A couple of memes changed Maria Motuznaya’s life. The 24-year-old from the Siberian city of Barnaul is facing up to six years in prison because of a series of jokey pictures she reposted online, including a huddle of nuns lighting cigarettes with the caption “quick, while there’s no God”.
Even though the case has not been tried, Motuznaya has been added to Russia’s registry of extremists, alongside suspected terrorists and nationalists, blocking her from making financial transactions or working for many companies.
“At least I’m still free and haven’t been locked up yet,” she said in a phone interview with the Guardian, in which she gave details of the investigation.
Extremism cases have become controversial in Russia this summer, with trials in the regions for reposts such as Motuznaya’s, and a trial in Moscow for an unlikely conspiracy, involving several teenage girls, to overthrow the government.
Motuznaya initially stayed quiet after being charged with extremism and offending religious sensibilities. But one day in July, she read a story about torture in prisons, and decided to go public: “Hi everyone, my name is Masha, I’m 23 and I’m an extremist,” she wrote on Twitter, kicking off a viral sensation and a major discussion over extremism laws.
She is not the only young Russian in Barnaul facing jail for reposts. Three other trials are under way, including that of Daniil Markin, a 19-year-old student who faces up to five years in prison for his posts on the social media site VKontakte, including one with the face of a Game of Thrones character in the place of Jesus. “Jon Snow is risen!” read the caption. He is also on the extremism list.
It is not clear why police in Barnaul suddenly took such interest in prosecuting alleged online extremism, although observers say it is probably because extremism is easy to prove with data provided by social networks, and police want to increase the number of successful prosecutions. The majority of cases come via VKontakte, which, critics say, surrenders data too readily to the authorities. The company says it is legally required to comply. Local police did not reply to requests to comment.
A Kremlin council on human rights said recently that convictions under extremism laws had increased fourfold since 2011, with 604 people being convicted in 2017. One reason is the war in Ukraine, but online prosecutions are another contributory factor.
Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of Moscow’s Sova Centre, which monitors extremism and the government’s countermeasures in Russia, said the cases had become a hot topic as the state was reconsidering how to apply its controversial laws, mainly statute 282, over inciting hatred. Article 148, on offending religious beliefs, was also contentious. Motuznaya is charged under both.
“This year is different in that it’s all somehow related to public discussion about proposed changes in legislation,” he said. “It’s also started from above.”
Responding to a question about similar prosecutions during a phone-in radio show in June, President Vladimir Putin said “those that are guilty must be called to account. But we must first provide a definition for their actions before carrying the case to absurdity.”
Those answers are likely to come after the summer holidays when both the Duma and the Kremlin are expected to consider decriminalisation, backed by some members of Russia’s establishment.
The criminal cases have put Vkontakte and its parent company, Mail.Ru Group, in a difficult position between criticising law enforcement, whose orders the social network says it must legally fulfil, and protecting its users from overzealous police.
Executives described a growing sense of concern as the criminal cases began to capture public attention.
“The final straw was Barnaul,” said Alexander Karmaev, a vice-president of communications at Mail.Ru Group, in northern Moscow.
He admitted the company bore some responsibility. “We saw this trend later than we should have. The moment the trend was being implemented not against criminals but people posting some content, we should have reacted.”
The company has taken several steps, including calling for both the decriminalisation of many charges for reposting internet content, and an amnesty for some users convicted under extremist and religious hate legislation.
It has also said it will update privacy options to better protect users from casual snooping.
It will still fulfil law enforcement requests, but it said the process of interaction with state bodies and law enforcement will be made more transparent and it will publish some data on requests.
Karmaev said it was hoped other social networks would follow suit.
“Our initiative could have major consequences for the market,” he said. “We would be really happy if our colleagues would join us in this.”
Motuznaya claimed VKontakte was partially responsible for her situation and was likely to have given up information more readily than social networks based outside Russia. But she said the main fault remained with investigators who had opened her case and allowed it to go to trial.
“Because of all the publicity the witnesses against me have gotten scared and the case has slowed down,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe I’ll fall under the decriminalisation.”