Russia’s Fight Against Critics now Includes People who Dream about Zelensky

Published: 09 February 2023

Volodymir Zelensky SmileDreaming of Ukrainian President Zelensky and talking publicly about that dream can be punished in Russia. (Photo: President of Ukraine, Flickr, License)

By Zdravko Ljubas

Russia’s persecution of critics of the Kremlin or of the invasion of Ukraine is lately taking bizarre twists, with Russians living abroad being sentenced in absentia for spreading fake news to people in Russia paying fines for dreaming about Volodimir Zelensky.

Ivan Losev from the Siberian city of Chita, was fined 70,000 Russian rubles (US$975) for publicly recounting his dream involving president Zelensky, independent online newspaper, the Moscow Times, reported Tuesday.

“I had a dream today that I had been drafted and taken to a training camp, and then the Ukrainian armed forces led by Zelensky stormed in,” Losev reportedly wrote on Instagram in December.

Even “worse”, he dreamed of hailing Zelensky, who was yelling “Glory to the heroes!” (Heróyam sláva!), which is the answer to the Ukrainian national salute “Glory to Ukraine!” (Sláva Ukrayni!).

And that’s what he was fined for.

Then Losev’s mother, Nelli Loseva, was last week fined 35,000 Russian rubles ($489) for liking a post that criticized Russian authorities, according to Siberian RFE/RL affiliate Sibir.Realii. She was reportedly also fined another 30,000 rubles ($419) for liking her son’s post about his Zelensky dream.

In a more serious case, prosecutors in the city of Barnaul, in the Siberian Altai region, requested on Tuesday a nine-years-prison sentence for Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist of RusNews, who was detained in April 2022 in St. Petersburg because she posted information about the Russian bombardment of Mariopol on Instagram.

Ponomarenko was accused of spreading “false information,” Russian independent human rights media project, OVD-Info, reported.

In accordance with the amendments to the Russian Criminal Code, passed in March last year, which introduced years-long sentences for reporters and outlets who are “spreading fake news about the actions of Russia’s Armed Forces” in Ukraine, the prosecutor also requested that Ponomarenko be banned from using the Internet to share information for five years.

Just a day earlier, a court in Moscow sentenced a Ukraine-born Russian journalist, blogger and publisher, Veronika Belotserkovskaya, to nine years prison in absentia. Belotserkovskaya has not been living in Russia for years, and reportedly has been running a culinary school in France.

According to the Russian independent news outlet Sota, Belotserkovskaya, whom the regime in Moscow earlier declared a “foreign agent”, was convicted for distributing “false information” about the war in Ukraine.

Belotserkovskaya’s “crime,” like in Ponomarenko’s case, was posting on social media news about the Russian shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol and the Bucha massacre.

“I don’t want to comment on anything. I just don’t see (any) sense in it,” she wrote on her Facebook profile, and asked how she can “comment on this fierce absurdity?”

Then a few days before Belotserkovskaya was sentenced, a Moscow court sentenced another runaway journalist, Alexander Nevzorov, to eight years for the same crime - news about attacks on Mariupol and the Bucha massacre, according to OVD-Info.

Through international law enforcement instruments, Russian authorities have even issued warrants against Belotserkovskaya and Nevzorov, after they pressed charges against them in March last year. Interpol withdrew the warrants in December.

Those not lucky enough to be out of Moscow’s reach have already been jailed, like the author of Protesting MGU (Протестный МГУ) Telegram channel Dmitry Ivanov, who was also accused of posting “false news” about the Russian army and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After being detained in June 2022, 23-year-old Ivanov was initially granted 25 days of administrative custody before being transferred a day later to a penal colony, where he is now awaiting trial.

His detention was last week extended for another three months.

Then a court in Tatarstan’s Kazan sentenced on Monday a Russian Tatar sociologist, Iskander Yasaveyev, to three days in jail, for inciting hatred in an analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, published in June on RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities website, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) – New York-based non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists worldwide.

In October last year Russian authorities declared Yasaveyev a “foreign agent”.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, or as Kremlin calls it “special military operation”, on February 24, 2022, more than 19,530 people have been arrested throughout the country, including journalists, activists or ordinary people who dared to publicly oppose the mobilization and the war in Ukraine, according to OVD-Info.

The number keeps growing from day to day, as well as the number of politically-motivated trials before Russian courts, with more than 50 scheduled for the forthcoming period.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned in its most recent report, published in January this year, that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine signaled the beginning of a new, all-out campaign to eliminate public dissent in Russia.

“Russian authorities doubled down in their relentless attack against civic activism, independent journalism, and political dissent, in an apparent attempt to silence public opposition to the war, any criticism of the government, or any expression of social non-conformism,” warned the organization.