28.11.23 Repressions Review

Frozen Protest: The number of public demonstrations against the war is continuing to decline, but a movement made up of the relatives of mobilised people is gaining weight and the number of deserters is growing

The statistics on the repression of opponents of the war have been demonstrating a downward trend for several consecutive months, attributed to society adapting to new ‘rules of existence’. However, anti-war opinions are finding other public forms. A decrease in the number of new administrative and criminal proceedings brought under 'anti-war' articles has been observed over the past six months, and the virtual cessation of public protests is becoming a norm of Russian public life. However, November was marked by at least two significant events on the anti-war agenda: an open letter from over 400 doctors against the sentence of activist Sasha Skolichenko and the radicalisation of the movement of relatives of those who have been mobilised. At the same time, the number of cases brought under 'mobilisation' articles, which prosecute servicemen for leaving their unit, disobeying orders and desertion, is slowly but steadily growing.

According to the November summary of repression by OVD-Info, 29 cases related to anti-war statements or speeches were opened in Russia last month; in October there were 38 such cases, in September — 36, in August — 29, in July — 26 (the figures may not be final, as some cases come to light later). Nineteen sentences were handed down in previous cases, of which nine were prison sentences. There were also 166 administrative 'anti-war' cases brought before the courts, compared to an average of 220 over the past four months. The number of arrests of people for anti-war views decreased to 3, the lowest level since February 2022. 

Thus, the downward trend in the scale of prosecutions for anti-war speech, which Re:Russia has discussed on several occasions, has continued and is linked to the adaptation of Russia’s residents to the new repressive conditions along with the decline in the number of public protests against the war. While street activism and public forms of anti-war expression are becoming rarer, both criminal and administrative cases are centred on prosecutions for anti-war speech on social media.

According to OVD-Info, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, law enforcement has carried out a total of 19,139 detentions at anti-war rallies in Russia and annexed Crimea, and another 329 detentions following such rallies. 307 criminal sentences were handed down, 152 of these resulted in prison sentences. Under article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences ('Discrediting'), 8,288 sentences have been handed down since the beginning of the war. During this same period, 374 administrative detentions were made for expressing an anti-war view on the Internet, wearing corresponding symbols and other forms of anti-war speech.

One of the harshest verdicts for an anti-war action was handed down in November to 19-year-old Ilya Podkamenny, who in late October was sentenced to 12 years in prison under the article on calls to extremism (Part 1 of Article 280 of the Criminal Code) — because of leaflets he had allegedly attached to railway tracks — as well as five other articles. Russian courts have also continued the practice of issuing sentences for posts on social networks: for example, Dmitry Aritkulov received 5.5 years in prison for anti-war comments he had made on Telegram, and Igor Orlovsky received 7.5 years in prison for comments and posts on VKontakte. On 16 November, artist Sasha Skochilenko was sentenced to seven years for an action in which she replaced price tags in shops.

Defendants in anti-war cases have faced pressure from the authorities, restrictions on correspondence, and direct violence. Victoria Petrova, a defendant in a 'fakes' case, reported that in a psychiatric hospital she was forced to undress in front of men for a 'bodily examination', tied up, threatened with beatings, and forcibly given medication that made her unable to speak. Street artist Filipp Kozlov (who goes by the pseudonym Philippenzo), who was charged with vandalism over anti-war graffiti, was found by doctors to have a fractured shoulder joint after a violent arrest.

Extrajudicial harassment of anti-war artists and teachers also continues. The most well-known cases of this kind are the disruption of a concert of the band Zero People by security forces, the dismissal of Mikhail Bychkov, Artistic Director of the Chamber Theatre in Voronezh, and Yuri Kobaladze, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of International Journalism at MGIMO (who was fired for inviting Ivan Urgant to speak to students).

The dynamics of repression reflect, on the one hand, the level of repressiveness of the regime and, on the other hand, public trends and sentiments, i.e. citizens’ readiness to protest. Against the background of the decline in repression that we have noted for the past few months as a result of the reduction of traditional forms of scattered protest against the war, some new trends can be noted. First, in November, for the first time in a long time, a collective appeal was published — a letter from Russian doctors protesting against the unjust sentence of Skochilenko and demanding her release. As of 28 November, it had been signed by 430 doctors. The practice of collective appeals sporadically returns to public life at times when authoritarian policies provoke broader dissatisfaction extending beyond opposition-minded individuals willing to express their views. Second, the radicalisation of the movement of female relatives of those who have been mobilised, who attempted pickets and rallies in November and then issued an acutely oppositional appeal, this time addressed not to the authorities but to the entire Russian population in an effort to find support for their demands.

Finally, another trend which is characterising the attitude of different groups among the population to the war, and the repressive resistance to anti-war sentiments in recent months, has been the growth in Russian military courts of the number of criminal cases related to desertion. As of 21 November, the number of such cases had reached 4121, with verdicts having already been decided in 3470 of these, according to Mediazona. Military courts have been passing at least 100 such verdicts per week since June (a record was set in August when 457 verdicts were handed down). Most often, those accused of desertion are sentenced to a suspended sentence, allowing them to return to the front.

Moreover, by November, 317 cases of failure to obey an order (Article 332 of the Criminal Code) were brought before the courts. Most of these cases were filed in Kamchatka (47), Rostov (45), Primorsky Krai (44) and Kaliningrad Oblast (43). The courts also received 96 cases under the more serious article on desertion (Article 338 of the Criminal Code). Generally speaking, the largest number of cases brought under 'mobilisation' articles came from the Moscow region (309), followed by the Rostov region (224), the Primorsky Krai (181) and the Sverdlovsk region (175).

Adopting a comparative perspective, as Re:Russia noted in its special review on this topic, these figures are relatively low for such a large military force. The number of such cases is increasing by about 500 per month, but this is a linear rather than exponential increase: while the actual number of such cases is probably higher, there are no signs of an epidemic of desertion yet.