06.07.23 Repressions Review

Framing Public Violence: the proliferation of public apologies indicates a normalisation of physical violence towards dissenters

The practice of public apologies, which has been around since the mid-2010s, has become one of the key tools of extrajudicial pressure on anti-war activists, according to OVD-Info. Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, dozens of videos have emerged online in which individuals apologise for their anti-war views and participation in protest actions. Such videos are particularly prevalent in Crimea, which accounts for over two-thirds of the public apologies identified and reported by OVD-Info. This practice is a characteristic of totalitarian regimes and is generally indicative of the use or threat of violence against those 'apologising.' Public apologies are presented to society as an implicit threat of physical violence towards dissenters. In Russia, this practice was initially introduced by the authorities in Chechnya but has extended far beyond the Caucasus region since the onset of the war.

The practice of public repentance was widespread in the Stalinist USSR and Maoist China, and more recently, in theocratic Iran. The authors write about Chechen resident Aishat Inaeva who was compelled to apologise. According to the 'Caucasian Knot' portal, at least 182 cases of forced public apologies have been documented in the Caucasus since 2015, with at least 30 cases in 2022 alone.

With the onset of the war, this practice has spread far beyond the North Caucasus. The first instances of public apologies appeared immediately after the anti-war protests on February 24 of last year. Video footage of rally participants Anastasia Levashova and Zakhar Tatuiko surfaced during that time. Another high-profile case occurred in November 2022 when the TikToker Nekoglayem was subjected to torture in order to coerce an apology for an allegedly offensive video. Videos containing apologies frequently appear on platforms affiliated with the FSB, Investigative Committee, Ministry of Internal Affairs, pro-government media outlets, and Telegram channels presumably linked to law enforcement agencies. OVD-Info is aware of 94 cases of public apologies for anti-war views.

One of the main aggregators of such videos is the network of Telegram channels called 'SMERSH.' Its creators claim to be 'engaged in the search for traitors.' The network’s channels are based in at least 25 regions of Russia and in the occupied territories of Ukraine (in the Zaporizhzhia region and the self-proclaimed LPR and DPR). 'SMERSH' operates particularly actively in Crimea, it has 64,000 subscribers, and posts videos containing apologies several times a week. According to OVD-Info, the highest number of apology videos were recorded in Crimea (66). According to Crimean activist Andrey Belozerov, the increased activity of 'SMERSH' in Crimea is a result of the growing and increasingly prevalent pro-Ukrainian sentiments among the residents of the peninsula. Interestingly, Crimea ranks third, after Moscow and St Petersburg, in terms of the number of cases of 'discrediting' of the military: the courts in the region have heard a total of 365 such cases since the war began.

The reasons for informal pressure to apologise included social media posts (37 cases), anti-war statements (23 cases), Ukrainian symbols (12 cases), or the destruction of war symbols (7 cases). Apologies mostly take the form of videos recorded with a phone against grey walls, presumably in police stations. Initially, the person introduces themselves, stating their full name and date of birth, and then recites a 'repentance' text that sounds like a quote from an administrative protocol. For example, Vladimir Gordeev, who was accused of attempted arson at a military commissariat, used the legalese 'splashed with a flammable mixture,' while Alina Khimina from Crimea mentioned a 'prohibited social network.' It is likely that people read the apology text from a piece of paper: they lower their eyes, may stumble over words, and in some videos, it is evidence that they are afraid. For instance, Bogdan Ziza, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for splashing blue and yellow paint on the porch of the Yevpatoria administration, said that law enforcement officers made him record the video several times.

In many cases, it is not known exactly how those who were forced to apologise were coerced. OVD-Info has knowledge of isolated cases where individuals were threatened with criminal prosecution. Moreover, even after issuing apologies, they are not always left alone. At least three individuals — teacher Ekaterina Pavlenko, nurse Anisiya Yankova, and an employee at the Simferopol airport, Natalya — were fired from their jobs after their apologies were made public.

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