The Epidemic of Snitching in Russia: How Informants Divide Society and Stifle Dissent

The journalist who wrote this text for us preferred to remain anonymous. After reading the letter, you will probably understand why: in Russia, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to talk about war and call things by their proper names. And it’s not just about speaking out – now you can be punished for a “discrediting” headline, showing disdain or even for remaining silent.

Russians themselves are helping law enforcement authorities to find and hold “non-conformists” accountable. It seemed that informing on others was a thing of the past in the Soviet era, but no, we constantly hear about it now. Here are just a few examples: In Penza, an English teacher expressed her opposition to the war in Ukraine during a class and became the subject of a criminal case after being reported by students. A resident of Ufa hung anti-war posters on her apartment windows and was fined 15,000 rubles after being reported by her neighbor. And for advocating against war in a store, a shopper reported Petersburg artist Sasha Skochilenko, which led to her arrest.

It feels like there’s a real epidemic of snitching in Russia and Russians are constantly reporting on others – on posters, on collections for Ukrainian refugees, on yellow-blue clothing. We decided to understand why this is happening – and how snitching is dividing the already divided Russian society.

In spring 2022, the residents of the Kaliningrad region received an SMS from the local authorities: “Due to the increasing cases of provocations and fraud related to the special operation in Ukraine, for the purpose of verification and blocking, please send the phone numbers and email addresses of the offenders to Telegram of Government of the Kaliningrad region”.

At the link, there is a special bot with the “Georgian” letter Z and the inscription “#WeDontAbandonOurOwn” on its avatar. With its help, any resident of the region who wants to fight “provocateurs and fraudsters” can send a complaint about their neighbor, colleague, acquaintance, or relative. It’s fast and convenient: just press the Start button and write a short text.

Similar bots have appeared in other Russian regions: in the Belgorod, Penza, Saratov and Samara regions, in the Altai Territory and in Moscow. If you live in Yekaterinburg, you can complain through the bot of TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov. And for residents of St. Petersburg, the local branch of “United Russia” launched such a bot, which has already received more than 50 thousand appeals. A significant number of them appear to be jokes. But this does not interfere with the service’s work, insist Edinoros members.

Complaints about Telegram bots can be filed against “fakes”, “discrediting the Russian army” and even “anti-Russian activities” – if, in the opinion of the informant, the media or specific individuals, including on social networks, are spreading all of this.

According to the project “OVD-Info”*, 1,933 administrative cases have been opened in the past two months for “discrediting” the Russian army, and fines have been imposed totaling almost 20 million rubles (the average amount of fine was 34,218 rubles). Such cases are being opened throughout Russia – they have only not been opened in Chechnya, Tuva, and the Magadan region so far. Lawyer and human rights activist Pavel Chikov previously reported about 60 criminal cases “somehow related to protests against the actions of the Russian authorities and their public criticism.”

How many of them were actually initiated based on denunciations? It is impossible to calculate, says the head of the legal department of “OVD-Info” Alexandra Baeva. At least for now. Over time, when human rights activists analyze more materials, it will be possible to give some kind of estimate. But even it will be approximate, because “what legal reflection such bots will find in the case materials is a big question,” explains Baeva. Perhaps, the lawyer says, cases based on denunciations will be impossible to separate from the general mass into a separate category.

But it is not only private individuals who report. “Professional informers” have been working in the country for several years, which the authorities themselves call “cyber volunteers.” They help law enforcement find illegal content on the Internet – “fake” or extremist – using convenient digital infrastructure.

The campaign for “Uberization” of reports started long before the war. In 2021, a special form appeared on the Public Chamber website, through which anyone could report on “fakes” related to the pandemic. The leader of the project’s working group, Alexander Malkovich, then reported that with the help of the corps of cyber volunteers, 13,000 such “fakes” had been identified in the first half of the year. And already in March 2022, the Public Chamber presented fresh statistics on “fakes” about the “special operation in Ukraine”. At that time, more than 1.4 million “fakes” had been identified, which, according to Malkovich, were helping to search for “volunteers.”

At the same time, the government tried to encourage Russians for close cooperation with it. In 2015, a law came into force according to which informants of law enforcement agencies can count their activities towards their work experience. In 2018, an order was issued to reward citizens for assisting the police. And in 2020, the Moscow City Hall took up the modernization of the “Assistant of Moscow” application – so that it was possible to complain not only about improper parking but also, for example, about suspicious gatherings of people. To create motivation for vigilant citizens, the application provides a rating of the best “assistants”. Points are awarded for each request, which can be exchanged for a cap, T-shirt, or free parking.

In the report “Roskomsvoboda” titled “State Shopping”, it is stated that in 2020-2021, the authorities spent 5.6 billion rubles on surveillance and monitoring on the internet. Specifically, 620 million was spent on monitoring social media and the media. “There are specialized search engines,” explains Artem Kozlyuk, the head of “Roskomsvoboda”. “They are designed to search for extremism within various platforms. You enter keywords and the region you want to study, and while sipping coffee, you watch the search results pour in.”

Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, who studies modern informants and shares her observations in the Telegram channel “Unentertaining Anthropology”, says: “Now public attention is drawn to informants, their share is increasing – we think there are a lot of them [now]. But they have always existed. And in the Roman Empire, and under enlightened absolutism, if we talk about world experience. And a year ago in the midst of the pandemic – if we talk about Russia. The last three centuries have been a normal form of interaction between a person and the state.”

Why do people snitch?

Including out of a sense of self-preservation (paradoxical as it may seem)

In mid-March, a literature teacher from one of Russian Orthodox Gymnasiums named Stepan (name changed at the request of the hero) posted an anti-war photo on Instagram. “It was a photo of a poster with a soldier depicted and a caption reading ‘We don’t abandon our own!’ I wrote ‘Fucking shame’ over it in big red letters,” he tells in conversation.

The gymnasium leadership asked the teacher to remove the post, but he refused. The next day, the pedagogical council gathered at the educational institution. Almost unanimously, they voted for Stepan’s dismissal – only three people spoke out against it.

Soon after that, Stepan conducted a private lesson at a café. Two men entered – one of them had his face covered by a balaclava. They approached the table: the first introduced himself as an employee of the Center “E”, and the man in the balaclava did not introduce himself. Right in front of the student, the men took Stepan’s phone away from him and forcibly led him outside, where they bent him in half and put him in a car.

At police office Stepan was put him in a very uncomfortable position and forced him to raise his hands and lean against the wall. They started shouting, “Why are your hands shaking? When you were laying post, your hands weren’t shaking?” – Stepan remembers.

One of the men leaned on the teacher “like on a bench”: “He said, ‘Stepan, what if you get angry now? Then I will have to use force against you. What if you’re a drug addict? What if you want all Russian soldiers to die?’ They unlocked my phone with my finger and started playing the voice recordings I had made earlier for me to listen to. Then they turned me around and began filming me without my consent.”

Stepan was forced to apologize on camera to the employees of the Russian National Guard, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Security Service and the Russian army. Later, this video was “leaked” to one of the Telegram channels.

An administrative case was opened against the teacher under Article 20.3.3 for “discrediting” the army. From the materials of the case, the teacher learned that two parents had written a denunciation against him: “There is a parent who really dislikes me, although they have never seen me in their life. And there is also a parent who works for the FSB. As far as I know, they have cooperated.”

The court found the teacher guilty and imposed a fine of 30,000 rubles. Stepan is currently trying to appeal the verdict.

Experts, whom Kit talked to, agree that “digitization” and “Uberization” really motivate people to write more reports.

“When the telegram channel ‘STOP FAKE’ announced a bot that represents an ideal tool for denunciation, I immediately tried it for research purposes, writing a denunciation against [head of RT] Margarita Simonyan,” says Alexandra Arkhipova. “It took about one minute and forty seconds. This is a very simple tool, and the fact that it is launched through anonymous ‘fact-checking’ channels is an attempt to involve not young, but rather young people in ideological struggle.

But the appearance of special bots for reporting is only technical support. The main thing, of course, is the ideology of denunciation, which is promoted by propaganda. When people are constantly told that there are enemies not only outside the country, but also inside it (President Vladimir Putin’s March speech was about this), they really start looking for these enemies – and, of course, find them.

“A person walks down the street and sees a man in a yellow-blue T-shirt. Or a girl who is listening to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s performance on the subway without headphones. And the person who sees this thinks, ‘They say the enemies are here.’ And they report it to law enforcement,” anthropologist Arkhipova explains the mechanism of denunciation.

According to Nikita Petrov, a historian and member of the society “Memorial”, an informant can settle scores with someone they don’t like in this way. They may also act out of self-preservation: to feel that they are on the side of the strong, that they are part of the system and do not stand out against others. Because standing out now is risky, as “the authorities pay attention not only to words – but even hints”.

“Remember the nineties. Were there any anonymous reports? It was useless to write them in conditions when people chanted “Yeltsin’s gang to trial!” during street demonstrations and nothing was done about it. The return of anonymous reports today is connected with the fact that the authorities are establishing ideologically motivated punishment for thought crimes,” says Petrov.

Moreover, the historian believes that the existing punishment system for speech or written statements creates “space for denunciation” in and of itself – people don’t even need to be particularly motivated. It turns into a vicious cycle: the more often the authorities react to denunciations with criminal or administrative cases, the more active the informers become.

In turn, social psychologist Alexei Roshchin sees specific benefits in denunciations – both for the government and for citizens. This way, the country’s leadership gets a direct channel of communication with people – in conditions where democracy in the country has practically disappeared and there are simply no other channels available.

“The thin stream of people [in power] who understand the state of affairs ‘below’ is drying up more and more, while the power group is becoming more and more self-centered. The search for alternative information that would come from the bottom of society is becoming more active. Such an alternative form becomes denunciations,” he explains his point of view.

But society also needs this channel, believes Roshchin, because informing becomes the only possible form of communication with the state, and the “last hope for advancement on the social ladder, obtaining any preferences from the authorities”.

“All of this was in the 1930s, when people could get an apartment or improve their living conditions for cooperation with the authorities,” he gives an example.

In the human rights project “First Department,” comparisons between modern denunciations and Soviet ones are considered incorrect. “In those times, failure to denunciate was punishable by law. Today, people often do it on their own initiative. The right not to denounce remains with them; now it is solely a matter of choice,” they say.

Historian Petrov sums up: “In this sense, we have descended to the worst years when the authorities cultivate the lowest instincts in people.”

Do informants enjoy what they are doing?

Probably yes – and sometimes relief.

Anthropologist Alexander Arkhipov tries to classify defecations by types.

The first category includes those who write for direct benefit – material or moral. These are the same informants who do it for reward or for a sense of security and belonging to the system.

But there are others – “informants for the sake of art“. “In this case, a person really believes that an ideological crime is being committed. For example, he sees a yellow and blue manicure – and decides that he needs to report it,” says Arkhipova.

In turn, Doctor of Philosophy and teacher Maria Rakhmaninova identifies another type of denunciation. She calls them “innocent” – a person is pushed to such denunciation by poorly reflected ideological discomfort.

Rachmaninoff explains this through an example from his teaching practice: “All mass culture together with teachers is accustomed to the idea that you should always be happy, cheerful and positively studying. And if you don’t feel that way, then you may have some deviation… People who thought they should be positive began to feel discomfort in my classes. They would leave the class and go to a psychologist. And when the staff psychologists – people from special structures – began to inquire about this, they willingly shared their thoughts and feelings with them.”

Historian Nikita Petrov continues this thought: “As soon as some state ideology is established, an assessment of the Soviet past, the current authorities, is introduced – immediately conditions arise in which everyone needs to be forced to think roughly the same way.” Facing alternative points of view, a person feels “uncomfortable,” the historian continues. Denunciation helps deal with this feeling – and eliminate the source of discomfort.

Recently, a report was also made about Rachmaninov – she believes that he was actually “innocent.” The woman taught at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies of the St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions for two years. On the morning of February 24, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Rachmaninov opened a lecture on aesthetics for second-year students with words about the fact that there is a war going on, and this is always a tragedy.

A week later, right during class, the dean’s office called her and said: students complain that Rahmani Nova discusses “political topics” in lectures. “On that lecture, I did not discuss with the students [specifically] the situation in Ukraine – we talked about [British sociologist] Zygmunt Bauman and [historical] cases from the XX century. Naturally, these are political cases. That’s exactly what they reported me for,” Rahmani Nova explains.

In the end, she decided to leave her position herself – because “working in conditions of paranoia, which had now spread to the audience, has become impossible.” “Every day, an aggressive ideological background grew within the walls of the university, and numerous forms of hate speech were becoming stronger. Once at the beginning of my teaching career, I made a promise to myself – to work until the moment I had to compromise with my conscience. Well, it’s time to go,” the woman explains her actions.

Who can become an informer?

Almost anyone.

Creating a social portrait of an informer is a meaningless activity, believes historian Nikita Petrov. According to him, anyone can write an informant’s report and it is impossible to typologize them.

Even entire collectives can be subject to denunciation in such a situation. This is exactly the situation in which Elena Kuznetsova, a nurse in the cardiology department of a regional hospital, found herself.

At the beginning of the invasion, she constantly posted anti-war messages on Facebook and also walked around the city with a backpack that had “No War” written on it in large letters (and once on the street someone even pushed her from behind onto the road while she waited for the green light).

Elena’s superiors didn’t like her behavior, and they asked her to decrease her activity. She closed her Facebook profile and made another anti-war post, after which she was called to the head doctor: “The entire administration of the hospital was there. They told me: ‘If you write anything about the war again, we will not only fire you but also send you to jail‘.” According to Elena’s recollection, a person in uniform was present at the meeting.

Later Elena found out that her colleagues, similar nurses from the cardiology department like herself, reported her. Another hospital employee told her that she overheard the nurses calling the police.

However, Elena wasn’t fired. “I think it’s because our head nurse’s parents are in Ukraine,” she believes. Now the woman continues to write anti-war posts, but in order to reduce risks for herself, she has cut her list of Facebook friends by almost half.

“The prototype image of a snitch is an elderly woman,” comments Alexandra Arkhipova. “It’s not always the case, but such an image exists in our heads, and here’s why. Often, elderly women try to find [new] meaning in life. Marivanna reports a violation of the law, and she feels better. She has, in a way, prevented a crime. And she is needed.”

Social psychologist Alexey Roshchin is confident that in Russian society as a whole, there is a negative attitude towards informants and “snitches.” “In democratic countries, the attitude towards informants is completely different: there, power is built from the bottom up and the authorities themselves are not perceived as something external. If you perceive power as representatives whom you elected, reporting – informing about the fact that somewhere and sometimes we do not want to live honestly – is normal. I am helping the representatives I have elected to restore order. But in Russia it is different: we here can barely make ends meet, survive as best we can, and the authorities hinder us from surviving,” he explains.

Much of this public opinion has been shaped by the so-called criminal culture: in a country with a historical experience of Stalinist camps, “concepts” are still strong in all layers of society, Roshchin is convinced. In the prison system, snitching is stigmatized, and “thieves do not have warm feelings towards the investigative authorities, and any contact with the authorities is considered unacceptable in principle.”

Alexandra Arkhipova objects – there is no collective perception of informing as betrayal in Russia. “We have a large country with very diverse experiences,” emphasizes the anthropologist. At the same time, the informants themselves do not consider that they are doing something wrong – and this is one of the mysteries of their behavior.

Archipova cites the example of a resident of Petrozavodsk who posted anti-war slogans in the entranceway. The elderly resident of the house reported her, and now “fiercely resents” being called an informant.

“Because, from her point of view, she prevented a crime,” explains Arkhipova. “We teach children to do that. If you are walking down the street and see hooligans beating an old woman, you inform the police. The other question is that our ideas about the crime may differ.”

Will there be more reports?

Alas, most likely yes.

Alexandra Bayeva from “OVV-Info” does not believe that the epidemic of denunciations has already engulfed the country. She says that the number of cases filed is not that much higher, but it is profitable for the Russian authorities for people to think so: “Most likely, the authorities want us to think that there are a lot of such cases – that citizens do not support the position against the war and are even ready to participate in punishing dissenters”.

This situation causes even more worry, anxiety, and fear in people. These emotions often motivate people to write denunciations, reminds historian Nikita Petrov: “Since fear has settled in the souls of the majority, the majority [in the future] will be able to become informants.

“Today we live in an atmosphere of universal fear – people are even afraid to answer sociological surveys… This paranoia dictates the society’s justification for war, the justification for the entire course of the state,” he comments.

With time, there will be noticeably more reports, especially anonymous ones, predicts social psychologist Alexei Roshchin. And “there will be less trust in society, more mutual animosity vertically between the upper and lower strata.”

Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova also says that there will be more reports. According to her, in addition to the real war in Ukraine, there is also another one going on – internal, which Arkhipova calls “semiotic.”

“The government convinces us that everything is normal and there is no war. But the ‘semiotic partisans’ try to show with verbal and nonverbal signs that there is a war. This is graffiti that says ‘war’ out loud, prints on walls, the word ‘Bucha’, flowers at Ukrainian monuments, yellow-blue clothing. The semiotic war is designed to break through the information blockade, humanize Ukrainians, show that they are not enemies, and its boundaries are constantly shifting,” explains the anthropologist.

According to Archipova’s estimates, it is these “semiotic signs of everyday life” (such as a yellow-blue manicure) that people often convey. This will only stop in one case: if the opponents of external war manage to win the internal, semiotic war.

“Everyone must acknowledge that a real war is going on and call it exactly by that word. When this happens, there will be nothing left to report on,” sums up Archipova.

Is it possible to maintain one’s freedom and conscience when society is engulfed in fear, and even close relatives inform on each other?

Historian Nikita Petrov advises everyone who is looking for an answer to read (or reread!) Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s pamphlet “Live Not By Lies.”

“People tend to be afraid. That’s why fear spreads quickly in society and takes a long time to go away,” says Petrov. “But it’s important to remember that people who have been reported on need to be protected. For example, if someone reports on a teacher who is teaching your children, you should stand up for them. This is the top priority for human rights organizations and for a healthy society. Condemn those who participate in this lie. Today, reporting is a lie. According to the Constitution, nothing prevents us from expressing our thoughts. Therefore, a spy is a person who should be subject to public contempt.”