This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
On February 24, everything changed for Irina Bystrova.
The owner of an art studio in the northern Russian city of Petrozavodsk, Bystrova said she had already caught the attention of authorities by joining street demonstrations such as those in support of jailed anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny. She also vocally opposed the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
But when she heard President Vladimir Putin announce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bystrova said, she burst into tears. She took her anger out in her work, adding a caption to an image of Putin engulfed in flames that read “Burn in hell!” and posting it to her social media account.
A month later, her account was blocked and officers from the police and the Federal Security Service came knocking. They searched her apartment and confiscated computers, cell phones, and other items.
Bystrova now faces criminal charges of “calling for terrorism,” and “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” Hers is the latest in a growing number of cases across Russia of authorities targeting people who speak out against the war.
While the charge of calling for terrorism has been used broadly for years to target anti-government activists, the charge of discrediting the Russian armed forces is new. Days after the Ukraine war started, the Russian parliament updated the Criminal Code to include a series of new offenses related to Russian military activity.
More than 15,000 people have been detained across Russia since February 24 for anti-war demonstrations, according to the watchdog OVD-Info.
Some forms of protest are as innocuous as Bystrova’s captioned photo while others take a more provocative stance such as the St. Petersburg artist who doused herself in red paint and chanted “My heart bleeds” in front of the city’s legislature. Another activist was charged after she secretly replaced price tags on a supermarket’s shelves with anti-war messages.
Activists say that acts of protest — both big and small — are likely to become increasingly common as the war grinds on with no end in sight, more and more dead soldiers return home, and average Russians begin to question Putin’s justification for the invasion.
In recent days, courts in the Russian cities of Novokuznetsk and Yugorsk handed down fines on the charge of discrediting the Russian armed forces, OVD-Info said. In both cases, the individuals had posted videos online that expressed opposition to the war.
Bystrova said that when she heard Putin announce the invasion on that day in February, she was just leaving her studio.
“Tears were pouring down that I just could not stop,” she told RFE/RL’s North Realities. “I understood that something terrible had happened, and I couldn’t do anything. And I’m ashamed to say that I am Russian.”
Prosecutors did not answer queries from RFE/RL about the basis for the case against Bystrova, but officials close to the investigation said social media posts were the cause.
Authorities handed Bystrova a formal copy of her charges on March 24, the day after her apartment was searched. She faces up to seven years in prison for the terrorism charge and up to three for discrediting the Russian armed forces.
‘Thrown Into A Meat Grinder’
Last week, a St. Petersburg court ordered that a local artist and activist attend a psychiatric clinic for a court-mandated evaluation. This was the punishment for Aleksandra Skochilenko, who had secretly replaced supermarket price tags with details about the Ukraine war.
One of the tags, which she placed on the bottom of a glue stick in the shop, read, “Weekly inflation has reached a new high not seen since 1998 as a result of our military actions in Ukraine. Stop the war.”
About 2,400 kilometers to the east of Petrozavodsk, Konstantin Gamershmidt, a 22-year-old former theology student, is grappling with multiple cases and multiple fines for his anti-war stance.
On the day of the invasion, he received word from a friend about the attack, and he responded with a post to VK, the Russian social media giant, where he wrote, “No to war.”
“Of course, this did not help Ukraine in any way, but I just wanted to do something,” he said.
In April, he began posting videos to his YouTube channel about social problems in Tyumen, a major Siberian city. On April 18, Gamershmidt recorded a video of himself wearing a traditional Ukrainian folk shirt and speaking out against the war. He called Putin a “bunker dwarf.”
“I could not imagine that the bunker dwarf would start killing my brothers — both Ukrainians who defend their land and Russians, whom [security agencies] mercilessly throw into a meat grinder,” he narrated.
In an interview published June 16 with RFE/RL’s Siberian Realities, Gamershmidt said he’s been fined a total of 70,000 rubles ($1,200) so far and expects a third fine of 50,000 rubles ($900) in the coming days.
“The essence of the accusation is that I discredited the Russian Army. To be specific, in the videos on my YouTube channel I say, ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ ‘Long live Belarus,’ ‘Russia will be free,’ and ‘No to war,’” he said.
“Well, and I also say there that Putin is a beast,” he added.
After being summoned to the local Interior Ministry to talk with investigators, he said, two officers came to his home on May 9 and subjected him to five hours of questioning. They presented him with criminal protocols, informing him of the charges and fines he faced.
He said he would not agree to the charges.
“I will speak more carefully now, because I think the war will go on for another three months at least, so if I am put away [in jail] I am unlikely to be of any use,” he said. “I’ll have to hold my tongue, but not because I’m afraid but because now it’s necessary strategically.”
In Petrozavodsk, Bystrova is fighting to avoid the court-ordered psychiatric evaluation she has been assigned.
“I’m a pacifist. And I love children; when children die, it’s terrible. In my family, five people died in the Great Patriotic War, but I don’t run around shouting, ‘We can do it again,’” she said, referring to World War II.
“On the contrary, as they say in Europe: Never again,” she said. “Why am I not afraid? If I’m afraid, who but me will defend? If everyone is afraid, we’ll never be able to do anything.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It can’t get any worse,” Bystrova said.