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Denounce thy neighbour

More and more Russians are reporting each other to the police — how the number of incidents has grown, and why people are most endangered by their closest friends and relatives

Tatyana Britskaya, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe
Tatyana Britskaya, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe

The woman’s poster reads: “Why don’t we love each other?” Photo: Sergei Mihailicenko / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Husband against wife, mother against son, students against teacher, teacher against student, and finally a man against himself. From the beginning of the war, Russians took to scribbling denunciations with such zeal that Sergei Dovlatov’s question seems to answer itself. (The 20th century Russian writer famously mused: “We endlessly curse Comrade Stalin, understandably, for the purges. And yet, I want to ask—who wrote the four million denunciations?”)

According to the estimates of human rights activists and lawyers, at least 80 criminal cases charging “military fake news” have already been incited, and more than 340 administrative citations for “discrediting the army” have been registered. In a significant number of cases, the denunciations became formal reasons for government checks. Many of them were filled out by friends and family against each other. The sin of Judas.

May, Ufa. The local court fines single mother Regina Ibragimova 15,000 rubles (€240) for sticking anti-war drawings on the windows of her apartment. They are small, almost indiscernible, judging by a photo on the internet. And they wouldn’t have been discerned at all if it weren’t for a neighbour. The vigilant citizen went so far as to write two slanders, one to the police and one to the local commissioner for children’s rights, fretting about the fate of Ibragimova’s son: “How can he grow up to be a patriot with a mother like this?”

“No to war” posters on Regina Ibragimova’s windows. Photo: Regina Ibragimova

July, Odintsovo. The police begin a check on a local woman based on a form submitted by her husband. He doesn’t agree with his wife’s antiwar position and writes that his wife is indoctrinating their son against the Russian government.

Also July, Moscow. A mother writes a denunciation against her son because he is evading the army in “this complicated time.”

Her ulterior motive, it turned out, is economic: the young man in question is unemployed and living with his mother. She succeeds in sending her son to the barracks three months before his 27th birthday. (Conscription in Russia is mandatory up until the age of 27.)

April, Reutov. University student Elmira Khalitova is called to the police because of a form her father submitted — he informed the authorities that the young woman was “calling for the murder of Russians.” Granted, the father himself was drunk as a skunk — and he himself ended up receiving a citation for petty hooliganism after the police searched the contents of Khalitova’s phone and found nothing to prove her father’s accusation.

Such episodes are practically identical to those described in records a hundred years ago. For example, “Stalin’s bodyguard” Aleksey Rybin in his memoirs recalls a case when his agent informed on his own son, who, drunk in a diner, claimed that he could plant a bomb under Stalin’s car. The son was promptly imprisoned.

Interestingly, in medieval Russian law, anonymous denunciations were not accepted — unnamed authors were punished if their identities were later uncovered. The same cannot be said about our time.

For instance, a case against the Ufa journalist Daria Kucherenko for participation in an antiwar protest was opened on the sole basis of an anonymous report — and the judge rejected the defence’s contention that such a process was illegal. We have outdone the middle ages, and in some ways even the time of the Great Terror.

Daria Kucherenko during a picket. Her poster says: “War is the rape and murder of Ukrainian women and men. War is poverty and repression in Russia” Photo: social media

August, Krasnogorsk. A local man denounces himself and asks to be held accountable for two cases of “discrediting”: twice in five days, he applied anti-war graffiti to the wall of a house. He said that he was brought to such pacifism under the influence of alcohol, and that citizens aren’t strong enough to fight these forces without help from the police. The police were not surprised by the impulse, and they conscientiously wrote up a report on the repentant citizen. They don’t teach absurdist literature at the police academy.

Here’s something more traditional. August, Penza. Teacher Irina Gen is put on probation for the antiwar statements she made in a conversation with eighth-graders.

The children recorded it on a cell phone and took it to the police. They opened a case against her for “fake news about the army.” Three years banned from teaching and five years on probation.

This too has already happened. In Gorbovsky’s “Big Encyclopedia of Snitching,” there is an episode devoted to an elderly teacher from Oryol, who disappeared to the Gulag after she allowed her student to learn a poem from an old textbook. The third-grader’s camp counsellor found the word “Trotsky” in the textbook, and took the book to the NKVD.

Denunciations of teachers are old news, but denunciations of students are still not as widespread. The most famous of these was the case in Zvenigorod, in which the father of a third-grader reported his son’s classmate to the authorities after he saw “Glory to Ukraine” in a school group chat. The child and his mother were called to the department but released without consequences.

Russians have made snitching into an art form — and more and more often, the virtuosic role of the vigilante is performed by close friends and family members.

The denunciations, which already echo reports from the Great Terror in their content, are now starting to take on the language of that time too: for example, in instances of contemporary libel, we see phrases like “sabotage”, “scum”, and “traitorous elements”.

And when children act as informants, we are of course reminded of the actions of “young watchmen” — the junior snitches in Soviet times who were rewarded with trips to children’s resorts for denouncing their parents, teachers, and fellow townspeople. Portraits of these young 'warriors against the counterrevolutionaries’ were published in national children’s magazines, books were published with instructions on how to inform, and special summits were organised for especially distinguished informers.

Tonya Chistova wrote to the newspaper that her father was stealing iron from the factory. Her father was imprisoned. Olya Balykina sent as many as 16 people — including her father — to the Gulag, allegedly for the theft of bread. Pronya Kolybin denounced his mother, who had stolen ears of wheat so that Pronya could have breakfast. His mother went to labour camp and Pronya went to summer camp.

“My team taught me how to fight the enemies: Pioneer Olya Balykina uncovers a gang of thieves stealing public property at her kolkhoz”, “A pioneer’s duty” — articles about Olya Balykina in Soviet newspapers.

Articles about Olya Balykina in Soviet newspapers

“Informing on close relatives is always associated with prolonged family conflict,” said psychology Ph.D. Valentina Likhoshva. “Conflict — this is always a developmental step in close relationships. It leads either to people trusting each other more, or — on the contrary — to a rupture. We live in a society with a very low level of psychological education. No one ever taught us how to resolve conflicts. And denunciation is a tool for solving problems. Not to mention the fact that it yields an economic benefit. Let’s say you have a spouse — you’d have to divide the apartment with him if you got divorced. But if he suddenly gets locked up for some very important article, the problem solves itself.”

Researchers of the socio-psychological phenomenon of denunciation, commenting on documents from the 1930s, write that denunciation of kin is rooted in a value system in which individuals have the status of “cogs” in the state machine. The opportunity to ruin someone else’s life bestows a kind of significance — yes, the state could at any time do what it wants with me, but I can have the same power over someone else. This explains the emergence of whole families of denouncers like the Artemov family — mentioned by Gorbovsky — who together informed on 172 people.

“An informer is a socially unprotected person who turns directly to the state,” said Sergei Bondarenko of the particular “social lift” a reformer gets. (Bondarenko is a historian at “Memorial,” an organisation founded in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union to examine human rights violations committed during the reign of Stalin.) “This person receives an answer to his complaint, and in this way he overcomes his loneliness and sees that someone stands next to him after all — that the state is his ally.”

This psychological mechanism is helped along additionally by the state system. Getting the government to resolve a specific issue may be difficult, but getting it to slap a fine on your neighbour is as easy as pie. Denunciation is advertised as a feat: actress and lawmaker Maria Shukshina invited her Instagram followers to report to the FSB the steamboats sailing down the Moskva River that played tracks by Ukrainian performers. Political institutions of all stripes clamoured, each claiming to offer the best system for registering libellous claims. The Saint Petersburg branch of the pro-government party United Russia, launched a chat bot on the social media platform Telegram to receive tips about army-related “fake news”.

And since the spring, A Just Russia party, oozing patriotism, has operated a whole site to collect complaints about a lack of the justice its name proclaims. Complaints will supposedly be forwarded to A.I. Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of Russia. On the site’s main page, a quote from its creator, lawmaker Dmitri Kuznetsov, reads: “This is not about purges. This is about love of country.” The site was launched back in March, but so far it displays only nine anonymous posts, among which are complaints of “anti-Russian content” on the social media platform “Classmates” (also known as OK), Oleg Kulik’s sculpture Big Mother and Marina Ovsyannikova’s anti-war demonstration on Channel One. Zakhar Prilepin, tireless member of “A Just Russia,” started another parallel — albeit more niche — site called “Citizen,” which one might call the cultural section of purgatory: it gathers denunciations exclusively of artists.

So far this too is a paltry collection, and the website’s section header “Report about an agent or accomplice” was recently revised to the bland “Feedback.”

The effectiveness of these “gossip receptacles” is not clear. However, even without the use of the internet, Russians are ready to complain in the old-fashioned way: to deliver a hand-written note to the police about something suspicious or simply unclear. In Moscow, for example, in Moscow, a woman complained because her neighbour’s Wi-Fi network was called “Glory to Ukraine.”

The police arrived at the scene and though they did catch the Wi-Fi signal, they failed to catch its owners. They were unable to determine the apartment from which the traitorous Wi-Fi was radiating.

“Denunciations are motivated by fear,” Likhovsha said. “The story of the person who informed on himself — this is not a private instance of absurdity, it’s a portrait of our contemporary society. In a situation in which we can’t control anything and can’t influence anything, people need to regain some semblance of control. You write a denunciation, and it’s as if you can influence something, can control your life. Plus, the media is constantly talking about spies, saboteurs, traitors. Many people live in fear, with the feeling that they are surrounded by enemies. They need to find a way to relieve this emotional tension. And our society finds (this relief) in the search for internal enemies. This is an effective way to manage the masses; we are not the first to use this method. Remember the hunts for sorcerers and witches.”

The legalisation of snitching, which until recently seemed a completely unacceptable action, did not begin yesterday. The culture of informing truly flourished with the very first article that referred to “fake news.” (These first articles, as we recall, were born during the pandemic and initially dealt exclusively with information about coronavirus and the fight against it.) But it came into circulation even earlier, and one of the first advocates of “direct reporting to authorities” was Russia’s consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor. That bureau published a telephone number in its press releases, right beside the message on another destroyed batch of Polish apples, and it urged citizens to report the appearance of enemy parmesan on their counters. (The sale of EU-made agricultural produce, meat, and poultry has been banned in Russia by Putin’s decree since 2014.) And it worked: for example, there’s the well-known story of the Vladivostok resident who, finding a package of goose in the garbage (which matched the one he’d seen in the reportage about destroying sanctioned goods), and smelling the scent of fried poultry from his neighbours’ house, made the necessary phone call.

Envy, hatred, and hopelessness — these are the three pillars of Russian denunciation. At the beginning, it was a social lift for professional sycophants. Now it’s a consolation amid the unbearable horror of being.

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