Surviving Putin in exile

Ivan Makridin

 

The news that yet another bill aimed at stifling dissent is now almost law is not surprising to Russians in exile. We are used to facing the Kremlin’s wrath.

Late last year, for instance, the Russian authorities were given the right to take away citizenship from naturalized citizens. Criticizing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine or spreading “disinformation” about the war effort could leave you effectively stateless if you weren’t born into Russian citizenship.

The law currently affects those who “acquired” their citizenship, whose origins lie in other countries. But even before it was passed, Russian-installed legislators from annexed regions of Ukraine proposed expanding it to strip citizenship from anyone who dared to criticize the Kremlin. As a Russian journalist in exile who left precisely to be able to publicly question the actions of the authorities, such laws directly concern me.

When you live in exile, these issues become the soundtrack to your life, always playing in the background. Yes, you must be cautious, and yes, you might find yourself on the foreign agent list that the Kremlin updates nearly every Friday (we dissidents call it “Black Friday”). But these problems seem tame compared to the problems faced by dissidents still in Russia.

And yet, my compatriots in high office continue to find new ways to go after people like me. This month, a Russian court fined an activist who gave an interview to a TV station two months after the station had been deemed “undesirable,” a status the Kremlin invented to criminalize independent media, nongovernmental organizations and other similarly critical groups. Engagement with such entities is punishable by up to four years in prison for a repeat offense. An interview given to any media declared “undesirable” is considered “engagement” with its activities. While reading about the case — even though the sentence was only a relatively small fine ($56) — I remembered that I had given such interviews at least three times. And it only takes two to land you behind bars.

Being a Russian exile also means you now keep a wary eye on the Kremlin as you plan any travel. This month, members of the popular Russian rock band Bi-2 were detained in Thailand. Although they allegedly lacked the necessary documents to perform in the country, it later emerged that the arrests were made at the behest of Russian authorities. Bi-2 left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. The band’s lead singer was dubbed a “foreign agent” after he criticized Putin online, a charge that can lead to a five-year prison sentence. 

I cannot lie, as a journalist who flies frequently, the prospect of an all-expenses-paid extradition trip back to Moscow worries me. But then I asked a friend and fellow exile what kept him awake at night, as the Kremlin flexes its muscles, eager to show that it can go after any Russian exile anywhere. He reminded me that he had recently heard his father was gravely ill. “I probably won’t be able to attend his funeral,” he told me.

GLOBAL NEWS

A group of anonymous pro-Israel cyber vigilantes is harnessing artificial intelligence to wage “digital warfare against antisemitism.” The tactics of the group, known as the Shirion Collective, include doxxing, using whatever information it can glean — for which it claims it is willing to pay up to $15,000 — and “scraping digital fingerprints” to publicly accuse people of being antisemitic. The goal is to intimidate and create suspicion around people who openly support Palestine. And now in Australia, self-proclaimed members of the Shirion Collective say they have met with government ministers to present them with lists of people they accuse of being antisemitic and having effectively committed hate crimes and hate speech.

In the U.S., former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that activists calling for a ceasefire in Gaza were sending “Mr. Putin’s message.” While offering no evidence to back her allegations, she called on the FBI to investigate the financing of pro-Palestine demonstrations and any links to Russia. Video has also emerged of her telling antiwar Code Pink protestors camped outside her house to “go back to China where your headquarters is [sic].” It’s hard to take politicians’ protests about disinformation seriously when they resort to it as soon as they feel flustered.

The Russian Duma passed a bill that gives authorities the power to seize property belonging to people convicted of spreading disinformation about the military. The bill now goes to the upper house of parliament, before landing on President Vladimir Putin’s desk to be signed into law. Spreading disinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine already carries a 15-year jail sentence. As the Duma passed the bill, Boris Nadezhdin, a former local councilor, who has described Russia’s war in Ukraine as “catastrophic,” announced that he had collected the 100,000 signatures he needed to stand against Putin in the presidential election in March.

MAGA’s Swift mania

It’s not U.S. President Joe Biden that Donald Trump supporters have in their crosshairs. It’s not Biden who they say is conspiring to keep their man from retaking the White House. It’s Taylor Swift. The MAGA legions are the most committed Swifties around, following her every move with goggle-eyed fervor. It all began in September, when Swift urged her followers to register to vote and 35,000 responded. Trump and his followers apparently believe Swift will endorse Biden, as she did in 2020, and they’re getting their retaliation in early. Vivek Ramaswamy, who dropped out of the Republican primaries at the first hurdle, described Swift and her boyfriend, the Kansas City Chiefs football player Travis Kelce, as “an artificially culturally propped-up couple.” It was his awkwardly phrased version of the right-wing conspiracy theory, spread by a Fox News anchor, that Swift is a Pentagon asset, a “psyop,” a “front for a covert political agenda.” Or something like that.

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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