Russia’s transparency is gone. Pro-Putin radicals now attack independent journalists, famous intellectuals, politicians, and civil society activists, and the violence remains unpunished.
On Thursday, dozens of nationalists wearing ribbons of Saint George poured a bottle of green disinfectant over the face of internationally acclaimed novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya. The well-organized attackers cursed high school children and their teachers—visitors to Moscow who arrived from Russia’s regions to participate in a history contest devoted to memories of Stalin’s political repression.
One of the contest’s jury members, Irina Yasina, witnessed the attacks. The wheelchair-bound Yasina said that the radical activists scared her and the students she was working with. “Police did not stop the criminals, that means the state approves of this shameful, ugly attacks on children and women,” Yasina told The Daily Beast. “Russia is closing, withdrawing into some brutal self-isolated world, where young people do not want to remember their own history,” she said.
One part of the country, the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, has already closed its doors for outside observers. Moscow reporters described the republic as “hell,” where locals suffer constant abductions and arrests but can find no sympathy or support from the Russian authorities. A dark new trend is the abduction of Chechen intellectuals who have a different opinion from the republic’s authoritarian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. The most recent cases include a university professor, a well-known poet, and two book publishers.
The veteran human rights center, Memorial, reported 24 abductions in the last three months. But nobody knows the true scale of the epidemic in Chechnya, as there is no independent coverage. “We try every chance to shout to the Kremlin about the horrors in Chechnya, violence against journalists and human rights defenders, but so far we are unheard,” the chair of the Committee Against Torture, Igor Kalyapin, told The Daily Beast. According to the World Press Freedom Index in 2016, conducted by Reporters Without Borders in April, Russia was ranked 148th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, just behind Pakistan.
Rumors are rampant in Chechnya about the detention and severe beating of the poet, writer and musician, Hussein Betelgeriyev. His family believes that he was punished for not attending a pro-government rally, and for criticizing the leadership on social media. Who abducted the famous poet and then beat him for days remained a mystery, as usual. “Betergiriyev was tortured so severely that we could not transport him out of the republic,” Kalyapin told The Daily Beast.
President Vladimir Putin appointed a retired police general, Tatyana N. Moskalkova, to the post of his new human-rights ombudsman. That killed many hopes for any sympathetic ear within government. “Every week, I receive five or six calls from crying mothers pleading with me to find their sons,” said Kheda Saratova, a Chechen human-rights activist. “Not only Chechnya is strangled, the entire country cannot breathe! And now I am supposed to call a police general and ask a former cop to help with our victims detained by police. This is a nightmare.”
Last month, a crowd of young Chechens attacked Russian, Norwegian, and Swedish reporters, the last group having arrived from Moscow to uncover the truth about Kadyrov’s reign of violence. One of the victims, journalist Yegor Skovoroda, told The Daily Beast that a black Mercedes with “666” on the plates followed him and his colleagues around from the first day of their arrival in the Chechen capital of Grozny.
On the third day, a group of 10 to 15 young men in medical masks stopped them. “It took the Chechen-speaking attackers about 10 minutes to smash the windows of our mini-bus, drag us out of it, break our ribs and limbs, and set our bus on fire,” Skovoroda said. “Journalists realize that there is no use to risk lives by going to Chechnya, because local people are terrified their lives would grow even more hellish if they give interviews—more than of personal danger, journalists are concerned of causing harm.”
Chechnya was not the only place where law enforcers put pressure on civil society. This week, the Ministry of Justice recognized The World Of Women, a civil group based in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, as “a foreign agent” involved in political activity. “This is absurd, all we do is we teach women about their civil rights and how to protect themselves from domestic violence,” the group’s leader, Oksana Prishepova, told The Daily Beast.
Both the Kremlin and Chechen leaderships condemned the attack on reporters in March. But weeks passed, and nobody showed any intentions of punishing the attackers. Kalyapin, a member of the Kremlin’s Council on Human Rights and one of Russia’s braves activists, went to Grozny to speak with Chechen officials about the series of abductions and the attack on reporters. But somebody ordered to kick him out the Grozny City Hotel. The receptionist threw Kalyapin’s passport and money on the floor and asked him to leave. Later, Chechens threw eggs, and poured flour and green disinfectant on him.
Last week, Kalyapin told deputy head of Putin’s administration, Viacheslav Volodin, about what he and his colleagues had suffered. “I told [him] that our office in Chechnya has been burnt twice, our vehicle was destroyed, me and my colleagues get publicly attacked for doing our job,” Kalyapin said.
Memorial’s Alexander Cherkasov told The Daily Beast that his group has monitored dozens of political prisoners, and hundreds of victims of abductions, torture, and killings. “The government is responsible for human-rights violations in the army, in Russian prisons, in Muslim republics of the North Caucasus and also in using controlled radical groups to attack reporters, activists, and students,” he said. “The list of human-rights issues is much longer than we can imagine and it seems there are no institutions left to help us.”