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'Revenge For My Activism': Extremism Cases Skyrocket In Russia

For more than a year, Leonid Rybakov has been the subject of an extremism case that he says is the Russian authorities' "revenge" for his activism.
For more than a year, Leonid Rybakov has been the subject of an extremism case that he says is the Russian authorities' "revenge" for his activism.

The extremism case against Leonid Rybakov, an activist in the western Siberian city of Tomsk, stretches back more than a year. And there is no end in sight.

Handling the case should have been “a matter of a day, two at most,” Rybakov told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. “We aren’t talking about a murder or even robbery. This is about a post on the Internet. But Judge Maria Tynyanaya has stretched it out over a year and now has postponed it for another month, until February 26.”

In an interview in January, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin described the fight against terrorism and extremism as “one of the foundations of the work of our agency.”

“Concerning extremism,” he said, “we sent 430 cases to court [in 2023], which is 62 percent more than in the previous year.”

That spike comes on the heels of a comparable increase in 2022, the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when 264 people were sentenced in Russia under the extremism and terrorism laws. Moreover, some 1,100 individuals and organizations were added to the government’s register of “terrorists” last year. One of the last of these was 67-year-old writer Grigory Chkhartishvili, aka Boris Akunin, who was put on the list in mid-December. Although not directly related to the apparent spike in extremism, the government’s list of individuals designated as “foreign agents” reached some 13,700 in 2023.

Yet very few of these “extremists” are prosecuted for something they did, according to Yevgeny Smirnov, a lawyer with the legal-aid organization First Department. Instead, he said, the statistics “indicate a tendency toward the mass persecution of people for speech.”

“The majority of the cases are for activity on social media or for public statements, usually about political matters,” Smirnov said. “There are laws against extremism in all developed countries and they are accepted under various international conventions. But they have nothing in common with Russia’s legislation.”

Prosecutions under such laws in Western countries amount to just a handful each year, primarily for those who commit violent hate crimes on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation, Smirnov added.

“In Russia, the laws against extremism are used against those who disagree with the government,” he added.

'The FSB’s Revenge'

Tomsk activist Rybakov’s case seems to fit that pattern.

His ordeal began on June 15, 2022, at 6 a.m.

“There was a knock at the door,” he recalled. “The police. I was caught unawares and let them in. Five guys rushed in – some in uniform and some in plainclothes.”

When he asked them what the search was about, an officer showed him a social media post from March 13 in which he expressed support for Ukrainian defenders of the city of Kharkiv, where he studied for five years in a military academy as a youth.

“‘Take them prisoner if you can,’” Rybakov said, quoting his post urging the Ukrainians to capture the attacking Russian troops. “It was a totally pacifist post. I was talking about taking them prisoner.”

That visit was followed by several summonses to be questioned by prosecutors. By the time he was fined 10,000 rubles ($110) over the post on an administrative conviction for “discrediting” the armed forces, the Federal Security Service (FSB) had already opened a case over the same social media post on more serious charges of “extremism.”

“I asked the FSB prosecutor to close the case since the constitution says you can’t be convicted twice for the same act, and I had already been fined,” Rybakov said. “He went off somewhere and consulted for a while and then came back and said they can’t close the case. And, at the same time, they opened two more criminal cases against me for ‘discrediting.’”

The first hearing in his extremism case was held on February 6, 2023. He faces up to five years in prison.

“This is the FSB’s revenge for my past, for my activism, for the denunciations they have received,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the law. The case has been made up out of thin air.”

'Enemies Get The Law'

Lawyer Smirnov also echoed activists and others who say that the laws on extremism and the other laws being used in Russia to suppress political dissent are selectively enforced. “Friends can do anything,” he said, quoting a Russian maxim. “Enemies get the law.”

In response to complaints that arose when RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan publicly called for a nuclear weapon to be detonated over Siberia in October 2023, officials ordered an “expert analysis” of her statements and found no violation of the law on extremism.

The same month, Russian lawmaker and General Andrei Gurulyov, who has openly called for a return to “Stalinist repressions,” took to the airwaves of Channel One state television and called for the “destruction” of what he described as the 20 percent of the Russian population that does not support President Vladimir Putin. Again, law enforcement officials found no evidence of a crime in Gurulyov’s statements.

Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov (file photo)
Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov (file photo)

“Some people face long prison terms for posting an image on social media, while others face no consequences for advocating mass murder or even genocide,” Smirnov said. “This has nothing to do with the law. It is about their attitudes toward the state’s policies. One expert carrying out an analysis of statements made by a lawmaker or by an activist might come to diametrically opposed conclusions.”

While the overall policy on the application of the laws on extremism is directed from Moscow, local officials can influence the local implementation of those directives to settle political scores, he added.

“They have the opportunity to pressure law enforcement to open criminal cases against political opponents in their regions,” Smirnov said.

A Blogger's Tale

In the spring of 2023, prosecutors filed a case against Yevgeny Brigida, a blogger from the Krasnoyarsk region settlement of Glyaden, on charges of calling for extremism. He faces up to five years in prison for a video he posted on social media that approvingly quoted a statement made on national television by militant pro-Kremlin television personality Vladimir Solovyov.

Since 2017, Brigida said, he has been blogging about local affairs -- and “officials don’t like it.”

“I have never hidden behind someone else’s social media page or anyone else’s back,” he told RFE/RL. “I have always argued with those who came and wrote nasty things. I have always spoken openly, sometimes using harsh language.”

Law enforcement authorities began pursuing Brigida after a regional lawmaker and former top local official, Galina Ampilogova, denounced him in complaints to police and prosecutors in the summer of 2022, he said: “She had been a constant star in my videos and after she moved on to Krasnoyarsk, she decided to get even with me.”

Russian activist and blogger Yevgeny Brigida (file photo)
Russian activist and blogger Yevgeny Brigida (file photo)

Those complaints led to months of summonses and questioning. In April 2023, prosecutors charged him with extremism. After that, he said, he and his relatives were questioned repeatedly. He believes his phone was monitored and that he was often followed.

The case against him centers on a video he made after a local military recruiter, Oleg Tikhonchuk, garnered national headlines for an interview in which he said his office was mobilizing everyone it could get ahold of without even conducting medical examinations. The interview came in the wake of national criticism of how Putin’s September 2022 mobilization order was being implemented and accusations that many men who should have been excused for medical or personal reasons were instead being sent to Ukraine.

Tikhonchuk’s interview was discussed on Channel One by Solovyov and Simonyan, and Solovyov asked whether such recruiters should be “shot.” Simonyan replied that she didn’t think so, while Solvoyov said: “I would shoot them.”

“In my video, I asked: ‘Isn’t it time, as Solovyov said, to shoot such recruiters,’” Brigida said.

“The trial began in December 2023,” he added. “Judge Irina Ivanova decided that in the indictment there wasn’t a clear description of the intent, motives, and goals of the ‘crime’…and sent it back to the prosecutor. Now we are waiting. I am not under any restrictions except for an obligation to appear when summoned.”

As the full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches its third year and Russia carries out a noncompetitive March presidential election in which, barring an extraordinary development, Putin will win a fifth term in office, politically motivated prosecutions under the extremism laws will continue to be used to “stabilize the political situation and restrict the criticism of the Russian authorities online,” Smirnov said.

“The number of people charged under them is determined artificially,” he added. “If the order is given from above, the number of such cases will increase, just as it is increasing now.

“It is all explained by the desire of the authorities to create a regime of fear in Russia so that people are afraid to discuss the government’s actions online or elsewhere,” he said.

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. This story is based in part on reporting by correspondents on the ground in Russia. Their names are being withheld for their protection.

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