05.12.23 Repressions Review

Three Periods of Repression: More than a thousand people in Russia are in prison for political reasons

A new database of politically motivated repression in Russia over the last 12 years, published by OVD-Info, makes it possible to assess the absolute level and dynamics of the repressive actions of the Putin regime. During this period, about 3500 people have been subjected to repression, more than a thousand of whom are currently in prison. The statistics from OVD-Info allow us to distinguish three periods in the history of Russian repressive policy. The years 2012–2018 can be described as a period of limited repression, with criminal prosecutions ranging from 100 to 300 people per year. During this time, the increase was largely driven by the persecution of religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses and Islamist organisations. In 2019, a period of expanded repression began, with the number of cases exceeding 400 per year. The proportion of participants in religious organisations among the victims of persecution began to decrease, while the proportion of political activists began to rise. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked a new period: in the past two years, some 1200 people have been subjected to criminal repression, most of them persecuted for expressing anti-war views. Over the past decade, repression, and thus political protest itself, has become significantly 'younger': in 2012-2013, the average age of those involved in 'political' criminal cases was 47, in 2016-2017 it had fallen to 43, and since the beginning of the war it has dropped to 39. Women were involved in only 14% of criminal cases during the period as a whole, but in 2023 this had increased to 20%.

In November, OVD-Info launched a database on politically motivated repression in Russia since 2012, compiled by human rights activists over the past 12 years. The database is based on the monitoring of human rights organisations that recognise a particular persecution as politically motivated on the basis of their own criteria. It focuses on criminal prosecutions, although it recognises that persecution does not necessarily involve a court verdict. The database finally allows for a substantive response to questions about the extent and dynamics of the repressive actions of the Russian political regime.

According to OVD-Info, over the past twelve years, about 3500 people have been subjected to politically motivated criminal prosecution, of whom more than a thousand are currently imprisoned. While from 2012 to 2016 there were no more than 200 cases per year, in 2022, criminal cases reached 705. From 2012 to 2016, the number of persecutions increased gradually from a low base (87 cases in 2012), doubling over five years. In the period from 2016 to 2019, this growth accelerated sharply and peaked in 2019: the number of politically motivated repressions increased fivefold compared to 2012. However, a significant portion of this increase was due to cases against members of Islamist organisations and Jehovah's Witnesses. During the pandemic years 2020-2021, the number of new criminal cases decreased noticeably, but in the second half of 2021 it began to recover. Moreover, the proportion of prosecutions against members of Islamist organisations and Jehovah's Witnesses decreased, while the number of cases against political activists, particularly those associated with the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), increased. In 2022, with the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the number of prosecutions again increased sharply, and this time the lion's share of these were 'anti-war' cases, i.e. prosecutions related to the expression of anti-war views. The data for 2023 is, of course, not yet finalised, but it is already clear that the overall number of repressions this year is unlikely to reach the peak of 2022.

Dynamics of politically motivated criminal prosecutions, 2012-2023

Demography and geography

Men aged between 30 and 50 are most often persecuted for political reasons, according to the data from OVD-Info. Women were prosecuted in only 14% of cases during the period as a whole, but the number of women being prosecuted is increasing, reaching 20% in 2023. It is likely that more women are involved in anti-war activities than are usually involved in opposition activism. For example, according to OVD-Info, the proportion of women detained at anti-war protests (44%) and protests against mobilisation (51%) is significantly higher than the proportion of women detained at rallies in support of Navalny (25% to 31%).

Further, the number of juvenile defendants is growing: while before 2021 there was no more than one such case per year, in 2021 there were already three, and in both 2022 and 2023 there were seven cases of criminal prosecution of minors. According to OVD-Info, almost half of the cases in which minors were prosecuted in 2022-2023 were related to arson or attempted arson of military recruitment centres. But, in general, over the past 12 years, repression (and thus resistance to the regime itself) has 'grown younger' by almost 10 years: in 2012-2013, the average age of its victims was 47 years, in 2016-2017 it dropped to 43 years, and for the wartime period of 2022-2023 it had fallen to 39 years.

The territorial scope of repression is also expanding: in 2022-2023, political criminal prosecutions were recorded in 82 regions of Russia, up from 77 regions in 2020-2021, while in 2018-2019 these cases were found in 65. The most 'repressed' region in 2022-2023 was Moscow, with St Petersburg in second place and occupied Crimea in third place.

From unfreedom of conscience to unfreedom of speech

Politically motivated repression refers to persecution that violates various fundamental human rights. According to OVD-Info's calculations, before the full-scale invasion began, the most frequently prosecuted cases were those for freedom of association and freedom of conscience. This category includes the persecution of religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and members of Islamist organisations (for example, Hizb ut-Tahrir). After the outbreak of war, the situation has changed dramatically: now more than half of all prosecutions are related to the violation of the right to freedom of speech, i.e. public statements and the expression of one's opinion in various forms.

'Topics' of politically motivated criminal prosecutions, 2012-2023

The majority of the 'political' cases filed since the beginning of 2022 are new 'anti-war' articles. The most 'popular' of these is Article 207.3 ('Public dissemination of knowingly false information about the actions of the armed forces') which was used in 244 criminal cases. Typically such repression emerges from posts on social networks about the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine (for example, about the deaths caused by the strike on the Drama Theatre in Mariupol or the events in Bucha).

Politically motivated criminal repression according to the articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, 2022–2023

Next in 'popularity' is Article 205.2 ('Justification of terrorism and calls for it') which was employed in 148 criminal cases, most of which also have an 'anti-war' lens to them: the reason for such cases was, for example, public approval of the explosions on the Crimean bridge or talk about the Azov regiment. Despite the fact that this article has existed since 2005, it has only become widely used since the start of the war: only 46 cases were brought under it during the entire period up to 2022. 

Under the article 'on discrediting the army' (Article 280.3) 132 cases were opened. It is important to note that this article is applied only in cases of repeated 'discrediting', and it is always preceded by a case under administrative article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences. The number of those convicted under this article is much higher: according to Mediazona, as of October 2023, more than 8000 cases were filed with the courts under this article. According to the content of the sentences, 'discrediting' includes, for example, participation in anti-war pickets, distribution of anti-war leaflets, as well as posts on social networks (for example, comparing the Russian regime to the fascism).

Thus, the history of political persecution in Putin's Russia can be divided into three periods. The period of limited repression from 2012 to 2018, during which criminal prosecutions targeted 100 to 300 people per year, with a significant increase largely driven by the persecution of religious organisations. Next, the period of extended repression between 2019 and 2021, when it exceeded 400 cases per year and the proportion of religious organisations as victims of persecution began to decline. Finally, the wartime period, during which (including the remaining months) about 1200 people have been subjected to criminal repression over two years, the majority of whom are persecuted for expressing anti-war views.