From War to Prison: Repression in Russia is becoming more 'planned' and harsh, but not more widespread

2023 was both a year of stabilisation and intensification of the Putin regime's repressive policies. Having outlined the basic contours of wartime repressive legislation in 2022, in 2023, the authorities focused predominantly on toughening the punishments for existing offences, expanding the possibilities of their arbitrary application, and adapting them to the needs of a prolonged military conflict. The toolkit of repression created has proved to be quite effective in reducing mass anti-war protest, making cases of public demonstrations of anti-war views relatively rare. While in 2022 repression was more reactive in nature, it took on a more systematic and planned profile. While there was some reduction in the intensity of prosecutions and sentences towards the end of the year, this quantitative restraint was offset by a further increase in penalties and the demonstrative brutality of sentences. The authorities aim to achieve maximum demonstrative and intimidating effects without significantly increasing the scale of repression. Another important trend in the intensification of repression is the refinement of mechanisms to transform non-criminal prosecutions into criminal ones, with the same goal in mind. The protests in Bashkortostan were an unexpected challenge for the authorities at the beginning of 2024, and as a consequence, we can expect tougher penalties for 'mass riots'. In addition, a major challenge for the Kremlin remains the need to limit the influence of journalists, activists, politicians and public figures who have left the country. In this area, we can expect major innovations in repressive practices in 2024.

Repressive practices employed by autocracies are, on the one hand, quite similar, but on the other hand, they bear an individual imprint, exposing the ‘fears’ and vulnerabilities of the regime, as well as the ideological concepts through which it seeks to legitimise repression in the eyes of the population. OVD-Info's final review of political persecution for 2023 allows us to see the scale and main trends of the Russian authorities' repressive activity over the past year and to make some assumptions about its possible targets in the year to come.

The 'furious printer': legislative support for repression

According to OVD-Info, 38 repressive laws have been passed in Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. By comparison, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), 50 such laws were passed between 2018 and 2022. The counting systems of OVD-Info and FIDH differ slightly, but in both samples the peak of repressive legislative activity was in 2022. Based on the data of OVD-Info, 22 repressive laws were adopted in 2022, while in 2023 there were 'only' 16.

In 2022, military-censorship laws naturally took a significant lead, aimed at suppressing protests against the war unleashed against Ukraine. They were supplemented by 'historical' laws (a ban on comparing the USSR with the Third Reich and punishment for desecrating the St George's ribbon), as well as laws that prematurely terminated the validity of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Russia after its withdrawal from the Council of Europe. There are new penalties related to 'partial mobilisation' and discipline in troops in wartime ('voluntary surrender' - up to 10 years in prison; 'looting' - up to 15 years; 'failure by subordinates to obey an order from superiors given during martial law' - up to 10 years; and 'refusal to participate in military or combat operations' - up to three years). Also, in 2022, lawmakers decided finally to tidy up the sprawling 'foreign agency' legislation, which at that time was scattered across various legislative acts, and to streamline the 'foreign agency' register (until 5 December 2022, there were four such registers). 

In 2023, legislators mainly focused their attention on toughening penalties for already existing offences. Fines related to military registration increased significantly, and a penalty for 'failure to assist military commissariats in their mobilisation work when mobilisation has been declared' was introduced. On 18 March 2023, the law on repeated discrediting of the army was toughened, and the maximum punishment under this article (280.3 of the Criminal Code) increased to five years of imprisonment instead of three. Thus, it is now considered a 'crime of medium severity,' meaning that during the preliminary investigation, suspects can be sent to pre-trial detention, and those accused can receive a sentence involving actual imprisonment, which was not possible when 'repeated discrediting' was classified as a 'crime of minor severity.'

On 28 April 2023, a law was enacted imposing life imprisonment for state treason (Article 275 of the Criminal Code), and the punishment for sabotage (Article 281 of the Criminal Code) was raised to up to 20 years of imprisonment. The same law criminalised 'assisting in the implementation of decisions of international organisations', causing concern among international lawyers who continue to seek the implementation of ECHR decisions. The law was passed immediately after the verdict against Vladimir Kara-Murza (25 years of imprisonment on three charges: 'state treason,' 'fake news,' 'activities of an undesirable organisation') and the issuance of International Criminal Court warrants for the arrest of Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova.

Shortly thereafter, a ban on the activities of foreign NGOs not listed on Russian registries was introduced. Lawmakers also continuously expanded the list of prohibitions for citizens declared 'foreign agents' and for 'undesirable organisations,' seeking to maximally restrict the legal activities of the former and the opportunities for contact with the latter.

In addition, legislators toughened the punishment under the article on sabotage, which became relevant due to the spread of anti-war 'direct action' activities—arson of military enlistment offices and damage to railway tracks and infrastructure. Finally, the set of articles on state treason and espionage was supplemented with the concept of 'defecting to the enemy' and a separate article on 'cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state', with an even lower standard of proof than the already low standard for proving state treason (more on this area of repressiveness can be found in our recent overview).

Another manifestation of 'repressive populism' was the expansion of the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community. On 24 July 2023, a federal law prohibiting transgender transition came into force, and on 30 November, ruled on the recognition of the nonexistent 'international LGBTQ movement' as an extremist organisation (effective from January 10, 2024). Both the Ministry of Justice's lawsuit and the Supreme Court's decision exhibit legal incompetence. However, the creation of a deliberately fictitious organisation by Russian law enforcers will make it possible to charge LGBTQ+ individuals under several 'extremist' articles of the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences. The first example of such prosecution emerged recently in Nizhny Novgorod, where a girl was given five days of administrative arrest for 'displaying symbols of an extremist organisation' (Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation).

Deserted street: shifting the function of administrative prosecution

In 2023, the number of politically motivated prosecutions under administrative articles decreased significantly. The decline in street activity is vividly indicated by the figure of 817 — the number of arrests recorded by OVD-Info for the year at rallies across the country. For comparison, on 27 July 2019, at the peak of street demonstrations, 1373 people were detained in Moscow alone. On 20 March 2022, less than a month after the war began, OVD-Info reported 'more than 15,000 detentions for anti-war views', and almost two years later, in January 2024, the total number of such detentions, according to the project, had risen to 19,850. This means that three-quarters of detentions for anti-war public expressions occurred in the first month of the war.

The majority of administrative cases related to anti-war protests were filed under Article 20.3.3 ('discrediting the army'). In 2023, the number of such cases predictably decreased from 5518 in 2022 to 2830. Human rights activists attribute this to the fact that 'Article 20.3.3 was mass-applied to those detained at rallies, and it is easier to draw up protocols for an entire police van of people than to determine, based on social media comments, who wrote them, gather evidence, and find the person'. 

The suppression of street protest activity was also facilitated by the broader application of the qualification 'mass riots' (Article 212 of the Criminal Code) to such episodes. While the qualification was justified in the events at the Makhachkala airport, it was used to suppress political protest in the case of supporters of Bashkir activist Fail Alsynov. In the wake of these actions, the courts have already considered 158 administrative cases, OVD-Info is aware of 34 defendants in custody, and 20 such criminal cases.

In today's Russia, any attempt to exercise the constitutional right to freedom of assembly can serve as a pretext for criminal prosecution, with administrative punishment serving as its prelude and cause. The decrease in the number of administrative cases signifies an expansion of the domain of criminal repression, suggesting it should be seen as a result of the regime's tightening repression against expressions of dissent.

Fewer but tougher: the dynamics of criminal prosecutions

In the 'OVD-Info' database for 2023, 517 politically motivated criminal prosecutions were recorded. This is fewer than in 2022 (724 prosecutions); however the figure may not be final. The 2023 Repression Survey shows 423 prosecutions on criminal charges for anti-war views (compared to 378 in 2022). The number of prosecutions brought under Article 280.3 on 'repeated discredit of the army' increased from 55 in 2022 to 85 in 2023, as cases with administrative precedents (cases of 'repeated discredit of the army' within a year after administrative liability) reached court.

Of the 83 sentences in such cases, identified by OVD-Info for 2022, only 22 (just over a quarter) involved real prison terms. Of the 277 sentences identified in 2023, more than half of the sentences — 140 — resulted in actual prison terms. In addition, in 2023, the average sentence in anti-war cases increased significantly to 77 months in prison from 36 months in 2022. This is partly due to actions that were classified as 'property damage' in 2022 (arson of military enlistment offices, administrative buildings, and damage to railways) being treated as terror acts in 2023. In total, in 2023, at least 274 individuals became defendants in criminal cases for participation in 'direct action', compared to 117 in 2022. 

Top 10 sentences for 'anti-war articles', 2022-2023

At the same time, high-profile trials are often accompanied by demonstrative cruelty, such as the denial of medical assistance to Vladimir Kara-Murza and Igor Baryshnikov, who was also not allowed to attend his mother's funeral, and the abuse of Sasha Skochilenko, who was not allowed to eat or go to the toilet. Whereas previously the most egregious cases could be immediately reported to the ECHR (in accordance with its Rule 39), which, oddly enough, compelled the authorities of the Russian Federation to at least somewhat cease torture and inhumane treatment, after Russia's withdrawal from the Council of Europe, lawyers have no means of resisting the arbitrariness of the investigation.

In 2023, the class of criminal cases justifying extremism, terrorism, and calls for anti-state activities significantly expanded (a minimum of 134 cases). With the help of such cases, the authorities seek to impose on citizens the only correct interpretation of current events, opening cases for comments about the attacks on the Crimean bridge and Belgorod region, the death of Vladlen Tatarsky, the attempted assassination of Prilepin, and even for statements about the head of Rostec — Chemezov. This class of cases includes the prosecution of the author of Masyanya, Oleg Kuvaev, as well as the scandalous case of Yevgenia Berkovich and Svetlana Petriichuk, who are in pre-trial detention on the absurd charge of justifying terrorism.

Cases of incitement to terrorism, extremism and anti-state activity, 2023

Finally, in 2023, more than a hundred people were charged with state treason, as calculated by the human rights project 'First Division', which is approximately equal to the scale of prosecutions under this article in the first 22 years of the Russian Criminal Code — from 1997 to 2018. At the same time, unlike the Investigative Committee, which is interested in making both the background of the case and harsh sentences available to the public at large for 'edifying' purposes, the FSB carefully hides information about its cases, and the logic of their initiation is subordinated not so much to the idea of intimidating the population as to the departmental targets for catching 'spies', which grew up in wartime conditions.

In our recent reviews of political repressions in the summer and autumn, Re:Russia wrote about 'a trend of stabilisation and even a slight decrease in actual repression'. For example, in October, human rights activists reported 38 criminal cases for anti-war views, in November — 29, in December — 27, and in January 2024 — 24. It should be noted that these are not exhaustive statistics, but rather those cases that have been identified by human rights activists, and the figures for the last month may still grow somewhat. Nevertheless, a trend is apparent, and it appears to be related to two factors. Firstly, the tightening of punishment practices makes people behave more cautiously—fear works. The second factor may be a decrease in publicity. Many cases initiated in the regions remain unknown to human rights defenders, because sometimes 'silence' and admission of guilt lead to shorter sentences, while public outcry leads to retaliation by the law enforcement system and demonstrative punishment. Thus, law enforcement demonstrates decent planned disclosure rates for these articles, avoiding their public discussion. In their repressive activity, autocracies are usually forced to solve a dual task: on the one hand, to rely on the demonstrative effect of repression and, on the other hand, not to create an impression of mass protest.

Several new trends can be noted in the strategies of political persecution in 2023. For example, there has been a significant expansion of the practice of criminally prosecuting young people under political charges. Teenagers are more easily becoming victims of 'setups' by law enforcement (usually deliberate provocation in online communities), which helps them to fulfil departmental quotas to ‘uncover' treason. They are also easier to manipulate by court-appointed lawyers who suggest admitting guilt in exchange for reduced punishment. In many cases, human rights activists are aware of the torture of young people and the extraction of confessions.

In 2023, an 18-year-old Kevin Lik was sentenced to four years for 'treason,' 17-year-old Yegor Balazeykin and 20-year-old Valeria Zotova received six years each for 'attempted terrorism,' and a 17-year-old teenager from Ufa was sentenced to five years (details unknown). In November, 19-year-old Yuriy Mikheev, and Matvey and Timofey Melnikov were charged with 'committing sabotage,' and they are in pre-trial detention, as well as 19-year-old Mikhail Avdonin, who is accused of 'attempted terrorism' and 'preparation for treason.'

The recent sentence of 72-year-old Yevgeniya Maiboroda to five and a half years in prison for two reposts ('fakes' and 'calls to extremism') is, by contrast, aimed at older generations and is intended to demonstrate the absence of any 'age' insurance against repression (incidentally, women make up about 20% of political prisoners, which, as far as we can tell, is markedly different from their proportion among all categories of prisoners in general, which was 7% in 2020).

The growing severity of repression is also evident in another new trend—pressure on political prisoners already serving their sentences. Alexei Gorinov (seven and a half years for 'fakes' about the army) was charged with a new case of 'justification of terrorism' for talking about the war in prison. Maria Ponomarenko (six years for 'fakes') has been charged with 'inflicting harm not dangerous to health' on Federal Penitentiary Service officers. Human rights activists have systematised the available information about the use of punitive isolation against political prisoners: there were at least 49 such cases in 2023. This obviously incomplete and inconclusive figure, however, indicates systematic additional pressure on political prisoners.

Another trend in 2023 was the surge in sentences handed down in absentia under anti-war articles against people abroad. The norm of sentencing in absentia has existed in the Criminal Procedure Code since 2006, but it has been used very rarely, ranging between 0.035% and 0.5% of the total number of sentences. To ensure that the 'person under investigation' would not return to Russia, law enforcement simply needed to declare the person wanted and issue an in absentia detention order.

However, after 24 February, the number of in absentia verdicts increased tenfold. In this way, the authorities are looking for ways to influence those who continue to engage in independent journalism and activist activities beyond the reach of Russian law enforcement agencies. The so-called confiscation law, which was recently approved by the Federation Council, follows this same trend. Although its provisions thus far limit its use, as with other repressive innovations, we should expect an expansion of its application in the future through amendments to the original text.

Repressive populism: combating 'outside influence'

Another form of repressive populism, designed to legitimise political repression in the eyes of the population, is the practice of labelling dissidents and activists as 'foreign agents' or agents of 'undesirable organisations', i.e. agents of 'foreign influence'. In 2023, a total of 217 new entries appeared in the updated 'foreign agents' registry. However, these are not always genuinely new foreign agents. For example, the 'Committee against Torture' is a long-standing and honourable member of the register; since 2015, it has been included there five times in different capacities (as a legal entity, as a public organisation without forming a legal entity). Several positions are occupied by LLCs established by 'individual foreign agents' to fulfil the 'duties of a foreign agent'. In general, media and journalists lead the 'foreign agent’ list of 2023 by a wide margin, they occupy 78 new entries, and are followed by political associations, which occupy 31 positions on the register. It is also noticeable that individuals living outside Russia are more frequently recognised as ‘foreign agents’.

The Ministry of Justice announces a new batch of individuals recognised as 'foreign agents' every Friday, increasingly treating the 'motivation' for its decision more formally, as seen in the dossiers provided by the ministry to the courts in case of challenging its decisions. Material pressure on 'foreign agents' has also become significant: according to Roskomnadzor, in 2022-2023, the budget received 1.17 billion rubles in fines for the absence of 'foreign agent' labelling.

The trend of transforming non-criminal political prosecutions into criminal ones, which was mentioned above in connection with administrative prosecutions, can also be observed in the example of toughening the legislation on 'foreign agents' and 'undesirable organisations'. The possibility of criminal prosecution of 'foreign agents' appeared in December 2020. In February 2023, the first criminal case was opened on 'failure to fulfil the duties of a foreign agent' (part 2 of Article 330.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation). The first defendant was Artem Vazhenkov, the coordinator of Golos in Tver, and the second was another Golos coordinator, Vladimir Zhilinsky, who was put on the wanted list in January 2024 (neither is accessible to Russian justice). This article provides for the initiation of a criminal case if two 'administrative offences' for violating 'foreign agent' legislation take place within a year. The third 'violation' may result in a 'criminal offence'. 'Mediazona' has calculated that as of 11 January 2024, 93 'foreign agents' have fallen foul of this article, and criminal proceedings may be initiated against them at any moment. In 2024, we should expect the further expansion of the practice of criminally prosecuting individuals declared 'foreign agents', especially those who are abroad.

In October 2023, journalist Alsa Kurmasheva was arrested for failing to provide the documents required for inclusion in the register of 'foreign agents' (part 3 of Article 330.1). This is the first known case brought under this section of the 'foreign agents' article. Subsequently, 'dissemination of false information about the army' was added to the charge.

In 2023, 55 organisations were included in the register of 'undesirable' organisations.Since its creation in 2015 until the start of the war, a total of 49 organisations were listed, with an additional 23 included in 2022. Thus, almost two thirds of 'undesirable' organisations received this status since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Among the new topics, for which it is now possible to be designated as 'undesirable', ecology and support for ethnic associations are notable. The first administrative penalty for a comment given to an 'undesirable organisation' was recorded in January 2024 (Nadezhda Nizovkina, a human rights activist from Buryatia, was fined 5,000 rubles, for speaking to the Dozhd TV channel; the next prosecution for a similar offence could lead to criminal prosecution under Article 284.1).

Additionally, in 2023, there was an active 'purge' of the human rights sector. The court decided to liquidate the Sakharov Center, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the analytical centre 'Sova,' and the organisation 'Man and Law.' Interestingly, MHG was not even recognised as a 'foreign agent’. In 2012, after the adoption of the 'foreign agent' law, it opted out of foreign funding and has consistently adhered to this decision. The Ministry of Justice cited 'violation of the regional scope of the organisation's activities' as the main reason for the lawsuits to liquidate the NGO. In the absurd view of the Ministry of Justice, if an organisation is registered in Moscow, it not only cannot operate outside this region, for example, provide exhibits from its collection for exhibitions in other cities or send its observers to courts, and even its officials cannot participate in conferences or meetings in other regions in that capacity. Examples of state NGOs actively operating beyond their regions did not convince the courts.

Brief conclusions

In general, it can be said that 2023 was both a year of stabilisation and intensification of repressive policies. On the one hand, the toolkit of repression created in 2022 proved to be effective in reducing the mass scale of anti-war protests. Cases of public demonstration of anti-war views became rare. At the same time, the effectiveness throughout 2023 was sustained by further tightening of penalties and expanding the application of the instruments created in 2022, demonstrative severity of verdicts, and pressure on those already convicted, even those in prison.

While in 2022 repression was more reactive in nature, and real sentences for 'anti-war' political charges began only to appear in sentences towards the end of the year, in 2023 repression became largely systematic and planned, with substantial increases in actual prison terms. By the end of the year there was a slight reduction in the intensity of criminal proceedings and sentencing. However, an important trend of repressive toughening was the 'improvement' of mechanisms for turning non-criminal prosecutions into criminal ones. The brutality of prosecutions is aimed at balancing the authorities' desire not to overly increase their scale while achieving maximum demonstrative effect. Moreover, the protests in Bashkortostan became an unexpected challenge for the authorities in 2024. In their wake, we can expect tougher penalties for 'mass riots'. In addition, a major challenge for the Russian authorities remains the need to limit the influence of journalists, activists, politicians and public figures who have left the country. Innovations in repressive policies in this area are expected to be the primary focus in 2024.