26.06.23 Repressions Review

Totalitarian Putinism: Amid the successful suppression of protests against the war, Russian authorities are increasingly expanding the use of totalitarian practices to combat dissent

Last month set a kind of anti-record in the field of Russian political repression: according to calculations made by OVD-Info, the number of new criminal and administrative cases brought in June with 'anti-war' charges is noticeably lower than in the spring. However, this does not indicate a decline in repression but rather its effectiveness— the number of public anti-war protests is decreasing. At the same time, in the past month alone, six new cases of espionage and treason filed in Russia, the first instances of law enforcement implementing travel restrictions for citizens who have or had access to state secrets. Additionally, new restrictive laws on cooperation with foreign non-governmental organisations were introduced in their first reading. There has also continued to be an increase in censorship — several individuals have been fined for reposting articles from 'Meduza'—and there has been persistent extrajudicial pressure on university and school teachers who have been systematically dismissed for their anti-war statements. While political repression in Russia cannot yet be characterised as mass-scale, the contours of the Kremlin's repressive policies are distinctly totalitarian in nature.

June showed a slight decrease in the intensity of political repression in Russia, as indicated by the latest monthly report by OVD-Info. Over the past month, OVD-Info has recorded only 29 new criminal cases against opponents of the war, significantly fewer than in previous months: there were 37 such cases in March, 50 in April, and 47 in May (a total of 603 criminal cases have been brought under 'anti-war' articles since the start of the war, according to OVD-Info). The number of administrative cases under the charge of 'discrediting' the army is also continuing to decline, with only 160 new cases reported in June. This was the lowest figure since monitoring began, as the average monthly number of such cases over the previous seven months was around 330 (a total of 7,182 cases have been initiated under this article since its enactment). The number of arrests for expressing anti-war positions fell to a low of just seven cases. Public protests have long dwindled to a minimum, with an average of approximately 35 people being detained per month over the past six months. However, therein lies the anti-record for June: this trend clearly indicates not a decrease in pressure but rather the authorities' success when it comes to suppressing anti-war protests through repression.

Meanwhile, since May 22, 'Mediazona' has documentedsix new cases of criminal prosecution under charges of treason and espionage (a 71-year-old professor from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Valery Golubkin, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for treason). Additionally, 'Mediazona' has learned of 22 criminal cases initiated under the new article 'Violation of Requirements for Protecting State Secrets' (283.2 of the Criminal Code), which was introduced amid the mass exodus of Russians from the country. This law explicitly prohibits citizens who have or had access to state secrets from travelling abroad without special permission. Tens of thousands of people fall within the scope of this article, including civil servants, engineers, employees of state-owned enterprises, and security personnel. They are all prohibited from leaving the country without permission for at least five years from the date of their dismissal, and in special cases, this ban can be extended up to ten years. Violation of this ban is punishable by a fine of up to 500,000 rubles or imprisonment for up to three years. 'Mediazona' is currently aware of six convictions, with all the defendants fined between 200,000 and 250,000 rubles.

The introduction of mass travel restrictions seems quite logical against the backdrop of the continuous expansion of measures to control Russians' contacts with the outside world. In June, the State Duma adopted three bills in the first reading, introducing administrative and criminal liability for involvement in the activities of foreign or international non-governmental organisations that are not included in the special Russian register. These bills are evidently totalitarian in nature: while punishment was previously only imposed for cooperation with organisations deemed 'undesirable,' now a 'permissive' principle is effectively being introduced regarding cooperation with international organisations. In addition, two bills were adopted obliging public authorities and organisations to comply with the restrictions imposed on 'foreign agents.' For example, failure to display the 'foreign agent' label on products in online marketplaces can result in fines of up to 300,000 rubles.

The 'foreign agent' register, one of the Kremlin's key tools to repress dissent and civic activism, grew by 32 entries in June. Over the past six months, it has become the norm to add around 20 people to the register each month. This has resulted in a total of 294 organisations, individuals, and associations being included on the list since the start of the full-scale invasion (the total number of entries on the register to date is 630). In June, the list included former and current regional and municipal assembly deputies, journalists, lawyers, and organisations defending the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. The Ministry of Justice has an evident directive to add several new 'foreign agents' to the register every week. But here too, the authorities may intend to further expand their 'soft' repression. According to a report on the activities of the Ministry of Justice in 2022, another list mentions the names of 861 individuals who have been designated as 'affiliated with foreign agents.'

Three organisations—the 'Covenant of Churches TCCN,' the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Law Sofia Foundation—were declared 'undesirable.' Moreover, repressive legislative measures regarding 'undesirability' are increasingly being used to combat the informational influence of independent media operating abroad, primarily the online publication 'Meduza.' In June, a journalist in St. Petersburg, Sergei Kagermazov, was fined under the article on involvement with an 'undesirable' organisation (Article 20.33 of the Administrative Offences Code) for reposting 'Meduza' articles. Vitaly Votanovsky, an activist in Kuban, was fined 10,000 rubles for sharing links to 'Meduza' publications and the 'Free Idel-Ural' social movement.

Totalitarian practices are also becoming increasingly evident in the expanding censorship and pressure on education. For example, historian and founder of the Novosibirsk-based 'Novokollege' and 'Novoshkola,' Sergey Chernyshov, was declared a 'foreign agent' and forced to resign from administrative positions in his own educational institutions after complaints about his refusal to hold 'Important Conversations.' Yulia Ruzhina, a lecturer at a college in Sevastopol, was dismissed due to her comments on Telegram 'discrediting' the military. At St. Petersburg State University, Associate Professor Mikhail Belousov was fired after pro-war activists accused him of using the term 'rashism.' Moreover, Eight students were expelled for their anti-war stance. Igor Petukhov, the rector of the Volga State Technological University, made changes to the university’s internal regulations, prohibiting students from promoting 'non-traditional sexual relationships' and 'discrediting' the army. A total of 33 such cases of extrajudicial pressure related to anti-war positions were reported by OVD-Info in June, with a total of 524 cases since the beginning of the war.