Why are opponents of the war denounced in Russia?


Since Putin's attack on Ukraine, there have been reports from Russia of denunciations by opponents of the war. DW spoke to an anthropologist, a psychologist and a historian about the reasons for this.

Arrest of a war opponent in Moscow in February 2022

A father reports his daughter because she is against the war in Ukraine. A man reports a dispute with a colleague about the war to the police, and a friend complains about a post on the Russian social network Vkontakte in which he sees a mockery of the letter Z, the symbol of Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine. In all cases there were police interviews but no proceedings.

However, there are also increasing cases in Russia where denunciations have serious consequences. In one of the most notorious, an elderly woman complained about anti-war slogans on price tags in a St. Petersburg supermarket. The performance artist Sascha Skochilenko was then taken into custody and threatened with up to ten years in prison.

But why do Russians actually complain about their fellow citizens? Anthropologist and author of the Telegram channel “(Non)Entertaining Anthropology”, Aleksandra Arkhipova, distinguishes two forms of denunciations: “First, when a person does not publicly report something to the authorities, for example: 'Pyotr ​​listens to Ukrainian radio at night. ' The second form is when people send a signal publicly – for example in social networks.”

“A way to get rid of aggression”

The psychologist Maria Potudina sees denunciations as an outlet: “In Russia it has long been impossible to express one's dissatisfaction directly. Denunciations are a relatively safe means of getting rid of aggression, even if they are not specifically directed at a person.” , she explains in a DW interview. “You can differentiate yourself from others, protect your environment from alternative views, ensure order, exercise control and punish the 'bad guys' who the state considers 'traitors'.”

The psychologist Maria Potudina draws attention to low self-esteem in people

In her opinion, denunciations are all about power and about deciding the fate of others. People would also try to compensate for low self-esteem and “hang on” to a “star” who has greater authority.

As an example, Potudina cites the blogger Gaspar Avakyan, who reported the actor and comedian Maxim Galkin, popular in Russia, for speaking out against the war. The ad is currently being examined by the Russian investigative authorities. Galkin, who strongly condemns the Russian attack on Ukraine, fled to Israel after the war began.   

“Denouncement is also done to gain a material advantage, out of petty revenge and out of an instinct for self-preservation. In the Soviet Union there was a law that made non-reporting a punishable offence. The third and most difficult reason is if someone does it for ideological reasons.” , says anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova.

According to her, denunciations of ideological content are now widespread in Russia. “We're talking about reporting a political offense about which there is no consensus in society, but for which one can be severely punished,” says the anthropologist.

Anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova sees more and more denunciations on ideological grounds

Since the beginning of March, more than 2,000 cases of “discrediting” the Russian army have been opened in Russia. According to activists of the independent Russian project to combat political persecution “OVD-Info”, fines of 35,000 rubles (equivalent to 620 euros) were imposed on average.

According to Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights project, Russian courts deal with around 40 such cases every day. There are also dozens of cases for “fakes” about the war. There have not yet been any verdicts here, but the maximum penalty is up to 15 years in prison. Proceedings in all of these cases were mostly initiated on the basis of denunciations.

“You are almost tempted to do so”

The historian Sergei Bondarenko from the human rights organization “Memorial” points out that complaints are now dealt with much more openly than in the Soviet era, when this was a much more covert instrument. Today the situation is more complex, but no less terrible, because people are actually locked up.

People who expect the state to react to their actions are often denouncers. Most of the time they would want to make up for something, settle a score with someone or use this to climb the social ladder. Bondarenko emphasizes: “The state makes people with threats or promises that it is necessary or possible to denounce, they are almost lured into it.”

Historian Sergei Bondarenko compares today's denunciations with those of the Soviet era

Agree with Maria Potudina and Aleksandra Arkhipova. “Presidential speeches about national traitors encourage all sorts of denunciations,” says Potudina. For Arkhipova, they are “a tool in the cold civil war raging in Russia”.

“The President says we have internal enemies that we have to look for. People look for them, find them, and that's how they calm themselves. That's how they prove their political position is correct and that's how they get satisfaction,” she emphasizes.

According to her, one cannot say that people of a certain age or gender denounce. “One thinks only older people would do this, but pretty much everyone does it. A denunciation bot on Telegram was tested in the Kaliningrad region, and a sudden wave of ads against 'discrediting' the army erupted in this quiet region .”

The anthropologist says more and more verbal statements from the street, from the schoolyard or from songs are being denounced. In these cases, the denunciation is the only thing the investigations are based on.

“There is only the dacha, no war”

“For many Russians there is no war. There is only the dacha, the garden, strawberries to pick, children and grandchildren, but no war. For them it is war when their own children are starving, the husband goes to the front and the house bombed. That's a very convenient way of looking at things,” says Archipowa.

It's much easier to believe that there's no war at all. “It is very difficult to admit that you are a citizen of a state in whose name an insane, schizophrenic war is being waged. Because this destroys all the foundations of loyalty to the state power,” says Archipowa.

According to historian Sergej Bondarenko, “a lot of people are not aware of the horror, what crimes are happening. Most of the time, they maintain that it is a staging.” Television is responsible for this. It blurred the Russians' perception between reality and unreality.

Maria Potudina also confirms the great influence of propaganda. At the same time, she speaks of a defensive attitude on the part of the Russians: “When you see that you've done damage, you have to do something about it. But what can the average Russian do? Attack the Kremlin with a pitchfork? He won't get far. It is very difficult to constantly live with the knowledge that one's country is killing innocent people.”

Potudina calls for avoiding black and white thinking and categories of “good” and “bad” Russians. According to the psychologist, people in Russia would resist the obvious truth and cling to a false image just to keep from going crazy.

Adaptation from Russian: Markian Ostaptschuk