Russia Update: Government Further Restricts Internet Freedom

February 4, 2015
Map of Internet Freedom in Russia's regions by Russian Association of Internet Users. February 4, 2015.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week stories ‘Anti-Maidan’ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers and The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features ‘Managed Spring’: How Moscow Parted Easily with the ‘Novorossiya’ Leaders, Putin ‘The Imperialist’ A Runner-Up For Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.

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The restriction of Internet freedom has increased this year, with violence used against some bloggers, say the Association Of Internet Users.

What Russia’s Petro Rubles Have Purchased

Former Russian Nuclear Center Employee Charged with Leaking State Secrets

A former employee of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov in Nizhegorod Region has been accused of divulging state secrets, Radio Svoboda, the Russian-language Service of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Vladimir Golubev has been accused of leaking state secrets in a publication in a scientific journal which he wrote in 2003 for a conference in Czech Republic.

Golubev is a specialist on explosive materials. His lawyer Yevgeny Gubin told Interfax that his client’s work did not contain any classified material.

The scientist’s apartment was searched and his electronic devices were confiscated. He could face up to four years of imprisonment. Gubin said that Golubev had also been fired from his job in 2013, where he had worked since 1975. He is now on a pension.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) did not comment on the case.

Yesterday, Svetlana Davydova, a mother of 7 in the city of Vyazma, was released from pre-trial detention in the KGB’s Lefortovo Prison after being charged as well with disclosing state secrets. Davydova was accused of revealing the location of Russian military intelligence troops near her home who she believed had been deployed to Ukraine.

These type of cases involving information that was already known and disclosed by people without access to classified materials, or who had already long ago published the materials legally point to a heightened level of “spy mania” in the Russian government.

Belarusian Leader Lukashenka to Meet Putin in Sochi
Elderly St. Petersburg Woman, Siege Survivor Charged with Butter Theft Dies at Police Station
An elderly woman who had survived the Siege of Leningrad was arrested for stealing three sticks of butter, and then died at the police station, RosBalt reported.

The story is being widely discussed on Russian social media as it seems to be emblematic of the economic crisis now, where pensions aren’t stretching to meet higher food prices.

Emma Leshina, head of the Leningrad Blockade Residents’ society, which keeps track of survivors, says that the woman, whose name was not given, was a member of her organization. Leshina said the blokadnitsa, as such people are known received a decent pension and lived in a one-room apartment which she kept tidy. She was worried about her health, however (translation by The Interpreter):

The only thing we noted was that she was a bit confused in answering questions. You ask one question and she would answer another, she was absent-minded, and didn’t speak on topic. Now they report that she did this [stole from the magazine–Rosbalt] repeatedly. But we’re hearing about this for the first time. If they had told us that she was stealing something, we would have asked doctors to examine her — we have a social welfare department and a doctor on duty. She should have been examined before bringing her to the police station. We think she had a temporary loss of memory, and when she was brought to the police, she realized what had happened and her conscience got to her.

Leshina thinks that the trauma of starvation during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, could have had an effect on her.

Police said the woman was arrested at the Kronshtadt Magnit store at 15:30 and was suspected of stealing three sticks of butter, worth about 300 rubles ($4.50). She then felt poorly and collapsed, and doctors were unable to revive her.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Memorial Human Rights Group Member Beaten During Court Recess In Dagestan

Ekho Moskvy reports, citing the Interfax news agency, that Murad Magomedov, a member of the Memorial human rights organisation, has been beaten during a break in a court hearing in Makhachkala, Dagestan.

According to Oleg Orlov, one of the heads of the organisation, Magomedov was attacked by five men during the court recess.

Magomedov had been acting as legal counsel in the trial, which was note connected to Memorial’s activities.

He has been hospitalised with serious head injuries. 

— Pierre Vaux

Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s Oldest Human Rights Organization Inspected for ‘Foreign Agent’ Status

The Moscow Helsinki Group, founded in 1976, Russia’s oldest surviving human rights organization, faced an unexpected inspection for “foreign agent” status on February 2, Kommersant reported.

Svetlana Astrakhantseva, the bookkeeper of the group, told reports that
it was “a sudden prosecutor’s inspection,” Interfax reported (translation by The Interpreter).

demand indicates that we are being inspected on the matter of
fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent. We do not receive foreign
funding and on Monday wlil provide the prosecutor’s office everything
that they require from us. I don’t see a threat to our organization in

Translation: The prosecutors are inspecting the Moscow Helsinki Group. They have also come for Grandmother Lyuda.

Ludmila Alexeyeva, 87, is among the oldest human rights leaders in Russia and was among the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was inspired by the pledge of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act to enable citizens to “know and act upon their rights.” More than 50 of members in chapters throughout the former Soviet Union were jailed and sentenced to long terms of labor camp for their human rights reports.

The group suspended itself in 1982 after the arrest of most of its members, including Elena Bonner, wife of Andrei Sakharov, was sent into exile, and then resumed again in the Gorbachev period of glasnost in 1988. The group began publishing annual reports of the state of human rights in most of Russia’s regions, and also focused on prisoners’ rights and conditions and legal aid.

The organization has received foreign funding in the past, but rejected it after the crackdown on NGOs began with the passage of the “foreign agent” act in 2012. Alexeyeva said she would curtail activities rather than register as a “foreign agent.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Lone Picketer in Defense of Artistic Freedoms
Translation:  Lone picket in support of independent figures of culture and free speech.
Punishment for a “Like” — the Travails of Some Russian Internet Users

Yesterday journalist Yegor Mostovshchikov published an article on the news site on the kinds of punishment Internet users have experienced for clicking “likes” or retweeting the wrong material, or taking selfies at the wrong place.

Vitold Filippov, a Russian nationalist activist in Kazan, Tatarstan, who was deputy head of the regional chapter of the party Russian Popular Union, was visited by prosecutors in 2012. Since he had organized various actions, he thought his interrogation would be about street protests, and was surprised that the authorities were concerned about a screenshot he had clicked “like” on related to VKontakte, the most popular Russian social network.

The image, which turned out to be a scene from the film American History X, in which the actor has a swastika on his chest, was deemed “extremist.” 

“The film is anti-fascist in fact, and not banned in Russia, it has even been shown on television; Edward Norton was nominated for an Oscar for his role,” says Mostovshchikov.  On VKontakte, when you click “like” on a picture, it automatically goes into one of the albums on your wall. Filippov even called a computer programmer to his trial to have this explained to the judge, but the court refused to hear the evidence.

In illustrating the story, Meduza included a screenshot — but with the swastika blacked out — this is likely due to Latvia’s laws. Meduza is a Russian-language publication founded by Galina Timchenko and other journalists and editors from the former, who transferred to Latvia after the owners fired Timchenko over coverage of the war in Ukraine.


Here’s a similar screenshot from the fight scene from another site:


While originally Filippov was to be tried under the criminal code for “extremism,” after two months his charge was reduced to an administrative offense for “propaganda of Nazi symbols.” Filippov pointed out that merely clicking “like” didn’t demonstrate any motive to commit the crime, but the prosecutor didn’t buy his argument. Ultimately, he was fined 1,000 rubles. Filippov then left the nationalist party, although he remains politically active, and has found fame as the first Russian to go on trial for a “like.”

Other cases include a nurse who published a selfie from the operating room that included a naked man who died the next day.The nurse admitted it wasn’t “the best act of my life.” She was fired, and protested that there was no law that defined the crime, and that she hadn’t violated other regulations such as on patient confidentiality because the man’s name wasn’t publicized nor was his face visible. Ultimately, she found a job in another hospital. In another, similar case, both the surgeon and the nurse were about to be fired over an operating-room selfie, but 42 of their colleagues protested and they kept their jobs.

Just this week, an opposition activist from Chuvashia named Dmitry Semyonov re-posted a picture of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in a Caucasian hat with an Arabic inscription, “Death to Russian Vermin,” and was accused of “extremism.” We finally found this picture, which no Russian news site wants to risk showing:


Other cases of web censorship include the blocking of the web sites of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and also the blocking of the original Facebook page used to organize a demonstration on behalf of him and his brother after their trial. Facebook management in California agreed to close at the behest of Russian officials; the founder of the page, Navalny’s campaign manager Leonid Volkov, simply started another page and the second time, Facebook left him alone because by that time, there was an uproar over the collusion with Russian censorship.

Another “extremism” case was in Barnaul in April 2014 when Andrei Teslenko was detained by four men in masks, and then had his home searched and all electronic devices as well as books seized. He had already been sentenced in 2013 to a 1,000 ruble fine for re-posting a poster made by Navalny’s foundation about the “crooks and thieves” in the government.

Teslenko decided to go into hiding rather than wait around to find out the results of the FSB’s investigation into his re-posting of a text made by “Anonymous” about the Russian people who were described as  “a cancer”. He was turned in by a “friend” who twice asked him to remove the offending poster, then reported him to the police. He and his family have sought asylum in Ukraine.

Although Twitter has less visibility in Russia, some re-tweets have also led to young people being detained and charged with “extremism,” in one case for a call the change the government.

Stanislav Kalinichenko of Kemerovo was searched and questioned in 2013 for re-tweeting a photo from a May 6, 2013 demonstration with a poster that said “Stop Going to Rallies and Start Acting!” and was signed “First Detachment of the Resistance”. This was enough for an “extremism” charge, although he had not authorized the poster. He was arrested and held in pre-trial detention for a time and has now been released pending trial after signing a pledge not to leave town. A LiveJournal blog has been started in his defense.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Association of Internet Users Releases Annual Report Showing Reduction of Online Freedoms
The Russian Society for Internet Users released a report today February 4 analyzing the level of Internet freedom for 2014.
Translation: Report on Internet freedom in 2014. The number of restrictions of freedom of the Internet have grown 1.5 times.

Translation: Association of Internet Users presents a report, “Freedom of the Internet 2014. The authorities don’t leave the Internet a choice.

What’s striking about the map are the icons of fists in some regions which show where force was used — beatings of bloggers, for example, or raids of offices — in order to stop Internet freedom.

The co-founders of the group, lawyer Damir Gaynutdinov and Pavel Chikov, a lawyer and member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, say the number of incidents of restriction of online freedom has increased by a factor of 1.5, from 1,832 to 2,951. But they also noted that criminal proescution for Internet activism has been nearly halved, from 226 cases in 2013 to 132 in 2014, since there are more cases now for “extremism.”

The authors of the report found a sharp increase in administrative pressure from Roskomnadzor, the state censor and the Prosecutor General’s Office, from 514 incidents to 1,448. These include a variety of problems, from complaints that the child filters were not working in schools to the threat to expel students in St. Petersburg for their social media use.

The war in Ukraine is the factor that led to the increase in incidents. A number of online publications were warned over interviews with leaders of the Ukrainian ultranationalist group Right Sector. Users were also prosecuted for supporting Crimean Tatars. A number of bloggers or journalists suffered beatings. For the first time, the government seemed to make its first serious efforts to issue warnings over preparation for mass actoins.

For the first time in Russian Internet issue, the growth in the number of users has stalled and the number of domains in the .ru zone have decreased.

Internet Live is still showing 10% Internet growth in Russia, but this is an estimate.

Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tatarstan, Kurganskaya and Tyumenskaya regions were the sites of most Internet restriction, say the authors. We note that in some cases these are also areas of high Internet usage and levels of freedom as well, so it stands to reason.

Leonid Levin, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, disagrees with the findings. If sites are shut down for promoting or distributing drugs, that’s unrelated to freedom of speech. He also believes that the economic crisis has caused a reduction in Internet use and also “overcrowding” on the .ru domain, forcing users to migrate to other domain names.

Surveys of these types can be limited; in this case, areas where nothing seems to be happening seem to be “free” but they could just be “not connected” or suffering the after-effects of a crackdown. Chikov recognizes this built-in problem:

Translation: You shouldn’t perceive the map as an illustration of everything that happens. It adds texture and draws attention.

Translation: I understand that. It’s just that IMHO, in this case, it’s showing the trends poorly. If the switch is turned off completely, the map becomes ideal.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick