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Stephen Hall, University of Bath

Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova risked a harsh prison sentence after she interrupted a broadcast on popular state-owned Russian TV network Channel One with a sign reading: “NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here.” State news agency Tass reported that she had been arrested for “public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in order to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, maintain international peace and security”.

In the event she has been found guilty of the lesser charge of “organising an unauthorised public event” and fined 30,000 rubles (£214).

Similar scenes have been playing out all over Russia during the war in Ukraine. A woman was detained for displaying a blank poster in protest at the invasion. Another woman was pulled into a police van when she wanted to speak on camera actually supporting Russia’s “military operation”. Children have been arrested for laying flowers at the Ukrainian embassy. The number of people detained in Russia under new laws banning criticism of the Ukrainian invasion now stands at more than 14,000 according to recent reports.

It feels as if Russia has come full circle since the late 1980s, when the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) as part of his mission to modernise Russia and open it up to the world. Vladimir Putin’s era has, instead, been one of steady, if gradual, repression and the complete erosion of those freedoms.

For years, Putin’s government has increased pressure on the media. Journalists have been murdered, editors pressured and media outlets closed or directly taken over. To enforce this repression, Putin has his Rosgvardiya – the Russian national guard – which he created in a 2016 presidential decree in response to the 2011-2012 protests, the largest since the fall of the Iron Curtain. It now has 340,000 personnel and has become Putin’s most effective tool for quick and efficient repression.

With a silenced or compliant media and a large and effective security force to do his bidding, Putin has achieved considerable if not complete physical and narrative control over Russia. It has been a long process – a little like the “boiling frog syndrome” after the (scientifically disproved) idea that if you put a frog in a pan of cold water and increase the heat it won’t try to jump out until it is too late. Putin has increased the heat significantly of late as part of his planned foreign policy adventurism.

Previously blacklists of websites restricted information from reaching Russian citizens. You could say this was a largely unnecessary measure, even before the Ukrainian invasion, as most Russians get news from state-controlled media, which carries a slavishly pro-Putin line. To plug any gaps in its media stranglehold, the government regularly sent requests to western social media companies to scrub content and impose fines on those companies when these were not implemented. By 2021, the authorities had effectively rooted out most alternative media sources and opposition.

Since invading Ukraine, the Russian army’s failure to achieve a quick victory has led to further measures at narrative control. On February 25, one day into the war, the Russian media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, warned media outlets that publishing false information and not using official sources would result in forced closure. Legislation passed on March 4 allowed the authorities to jail critics of the Russian army for 15 years. Previous legislation criticising the Russian government had a term of 15 days.

Stifling the opposition

The iconic liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy was taken off air on March 3. Despite being owned by Gazprom – which itself is majority owned by the Russian state – the radio station has been a strong independent voice during the Putin era. Its frequency was taken over by state radio outlet, Sputnik.

Similarly, independent television network Dozhd (rain) closed its website under state pressure on March 1 and its director-general, Natalya Sindeyeva, suspended further broadcasts on March 3. For now, the independent investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta is the last independent media outlet operating, possibly due to due to its editor, Dmitry Muratov, having won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in support of free speech. But he has received a letter from the authorities warning about the tone of his paper’s coverage. The newspaper’s output, meanwhile, is treading a very careful line.

Many international outlets like the BBC and CNN suspended coverage after the introduction of the new “fake news” penalties, but the BBC has now resumed English-language coverage in Russia “within strict editorial guidelines”. Facebook and Instagram have been blocked and access to Twitter restricted.

There are also reports Russia will disconnect from the global internet, directing businesses to move their web hosting and business services to Russian servers and switch to a state-controlled version.

End game

Media restrictions have been part of Putin’s toolbox since at least the mid-2000s. Yet the pace of the recent restrictions is worrying. Disconnecting Russia from the global internet would result in people being unable to access foreign media or organise protests.

In response, Russians have begun to purchase virtual private networks. Purchases of these networks, which allow users to create encrypted connections with remote servers anywhere in the world, have increased massively since the invasion. But the vast majority of people will be restricted to consuming the media the Putin government wants them to consume, hence the importance of brave acts of defiance like that of Marina Ovsyannikova.

With control over media and greater capacity for state repression, further coercion and punishment of those who dare to speak out appears the likely trajectory at present. Putin has always said he wants to restore Russian greatness. But he seems more likely to restore the isolation and oppression which eventually contributed to the break-up and downfall of the Soviet Union.

Stephen Hall, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics, International Relations and Russia, University of Bath