Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year, Anna Korobkova says she has spent her days informing on her fellow citizens.
“In some weeks, I write dozens of ‘donosy,’ in some only a few,” she wrote in an email exchange, using the Russian word for denunciations, a term still fraught with years of history of informers going back even before the rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In just over a year, she’s written 1,013 of them.
Korobkova is perhaps the most prolific of a growing number of Russians who are joining in the Kremlin’s crackdown on critics of the war. The informers are a reflection of the sweeping changes the invasion has brought to Russia, seeking to eradicate once-tolerated hints of opposition from neighbourhoods, schools, universities and workplaces around the country.
Though there are no official statistics, the number of denunciations has grown since the start of the war, driven increasingly by enthusiasts such as Korobkova, motivated by ideology, according to several people close to the security services who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public.
While they account for less than a tenth of the criminal prosecutions under the strict censorship laws imposed since the war, informers have been at the heart of cases that have led to jail time, fines and lost jobs for those targeted, according to lawyers who track the trend.
“Unfortunately, people still write too few donosy,” said Pavel Danilin, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin who’s a frequent guest on state TV talk shows. “This is proper and socially acceptable behaviour.”
A teacher’s report to her principal on a student’s drawing of a peace symbol triggered a court case this year that led to the jailing of the schoolgirl’s father. A ‘donos’ was the basis of a criminal probe that led to the jailing of a prominent poetess for “justifying terrorism” with an award-winning play.
Bystanders overheard a woman praise Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “a handsome young man with a good sense of humour” in a restaurant and turned her in. She was fined 40,000 roubles (R9,950).
Tatyana Chervenko, a Moscow maths teacher, says she was fired from her job after a string of donosy from Korobkova to school and government officials after her appearance on Deutsche Welle, an internet TV channel that Russia has declared a ‘foreign agent.’
“They may have wanted to make an example of me, to scare the other teachers,” she said, noting that she’d refused to conduct special Kremlin-ordered lessons on the war.
Korobkova credits her donosy with leading to five ‘protocols’ or administrative cases against her victims and vows to keep up the effort. She said doesn’t know any of them personally and hasn’t ever seen most. But her name and email address have come up in legal documents and some of her targets have written to her to ask why.
She declined to speak by phone for this article, preferring to comment in writing. While she said she feels “completely safe,” she won’t reveal her age or where she lives, saying only that it’s a large city far from the border areas.
“By exposing enemies, people are proving to themselves first of all that these enemies exist and that they’re doing the right thing
by supporting the war,” said Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist who has not only studied the informer phenomenon but also fallen victim to it.
Korobkova wrote seven emails to deans at the universities where Arkhipova taught, demanding she be fired for “amoral behaviour” — for giving an interview to an internet TV network banned by the authorities. Administrators limited themselves to a request that Arkhipova stop speaking to the media.
“For the moment, donosy are a marginal issue, but there are some clear activists,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the independent Levada Center.
“These people don’t want so see those who say things against the war, they don’t want to hear anything that might shake their picture of the world,” said Alexei Makarov, a historian at Memorial, a human-rights group that’s been closed by the Kremlin. Unlike in the Stalin era, there’s no major state propaganda campaign encouraging informers, he said, but “there’s approval from above and the system reacts positively to donosy.”
President Vladimir Putin has called on Russians to help root out “scum and traitors.” Shortly after the invasion last year, Putin called the process “a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society.”
Russians seem more willing to rat on websites than other citizens, according to statistics from the government’s internet censor. Complaints about “illegal information” posted online, the category that covers what Russian law calls “fakes” about the invasion, doubled to 133,601 last year, according to the agency. The biggest spike came in March, just after the new rules were imposed.
Recent high-profile cases involving informers have revealed some hints of some debate among the elite. Last month, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denounced the practice as “disgusting.” Few others are as open with criticism of the trend, but there are signs it’s still not widely accepted.
At the elite state-run Moscow Institute of International Affairs, which trains the country’s diplomats, the administration quickly distanced itself from a Telegram channel that appeared shortly after the start of the war where students reported on the faculty seen to be insufficiently loyal. But the reporting didn’t stop.
“There are vigilantes who are fighting for ‘purity’ in the ranks of universities,” said Dmitry Dubrovsky, an academic and human-rights activist. “This trend is growing.”
“Informing is in my blood,” Korobkova wrote in a series of long emails after Arkhipova asked about her motivation for reporting on a stranger. Korobkova traces her activism to her grandfather, who she said was a military officer and an informer for Stalin’s NKVD secret police during World War 2.
She said she spends two days at a time watching media outlets branded ‘foreign agents’ on YouTube and then writes her donosy on those who appear. Often, she has to write more than one, because officials either ignore them or refuse to take action.
Her donosy, she said in an email to Arkhipova, “can be compared to the use of submarines for destroying enemy ships: the number of ships sunk was never large but the fear of attack led the enemy to reduce the number of voyages.” Her goal, she said, is to leave the ‘foreign agent’ media unable to attract guests for their programmes.