Snitch Nation: How Putin's Regime Is Getting Russians To Turn In Their Neighbors
The war in Ukraine has launched an epidemic of denunciations in Russia: 145,000 individual reports to the security services in just the first six months of the war. It's the latest evidence of the current regime's Stalinist approach.
On July 30, 1937, a secret Soviet order launched the Great Terror – a period of mass repressions during which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
The order from dictator Joseph Stalin was dubbed, “On repressive operations of former Kulaks, criminals and other anti-Soviet elements,” and aimed to root out enemies of the Communist party by calling on citizens to denounce their neighbors to police and KGB agents, who had to meet arrest quotas set for each Soviet republic.
Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.Sign up to our free daily newsletter.
In slogans, posters, work meetings, newspaper articles, books and films, official media and channels presented the denunciation of suspected enemies as every citizen’s duty to the Motherland.
Without mass participation in the search for traitors, the number of victims of repression and prisoners in camps would have been significantly lower. The Great Terror led to the arrest of 1.4 million people, and the deaths of at least 700,000 – although the real number is likely higher.
Since the beginning of the full-scale war against Ukraine, Russia and its current leader Vladimir Putin have been increasingly compared to Stalin and the Soviet Union during the era of the Great Terror. And the latest proof is in the explosion of similar denunciations by common citizens.
"Professional snitches" hunt for traitors to the homeland
Of course, the scale of totalitarian control and the search for traitors in modern Russia is not even close to what it was in the 1930s and 1940s. But there are alarming similarities: censorship, suppression of dissenters and political repression by the government, as well as broader societal changes.
Combing through forums and social networks to find suspects.
Some dissenters have been able and willing to escape. Some have been jailed. Some are trying to live a quiet life in Russia without attracting the attention of the state. And others readily denounce anti-government or suspicious activities or words of their neighbors, even friends, to the security services.
The Russian government does everything it can to encourage the tradition of snitching. Last year, Roskomnadzor reported that during the first six months of the invasion of Ukraine, Russians sent 145,000 denunciations.
The government has since decided to stop boasting about the figures, but journalists are increasingly seeing criminal cases opened thanks to snitches. Even self-described professional snitches hunt online for potential enemies of the motherland, combing through forums and social networks to find suspects.
On Telegram, Russian anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova posted part of a letter she received from a woman who denounced her to the security services: “I am an unpaid professional snitch … In the first year of the special military operation, I sent 764 electronic denunciations – to the authorities, various organizations (both public and private),” the woman writes.
Heavy sentences for suspected traitors
So why, against the background of authoritarian control of the authorities and the war with Ukraine, has Russian society once again become engulfed in a wave of denunciations? That is the million-dollar question.
In dissident post-Soviet circles, a theory proposed by Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov in the '60 still rings true: “We endlessly curse Comrade Stalin and, of course, for a reason. And yet I want to ask – who wrote the four million denunciations? Dzerzhinsky? Yezhov? Abakumov and Yagoda? Nothing of the kind. Ordinary Soviet people wrote them. Does this mean that Russians are a nation of snitches? Absolutely not. It's just the tendencies of the historical moment … So, God saves us from a time-space situation which disposes us to evil," wrote Dovlatov in his 1982 book The Zone, which depicts life in a Soviet prison camp.
Today, denunciations don’t carry a death sentence – instead, suspected enemies are being sentenced to high-security penal colonies."In St. Petersburg, two people on a ... forum were arguing about the war, and one ended up writing a denunciation on the other. Five years in prison for a man who just chatted about Vladimir Putin's war and monstrous crimes," says Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the Russian publication Mediazona.
A man, detained on suspicion of fraud and criminal conspiracy, at Moscow's Basmanny District Court.
No one is safe
Denounced by her classmates, Olesya Krivtsova, a 19-year-old student from Arkhangelsk, was prosecuted for discrediting the army and justifying terrorism because she condemned the war in Ukraine, reported Mediazona. She managed to avoid prison by fleeing Russia while under house arrest.
"The patriot students just reported that I am what I am – I disagree with the policy of the current state, and that I need to be ‘worked on,’ as they say," Olesya told Mediazona, after she managed to escape from Russia to Lithuania.
In a recent video, Russian journalist Alexander Nevzorov said that the harsher the authorities become, the more fear takes hold of Russians, driving them to collaborate and betray their compatriots.
Russians are prone to denouncing their neighbors.
On Telegram, Nevzorov published a recent denunciation from Moscow: “The collective of tenants of this house informs that a collective lawsuit has been filed against you to Moscow and the authorities of the Russian Federation to investigate and suppress activities carried out by you at night and daytime in your apartment and aimed at discrediting persons living in your neighborhood and having real experience and now participating in clearing historical lands from fascist occupants in Ukraine as part of the Special Military Operation by order of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief our President V.V. Putin.
The banging, grinding, music and shouting in a language similar to Ukrainian, coming from your apartment and audible in the neighboring apartments and common vestibule at different times, can be sabotage. It is threatening the safety of the tenants of the building and putting us in terror!"
Perhaps Dovlatov was right: it is not that Russians are prone to denouncing their neighbors, but that they are victims of this evil time that has befallen their country. But if so, the opposite is also true: the age of evil comes sooner or later for societies filled with hatred and suspicion of others – starting with their neighbors.