Sitting in a small courtroom flanked by her two lawyers last month, Olesya Krivtsova was facing a stiff penalty for her fondness for posting on social media. Barely 20 and until this year a university student in northern Russia, she was accused of “justifying terrorism” and “discrediting the Russian armed forces,” and was facing up to a decade in prison.
Her apparent crime? An Instagram post asking why Ukrainians had rejoiced when the main bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea was attacked in October.
The post eventually landed Ms. Krivtsova on the Kremlin’s official list of terrorists and extremists. She was placed under house arrest and forbidden from using the phone or the internet.
Ms. Krivtsova did not wait for a courtroom verdict: Last week, she fled the country.
“I decided to leave because I was desperate,” Ms. Krivtsova said by telephone on Friday from Vilnius, Lithuania. “It is impossible to prove anything to the Russian court.”
As the Kremlin intensifies its crackdown on free speech, social media platforms have become a more frequent target for punishment. The government is increasingly penalizing people for posts it considers critical of the fighting in Ukraine — with fines, imprisonment and, in extreme cases, temporarily losing custody of their children.
In the Ryazan region south of Moscow, for instance, investigators opened a criminal case against a man who posted a joke about the Russian retreat from Kherson, in southern Ukraine. A student who ran an antiwar channel on the messaging app Telegram was denounced by the rector of his university for posts that criticized the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine as well as alleged Russian atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol. This month, he was sentenced to eight and a half years in a penal colony.
The crackdown on social media comes as Russia also moves against activists, rights groups and news media outlets that express or report on antiwar sentiment, part of what critics say is a chilling effort to eliminate viewpoints that diverge from the Kremlin’s propaganda. President Vladimir V. Putin took the opportunity to burnish the state’s messaging this week as he appeared with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, in Moscow.
“This is the logic of intimidation,” said Sergei Smirnov, the editor in chief of the Russian news outlet Mediazona, which reports on the country’s criminal justice system. “We are dealing with a police state that believes that we should simply punish more severely so that there are fewer and fewer people who express their opinion openly.”
Ms. Krivtsova’s case had resonated among rights activists and opponents of the war in Ukraine — as a symbol of bravery for ordinary Russians, but also as a cautionary tale for anyone who would dare follow in her footsteps. Her posts — on a private Instagram story available only to friends — were reported to officials by her fellow students at Northern (Arctic) Federal University, some of whom she knew personally.
The State of the War
“I understand if a person refuses to speak out for his safety, because the consequences are serious not only for the person, but for the whole family, for all their loved ones,” she told journalists before a recent court hearing. “Everything that I’m going through right now is terrible.”
This week, the Russian government added her to the federal wanted list, and a court ruled that she be arrested in absentia, according to Russian news media.
Almost 6,000 Russians have been accused of discrediting the Russian Army since the invasion, according to OVD-Info, a rights group that tracks political repression. Of those, more than 2,000 cases are related to comments posted on social media, the group said.
Russia treats the first charge as an administrative offense, which usually comes with a fine or some prison time. But a repeat offense — which can even involve a social media post from years in the past — carries criminal liability and a potential sentence of 10 years.
There are 447 defendants facing criminal charges for antiwar activity in Russia, according to OVD-Info. Most are charged with “disseminating false information,” but Ms. Krivtsova and several dozen others are charged with “justifying, promoting and inciting terrorism.”
Ms. Krivtsova said she realized that her chances of being exonerated were greatly diminished after train tickets were purchased in her name. She denied buying the tickets and said she believed the security services had done so to imply that she would attempt an escape. The prosecution was unable to provide any evidence showing that she had bought them.
Ms. Krivtsova said she believed that things in Russia would continue to deteriorate for some time.
“When I committed this crime,” she said, referring to the charge of discrediting the military, “the sentence was for three years, now it is five. And I know that things will get worse, that there will be criminal liability not even for public expressions but for private beliefs. Everything is building toward that.”
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the state has placed even tighter limits on free speech, banning websites and social media platforms and making it a crime to share information about the war that did not come from a state source. Though Facebook and Instagram are banned in Russia, people still use them through workarounds, along with Telegram and VKontakte.
The long arms of the bureaucratic state are enforcing the new policies — but they have help from ordinary people who are serving as its eyes and ears. Ms. Krivtsova said she was unaware that a group of students at her university had formed their own group chat to discuss the posts of students who oppose the war with a view toward denouncing them.
Shortly after Mr. Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ms. Krivtsova posted comments on social media condemning the war. On May 9, the day Russia commemorates its contributions to defeating Nazi Germany in World War II, Ms. Krivtsova took her activity a step further: She printed and distributed leaflets around Arkhangelsk, a regional capital on the White Sea, pointing out that there are World War II veterans still living in Ukraine, some of whom had died under Russian shelling. She called for an end to the war.
The next day, officials from the Center for Combating Extremism forced her to “apologize to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on camera,” she said. They also extracted a written confession and charged her with “discrediting” the armed forces.
Ms. Krivtsova continued to express her opinions online, something that had been tolerated before the invasion.
In October, after the Ukrainian attack on the bridge to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, Ms. Krivtsova wrote a post in which she sought to understand the source of many Ukrainians’ glee over the episode, which Moscow considers an act of terrorism. A screenshot appeared in her classmates’ chat group — with the comment that it was surely illegal.
“Denunciation is the duty of a patriot,” one of the students wrote, according to screenshots of the discussion viewed by The New York Times.
One friend in the group saw the chat and warned her. But she did not think her classmates would really go through with it.
The head of her department lauded the students who denounced her.
“Society is a social organism, and it can get sick,” said Artyom V. Makulin, the head of the humanities program. “Every society has an immune system.”
He said he believed students like her had been under the influence of “ideological hypnosis.”
Ms. Krivtsova said she had never met Mr. Makulin personally, but she said that did not stop him from writing a negative character reference about her for her court appearance.
On campus, a vast majority of students approached by a Times journalist said they did not know about Ms. Krivtsova’s case. Those who did said they would not discuss the topic of the war online or even among their friends and classmates.
One freshman history student, Aleksandr, who did not give his surname for security reasons, said it was “beyond scary” to study in an environment where students could condemn you to years in prison.
In Vilnius, Ms. Krivtsova has a lot on her to-do list: finding an apartment, a job and a new set of clothes, because she left in disguise wearing a “terrible, shabby masculine jacket.” She said she had come to terms with the fact that she would probably never see her grandmother again.
But she finally has one thing she could not have in Russia. In a video she posted after her escape, she showed herself cutting off the ankle bracelet she had worn during house arrest. A tattoo of a spider with Mr. Putin’s face that says “Big brother is watching” was visible on her other leg.
She held up a drawing of a broken set of handcuffs accompanied by one word: “Freedom.”