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Putin's warning to anti-war Russians evokes Stalinist purges

Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russian military action in Ukraine, in Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow on March 13.
AFP via Getty Images
Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russian military action in Ukraine, in Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow on March 13.

The Kremlin doubled down Thursday on recent statements by President Vladimir Putin that Russian society would benefit from what he called a "cleansing" of "scum and traitors" who align with the West in its criticism of the war in Ukraine.

The reference evoked terrifying memories of the mass arrests of the Stalin era — when repressions were justified for "cleansing" Soviet society of traitors — and it followed new laws criminalizing criticism of what the Kremlin calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Russia has seen an exodus of political activists, journalists, celebrities and entrepreneurs critical of the war or fearing its consequences.

In comments on Wednesday, Putin lashed out at Russians who — the Kremlin leader argued — were "mentally" aligned with the West amid the Ukraine crisis. Putin said their true aim is to work with "the collective West" to destroy Russia from within.

"The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths," Putin said.

"I am convinced that such a natural and necessary cleansing of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges," he said in remarks that more broadly addressed Russia's efforts to counteract Western sanctions.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to clarify Putin's comments, saying they were directed against Russians who had, in one way or another, left the country in a moment of need.

"In such difficult times ... many people show their true colors. Very many people are showing themselves, as we say in Russian, to be traitors," Peskov said in a call with journalists.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov meets with journalists after Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference in Moscow in December.
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov meets with journalists after Putin's annual news conference in Moscow in December.

"They vanish from our lives themselves," he added, noting, "Some people are leaving their posts. Some are leaving their active work life. Some leave the country and move to other countries. That is how this cleansing happens."

Thousands have left the country as authorities crack down on dissent

In the three weeks since Putin's decision to send Russian troops into Ukraine, thousands of Russians have fled their country — heading to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and elsewhere — both in protest over the military campaign and in fear of a political crackdown.

A new Russian law this month began criminalizing the spread of "fake news" or public statements seen as denigrating Russia's armed forces.

Since the start of the invasion on Feb. 24, police have detained about 15,000 Russians, mostly at anti-war protests, according to Russian independent human rights group OVD-Info. Some have also been fired from jobs or been kicked out of universities for expressing criticism of the mission.

Russian authorities have already charged dozens with administrative violations under the new law. Alleged offenders include a priest in the western Russian region of Kostroma who preached against hatred in a sermon and a young woman in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk who carved the words "no to war" in snow by a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin.

This week, the first criminal charges have followed, including against Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a Russian cookbook author, socialite and blogger living in Europe who has been criticizing the war to her online followers.

A Committee in Defense of National Interests has also begun publishing online a list of Russians who left the country — denouncing them as "cowards and deserters."

Artyom, a liberal political activist reached by NPR in Tbilisi, Georgia, says he fled Russia after neighbors alerted him that masked police were waiting outside his apartment. He requested that NPR not use his full name out of fear for the safety of relatives still in Russia.

"I had no chance to tell anyone I was leaving, because it was too dangerous," he says. "I've got a dog and a cat still at home, and that's the hardest part. Because I can tell my friends and family what happened, but the dog will not understand."

Anna, a Russian writer who also requested that NPR use only her first name, says she fled with her family to Turkey after she realized her open criticism of the Kremlin and her attendance at an anti-war protest left her vulnerable to arrest.

"I remember my grandmother telling me about the fear of living under Stalin," she says. "I remember her saying, 'You can't imagine the fear.' Well, now I've felt it, and I don't want my kid to ever experience anything like that."

Those who've left Russia include well-known stars

The Kremlin has also had to deal with dissension among Russia's cultural and financial elite.

On Wednesday, Russian prima ballerina Olga Smirnova announced she would leave the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet to join the Dutch National Ballet. In a post on the Telegram messaging app, Smirnova said Russians "cannot remain indifferent to this global catastrophe."

Russian ballerina Olga Smirnova performs in 2015 in Monaco.
Valery Hache / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian ballerina Olga Smirnova, seen here in 2015, said in a Telegram post that Russians "cannot remain indifferent to this global catastrophe." She also announced this week that she was leaving the Bolshoi Ballet to join the Dutch National Ballet.

Rapper Oxxxymiron, one of Russia's biggest stars, who's known for his political statements, canceled a series of sold-out shows in Russia and on Tuesday played an anti-war concert in Istanbul. He has since announced additional "Russians Against War" performances in Europe and pledged to send the proceeds to Ukrainian refugees.

On Russia's main state-run Channel One, a one-woman protest disrupted a live evening newscast this week. Marina Ovsyannikova, the editor who burst onto the screen with an anti-war, anti-propaganda poster, awaits an investigation.

Several high-profile correspondents have reportedly since resigned from state-backed channels. One of Channel One's stars — popular late-night talk show host Ivan Urgant — found his program on unexpected hiatus after he publicly opposed the war.

Two of the wealthiest Russians have spoken out against the invasion of Ukraine: billionaires Oleg Deripaska and Mikhail Fridman, both of whom keep residences in London.

Indeed, disloyalty — rather than wealth — was very much on Putin's mind in his "cleansing" speech on Wednesday.

"I do not in the least condemn those who have villas in Miami or the French Riviera, who cannot make do without foie gras, oysters or gender freedom, as they call it," said the Russian leader.

"The problem, again, is that many of these people are, essentially, over there in their minds and not here with our people and with Russia."

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