Incarceration Nation

Broken Windows and Broken Lives

On political persecution in Russia

By Boris Kagarlitsky

There is only one Russian political prisoner, Alexei Navalny, who is known in the West. In Russia itself, he is also the most famous among the many people who are behind bars for their political position or activities. Here we must pay tribute to Navalny’s supporters, who not only made very serious efforts to draw attention to the fate of their leader, but also tried to turn him into a symbolic figure eclipsing almost everyone else.

From the point of view of political propaganda and the tasks that this group set itself, this is quite rational and effective behavior. But it creates a big problem for many of the victims of Putin’s system, because their suffering is largely hidden from public view by the single-minded focus on “prisoner number one.”

Political persecution in Russia ranges from all sorts of fines and administrative arrests, which have already been imposed on many thousands of people in recent times, to serious prison terms exceeding those that threatened dissidents in the late Soviet era. Under the infamous Article 70 of the Criminal Code of Soviet Russia, the maximum punishment was up to seven years. Now a person can be imprisoned for ten to 15 years or more just for expressing opinions that, according to the authorities, “discredit the armed forces” or for spreading news declared “fake.” Again, the question of whether this news is true or not is left to the discretion of the officials concerned. Verification of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the information is not expected. Such statements are declared “deliberately false,” in other words, the authorities themselves decide that certain messages simply cannot be true due to political circumstances. The matter is complicated by a combination of arbitrariness and inconsistency—typical for the Russian state—when the same actions are either punished in the most severe way, or generally ignored.

It was thus that the regime convicted left-liberal Ilya Yashin, who, on principle, did not want to leave the country or comply with the requirements of the laws on “fake news” and “discrediting the armed forces.” For some time, he was not subject to any sanctions, and then he was quickly sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison. In the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, accused of spreading fake news about the Russian army and currently under arrest, a state prosecutor has demanded a 25-year prison sentence as punishment. Most of the other critics of the authorities who publish their texts in Russia are forced to constantly scrutinize their texts to make sure they avoid specific topics or even words and names, the use of which has been criminalized. These prohibitions create a monumental obstacle to writing meaningful critical texts. The Russian language is actually rich enough to solve the problem but that demands considerable experience or literary talent. Therefore, any discussion of problems related to the war has become almost impossible. Critics of government policies get slapped with the official label of being “foreign agents.” The regime is casting such a wide net with its “foreign agent” charge that environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Movement 42 (named for article 42 of the Russian Constitution concerning the right to a favorable environment) have been designated foreign agents, along with artists like Zemfira.1

Getting saddled with this status means that your rights are severely restricted, you are not allowed to teach, participate in elections, and you have to acknowledge this designation every time you write or speak publicly (including writing something on your Facebook page, though Facebook itself is officially banned in Russia.) The list of “foreign agents” is extended every Friday by the Ministry of Justice where they established a special department to combat “foreign influence.” Up until recently the authorities refused to make public the criteria they use to brand people “foreign agents.” New legislation doesn’t demand that the person in question has foreign funding or receive some kind of support from abroad, they may simply be charged with spreading “foreign ideas.” Recently the Russian State Duma started discussing a new law criminalizing feminism as an “extremist ideology.”

Many of those who were charged with spreading “fake news” had to flee the country. Others were subjected to administrative arrests, sometimes several times in a row, such as lawyer Sergei Ross and mathematician Mikhail Lobanov (formerly a Communist Party candidate for the State Duma.) Meanwhile, representatives of the far-right and Russian nationalists indulge in sharp criticism of the army and the military operation, but, unlike the left and liberals, they get away with it.

Those who hold unauthorized peaceful rallies and those who come into conflict with the police are also subject to imprisonment. Of course, no opposition rallies are authorized. And a terrorism charge can be laid even for a broken window.

Victims of repression

The most frequent victims of repression are actually not opposition politicians, but activists with trade unions, and human rights, environmental and antiwar movements, as well as anarchists. Kirill Ukraintsev, the founder of the Kurier trade union representing food delivery couriers, was under arrest for several months. He was charged with holding an illegal assembly during the strike. Fortunately, the court decision in his case turned out to be relatively lenient, and he was released due to time served in pre-trial detention. However, another trade union leader, Anton Orlov, who defended the rights of medical workers, is still in prison.

In Ufa, even before the start of the war with Ukraine, five members of the local Marxist circle were arrested, accused of “organizing a terrorist community with the aim of forcibly changing the constitutional order of Russia.” Moreover, one of those arrested—Dmitry Chuvilin—was a deputy of the Legislative Assembly of Bashkiria, elected on the list of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. The party leadership did not launch a campaign in defense of their own deputy as the leaders of the Duma opposition traditionally disown their local activists if they show any signs of radicalism. However, in the case of the Ufa circle, it is not even clear why they angered the local authorities so much. They were mainly engaged in reading and discussing the books of communist theorists, from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Trotsky.

The anarchists

It is the anarchists who comprise the largest number of political prisoners. Back in 2020, seven people were sentenced to various terms ranging from six to 18 years on charges of creating the terrorist organization “Network.” The defendants complained that they were subjected to torture. The main basis of the accusation was the fact that all the activists in the group were fond of airsoft, a shooting game similar to paintball, which was assessed as evidence of “illegal mastery of the skills of survival in the forest and first aid.”

In the case of the “Network affair,” the regime can at least point to the fact that the group’s members were interested in the ideas of direct action; however, the charge against the young scientist Azat Miftakhov was based on nothing more than his having been seen nearby when one of the radical activists broke a window in the office of pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Miftakhov, who is considered the rising star of Russian mathematics, was defended by dozens of colleagues in Russia and around the world. Petitions in his defense were signed by Noam Chomsky, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and many others. However, the authorities were relentless. At the moment, Miftakhov, who was sentenced to six years in prison, has already served most of the term, but it is rumored on social media that the authorities want to launch a new charge against him, linking him to the “Network affair.” Now his fate literally hangs in the balance. If a new sentence is handed down, Miftakhov will not only face a new term at a labor camp, but the conditions of his detention will also deteriorate sharply because he will be deemed a repeat offender.

Unfortunately, the lists of political prisoners in Russia are replenished monthly with the apparent indifference of the international community, for which these people are simply invisible. Against this background, the Miftakhov case can even be considered a happy exception: being a famous mathematician, he elicits the sympathy of colleagues from around the world, which gives reason to hope that he will meet a kinder fate than many other activists. However, if we want to stop political persecution in Russia and other countries of the world, we must fight for everyone.

Canadian Dimension, April 16, 2023

1 Indie-rock musician known for her departure from the traditional role of women in Russian music.