14.09.22 Repressions Review

Resisting the resistance: repressions against Opponents of the war are systematic, but not widespread

According to a report published in OVD-Info, repressions against people opposing the war are systematic, but not widespread. The report included all available data on the scale and nature of the repressions. Understanding the scope of repressions is important not just in terms of statistics, but as a way to measure the level of resistance or passivity towards the war in Russian society. The first days of the conflict provoked a robust and active anti-war resistance, but the government swiftly responded by approving a series of repressive laws which effectively criminalised speaking out against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. More than 16,500 people have been detained by police over six and a half months of war; more than 3,800 administrative cases and 237 criminal cases have been opened as a result of anti-war protests. More than 60 people are currently being held in pre-trial detention centres, around 40 are under house arrest or free but with other restrictions in place, and more than 30 are on the wanted list. Demonstrative and systematic repressions have become a way to drive activists and public figures out of the country.
On the 24th of February, the first day of the war, thousands of protesters were detained in Russia and charged with taking part in “unsanctioned” protests. Shortly after, the government adopted a large series of amendments to the Russian Criminal, Administrative and Criminal Procedure Codes. On the 4th of March, Article 207.3 on “fake news” about the Russian armed forces was introduced into the Russian Criminal Code, carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, as was Article 280.3 on “public actions aimed at discrediting the army”, with a maximum penalty of 5 years. Article 20.3.3 on discrediting the army was introduced into the Code of Administrative Offences and carries a fine of 50 thousand rubles; for actions that “endanger life or violate public order” the fine can go up to 100 thousand rubles.

According to OVD-Info, in just six months of the war, Russian authorities have arrested more than 16,500 people and have opened more than 3,800 administrative and 237 criminal cases against people speaking out against the war. 

Around 90% of arrests (or more than 15,000) occurred during the first month of the war. By the end of March authorities had all but suppressed street protests. Arrests continued for wearing anti-war symbols (118 arrests) and for posting anti-war messages on social media (138 arrests). Arrests were also used to intimidate people: for example, during the day of the Russian flag, police arrested around 33 people in the subway without any apparent reason and with the help of facial recognition systems. These people had previously taken part in opposition rallies.  

More than 3,800 cases have been opened under article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences (discrediting the army), OVD-Info notes, citing Mediazona's statistics. Most cases are in Moscow (517), St. Petersburg (229), Krasnodar Krai (179), Sverdlovsk Region (107) and Crimea (107). Cases peaked in the first three months of the war: on average, this turned out to be more than 800 cases per month. In summer the number dropped to 300-400 cases per month. Opinion leaders such as politicians, journalists and bloggers have been subjected to heightened levels of scrutiny. People taking to the streets with “No War” signs have been detained, as have people holding blank white sheets of paper, signs where letters have been replaced with stars, signs with the number “35” (a code for “No War”) and so on. 

237 people are currently being prosecuted in criminal cases. About half of them (102 people) are being prosecuted under the article on “fake news” (Article 207, dissemination of deliberately false information about the actions of the armed forces). To add to this, a number of people have been accused of vandalism motivated by hatred (Article 214, 38 people), discrediting the use of armed forces (Article 280.3, 19 people) and terrorism (Article 205, 17 people).

More than 60 people are in pre-trial detention centres, another 40 people are under house arrest or remain free but with certain restrictions on movement in place, more than 30 are on a wanted list. More than 40 people are known to have left Russia. Moscow takes the lead in terms of  the number of active criminal cases with 55. There are 37 active cases in St. Petersburg, and the Republic of Crimea comes in third with 10 criminal prosecutions (the population of Crimea is three times less than that of St. Petersburg). 25% of all defendants are political activists, 10% are journalists. Reasons for opening a criminal case include posts on social media, anti-war graffiti or other anti-war actions.

A unique form of repression has been to label organisations “undesirable”, which makes working with them a criminal offence, and to label organisations and individuals as “foreign agents”, which also imposes restrictions on the activities they can perform and their rights. Since the beginning of the war, 15 names have been added to the list of undesirable organisations (this constitutes almost a quarter of the total number). 72 people have been added to the “foreign agent” list. The Ministry of Justice has been especially active in labelling people as foreign agents, including public figures, bloggers and journalists who are currently abroad.   

Anti-war repressions are systematic, but not widespread, according to OVD-Info. This fits the profile of Russian authoritarianism, which is characterised by low levels of repression. At the same time, however, widespread repressive laws are an effective mechanism to push activists and public figures out of the country: out of 237 defendants in "anti-war" criminal cases, 43 have left Russia (and the whereabouts of another 67 are unknown). The success of this strategy has also largely been determined by the fact that systematic repressions against the opposition and political activists began in 2021 after the FBK was outlawed. As a result, highly organised groups of activists were forced to leave the country or were put in pre-trial detention centres before the start of the war. This influenced the overall level of extremity of the protests.