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Forced Apologies and Public Penance as the Kremlin’s Ways to Discipline Russian Society

Maxim Krupskiy
Anastasia Ivleyeva
Anastasia Ivleyeva

Amid Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, erosion of the rule of law is deepening not only internationally but also domestically. This is evidenced by the destruction of independent media in Russia, citizens’ inability to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, and the intensification of political repression against antiwar citizens and anyone who otherwise demonstrates disloyalty to the Kremlin. 

Alongside these practices, which can be considered traditional for authoritarian regimes, an informal practice of disciplining society is actively developing. This practice, existing outside the realm of law, is a new “tradition” of public apologies and repentance. According to the human rights project OVD-Info, between February 24, 2022, and June 2023, ninety-four cases of public apologies for disagreeing with the Russian authorities were recorded.

Breaking a Person from Within

The practice of public apologies in Russia stems mainly from the Chechen Republic, where it has been documented since 2015. The first high-profile case was the apology, on Chechen television, of Aishat Inayeva, a Chechen resident. At one point she had complained publicly about the difficult economic conditions and high cost of living, including housing and utilities costs. She was then forced to retract her words at a televised meeting with the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Over the next few years, public apologies spread throughout Russia. In 2021, following protests in support of Alexei Navalny, the press services of the Investigative Committee and the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs released videos in which detained demonstrators apologized for participating in or calling for protests.

After February 24, 2022, the day of the invasion of Ukraine, a wave of public apologies by people who had previously professed an antiwar position spread over the official media outlets of the Russian security agencies and other platforms. The reasons for apologizing could be anything from expressing an antiwar viewpoint in public to videotaping the work of the air defense forces.

Apologizing publicly is a humiliating procedure. It is meant to be that. Often, people are forced to apologize for things that cannot be formally recognized as crimes. A public apology affects both the person’s own human dignity and his or her public standing. As Russian anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova observes, “You'll support an unyielding opposition leader, but you won’t support a person who bleats something on camera and says he’s wrong.”

Through this practice, the state asserts its claim not only on citizens’ freedoms but also on their consciousness. As a result, people often end up broken from within and unable to resist. 

From Apology to Repentance

At the end of 2023, the phenomenon of public apology in Russia acquired a new form, the public act of repentance. The difference between apology and repentance is that in the latter, a person is forced to admit to a moral offense, such as wearing “indecent” clothing, rather than to a civic one, such as taking part in a protest event.

The phenomenon of public repentance surfaced in December 2023 after a nationwide controversy sparked by the “almost naked” party at the Moscow club Mutabor. Photos of the party participants in revealing outfits, including many famous Russian artists loyal to the Kremlin, hit the internet and became the focus of mass denunciations. Russia’s war supporters claimed that such an event was unacceptable in a country that stands for traditional values and is conducting a “special military operation” against “Nazis.”

One of the party attendees, a rap performer who goes by the name of Vacio (Nikolai Vasilyev), arrived at the venue wearing only a white sock to cover his genitals, an homage to the famous Red Hot Chili Peppers poster from the 1980s. He was charged with petty hooliganism, a misdemeanor, and with spreading “gay propaganda.” The artist, who is twenty-five years old, was incarcerated for twenty-five days and was served a summons to the military recruitment office immediately thereafter. 

Lawsuits were also filed against the organizer of the event, the Instagram influencer Nastia Ivleyeva, for “inflicting moral harm,” with a demand for compensation of one billion rubles (approximately $11 million). The activity of the Mutabor club itself has been suspended for three months by a court order.

A veritable wave of public repentance ensued. The party attendees posted videos on their social media in which they asked the Russian people to forgive their immoral behavior. Some of the artists donated money to emergency relief programs or visited the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Ukraine’s territories annexed by Russia. The club’s owner publicly gave a Moscow church fragments of alleged relics of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker that he had purchased in Vatican City. 

In January 2024 the Russian singer Charlot, arrested for publicly criticizing the Russian authorities, wrote a letter of repentance to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In his address from the detention center, the singer, who is also twenty-five years old, said that he now “writes patriotic works and is ready to perform them later.” He asked to be released but remains in jail. 

Disciplining Russian Society on Many Levels

Public repentance is an instrument of ideological warfare. Young, edgy artists are presented to Russian society as carriers of “Western values.” By publicly shaming them, the Russian authorities purport to demonstrate the West’s degradation and flimsiness and the existential superiority of Russia’s “traditional values.”

At the same time, the Russian authorities are demonstratively going beyond the limits of the law and actually engaging in new practices of state coercion that combine legal and quasi-religious procedures. The Russian nationalist philosopher Ivan Ilyin probably had something similar in mind when he wrote in 1951 about the “Russian law”: “Russian law must save itself from Western formalism, from self-indulgent legal dogma, from legal unprincipledness. Russia needs a new legal consciousness, national in its roots, Christian-Orthodox in its spirit and creative in its purpose.”

By proposing repentance as one of the conditions for returning to Russia, the state offers dissenters a deal, the price of which is betrayal of their beliefs and loss of their civic agency. At the same time, the loan of mercy declared by the state will obviously be issued under the obligation of political loyalty and secured by the threat of severe punishment in case of repeated misbehavior.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Krupskiy

Maxim Krupskiy

Former Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more