Paranoia strikes deep: Russian police stop pedestrians, demand to read their text messages

“This, even in Russia, is illegal as hell,” says Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock of the clip below. Technically, perhaps, but the state of Russian law right now is as fluid as the state of the Russian economy and the state of the Russian military. What used to be legal no longer is. Go figure that what used to be illegal is suddenly fair game.

Zelensky appealed to the Russian people in a new video to make their voices heard: “If you keep silent now, only your poverty will speak for you later. And only repression will answer.” Some heeded that call. Per Reuters, around 3,500 people were arrested in Russia today for protesting the war:

Examples are being made of women protesters to signal zero tolerance for dissent:

Watch this report from ABC correspondent James Longman, on the scene in central Moscow as huge numbers of riot police and “silent” protesters circle each other:

Why the heavy police presence? Because: Anything can happen at this point. Russia’s economy has been crushed; its offensive in Ukraine looks inept and extravagantly costly; its relationships with major powers have been shattered with the exception of an increasingly ambivalent China. No one knows what tomorrow will bring or how the Russian people will react to it. Putin’s government is in a defensive crouch from which it’s unlikely to emerge for months or years.

As the chaos deepens, the degree of authoritarianism implemented to keep order will deepen too.

Russians with the means to do so are racing for the exits:

Every time something terrible happens — when Putin’s critics go to jail, get poisoned or shot, say — Russians bring up the symbolic date of 1937. There had never been a darker period in Russian history than the Great Purge, the peak of political repressions, when Josef Stalin’s NKVD arrested more than a million people and executed hundreds of thousands. Shainyan, for one, hated that comparison. But this week, it started to feel more appropriate, even to him. It was hard not to draw comparisons between the Duma’s proposals to punish all war critics with 15 years of jail for “fake news” and Stalin’s repressions. Everyone knew how dark, how murderous things could go. The choice to flee or stay was now a matter of survival.

By Thursday, the exodus became so chaotic, there were hardly any good friends left in the city. “Even if you told me yesterday morning that I should leave, I would not have listened to you. But now all of us either face conscription [into the military] or 15 years behind bars,” Shainyan told me on Thursday, boarding the plane with his boyfriend. Some mothers tried to convince their sons to run, others begged to their boys to stay and not abandon them. “This is going to be worse than the USSR. Putin will never stop fighting,” Svetlana Ozerova, a nurse from Kitai Gorod, told me…

Thursday night was a nightmare. People were constantly messaging each other with a variation of the same question: “Have you crossed the border? Are you out?”

What’s happening in Russia at the moment is as much of a black box as what’s happening in Ukraine. Amid the crackdown on criticism of the war and the heavy-handed censorship being practiced to suppress information, it’s anyone’s guess how much the average Russian understands what’s happening and whether they’d admit it if they did. Is this clip evidence of brainwashing or merely evidence that Russians know what they can and can’t say when a camera is pointed at them?

Here’s what they’re missing:

Suppressing evidence of the war’s horrors is one way to minimize domestic unrest. Another is to ratchet nationalist propaganda way, way up:

The “Z” is a symbol that’s been painted on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine. Putin’s supporters have adopted it as their own to show solidarity with the war effort, as Galeev documents in this thread. Is he right that the Russian people are rallying behind the war effort or is that perception a Potemkin village constructed by Putin to convince anti-war Russians that they’re a negligible minority and shouldn’t bother resisting? Your guess is as good as mine.

But given how many goons were on patrol in Moscow today, it seems like Putin isn’t sure of the answer either. Stay tuned.

I’ll leave you with this. Was this guy speaking under duress by Ukraine or just unburdening himself now that he’s off the battlefield? Either way, he’s never going back to Russia.