This is the hostile, paranoid atmosphere of Russians at war with Ukraine and with one another. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime cracks down on critics of the war and other political dissenters, citizens are policing one another in an echo of the darkest years of Joseph Stalin’s repression, triggering investigations, criminal charges, prosecutions and dismissals from work.
Private conversations in restaurants and rail cars are fair game for eavesdroppers, who call police to arrest “traitors” and “enemies.” Social media posts, and messages — even in private chat groups — become incriminating evidence that can lead to a knock on the door by agents of the Federal Security Service of FSB.
The effect is chilling, with denunciations strongly encouraged by the state and news of arrests and prosecutions amplified by propagandist commentators on federal television stations and Telegram channels. In March last year, Putin called on the nation to purge itself by spitting out traitors “like gnats.” He has since issued repeated dark warnings about internal enemies, claiming that Russia is fighting for its survival.
Since the invasion began, at least 19,718 people have been arrested for their opposition to the war, according to legal rights group OVD-Info, with criminal cases launched against 584 people, and administrative cases mounted against 6,839. Many others faced intimidation or harassment from the authorities, lost jobs, or had relatives targeted, the organization said. According to rights group Memorial, there are 558 political prisoners now being held in Russia.
“This wave of denunciations is one of the signs of totalitarianism, when people understand what is good — from the point of view of the president — and what is bad, so ‘Who is against us must be prosecuted,’” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who, like many Russians, has been designated a “foreign agent” by the authorities.
Kolesnikov describes Putin’s regime as increasingly authoritarian “but with elements of totalitarianism,” and predicts difficult years ahead. “I’m sure that he will not return to normality,” he said, referring to Putin. “He’s not crazy in a medical sense but he’s crazy in a political sense, just like any dictator.”
The flood of denunciations has made public spaces dangerous. Classrooms are among the riskiest, particularly during the state-sanctioned Monday morning class, “Conversations about important things,” when teachers lecture students about the war on Ukraine, Russia’s militaristic view of history, and other topics set by the state.
When I lunched with friends in a Moscow restaurant this month, one friend warily asked a waiter if the restaurant had cameras. It did.
In an office, with no one else in the room, another friend almost inaudibly whispered his antiwar opinions, eyes darting nervously.
When a former class of language students gathered with their retired teacher for an annual reunion recently, all were tense, delicately probing one another’s views, before gradually realizing that everyone hated the war, so they could speak freely, said a Muscovite related to the teacher.
The police in Moscow’s sprawling subway system have been busy chasing reports, assisted by the system’s powerful facial recognition system.
Kamilla Murashova, a nurse at a children’s hospice, was arrested in the subway on May 14 after someone took a photograph of a badge depicting the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag on her backpack and reported her. Murashova was charged with discrediting the military.
A 40-year-old sales manager, Yuri Samoilov, was riding the subway on March 17 when a fellow passenger spotted his phone’s screen background, a symbol of the Ukrainian military unit Azov, and reported him. Samoilov was convicted of displaying extremist material “to an unlimited circle of people,” according to court documents.
In Soviet times, there was a chilling word for ratting on fellow citizens: stuchat, meaning to knock, evoking thoughts of a sly citizen knocking on a police officer’s door to make a report. The shorthand gesture to convey “Be careful, the walls have ears,” was a silent knocking motion.
In contemporary Russia, most reports appear to be made by “patriots” who see themselves as guardians of their motherland, according to Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who is compiling a study of the subject — after being denounced herself last year, for comments she made on the Netherlands-based independent Russian television channel Dozhd.
Arkhipova and research colleagues have identified more than 5,500 cases of denunciations.
A St. Petersburg mother, for example, identified in police documents as E. P Kalacheva, thought she was protecting her child from “moral damage” when she reported posters near a play area depicting Ukrainian apartments destroyed by Russian forces with the words, “And children?” As a result, a third-year university student was charged with discrediting the military.
Arkhipova said she and several university colleagues were all reported by an email address identified as belonging to Anna Vasilyevna Korobkova — so she emailed the address. The person identifying herself as Korobkova claimed to be the granddaughter of a Soviet-era KGB informant, who spent most of his time writing denunciations. She said she was following in his footsteps.
Korobkova offered no proof of identity when contacted at the email address by The Washington Post, making it impossible to verify her story.
The email writer claimed to be a single woman, aged 37, living in a large Russian city, who started writing mass denunciations of Russian opposition figures last year. She claimed to have sent 1,046 reports to the FSB about opposition figures who made comments on independent media blocked in Russia since the start of the war to May 23 — about two denunciations a day.
“In each interview I look for signs of criminal offenses — voluntary surrender and distribution of false information about the activities of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” she said. “If a POW says, for example, that he surrendered voluntarily, then I write two denunciations on him — to the FSB and to the military prosecutor’s office. She boasted that her denunciation led to the liquidation of Russia’s oldest human rights group, the Moscow Helsinki Group, in January.
“In general, the targets of my denunciations were scientists, teachers, doctors, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and ordinary people,” the email writer said. “I feel enormous moral satisfaction when a person is persecuted because of my denunciation: dismissed from work, subjected to an administrative fine, etc.”
Getting someone jailed “would make me very happy,” she wrote, adding: “I also consider it a success when a person leaves Russia after my denunciation.”
Arkhipova said Korobkova spent a lot of effort writing multiple responses to her questions, and saw her goal as deterring analysts from speaking to independent media about the war. “You can find this type of person anywhere,” Arkhipova said. ” They feel as if they are in charge of moral boundaries. They feel as if they are doing the right thing. They’re helping Putin, they’re helping their government.”
A teacher in Moscow region, Tatyana Chervenko, who has two children, was also denounced last summer by Korobkova after she opposed the war in an interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.
“The denunciation said I was involved in propaganda in the classroom. She made up facts. She doesn’t know me. She made the whole report up,” Chervenko said.
Initially, the school administration dismissed the report. But Korobkova wrote a second report to Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, along with Putin, for the abduction of Ukrainian children.
After that, the school leadership sent teachers and administrators to watch over her classes, especially the “Conversations about important things.” They called police to the school. Parents close to the school administration wrote complaints calling for her dismissal. By the time she was fired in December, Chervenko said, she felt only relief. She did not even try to find another job.
She did not contact Korobkova. “I don’t want to feed those demons. I can tell she was so proud that I was fired. That was her goal,” she said. “But the thing that got me was the response of the authorities. After all, who is she? Nobody knows who she is. And yet she filed a report denouncing me and they responded by firing me.”
As in Soviet times, some denunciations appear to mask a grudge or material motive. Prominent Russian political scientist, Ekaterina Schulmann, with more than a million YouTube followers, who is now based in Berlin, was savagely denounced by neighbors in a report to the Moscow mayor after she left the country in April last year and was declared a “foreign agent.”
They called Schulmann and her family longtime “subversive” elements, “acting in the interests of their Western handlers, whose goal is to split our society.” But the heart of the complaint was really a 15-year-old property dispute.
“This is not a political denunciation, but an old economic conflict in which people are trying to seize the moment as they see it, so far without much success,” Schulmann said.
There are dozens of reports in schools — teachers reporting children, children reporting teachers, directors reporting children or teachers — undermining the educational work and sowing divisions, fear and mistrust in school staff rooms, said Daniil Ken, head of the Alliance of Teachers, a small independent teachers’ association, who left Russia because of the war.
“It’s very hard to coexist because, like members of any group, everyone in a school knows what the others think,” Ken said.
The state’s use of snitches and the many random arrests serve as powerful tools of social control, Arkhipova said.
“You can be arrested any moment, but you never know if you’re going to be arrested or not. They target several teachers in several places, just to let every teacher know, ‘Be quiet,’ she said. “And the point is to make everybody feel fear.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.