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‘It is not possible to stay quiet’: Putin’s first victim of ‘fake news’ law speaks out

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One of the first three people to face a criminal case under Russia’s “fake news” law has said the charges mean she has been “officially declared a decent person”.

“To find out I was the first one to be charged was both amusing and shocking. I joked that I was officially declared a decent person,” said Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a food entrepreneur and blogger with almost 1 million Instagram followers. She was one of three Russians charged under the new law carrying a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, and that marked an escalation in Russia’s crackdown on anti-war dissent.

The investigative committee said the case was opened against Belotserkovskaya over posts published on her Instagram page that “contained knowingly false information about the use of the Russian armed forces”. Belotserkovskaya, who has fiercely criticised Russia’s action in Ukraine, said the specific charges against her could land her in jail for 10 years.

“I am exactly the type of person Putin had in mind when he launched his speech last night. He wants to frame people like me as traitors, the fifth column,” she said from her house in the south of France, where she settled during the pandemic and where she now runs an upmarket cooking school. “I live a good life, post pretty pictures online about food. They now want to portray me as the face of the ‘decadent west’.”

Belotserkovskaya was referring to the speech the Russian president made on Wednesday in which he called for a “necessary self-purification of society”, aimed at western-minded Russians who weren’t “mentally” with the nation.

Putin said: “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouth. I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges.” He added that certain Russians “cannot live without oysters and gender freedoms”.

Vladimir Putin made a speech on Wednesday calling for the ‘self-purification’ of Russian society. Photograph: Russian presidential press office/AFP

Belotserkovskaya said she was “a sensible person. I am definitely not planning on returning to Russia as long as these charges are there”.

She says it was telling that the authorities did not charge a journalist or a politician under the new law, but a food and lifestyle blogger. “They are aiming to punish a much broader swath of society,” she said.

In the aftermath of Putin’s speech, analysts voiced similar concerns that the Russian leader was laying the grounds for a new, even fiercer crackdown at home.

“The Kremlin has de-facto brought back the Soviet term of ‘enemy of the state’ by referring to Russian people as ‘national traitors’,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. “We are entering a new phase of a process that has been going on for a while. The goal is to discredit everyone who voices his opposition against Putin.”

Belotserkovskaya, 51, born in Odesa, is a well-known figure in Moscow high society, counting many socialites as her friends, including Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s political mentor Anatoly Sobchak.

She had been a vocal opponent of the war ever since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, accusing the Russian leader of turning Russian “boys aged 18- 20 into the mincemeat of his imperial ambitions”.

“I am not a political person, I am speaking out as a mother of three sons. Ukrainian children are dying, it is not possible to stay quiet,” Belotserkovskaya said, saying she felt safe speaking out from abroad. “Many of my friends in Russia agree with me but are scared to say anything. I completely understand that.”

The charge against Belotserkovskaya points to the Kremlin’s willingness to go after Russia’s social, business and cultural elites that voice even the slightest opposition against Putin’s war efforts.

One wealthy Russian businessperson, who lived in London but frequently travelled to Moscow, said: “I don’t really feel safe returning to Russia after the speech. The signals were as clear as they get.”

But it is not only the western-minded affluent Russians that could fall victim to a new wave of repression. In stark contrast to the high-profile Belotserkovskaya, the other two Russians charged on Wednesday under the new law were residents of the Siberian region of Tomsk.

One, Marina Novikova, a 63-year-old pensioner from a small industrial town outside Tomsk, was charged with “disinformation” against the military for criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Her posts were published on her personal Telegram channel which counted only 170 subscribers at the time. The third person has not been named.

Kolesnikov said the seemingly random application of the new law served a very specific purpose: to create an atmosphere of fear in society. “The message from the Kremlin is simple: ‘Be afraid, anyone can be next’,” he said. “We will be seeing more of these charges soon. They are just getting started.”