One year after Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is backsliding away from democratic freedoms and liberal pluralism.
By Branko Marcetic
Feb 25, 2023
When the Russian invasion began, things kicked up a notch. In July 2022, officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the country’s chief law enforcement and domestic spy agency, entered Chemerys’s home, broke one of his ribs, and seized his electronics. (Chemerys provided Jacobin with medical documents from July 2022 documenting a fractured tenth rib). His crimes, according to the “official warning” he received after the visit, included “his openly pro-Russian position,” “criticism of the activities of the Ukrainian authorities” during the war, and denying Russian aggression against Ukraine by portraying the war since 2014 “as an internal civil conflict.”
“Political persecution of leftists and other dissidents has not become something new since February 24, 2022,” Chemerys says. “It’s just that since February 24, they have acquired a larger scale.”
Chemerys’s story is part of a little-reported fact about today’s war-torn Ukraine. While authoritarianism is nothing new in the country, it has severely worsened in the wake of the invasion, which has seen a centralization of power by Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, and a crackdown on dissidents and all things “pro-Russian.” A lack of Western media and public attention, coupled with US and European policies actively exacerbating it, are helping to fuel the problem.
Prison for Politics
Chemerys’s story isn’t unique. On March 10, 2022, poet, satirist, and television host Jan Taksyur disappeared after armed men claiming to be from the SBU searched his apartment, turning it upside down and seizing his savings, according to accounts provided to local news outlets and to Jacobin by his family. It took two days for his wife and children to find out where he was: in a pretrial detention center, where he was kept for more than five months on charges of treason, and unable to get medical help despite a cancer diagnosis — not an uncommon situation, according to the doctor who eventually treated him.
“He criticized the authorities under all our presidents. Since he is a satirist, this is his profession,” says his daughter Maria.
Over the years, Taksyur’s satire has hit both Vladimir Putin and Russia, but it has also taken aim at more politically inconvenient targets: from Biden, oligarchs, and the Ukrainian elite, to ultranationalists and the Maidan revolution. One poem imagines a Ukraine where Putin has vanished, only for the country’s domestic problems to remain unsolved. Another mocks the impulse to cast any dissent or unhappiness with life in Ukraine as Kremlin subversion — the very impulse Taksyur would fall victim to.
The pacifist Ruslan Kotsaba, proclaimed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2015, went through a similar ordeal. Kotsaba’s prosecution for “high treason” predated the Russian invasion, after a 2015 video post labeling the war over the Donbas a “fratricidal civil war” and urging resistance to military conscription got him labeled a traitor, prosecuted, and imprisoned for sixteen months.
But Kotsaba says things took another turn immediately after Moscow invaded last February, when the judges presiding over his case took on a “more aggressive and uncompromising attitude.” Sensing the court would now more likely take their side, he says, prosecutors recalled the dozens of witnesses whose absence had previously gummed up the trial’s progress and proceeded without them. Kotsaba believes his conviction had already been decided on.
“This staged process was for propaganda reasons, to ascribe popular antiwar sentiment to traitors and to blame people with antiwar views for the insufficient readiness of people for military recruitment,” he says today from Brooklyn, where he’s been able to secure temporary political asylum.
Both antiwar activists like Kotsaba and experts in Ukrainian politics say political repression in the country has become worse since the start of the war.
“Zelensky used the Russian invasion and the war as a pretext to eliminate most of the political opposition and potential rivals for power and to consolidate his largely undemocratic rule,” says University of Ottawa political scientist Ivan Katchanovski.
March 3, 2022 saw the Ukrainian criminal code amended to include significantly harsher punishments for treason when committed under martial law — imposed the day of the invasion — and adding the new offenses of “collaborative activities” and “assistance to the aggressor state,” meant to simplify the law and speed up investigations and trials. Such changes had been introduced earlier but failed to get off the ground until the war.
Under the new law, “collaborationism” includes a broad range of activities, from supporting aggression against Ukraine, to spreading propaganda in education, to protesting or handling information in ways that help the enemy. Mykyta Petrovets, a lawyer at the Kyiv-based Regional Center for Human Rights, acknowledged that how responsibly the new laws are wielded comes down to how authorities interpret them.
Since the law’s passage, treason and collaboration cases have exploded. According to data from the prosecutor general’s office, while 663 criminal proceedings for treason were recorded over the period 2014–2021, that number ballooned to 1,062 over 2022 alone. From February to March that year, the figure shot up more than fivefold, to 278. The number of collaborationist offenses, meanwhile, reached 3,851 between June, when they were first recorded, and the end of the year, with over six hundred referred to the courts.
For Chemerys, these changes are a way to silence Ukrainians with the “wrong” views and to make “speaking anything other than official propaganda in Ukraine” an imprisonable offense. Kotsaba charges they’re a way to keep society “scared and obedient” and to distract attention from Ukraine’s internal problems. Others point to Zelensky’s markedly weakened prewar approval ratings.
As reports of the arrest of dissidents began spreading early in the war, Zelensky and his party first suspended and then banned eleven opposition parties over “links to Russia.” Alongside the suspension of two of the 2019 election’s top vote-getting parties, most prominent was the ban on Ukraine’s second-largest bloc, the pro-Russian Opposition Platform — For Life (OPZZh). This occurred even though most of its major figures took a pro-Ukraine position in the war and have since become reliable backers of Zelensky’s policies in parliament.
OPZZh held nearly 10 percent of seats in parliament and, in 2020, achieved a major upset when its candidate beat a member of Zelensky’s party for the mayoralty of the president’s own hometown. A few months later, the two parties were running neck and neck in the polls, shortly before Zelensky began targeting OPZZh with sanctions and banning several of its media outlets on the basis that they were spreading Russian propaganda. In the process, he broke a previous explicit promise never to do such a thing and earned a scolding from the EU.
“We never know what’s the basis of these accusations, what’s the pro-Russian link, because there’s no proof that any of the workers of these TV channels worked for Russian intelligence,” says Ukrainian journalist and press-union leader Serhiy Guz, who adds that many of the anchors from the shuttered outlets went on to get jobs at pro-government channels. “It starts to look like a political accusation rather than a genuine crime.”
Since OPZZh’s ban in 2022, a number of its leaders — including cochairman and close Putin friend Viktor Medvedchuk, but also officials who have made no pro-Russian statements since the war — have been arrested, exiled, and stripped of their citizenship. Some, including the OPZZh candidate who became mayor of Zelensky’s hometown, have been killed.
“Medvedchuk is an odious figure,” says Olga Baysha, author of Democracy, Populism, and Neoliberalism in Ukraine. “However, one should not forget that Medvedchuk’s television channels represented the views of different groups within Ukrainian society that opposed Ukraine’s war against Donbas, the prosecution of dissenters, or Zelensky’s neoliberal reforms.”
“Public opinion polls before the Russian invasion showed that pro-Russian parties and politicians had strong support in many regions in the east and south of Ukraine,” says Katchanovski. “But pro-Russian sympathies primarily involved support for closer relations with Russia.”
Also banned were a collection of left-wing parties, like the Union of Left Forces and the Socialist Party of Ukraine, once an important force of leftist opposition that by 2022 had fallen into disarray. Since then — at the SBU’s “initiative,” according to the agency — the courts have upheld the ban on all these and three other parties, as well as upholding the earlier ban on the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU). Part of a wider “decommunization” effort launched after the 2014 Maidan uprising, the KPU’s 2015 ban was condemned by Amnesty International as a “flagrant violation of freedom of expression and association” that “sets a dangerous precedent.”
Meanwhile, Zelensky has also centralized nearly all of Ukraine’s national TV channels into one government-controlled platform. Late last year, he further tightened government control of Ukraine’s media, signing into law a widely criticized bill that had earlier been considered too extreme by journalists, MPs, and media experts, with one press-freedom activist calling it “extremely toxic.” The law gives unprecedented powers to Ukraine’s state broadcasting regulator to fine and revoke the license of media outlets, block publications without a court order, and force social media platforms and search engines to remove content. Combating Russian propaganda was again the stated basis for the measure.
The Hunt for Traitors
One of those Telegram channels was “Repression of the Left and dissenters in Ukraine,” which from its creation on March 15 documented the deteriorating state of political freedoms and human rights in wartime Ukraine.
“Charges of state treason and collaboration are often trumped up and used as a form of political repression without any evidence of actual treason and collaboration,” says Katchanovski.
Some of the cases highlighted in the channel bear this out. On April 14, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation announced it had taken into custody a Mariupol city council member and leader of the local OPZZh branch, charging he had spoken “in favor of restoring economic ties with Russia” prior to the war, and “that on the eve of the military invasion, the collaborator on his official page in Facebook wrote a call for the overthrow of the current Ukrainian government.” The latter is a highly questionable interpretation of the culprit’s February 22 post, which read simply: “The authorities that failed to restore peace in Ukraine and reintegrate the Donbas must go.”
A week later, the SBU announced it had “neutralized” the Workers’ Front of Ukraine in Odessa, a Marxist organization founded in late 2019, charging the group was “coordinated and funded by the occupiers.” Though providing no evidence for that charge, the SBU cited as among the group’s subversive activities the printing of “anti-Ukrainian materials,” trying “to spread the forbidden communist symbolism with calls for the resuscitation of the Soviet Union,” and planning “mass rallies.”
The outlets reprinting the SBU’s charges added that the group had also written “anti-capitalist posts.” They pointed to one published in the war’s second week, which lamented that the war had rehabilitated Ukraine’s oligarchs and political elites while strengthening reactionary extremists, and that it wouldn’t have happened without the “diligent efforts of both domestic and foreign big capital.” The organization told Jacobin that the member detained in Odessa was released, and that accusations of Kremlin links are a “way to discredit the organization” that “was used before the war” to widespread ridicule, but has become more effective since the invasion.
Drawing particular international attention has been the arrest and prosecution of communists Mikhail Kononovich, leader of the KPU’s youth wing, and his twin brother Aleksander. Ethnic Belarussians with Ukrainian citizenship, the brothers were accused by the SBU of working for both Russian and Belarussian intelligence and of holding “pro-Russian and pro-Belarusian views.” The Kononoviches say that the accusations are fabricated and politically motivated and, in a recent statement, charged that they had been beaten and tortured while detained for seven months, stating that “now in Ukraine, ‘communist’ means death.” Before the war, they had campaigned against Zelensky’s push to allow private sell-offs of Ukrainian farmland and sparked controversy for a variety of views, including advocacy for the rights of Russian speakers and against fascist movements in the country.
They’re far from the only leftists targeted. In March, a Telegram news channel approvingly posted images of an alleged “saboteur” being arrested in the Dnipropetrovsk region. The figure was identified as left-wing activist Oleksandr Matyushenko. In the past, Matyushenko has charged that “after Euromaidan, the right[-wing] consensus fully dominates Ukraine,” and that government and right-wing opposition “compete with each other in anti-communism and xenophobia.” He has also criticized far-right militias like the Azov Regiment and the oligarch bankrolling them. One of the photos of his arrest shows a man’s hand hovering over a bloodied Matyushenko, holding the Nazi-inspired Azov emblem.
Matyushenko’s wife later told the German left-wing newspaper Junge Welt that SBU members had entered and searched their apartment, confiscating computers and other property, while another man in military uniform — the one brandishing Azov’s emblem — spit in her face, cut her hair with a knife, and beat her husband for hours. The two were later taken to SBU headquarters, she said, where officers interrogated them, threatening to slice off their ears.
Kharkiv activist Spartak Golovachev, a critic of the Ukrainian government who had earlier been detained for taking part in anti-Maidan protests in the region, was likewise reportedly arrested in March, when he was delivering humanitarian aid to local residents. His last Facebook post said simply that people were “break[ing] down the door armed in Ukrainian uniform. Goodbye.”
It echoed the final post of Odessa-based newspaper editor Yuriy Tkachev (“They have come for me. It was nice to talk”) before his March arrest by the SBU. A prominent blogger attacked in the past for spreading “pro-Russian narratives” — like backing the 2014 anti-Maidan protesters in Odessa and investigating far-right involvement in a deadly 2014 fire there that left dozens of them killed — Tkachev was initially accused of “high treason” for allegedly producing “combat propaganda in the interests of the Russian occupiers” and giving out sensitive military information. Yet the evidence supposedly backing this charge is tenuous at best: screenshots show Tkachev asking members of his Telegram channel for information about what kind of fighting, if any, was happening where they were located.
“All Ukrainian journalists and bloggers who did not want to promote Zelensky’s version of ‘truth’ had to either shut up (voluntarily or under duress) or, if possible, emigrate,” says Baysha.
One such journalist is Vasyl Muravitsky, who has found asylum in Finland as his prosecution — which began before the war — has continued in absentia. Muravitsky has been charged with, among other things, high treason and violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, though the specific accusations of the SBU, the press, and others are that he disseminated “anti-Ukrainian” content, and that he was working on orders from Moscow.
His case was widely criticized. Amnesty called it “unfounded” and declared him a prisoner of conscience, while the head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said authorities hadn’t provided any evidence. Reporters Without Borders argued the details of the case “indicate that he was arrested above all for working for Russian state media.”
“A lot of journalists self-censor now,” says Guz, who argues that the press keeps not only military information secret, but general criticisms of the government. “The danger is that when we stay quiet about the problems, we eliminate the ways to solve things.”
A Rash of Blacklists
This crackdown has been assisted by the spread of private blacklists of alleged traitors. One of the most notorious is Myrotvorets, or “Peacemaker” — founded in 2014 by interior ministry official and former MP Anton Gerashchenko — which the UN high commissioner for human rights recommended Ukrainian law enforcement investigate six years ago. As far back as 2015, days after the site posted their personal information, a journalist and a former MP who had both taken part in the “anti-Maidan” movement were gunned down outside their homes, with a nationalist group taking credit.
Over the years, as the site’s list of names ballooned to more than 130,000, it has included everyone from NGO activists, foreign politicians, and pro-Russian separatists, to Orthodox priests, Western celebrities, and even Kremlin critics — anyone who happened to take the “wrong” position in the eyes of the country’s nationalists. At one point, it featured the more than two hundred people who survived the 2019 crash of a Russian passenger jet headed for illegally annexed Crimea.
These names are added by a secret panel of unknown administrators, and the blacklist’s use as a resource for law enforcement — along with the involvement of a former SBU officer and its listing of the CIA’s headquarters of Langley, Virginia as an address — has prompted much speculation.
At the time of writing, it listed 1,118 names, many of them sporting rap sheets as dubious as some of those targeted by the SBU. Chemerys (a “propagandist of leftist views”) is among them, with his alleged crimes including “condemn[ing] the struggle against collaborators,” running a telegram channel “where Marxism was justified,” demanding the far-right Azov Regiment disband, and advocating for implementing the Minsk agreements.
Chesno allows Ukrainians to anonymously accuse “potential traitors” through a web form and submit evidence (while also giving them the option of not providing any). Charging that “treason has become a family affair,” it has urged Ukrainians to submit family members of accused traitors, and has promoted and lauded the “guerrilla glory” of the successful assassination of alleged collaborationists in territories like Kherson retaken by the Ukrainian military.
Collaboration in the Eye of the Beholder
Yet the line between a collaborator and someone trying to survive can become markedly blurry under foreign occupation. When asked, in light of the new anti-collaborationist laws, what options Ukrainians in occupied territories had, Petrovets explained that they should either gather evidence that they were forced to cooperate with Russian forces — a “dangerous” act, he acknowledged — or opt for “the best option” and flee, something he recognized “not everyone can do.”
Indeed, one Kherson rabbi who, in line with his religious beliefs, stayed put when Russian forces rolled in so he could keep providing residents with food and medicine, later came under suspicion of collaboration when Ukrainian forces retook the city. His was just one of several similar cases documented by the New York Times.
Feminist activists from Ukraine’s south and southeast told Jacobin about similar blacklists being compiled in Russian-occupied towns. (The activists’ names are being withheld to protect their identities).
“There are no clear rules and algorithms for who should be on these lists and for which accusations,” one says. “A lot of these lists are done in an emotional way. This is usually done by a local official somewhere or through public groups and social media.”
Numerous Telegram channels exist to name and shame Ukrainians for collaborating with the occupying forces. Often posts can contain no specific accusations. When they do, most are unsubstantiated and can veer in troubling directions. One post accuses several women, one as young as nineteen, of having “intimate” relations with Russian forces. The lists contain full names, photos, social media accounts, and even phone numbers and addresses of the accused. For the “Repression of the Left” channel, which documented many such cases, these instances were ominous signs of the country’s drift toward “totalitarianism.”
Lists like these have also come from officials, with the southeastern town of Melitopol’s mayor publishing a list of ninety people, most of whom were women, the activists told Jacobin. While some residents did genuinely try to assist Russian forces, many of those accused “were just random people,” one of them says, such as those appointed as school directors and administrators.
Indeed, by October last year, twelve collaborator cases were opened into teachers in the Kharkiv region, who were held criminally liable for continuing to work under the Russian occupation and implementing Russian educational policies, or for accepting positions they were appointed to by the invading forces. One Telegram list is replete with lists of educators at schools and kindergartens named as alleged collaborators. One “junior teacher,” charges one, “went to work with the orcs as a school headmaster,” citing a Facebook post informing people about an upcoming medical examination at a local hospital.
It’s not just teachers. One elderly Kupyansk resident, the director of a local soccer stadium during the Russian occupation of the city, was charged with providing “assistance to the aggressor state,” facing as many as twelve years in prison. His crime? According to police, “the attacker organized and supervised the holding of football matches and competitions,” “hired employees for complex maintenance of the institution,” and “held cultural and mass events with elements of propaganda.” A railway official was similarly accused of treason for supervising, under the occupation, the repair of a station damaged in the fighting.
Likewise charged with “collaborative activity” is the man appointed by Russian forces to head the Izyum Central Hospital (which continued to operate and save lives during the occupation despite bombing and shelling), who at one point allegedly urged residents to cooperate with occupying forces. The official criminal complaint against him details as his crime that he “voluntarily took a position related to the performance of organizational and administrative tasks . . . in the occupation administration of the aggressor state.”
For some Ukrainians, “collaboration” hasn’t meant actual material assistance to invading forces, but simply holding the wrong views, often by expressing pro-Russian sentiment or support for Moscow’s invasion. This was the case for five accused collaborators in Zhytomyr, most of them in their fifties and sixties, whose crimes as detailed by police were saying such things on social media and in public spaces. Another elderly woman was charged for telling fellow shoppers that Russia was merely invading to “defeat Nazism.” In one on-the-ground report, a seventy-five-year-old woman in liberated Kherson was referred to the police as a potential collaborator for saying “it was better when the Russians were here” and that Crimea belongs to Moscow.
“The war is moving the society towards a more authoritarian life,” says Guz. As one example, he points to a newfound social acceptance of tying lawbreakers up outdoors in the freezing cold.
But there are others. Suspecting “pro-Russian” views and even collaboration with Moscow, the SBU has been carrying out raids on hundreds of churches and monasteries belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which falls under the patriarchate of its war-supporting Russian wing (though nearly three hundred Russian Orthodox clergy have condemned the war). Dozens of the UOC’s clergy have been either sanctioned or are being criminally investigated, even as the church has declared independence from Moscow, condemned the war, and supported Ukrainian forces. A draft bill introduced in December to ban the UOC and ensure Ukraine’s “spiritual independence,” in Zelensky’s words, caused an uproar.
Crackdowns on Russian cultural heritage — one of the policies that fueled civil strife in the country where many speak and ethnically identify as Russian — has intensified. The war has seen numerous regional and local bans on Russian products, and speaking and even learning Russian, so that by November, there were nearly no schools left that taught the language. June saw the Zelensky government create a special council to coordinate “the country’s movement for de-Russification”; parliament passed several laws curtailing Russian books and music. Fines for speaking Russian, even for the mayor of a Russian-speaking city, aren’t out of the question, while a leading university outright banned the language from its campus. This February, the government celebrated purging the country’s libraries of nineteen million books, some written in Ukrainian but from the Soviet era, and eleven million written in Russian.
“The problem with Ukraine’s struggle against the so-called ‘pro-Russian agenda’ is that this has been an agenda of millions of Ukrainian citizens whose opinions were completely ignored,” says Baysha. “What is called ‘de-Russification’ is in fact Ukraine’s war against its own citizens for whom the Russian language is a mother tongue and the Russian Orthodox Church is a religion of their ancestors.”
Much of this is the lamentable product of wartime jingoism, which typically sees an upsurge in countries that come under attack. But some of it is also being driven by US and European policy.
US and European taxpayers, in other words, are unwittingly being made complicit in the country’s backsliding away from democratic freedoms and liberal pluralism. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Western governments have strong influence over the Ukrainian government and its policies since Ukraine is a US client state and became almost totally dependent on Western support during the war with Russia,” says Katchanovski. “They can make the Zelensky government follow policies that pertain to democracy and the rule of law.”
Indeed, for years, the United States and EU have used a combination of financial aid, future EU membership, and political pressure to push Ukrainian leadership to enact various reforms. US analysts and commentators have already suggested using such aid to do everything from nudging the Ukrainian government to the negotiating table, to advancing anti-corruption and good governance efforts. Why not add steering the country away from the illiberal, authoritarian direction it has taken during the war to that list?
“It should be taken seriously, as seriously as the military aid, as it’s the defense of the democratic institutions,” Guz says. “The war is making the government much more authoritarian, because it’s a self-defense instinct of society. It’s precisely the role of the West to help Ukraine not to get to the same level of authoritarianism as in Russia.”
“And the West isn’t responding to the risks that exist nowadays,” he adds.
But that can’t happen if the Western public isn’t even aware of the country’s authoritarian lurch in the first place. Making sure it is aware is the task of the press, whose uncritical portrayal of Zelensky has exasperated Ukrainian human rights campaigners.
“Western media have not been presenting their readers and viewers meaningful accounts of what has been going on,” says Baysha. “Western journalists overwhelmingly take Zelensky’s words at face value.”
In the meantime, Chemerys continues to speak out against authoritarianism in Ukraine, despite a leukemia diagnosis that put him in the hospital for months. Though growing repression has driven Ukrainian leftists underground, he says, he’s certain left-wing movements will eventually return stronger than before, being, in his eyes, the only movements that can offer Ukraine a better postwar model.
He continues to be targeted for his efforts. In December, after Ukraine’s central bank withdrew a controversial order mandating that banks check the financial activities of those listed on the Myrotverts blacklist, the Vienna-based Raiffeisen Bank offered to do so in its place voluntarily — using the liberal, US-funded Chesno’s list instead. On top of everything else, Chemerys was soon ordered to explain the funds being credited to his account. He released a statement rejecting the notion that having Marxist views should require special justification and condemned “grant-eaters like Chesno, together with the Kyiv authorities and the ultra-right” for turning Ukraine “into a country where everyone should think, speak, and pray only as they and their Western masters want,” he wrote in a statement. “Marxism needs no justification.”
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