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The Kremlin Attacks “Traitors” Within and Without

Ekaterina Kotrikadze
Concert of Dima Bilan “40” in St. Petersburg on May 25, 2022
May 25, 2022 - St. Petersburg: Concert of Dima Bilan “40”

The New Year is Russia’s most important holiday. Millions of people sit down before their TV screens, eat the Russian “Olivier” salad, drink, and, after Putin’s speech, have fun. The New Year’s performance has to be shown on every national TV channel. But this time something went wrong.

Several stars of the pop scene—those who have been a fixture on all major entertainment TV shows—were cut from the programs this year. The whys and wherefores of their absences point to another front in the Kremlin’s war on those who don’t toe the line—“traitors.”

 

Influence Does Not Save One from the Kremlin’s Displeasure

The blogger Nastya Ivleeva, Russia’s answer to Kim Kardashian, organized a party with the dress code of “almost naked.” The party caused a storm of indignation in Russia from ultra-patriots and guardians of morality. Those artists who were seen in pictures taken at the party’s venue, the club Mutabor, were publicly shamed.

Vladimir Soloviev, the Kremlin’s chief pro-war mouthpiece, went after them savagely: “There is a war going on in the country, but these creatures, scum, are organizing all this. How morally deaf do you have to be?! The Supreme Commander-in-Chief raises a glass to our Victory, and you, bastards, who are you cheering for? You can’t even imagine how people hate and despise you!”

Russia’s major pop stars, including Philip Kirkorov and Dima Bilan, posted public apologies. But those gestures did not seem to help them. Until now they have remained silent about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Firmly gripping their cocktail glasses, they believed their silence was enough to let them go on with their old lives.

They were wrong. Now Putin’s security henchmen have come after them. That is part two of the Kremlin’s campaign to get even with those who thought they were safely out of the Kremlin’s reach.

 

There Is No Safety in Leaving, Either

Part one is persecution of those who left the country after Russia brutally attacked Ukraine. According to various estimates, about one million people have fled the country since February 2022. Russia is a large country. The niches vacated by those who left were quickly filled.

Moscow, for example, is seen by many as a blooming metropolis. It might seem that the authorities would have forgotten about those who relocated to other countries. After all, the authorities did not prevent us from leaving. Yet throughout the past year, officials and propagandists were sending curses and threats after those who left. Russia’s security and judiciary organs busied themselves filing criminal cases against the “traitors.”

Putin’s fan club will do its best to discredit and intimidate us. Just as under Stalin, images of an undesirable person disappear from photographs. The idea is to deprive those who were part of Russia’s mass culture and had the courage to oppose the war of any influence on Russian society. Among those who left the country are some top stars, including the singer Alla Pugacheva. Several generations of Russians grew up worshipping “the Diva,” as she was called.

Pugacheva’s departure and that of her husband, Maxim Galkin, who is also a top show business figure in Russia, infuriated the pro-Putin community. Pugacheva herself did not express any direct protest, but her gesture of leaving was enough for the propagandists. Offensive inscriptions quickly appeared on the façade of the TV center Ostankino in Moscow: “Alla, it’s good that you ran away. Alla, we are all tired of you.”

 

Reputations and Livelihoods Destroyed by the Machinery of the State

But it is not enough simply to insult the enemy. Among the Kremlin’s army of media figures is a duo of professional pranksters who call themselves Vovan and Lexus. The former British prime minister Boris Johnson, the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, the singer Elton John, and many other prominent figures are among the hoaxers’ victims. This time they went after Russia’s well-known fiction writers Dmitry Bykov and Boris Akunin. Books by both, especially by the latter, were bestsellers in Russia even after the start of the full-scale invasion.

Using deep-fake technology, the pranksters placed calls with the authors and pretended to be either President Vladimir Zelensky or the head of his administration, Andriy Ermak. The prankers conducted these conversations over Zoom and later claimed to have exposed Russia’s “fifth column.”

Vovan and Lexus must now explain to Akunin’s and Bykov’s millions of readers why their favorite books are banned from bookstores. And all because the authors are against Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine.

After the pranks were made public, events moved rapidly. Bykov and Akunin were immediately charged with extremism and libel against the Russian army. Law enforcement agencies arrived at the publishing houses responsible for publishing the two men’s books to undertake searches. The books are currently being removed from all sales outlets. The force of the entire state apparatus, with the notable help of the FSB as represented by Vovan and Lexus, was brought to bear against Akunin and Bykov.

 

The Kremlin Fears Its Opponents’ True Influence

Denunciations are also on the menu. In the recent past, denunciations have been written against such important authors as Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Dmitry Glukhovsky, and Viktor Erofeev.

Lists comprising hundreds of names are published on the website of the Russian Ministry of Justice. Those lists are added to on a regular basis, generally every Friday. The denunciations are intended to sow suspicion among the public, so that more Russian citizens can be inspired to Google the authors’ names and throw away their books. Independent media outlets, of course, are persecuted too. TV Rain, the channel I work for, was twice declared a “foreign agent” under recent legislation. It was also labeled an undesirable organization, which makes any cooperation with it illegal in Russia.

Enormous forces have been deployed to harass people working for independent media, or the Bykovs and Akunins of Russia, or, say, the actor Anatoly Bely, who was also denounced and publicly shamed for his antiwar stance. Thousands of pieces of paper need to be moved from one place to another, thousands of court hearings need to be scheduled and conducted. The good news is that the Kremlin is afraid of its opponents’ influence. Russia’s politicians know that there is no unconditional support for the Kremlin in Russian society.

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

Ekaterina Kotrikadze

Ekaterina Kotrikadze

News Director and Anchor, TV Rain (Dozhd TV)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and 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 Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more