Staunton, June 5 – As disturbing as the Putin regime’s abuse of the Russian legal system to go after its online critics, even more frightening is the rise of what might be called “hybrid” repression: the use of anonymous people goaded by the regime and its allies to attack Putin critics with force outside of the law.
Such people and the fact that in almost no case is any official effort made to find them creates a dangerous new situation, one in which individuals who go online and engage in any discussions the Russian regime doesn’t like may fact not only legal jeopardy but more immediate personal threats as well.
Tracking such things, just like tracking Putin’s “hybrid” war with its “little green men,” is difficult, but Aleksandra Gadmazhapova, the correspondent for “Novaya Gazeta” in St. Petersburg provides some details on how this emerging system works by examining several recent cases in the northern capital (novayagazeta.ru/inquests/73333.html).
She begins by asking “who are these people who threaten reprisals against anyone who permits himself to criticize on the Internet the president of Russia, the party of power, and the government?” That question has become urgent, Gadmazhapova argues, because “they have already passed from [threats] to actions.”
On the night of May 31, persons unknown set fire to the car of Yuliya Chernobrodova, a translator, who had earlier attracted verbal attacks for her writing against Putin on the Internet and who had been forced to change her avatar several times in order to hide from these people; but because of a dark site that tracked this, her enemies were able to find her and burn her car.
When she received the earlier threats, Chernobrodova did what any citizen would think to do: she turned to the police. But the police refused to help her because they said she had not provided any concrete details of a threat. Had they been willing to take up the case, they would have found what they needed to bring charges easily enough.
The St. Petersburg translator began her own independent investigation and she discovered that her personal details had been put on a site, whoiswhos.me/, that allowed those who wanted to attack her to find out where she lived and worked and other details about her personal life including her banking data. That is clearly what those who burned her car had done.
She is not the only object of attention of this site, the “Novaya gazeta” journalist says, pointing to an earlier attack on another Petersburg resident who had criticized Putin on the web. Someone “anonymously” posted his photograph and details that allowed some unknown people to attack him. Others have suffered a similar fate, being attacked or having their cars burned.
In each case, these attacks have not been solved, but those who carried them out or sympathized with them have gone online to post new threats to those who criticize Putin and his regime. The implication of these attacks is that more things will follow and that if people persist in criticizing, the consequences will become even worse.
Chernobrodova and her husband tried to reassure their friends and relatives by pointing out that at least they had not been killed “That is already a good thing,” adding that “the most important thing is that such things” like the burning of their car “not be repeated with others” because as they point out, “this is not the first such case.”
Earlier in April, another Petersburg resident had suffered the same thing: his car was burned after he criticized Putin online. And after unknown persons did that, they posted new threats against him and his wife on his personal Internet account. These cases are spreading fear among many and leading to demands that the shadowy sites that support such actions be closed.
Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition Duma deputy, has called for closing whoiswhos.me/, and Yabloko deputies in the St. Petersburg city assembly have sent a letter to the chief of the city’s police force asking for expanded investigations of these attacks. So far, for obvious reasons, the officials haven’t taken any such steps, a position that only makes these attacks more disturbing.