014, claiming that he had come under presser from the security services for VKontakte to disclose personal data of the users of a group linked to a protest movement in Ukraine. The company is now controlled by the media holding of Kremlin-friendly billionaire Alisher Usmanov.
Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova group, says roughly half of the convictions of hate speech online are about posts on VKontakte, which he said might be because its administration might be easier for the Russian police to deal with than that of foreign-owned social media.
Bubeyev’s defense claimed that the privacy settlings on his account made the articles he shared available only to him and his 12 friends. Sidorkina, his lawyer, said she has no explanation for how the security services found his posts unless they received the credentials to his account from VKontakte.
VKontakte declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.
Russia faced a surge of racially motivated attacks against Central Asian migrant workers in the 2000s, but the crime rates dropped drastically after dozens of neo-Nazis got lengthy prison sentences for extremism.
Rights activists and lawyers who have worked on extremism cases say the drop in violent hate crimes sent police and investigators scrambling to prosecute people for non-violent offenses to show a solid record of tackling extremism.
The Moscow-based Center for Economic and Political Reform said in a 23-page report on extremism law released this month that most convictions for this type of crime resulted in fines or a few days in custody, with the aim of boosting the crime statistics.
But as tensions with neighboring Ukraine heated up, courts across Russia began to hand out more and more prison sentences for hate speech, the report said.
Many of the hate speech convictions do deal with dubious content, but the severity of the punishment doesn’t seem to correspond to the level of public danger posed, said Verkhovsky of Sova.
“These cases are very arbitrary because they are lots more people out there who have done the same thing. Such enforcement of the law does not address or combat radical activities,” he said. “No one knows where the red line is: It’s like roulette.”