On 28 October, FSB officers paid a visit to the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow. Their mission? To find books banned from publication in Russia.

Shortly afterwards, a press release appeared on the website of Russia’s Investigative Committee: evidently, investigators were particularly interested in copies of books written by Dmytro Korchinsky, the Ukrainian nationalist activist who shot to the fore at the start of the Kyiv Maidan in 2013. In Russia, these books have been classified as extremist. The day before, the apartment of Vasily Semenenko, a Ukrainian diaspora leader in Moscow, was also searched.

The FSB arrested the library’s director Natalya Sharina, 58, and later requested a court to remand her in custody. The judge, however, went for the more lenient option of house arrest.

Convenient Russophobia

For a number of reasons, this incident has made few waves in Russian society. First, the number of questionable criminal prosecutions has risen steeply in recent years and people have simply become less sensitive to absurd arrests. Second, the aftermath of spring 2014 has seen Russian public opinion divide over events in Ukraine.

Cases where the individual accused is Ukrainian or where the alleged crime has a connection with Ukraine are unlikely to win sympathy or even merit detailed scrutiny among Russian opponents of the present Ukrainian government.

The head of the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry has called the case against Sharina another act of ‘anti-Ukrainian hysteria’, but, for me, we shouldn’t view this case in purely political terms.

Sharina took up the post at the Library of Ukrainian Literature after its previous director Yuri Kononenko was sacked in 2007 for, among other things, ‘Russophobia’. (Since 2009, Kononenko has been banned from entering Russia.)

Sharina, on the other hand, didn’t speak Ukrainian when she was hired. Rumour has it that she was appointed to rid the library of radical literature and any whiff of Ukrainian nationalism that remained after Kononenko’s departure.

A few complaints go a long way 

The case against Sharina owes much to complaints from a number of sources. People holding views that until recently would have been thought of as marginal have increasingly gained the unspoken support, or at least tacit approval, of the Russian authorities. Their opinions are all over pro-government media platforms and, in some cases, this official support goes beyond PR.

One of the people who complained about the library is Dmitry Zakharov, a city council member in Moscow’s Yakimanka district. But Zakharov’s demand for an investigation into the ‘Russophobic’ library is not his first attempt to climb on the current bandwagon. Zakharov has previously accused the capital’s Ukrainian Cultural Centre of spreading anti-Russian propaganda, accused a TV soap opera of ‘homosexual propaganda’ and sent a pig’s head to David Cameron.

30 October: Natalya Sharina in Tagansky district court, Moscow. (c) Vitaly Belousov / VisualRIAN

Another player in the Sharina arrest story is her former library colleague Sergei Sokurov, who is active in the Mestnye (Locals) pro-government movement. The Sharina investigation has revealed that Sokurov joined the library in order to ‘normalise its environment’ and suppress any anti-Russian, as he saw it, activity. Sokurov held the post of chief librarian from 2007 until 2010, when he was sacked after coming into conflict with Sharina.

This is not the library’s first brush with the law. In 2010, unidentified staff members were suspected of distributing literature produced by the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian Nationalist Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO) party, which is banned in Russia. The investigation lasted until March 2013, when Sharina was cleared of all charges.

So why is Sharina under suspicion again? A number of factors seem to be at play here. The first is the all out and frequently strange campaign against the spread of extremist literature, which, on occasion, descends into absurdity. (To take one example, a video showing supermarket customers jostling one another in a queue for potatoes, backed by an aggressive music score, was recently banned.) Criminal charges are often concocted against people who haven’t actually posted banned material online, but simply commented on it on social media.

The second, indirect factor in the case against Sharina is Maidan and the subsequent events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The Russian legal authorities have pressed charges against hundreds of people who took part in Maidan—both fervent Ukrainian nationalists and those who, according to Russian investigators, publicly defended acts of terrorism committed by certain groups. Examples of this campaign include the heavy sentences passed on Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko and the current case of Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpiuk, accused of committing terrorist acts in Chechnya in 1995.

Analysing the evidence gathered in the case against Sharina suggests that the investigators’ main target was Dmytro Korchynsky’s book War in the Crowd, which is banned in Russia. Korchynsky is a strange figure. Korchynsky was active in EuroMaidan, although during the first Maidan, the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, he supported future Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych against the ‘revolutionary’ Viktor Yushchenko. In 2005, Korchynsky was even invited to lecture at the pro-government Seliger International Youth Forum in Russia.

In March 2014, Korchynsky was charged with a number of offences in Russia and his Brotherhood political party was classified as extremist and banned from operating in Russia. The war against Korchynsky’s books is thus a logical development of the campaign to discredit anyone who supported EuroMaidan.

How the particular has become the general

Sociological studies tend to show Russians attitudes towards Ukrainians in the post-Soviet era from two points of view—the everyday and foreign policy. Prior to 2014, Russians were generally well disposed towards Ukrainians, though their feelings about the country’s government varied over time.

Among the main triggers for dislike of their neighbours’ rulers, actively whipped up by Russian TV and other pro-government media, were the 2004 Maidan and disputes over gas supplies and prices. The last straw, however, was the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, when then president Yushchenko adopted what many Russians considered a pro-American position.

According to the independent Levada Analytical Center, before this conflict only 37% of Russians were negatively disposed to Ukraine. After 2008, that figure rose to 53%. At the start of 2009, when Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine for non-payment of previous supplies, Russians’ negative attitude to their Ukrainian neighbours rose further, to 62%.

As for Ukrainians’ attitude to Russians, in 2008, according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 90% of its citizens had friendly feelings towards their neighbours. In September 2013, the figure was still 88%. But by February 2015, it had dropped to 43% as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, where Russia supported the separatist forces.

War and propaganda have done their work. Research carried out at the end of the 2000s showed that 85-90% of Russians used official pro-Kremlin media as their main source of information. So it was not surprising that a new Levada Center study published in autumn 2014 reported that, for the first time, Russians’ attitudes were equally negative to both Ukrainians and their government. The study, which looked at national stereotypes, showed that the characteristics Russians and Ukrainians attributed to one another remained much the same, but, in an atmosphere of international tension, negative traits were given more emphasis than positive characteristics.

Thanks to media hype, by the end of 2014, Russians’ feelings of insecurity were concentrated on Ukrainians. The financial crisis and subsequent devaluation of the rouble has, however, diffused this focus. Events in south-eastern Ukraine have lost much interest for Russians, and everyday aggression towards their neighbours has dissipated.

One could say that the Russian media’s anti-Ukrainian campaign began with the Orange Revolution and continues to this day, but on a smaller scale. Its main aim appears to be proving that Ukraine’s chosen democracy is a myth and stability in Russia – a reality. The Kremlin, meanwhile, seems to be genuinely scared of mass protests and is pulling out all the stops to persuade its citizens that the Ukrainians made the wrong decision. The best way to do that is to change personal attitudes.

Currently, people in Russia are less and less convinced by anti-Ukrainian rhetoric: it is losing its force. It remains, however, one of the main platforms for marginal political groups and their leaders in search of political capital.

You don’t even require a sophisticated strategy to ride this populist wave—a few denunciations are all you need—and the Sharina case may only be the beginning.

By Gleb Belichenko, Open Democracy