Pavel Chikov: What the Russian state is telling society in 2021 – ‘We are strong.’

4 June 2021

by Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Forbes]

Obviously, the goal is to clean up the political space before the start of the election campaign and maintain silence until the announcement of the results of the Duma elections. The clampdown is so intense that society only has time to cower in reflex. Under such conditions, there is virtually no room left for protest activity, says Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group.

The political agenda in Russia seems to have begun to be completely determined by the top security and law enforcement officials [the ‘siloviki’]. Almost every day there is news about officers of the FSB, the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducting the latest searches, and then the courts follow on when considering pre-trial restrictions. Roskomnadzor is increasingly playing the role of the police for the Internet and media, as is the Ministry of Justice for non-governmental organizations. The rules of the game are changing rapidly. Here are ten major changes that I think have happened recently.

Criminal cases on a conveyor belt

In 2021, the use of selective prosecution gave way to scorched earth tactics. Recognized as undesirable, Open Russia was liquidated, and following this, was at the receiving end of a whole bundle of criminal cases, including the arrest of the organization’s chair, Andrei Pivovarov. The Anti-Corruption Foundation (the organization is recognized as a foreign agent) and ‘Navalny’s Headquarters’ announced the suspension of their activities amid criminal cases and the emigration of a number of employees. The family of the politicians Dmitry and Gennady Gudkov – both former Duma deputies – found itself under threat of criminal prosecution. Several members of the Libertarian Party of Russia are under investigation.

In the wake of the January protests of 2021, 116 criminal prosecutions were launched – this may be the largest number of political prosecutions since the days of USSR dissidents in the 1970s. Politicians Ilya Yashin and Yevgeny Roizman were forced to answer questions as to why there are no criminal cases against them yet and whether they are ready for them. Today, opposition activities by default assume the risk of criminal prosecution.

Mass arrests

For the first time ever, the courts began to imprison protesters en masse. In December 2011, 300 people were arrested at rallies following the Duma elections in Moscow. These were the largest protests in the capital since 1993. The numbers arrested paralyzed the judicial system and the special detention centres. Later, in 2017-2019, the protests were more numerous and geographically widespread, and thousands of people were detained, but the number of those who received administrative sentences remained small.

In the protest year of 2019, only 249 people were arrested. But in the winter of 2021, the number for the first time exceeded 1000 people in Moscow alone, and another 500 were arrested in St. Petersburg. In total, at least 2,000 people were arrested throughout the country. In order for such a large number of people in both capitals to serve sentences, for the first time additional places of detention in neighbouring regions were involved.

Family prosecutions

Prosecutions are increasingly affecting family members of the opposition. For many years, there was an unspoken rule – the case could concern an activist or politician, but not their nearest and dearest. The first high-profile exception was made with regard to Aleksei Navalny when his brother Oleg received jail time in the Yves Rocher and Russian Post cases. In 2021, this ceased to be an exception: the father of the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov, is in custody, Gennady Gudkov’s sister (and Dmitry Gudkov’s aunt) was detained, and in the spring searches were carried out at the house of the mother of one of the leaders of the Anti-Corruption Centre, Leonid Volkov.

Reassessment of the past

After the poisoning of Navalny, many cases of the death or disappearance of political figures, including those of previous years, began to be perceived differently. Stories about the involvement of the authorities, having seemed like conspiracy theories, now appear more plausible. We’re talking about the poisoning of journalists Vladimir Kara-Murza and Petr Verzilov, the killing of General Lev Rokhlin, the sudden death from a heart attack of the communist Viktor Ilyukhin, the suspicious death of Novaya Gazeta’s Yury Shchekochikhin, the death of oligarch Boris Berezovsky in London, the death in Washington of former Press Minister Mikhail Lesin and many others.

Problems with departure

The arrest of Andrei Pivovarov on a plane preparing to fly from Pulkovo to Warsaw brought into question yet another rule – the authorities not preventing those who wish to leave the country from leaving. “If you don’t like it, leave” – this slogan has followed any criticism of the authorities since the 2000s. Insistent recommendations to depart under threat of criminal persecution – and the old Soviet “polite” style of communication between the KGB and dissidents that was adopted again by the current authorities – permitted well known politicians, bloggers, businessmen, actors, writers, lawyers and activists to leave the country in the last two decades. Many of these received notice of being on a federal wanted list, threatening immediate detention if they returned. 

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the possibility of leaving the country freely has dropped sharply. No wonder so many people believed the recent hoax about changes to the rules for issuing passports for Russians living abroad.

Financial penalties

Already after the 2019 protests in Moscow, the police and municipal enterprises filed multi-million rouble lawsuits against Navalny and his supporters. This practice has spread to the regions and now the police are collecting millions of roubles in ‘damages’ from the organisers of protests in Chelyabinsk, Penza and Omsk.

Businessman Evgeny Prigozhin has for some time also been actively involved in collecting large sums of money from oppositionists. And, under the ‘foreign agent’ law, fines have been laid against Radio Svoboda (recognised as a foreign agent). To date, the courts have imposed fines of 101.5 million roubles on the broadcaster, and 8.5 million roubles against its editor in chief Andrei Shary.  

Debts bring enforcement proceedings, the involvement of bailiffs, the seizure of property and bank accounts, bans on travel abroad and other kinds of restriction of rights. At any moment, non-execution of a court decision could become the basis for criminal proceedings. For example, in Sochi the courts are considering the case of local human rights activist Semen Simonov, because of the failure of the Southern Human Rights Centre, which he directs, to pay a fine under the foreign agent law.

Dismissal for disloyalty

Until now, the termination or, more often, the non-renewal of an employment contract on the basis of disloyalty was a rare occurrence and the political motivations were concealed. And so, in 2013, in Berezniki, Perm, criminologist Artem Faizulin was dismissed from the police force for participation in the internet action ‘A case against Navalny is a case against me’. In 2019, there began a mass exodus from the Higher School of Economics. And in spring of this year, several dozen employees were dismissed from the Moscow Metro alone – just for registering on the ‘Free Navalny’ website. Police officers, teachers, university professors and doctors are being fired for attending rallies.

The expulsion of students has also become a reality. At the end of 2020, Pavel Krysevich was expelled from the Friendship of the Peoples University for a performance against the FSB on Lubyanka Square. The court found the university’s decision to be lawful. Then, in January of this year, three students were expelled from Astrakhan State University for ‘participation in opposition rallies’. This practice hasn’t yet become ubiquitous, but students are under threat everywhere.

Cossacks are not necessary

Quasi-governmental organisations which were given the task of repressing the opposition have disappeared from the streets. Cossacks armed with whips threatened to disperse the protestors in 2018, but there were none to be seen at the protests of the following year. SERB, NOD and other iterations of the “Nashi” movement have also gone out of existence. Inasmuch as the regime demonstrates to society its own monopoly on violence, no intermediaries or avatars are needed to fulfill that role.

Releasing Pent-up Pressure

For the same reason, the authorities balk at any imitations of representative democracy. After the Duma ceased to be a place for discussion, the Presidential Human Rights Council was established in 2004, and the Public Chamber was launched in 2005, in order to demonstrate some consideration of public opinion.

In 2013, the “Russian Public Initiative” was created — an online resource where Russian citizens authorized through Public Services can propose, then vote for, various initiatives. In the same year, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, alongside a number of well-known public figures, established the All-Russian Civil Forum.

These initiatives have long allowed the release of accumulated pressure. However, in the last two years, in the conditions of newly serious opposition sentiments, their relevance has sharply decreased. Today these institutions exist largely by inertia. Thus, since the establishment of the “Russian Public Initiative” almost no initiative that received the 100,000 votes required to bring the issue to the government’s discussion has been approved — neither the ban on “flashing lights”, nor the refusal to block websites, nor the ban on the purchase of expensive cars by officials.

It can be said that in 2021, there are no serious structures in Russia that would attempt to coordinate the interests of different civil and political groups.

Traffic control 

Finally, in 2021, the Russian authorities made it clear for the first time that they had the technical capacity and political will to close access to global Internet platforms. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are no longer sacred cows. The technology for slowing down traffic has been tested. For the first time in four years following the failure of the attack on Telegram, the authorities are trying to hobble major social networks. Control of the Internet space and digital sovereignty are identified as priority tasks, and this implies the cleaning up of opposition socio-political content.


The campaign to tighten the screws is so intense that society only has time to cower reflexively. The first natural reaction is to reduce the intensity of the public rhetoric of public opinion leaders, self-censorship, depoliticization of discourse, and the avoidance of direct threats and risks. Members of the civil society networks that are under pressure are trying to emigrate, at least temporarily. The pressure is clearly aimed at cleaning up the political space before the start of the election campaign for the State Duma, which officially starts on 19 June. Then, most likely, the task will be to maintain complete calm until the day of the announcement of the election results. Under such conditions, there are no opportunities for street protests, online agitation, or direct action.

For the first time in many decades, society has faced a state that is prepared to use the criminal law for mass repressions and violence against dissidents. The current politically active generation does not have the skills to survive in such an aggressive environment.

Translated by Tyler Langendorfer, Mercedes Malcomson and Ruairidh Irwin

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