The dark underbelly of a nation at war. Mediazona interviews Russian police informants who denounce their fellow citizens
Алла Константинова
The dark underbelly of a nation at war. Mediazona interviews Russian police informants who denounce their fellow citizens
19 April 2023, 11:00

Art by Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Last August, Russia's Internet and media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, reported that during the first six months of the war alone, Russians had written more than 145,000 denunciations. Nearly half of them were about “illegal information,” including the spread of “fakes” about the Russian army, which could be reposts of independent media articles or merely calling the “special military operation” what it really is—a war. These denunciations often result in fines and even prison time. A former teacher, who has reported on more than 900 compatriots—scientists, writers, human rights activists, and even Russian servicemen in captivity—since the start of the invasion in Ukraine, definitely made a significant contribution to this statistic. Mediazona spoke to her and several other informers who put people under investigation or in prison.

“I live in a million-plus city, I work part-time, which means I have free time during the week,” writes serial informer Ksenia Krotova in correspondence with Mediazona. She claims to have sent about a thousand denunciations against Russians in a year of war. “Since I have my own flat and savings, I have free time for denunciations. I am essentially a petty renter—a person living on savings and on the interest from them. I used to work in education for a few years, taught at a college and trade school. I am over 40 years old and have a university degree. I have never worked in the law enforcement agencies, and I don't have any relatives who work there.”

Last fall, Alexandra Arkhipova, anthropologist and Telegram blogger, received a report on herself at one of her work places. It was sent by Krotova, from the woman’s own email address. Arkhipova emailed her back, asked to talk—and received a polite and detailed reply. In her refusal, Krotova flirtishly notes that it is “far too early to delve into personal details because the special military operation has not yet been ended.” But she still blurts out some facts about her persona, without giving any information that could deanonymize her. Separately, she asked Arkhipova not to publish the name she uses to sign denunciations. “I don't want my name to pop up too often in search engine results,” Krotova explains her wish to Mediazona.

She is eager to correspond with strangers, answers late at night and promises to send a “list of answers” to questions. “I'll make it clear from the start: if I don't find it necessary to answer somethig in particular, I'll explicitly say that I won't answer such and such question,” she specifies in advance.

Krotova's letters are long and very detailed. Among other things, she informed Arkhipova that she “does not and has never had a car or a country house”, “is married, has no children”, and “has never been abroad”. The woman also emphasizes that she “does not belong to the nationalities that have the right to be repatriated from Russia,” but “belongs to the middle class that gained prosperity under Putin.”

Not without pride, she described herself as “a professional unpaid informer,” and, as of several months ago, claimed to have sent 764 denunciations in one year. She scribbles them “every two days.” Krotova later clarified for Mediazona that she wrote a total of 922 denunciations between 24 February 2022 and 13 April 2023.

Her main targets are people who comment current events to “media that are considered to be foreign agents” and Russian prisoners of war. “I watch the channel with war prisoners' interviews in order to identify those who surrendered voluntarily and (or) are in captivity, spreading lies about the special military operation,” she writes in one of her letters. “I pass information on them to the Russian authorities to initiate criminal cases—for surrendering and for spreading fakes about the special operation.”

Krotova compares her activities to “using submarines to destroy enemy ships.” She also claims that her goal is to create “an atmosphere of fear in which anyone who appears in the foreign agent media begins to wonder whether their employer or the authorities will recoeve a report on them.”

The woman says she has compiled a list she calls a “file register” to keep track of denunciations, which she also uses to track the effectiveness of complaints. If she gets no answers to her denunciations, Ksenia duplicates them or sends them to other authorities.

“In two days, I watch over 20 hours of footage from YouTube channels of foreign agent media outlets,” she says. “I mark those Russian citizens who appear there and live in Russia, such as the university professor who comments on something, a schoolteacher, etc. I usually don't report those who have left Russia: the authorities can't prosecute them anyway. Moreover, those who have fled actually lose the ability to participate in the Russian protest movement: they have a lot to deal with in a new place. On the other hand, those who have remained in Russia are potential targets for denunciations, because they can be punished: fined, fired.”

Art by Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Krotova admits that she considers Ukraine a “backward” country and that she is “deeply indifferent” to it, since her relatives and friends do not live there. Nor does she feel pity for the Russian prisoners enlisted for the war.

“Mournings about the losses among former prisoners are even pleasing to me,” she admits. “There are a lot of prisoners in Russia, and neither the authorities nor the public aren't doing much in terms of putting them to work somehow. The Soviet system of employment for ex-convicts has collapsed, and no new one has emerged. As a result, these prisoners, after their release, go on to commit new crimes. Their deaths are very beneficial for me as a law-abiding person: they will not come back to my city and crime will be reduced here.”

Krotova assures that she receives no money, rewards or “petting in the form of likes and reposts” for her activities, her interest is “purely material.” She would not want to pay reparations to Ukraine from her taxes if Russia loses the war.

Ksenia also talks about her own pedigree as well: “Denuncation is in my blood, as they say. My grandfather, born in 1922, came from a well-off and not repressed family. He was a Soviet officer at the front from 1942 to 1945. He was also a secret agent of the NKVD, as he told me himself. I even know how he signed denunciations. I shared a flat with him for nearly 20 years, and he made extensive use of the toolkit of complaints to get one or the other from the authorities. I had to help him with that, and that's how I got used to writing complaints, and from that—snitching (if a person can write a complaint, he's sure to learn how to write a denunciation). Of course, my denunciations are different from his. For example, I file them electronically and actively use websites of courts, authorities and universities. This has made it possible to work on a large scale against residents from different parts of Russia.”

A spiral of silence

Alexandra Arkhipova says that the methods of Krotova and others like her seem to be effective, they “silence the pool of experts.”

“A person can speak on a topic that has nothing to do with the war. For example, a doctor talks about gangrene on TV Rain—and then such people like Krotova send a denunciation to that person's place of work and a copy to the police,” the anthropologist reasoned. “The person is summoned and told: ‘Please don't do that again.’ And then he really doesn't, this spiral of silence works.”

Among the reports like this that Krotova already sent is one to the publishing house “Individium”. In the letter, she complained about writer Nikolai Kononov who gave an interview on Radio Liberty about his novel “The Night We Disappeared.” The demand to “terminate the working relationship” with him came to the publisher in January 2023.

Screenshot of a letter from Krotova to the Individuum publishing house

Arkhipova believes that Krotova has no personal relationship to the people she denounces, with the possible exception of Aleksey Mosin, the chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Organization in Yekaterinburg—the letters to him sent in December 2022 and January 2023 show a clear sympathy: “You are a very decent man and have done a lot of good as a teacher and as a scientist. Therefore, I ask you NOT to appear in the foreign media agents on any topic.”

She notes in the letter that if Mosin is prosecuted under an administrative article for “discrediting” the army and ordered to pay a fine, “it will go to the state, which has the right to spend it on financing the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” “And since the European Court of Human Rights does not accept complaints against Russia from 16 September 2022, no compensation will be awarded to you by the ECHR in connection with the administrative fine,” she exhorts the recipient. “Happy New Year to you! You are an excellent historian and a very decent person! I wish you success in science and hope you will remain a law-abiding citizen of Russia.”

Arkhipova believes that Krotova has “a strong fixation” and “believes she is deeply right.” “Let's be honest, that's how our current repression works,” the anthropologist says. “Either we have an employee of the Centre E who conducts keyword searches on VKontakte, or we have these people like Krotova. And, of course, then there are cases when specific activists are simply looked after by the police.”

Mediazona found one denunciation from Krotova, written in March 2022, in the archive of Roskomnadzor's Main Radio Frequency Centre mail, which was leaked by “Cyberpartisans.” According to this letter, the author had used the feedback form on the RCN website to demand the blocking of a mirror of the OVD-Info website.

“I am absolutely against any violation of the law. I fully support the special operation in Ukraine. At the end of 2021, the OVD-Info website was blocked by a court decision in Russia for numerous violations of Russian law. However, OVD-Info (an unregistered association performing the functions of a foreign agent) continued to publish illegal publications—already on a new website,” the text of the denunciation reads.

Aleksandra Arkhipova says she doubted Krotova was a real person until they started corresponding. “There could have been three possibilities. The first one: it's a bot, an algorithm that catches any speech and writes stereotypical denunciations,” she says. “The second is a group of people led by Comrade Major, such a small factory of Prigozhin trolls. And the third is a particular individual. There is Occam's Razor, the first rule of logic, according to which among many explanations the first—the simplest and most uncontroversial—should be chosen.”

Arkhipova says that letters from Krotova make her certain it's a real person. “I don't really understand why an algorithm or a group of security officers would do such a thing, especially in the case of the letter to Mosin–it's very personal,” says Arkhipova. “Why add the Soviet formulas ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘I wish you all the best’ in the end? That's why I entered into correspondence with her, because I thought: if it's a bot or a non-existent person, I just won't get an answer.”

On behalf of the state

Right after the war in Ukraine began, Russian authorities started calling for denunciations of “fakes” about the army. For instance, on 9 March, the government of the Kaliningrad region circulated a message through local media about the launch of a special bot for reports in Telegram. The post stated that it was created due to “the increasing number of cases of dissemination of inaccurate information of provocative and fraudulent nature related to the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine.”

Similar bots were also created in Moscow, Altai, Belgorod, Penza, Saratov, and Samara regions. On March 21, the “Just Russia–For Truth” party launched a website to gather information “about the shortcomings of the authorities” which, among other things, “might have been planned to harm the state.”

That's when the first denunciations began to appear. At first, they were rather harmless. Their authors, for example, did not want to see a garland in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in their neighbor's window or a fence in the same color in their yard. Then reports became more targeted. For example, Tatyana Savinkina, a 77-year-old retiree from Petrozavodsk, was ratted out for placing an anti-war leaflet on her doorstep. A ninth-grader who was passing by on the same day also claimed to have seen her leave an anti-war inscription on a bus stop.

“The girl took a picture of an ‘elderly woman in her 50s or 60s’ on the bus,” wrote Karelian Assembly member Emilia Slabunova. “And under her mother's responsive guidance, she reported the capture of the pacifist to the authorities.” The arguments of Savinkina and her defense that she didn't write anything at the bus stop were not taken into account by the court. Overall, Savinkina was fined three times for an administrative offense (“discrediting the military”), for a total of 60 thousand rubles, and later a criminal case was opened against her.

Following the denunciation of eighth-graders in Penza, a 55-year-old English teacher was given a five-year suspended sentence, while her colleague from Nizhny Novgorod Oblast had to leave Russia after she advised students from the Institute of Transport, Service and Tourism not to go to war in autumn 2022. Arkhangelsk student Olesya Krivtsova, who escaped from house arrest and was denounced by her classmates, also left Russia.

The head of Novocollege, a private college in Novosibirsk, Sergei Chernyshov, believes that “the pattern to complain about everyone is ingrained deeply into the Russian education system.” So he wasn't surprised when someone wrote a denunciation against him after a Facebook post and a school dramatization of the story “The Ugly Duckling.”

“I think there's something like a hundred public stories about denunciations against teachers and students. Let's say we know about every tenth complaint – let it be a thousand complaints, and it's certainly vile and wrong, but there are two million teachers in Russia in secondary schools alone. Although these are all tragedies, people are fired, but we cannot say that it is like the year 1937,” he said in an interview with OVD-Info.

“Everyone is useful in their own place”

Snitching by colleagues and acquaintances is a fairly common reason for prosecution of anti-war statements. For example, Alexei Gorinov, a councillor in Moscow's Krasnoselsky district, was sentenced to seven years in a strict regime colony. Fellow councillors from the ruling United Russia party reported him after he opposed conducting a kid's drawing contest while children were dying in Ukraine. And an employee at the Sokol aircraft plant in Nizhny Novgorod had to resign after colleagues ratted him out for for tearing down leaflets calling for donations to the Russian army.

“Considering such behavior unacceptable, I did what was left to do. I wrote to the authorities,” wrote Sergei Chmykhun on his VKontakte page. His friend, the St. Petersburg digger Oleg Belousov, was detained after Chmykhun's report in June 2022. “As a patriot of Russia who has tried all methods except burying his opponent in the ground, I certainly could not let him continue these outrages. In general, I have never ratted anyone out... My reputation as a digger and an honest man has been known for decades.”

Belousov had a group three disability and lived in St. Petersburg with his 22-year-old son who, for health reasons, needed constant care. During a search, law enforcement officers broke open the door of their flat with a crowbar, Belousov was sent to pre-trial detention centre and, in late March this year, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced him to 5 years 6 months in prison for spreading “fakes” about the military, motivated by political, ideological, or ethnic hatred.

According to the prosecution, on April 3 last year, Belousov wrote a comment in the “St. Petersburg diggers” group on VKontakte: “Putin is the number one traitor who has plundered the country and is a war criminal. And who started these murders? Putler. Can the Russian-speaking cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol be demolished?”

Belousov and Chmykhun, who denounced him, had known each other for several years. Chmykhun calls himself an electronic engineer and says he was helping Belousov with search equipment—until “in early April, after all this Bucha stuff,” an argument about the war broke out between them in the digger group chat room. Chmykhun gets all steamed up and repeats several times that he “warned Belousov for two months not to talk nonsense.”

Igor Kokorin, the administrator of the digger group, told Mediazona that he “blocked both men” after the dispute began. “Our group is devoted to archaeology, not to this topic,” he says. “I deleted the chat, but Chmykhun made screenshots.”

Chmykhun doesn't specify what was in his report: “You can send a [denunciation] on websites, you can come [to the police] or make a call—we have plenty of options.” The digger recalls that he reported Belousov in April 2022 and then “he laughed and shouted for two more months that he would get away with it.”

When asked how he felt upon learning that Belousov was sentenced to 5.5 years in prison, Chmykhun is silent—children's voices can be heard in the background. He only comes to life when asked what he is doing now, saying that after he was blocked from the “St. Petersburg Diggers,” he created his own VKontakte group, but now has “no time” to run it.

“I am involved in helping the Donbas,” his voice becomes softer. “Yes, I am a volunteer.” Chmakhun says he prints equipment for the militia on his home 3D printer around the clock, for example containers for medical supplies. But he doesn't want to go to war.

“Everyone is useful in their own place, that's what the proverb says,” he reasons arrogantly. “Can you make EW? I can! And in that way protect our guys.”

An artist's denunciation

St. Petersburg artist Vadim Grigoriev-Bashun learned of the denunciation from his friend in Germany on March 19: “He phoned me: ‘Vadim, you've been mentioned on Voice of America, something about a scandal at the Erarta museum.’ And he sent me a link. I was like, ‘Wow’!”

Art by Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Grigoriev-Bashun's painting “Bathing the Red Bear” was reported to the police by anonymous visitors to the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg, where the annual Erarta Prize exhibition is currently taking place. The painting, which has caused outrage among art lovers, depicts a huge red bear standing on its hind legs in water. A half-naked man in camouflage trousers and dark glasses is holding the animal on a chain. Both stare unfriendly in the same direction. According to the denunciation, the painting may contain “signs of discrediting the Russian army” and “treason against the motherland,” as the man looks like Vladimir Putin and the bear may represent Russia, the artist said.

“There's also a sculptural object next to the painting—a soldier's helmet filled with blood,” Grigoriev-Bashun tells Mediazona. “It drips over the edge there. And there's also a military camouflage net lying below and connecting everything, that's how the installation came out to be.”

Grigoryev-Bashun notes that he has been painting on military themes for more than a decade now, and “The Bathing of the Red Bear” is two years old. According to the artist, the painting was even part of his personal exhibition in Moscow, at the Central State Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, up until mid-January 2022. “And no one had any questions or doubts then,” he chuckles.

He says that he has not been personally summoned to the police and that all questions are now being resolved by Erarta's lawyers. At the same time, the artist says that he had to delete his phone number from Facebook after he received threatening phone calls from “pseudo-police and super-patriots.” “They called and said that if I didn't stop giving interviews to opposition media, they'd just kill me,” he sighs. “Well, what can I say, some overly ‘patriotic’ citizens obviously slip a gear.”

According to the artist, in a statement to the police, the offended Erarta visitors demanded that the museum's exhibit be given to an expert examination—“to establish the meanings embedded in it.” But the museum refused to do so, the painting is still included in the exhibition. However, viewers vote for it to ger the Erarta Prize far less now, regrets Grigoriev-Bashun.

The genre of denunciation against public figures is also rather popular. Take pro-Kremlin activist Vitaly Borodin, whose mansion worth about 75 million rubles in the Gorki-2 settlement near Moscow was recently discovered by independent media Important Stories. Borodin complained about the actress Lia Akhedzhakova, asking that she be prosecuted under articles on state treason, “discrediting” the Russian army and inciting hatred or hostility.

In addition, Borodin wrote several denunciations against Russian musicians whose concerts were canceled because of the activists complaints, including Diana Arbenina's concert in Kazan. Borodin has also asked the Prosecutor General's Office to check Arbenina under the administrative article on “discrediting” the army. He claims that back in 2014, while performing in Kiev, the singer “asked for forgiveness for her Russian colleagues and expressed unity with the Ukrainian people,” and a year ago, at a concert in Chelyabinsk, she sang a song “criticizing the conduct of military operations in Ukraine.”

Russian rock band Splean's performance at the Wind of Siberia festival was also canceled, but not because of Borodin. The reason was a complaint by Sergey Mayorov, chairman of the Novosibirsk regional Union of Fathers. In a conversation with Mediazona, the man breathes heavily into the phone and says that he is “going to Lugansk right now,” with four autos filled with humanitarian aid, ready to be delivered to “our fighters.” According to Mayorov, the demand to ban Splean's performance came to the Union of Fathers from “activists in the region.”

“Well, activists... with an active life stance,” he mumbled in response to a request for clarification of the word. “Active people, activists by way of life. (Chuckles.) You know!”

According to Mayorov, their organization did not have to send an official request or denunciation—two paragraphs of the VKontakte community post were enough to cancel the concert. “It was just voiced that it's unacceptable, it's not allowed,” he says. “They [Splean] are openly against the SMO, they criticize our actions, they're not happy with them. And they support those people who fled the country, who betrayed our land in a difficult moment. Mentally, they are on the side of our enemy, but physically they are here, making dough. I think it is unacceptable, with the fighting that's going on, for such people to perform and earn money here.”

Text: Alla Konstantinova, with Maxim Litavrin.

Editor: Maria Klimova

Translator: Daria Fomina

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