Totalitarianism Returns to Russia
War in Ukraine has made the country more like North Korea -- in just a week
"Gradually, and then suddenly," Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises about how a character goes bankrupt. The same could be said about totalitarianism in Russia. Dissident Alexei Navalny was poisoned; numerous journalists were forced out of Russia or killed; the human rights organization Memorial was banned. All of it looked gradual and even illogical, and then the sudden part happened after Russia invaded Ukraine again.
Putin has brought back totalitarianism, shades of which have not been seen since Stalin. Strict censorship is now the law. Those found guilty of spreading "fake news" about the war -- meaning to report on the war as a war and an invasion as an invasion -- can be sentenced to a 15-year prison term. Over 13,000 people have been arrested for anti-war activities since February 24, according to the website ovd.info.
On February 25, the Public Sphere newsletter contained quotes from a Moscow friend on Facebook and Dmitry Muratov, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta, speaking to the independent television channel Rain.
The following week, Facebook was blocked in Russia. Novaya Gazeta, which was one of the few outlets to report on the Russian invasion in Ukraine, deleted all of its Ukraine content. TV Rain announced it was shutting down. In its final broadcast, the channel played "Swan Lake" -- a reference to when Soviet television played the ballet on loop during the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev.
Over the past week, the pace of censorship in Russia has been dizzying. Twitter was blocked. The semi-independent Echo of Moscow radio station ceased broadcasting, having operated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. BBC News announced its journalists could no longer work in Russia and said it was returning to broadcasting on short-wave radio. The Washington Post announced it would no longer put bylines or datelines on its journalists' work from Russia. Bloomberg halted its work inside Russia. Several foreign correspondents left Russia, and others have gone silent on Twitter.
Censorship means that Russians will not have accurate information about the war. Many will continue to support the party line that it is still a "special operation" in eastern Ukraine. While Russian soldiers are the perpetrators of this war, Russians are also victims of misinformation. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty asked several Russians what they thought about the war. Many did not believe it was going on. "Putin knows what he's doing, it must be right," one said. "They're not bombing Kyiv. I don't believe it," said another. (RFE/RL also later announced it was suspending operations inside Russia.)
Other Russians who were not believing the propaganda and feared that borders could be shuttered under martial law have fled the country. International flights by Russian airlines were canceled due to sanctions. Other international flights were packed. Tickets to nearby foreign cities unaffected by sanctions like Yerevan, Armenia jumped tenfold in price, despite airlines adding capacity. Some Russian men were extensively questioned by border guards about why they were leaving and whether they supported the war in Ukraine.
Putin is destroying Ukraine in this war. Ukrainian authorities say that over 2,000 civilians have been killed. The Russian military has bombed significant critical infrastructure that will take years to rebuild. Over one million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the U.N. However, Putin is also destroying Russia. The trauma on both sides of the border will last years.
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