Russia’s Center E Suppresses Social Media
It was just before 6 a.m. when police officers raided Daniil Markin’s apartment in Barnaul, a small Russian city some 2,000 miles from Moscow. Markin, a film student who was 18 at the time of the July 2017 raid, had no idea why police had burst into his home. The officers, he says, were in no hurry to explain. Instead, they removed his computers, smartphone and other electronic devices, then drove him to the local branch of the Center for Combating Extremism, a police department within Russia’s powerful Interior Ministry.
Officers from the so-called Center E then informed Markin that he was being charged with hate speech against Christians over a handful of images that he had either reposted or saved to his account on Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which is also known as VK. The earliest dated from 2013, when he was just 13. Markin did not create any of the images, most of which had already been widely circulated online, but he now faces up to five years in prison over the charges, if found guilty.
The online memes that landed Markin in legal trouble may have been offensive to some Christians, but Alexander Yeremenko, his lawyer, says there are no grounds on which to classify them as hate speech. One featured Jon Snow, a character from
Game of Thrones, with a halo and the words “Jon Snow is risen! Truly he is risen!” The caption, a reference to Snow’s magical resurrection in the popular HBO series, was a parody of the words that Russian Orthodox Christians traditionally use to greet each other at Easter. Another depicted three angels smoking marijuana from a bong. Investigators, Markin says, laughed at the pictures as they scrolled through his Vkontakte account.
“To say I was shocked when they told me what I was being charged with would be putting it mildly,” says Markin, whose ongoing trial began in June. On top of the criminal charges, the Russian government has added him to its list of extremists and terrorists, which includes neo-nazis and supporters of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The status means he is barred from using a bank card. Other financial restrictions, which apply to everyone on the list, limit him to withdrawing a maximum of 10,000 rubles ($150) from his bank account a month. “I saved