New Normal in Russia: Putin Critics Punished with Harsh Prison Terms

In the final days of 2015, as the world’s attention is focused on Syria, refugees and terrorism, Russia continues to dramatically ramp up its crackdown on political expression. More people are being arrested, followed by swift trials, guilty verdicts, and steep sentences of multiyear terms in prison. The chill in the Moscow air is palpable.

The year that began with a shocking, high-profile assassination of one of Russia’s most prominent opposition politicians, Boris Nemtsov, is ending with young peaceful protesters being sent away to penal colonies.

This is the new normal in Russia, as Putin’s repressive anti-protest laws are now bearing their chilling fruit.  Following a wave of anti-government protests against questionable election results in 2011 which culminated in the March of Millions on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the Kremlin fast-tracked strict laws imposing new rules and crushingly heavy fines, up to a year’s salary for most people, on unsanctioned protests.

The largest protest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bolotnaya spawned dozens of criminal cases and changed the landscape for Russia’s diverse opposition. Aggressive riot police charged and beat peaceful protesters, dozens of whom were tried, jailed for up to 5 years, some exiled, others committed suicide. And Russian authorities continue to find new people to investigate for their participation in the Bolotnaya protests.

Despite the obstacles, Russia’s opposition continued to organize protests. So last summer in 2014, the Kremlin effectively criminalized all peaceful protests and assemblies. Article 212.1, which went into effect in January 2015, amends the previous law in a considerably more punitive manner, carrying up to 5-year criminal prison terms for repeated protests. This law has a “3 strikes” feature, stating that anyone who has been convicted 3 times for the administrative offense of ‘violating the regulations governing public rallies,’ within a six month period is subject to criminal liability. With these laws and their particular application against political critics, the Putin regime is sending a powerful message heard throughout Russia of a repressive new reality unseen in decades: If you want dare to speak out against government policies or leadership, the authorities will ruthlessly treat you as a common criminal and send you away for years in penal colonies.

A young protester named Ildar Dadin became the first person to be convicted under Article 212.1 for having protested 4 times within a 6-month span. Ildar Dadin engaged in a completely benign peaceful protest, mostly standing alone holding a sign expressing his opinions, specifically about releasing political prisoners, the need to change power in the Kremlin, and to end the war in Ukraine. Until his trial in December, Dadin had been confined to house arrest. But on December 7, Dadin was sentenced to 3 years of actual prison time in a penal colony for simply exercising his constitutional right to express his opinion. Yes, Russia’s Constitution under Articles 29, 30 and 31 guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. But the new laws make those guarantees not worth the paper they’re written on.

I stress that this young man committed no criminal act. He never killed anyone, never raped anyone, never robbed or assaulted anyone, and never stole anything. In fact, Dadin had no weapon and hadn’t hurt a fly. This anti-war protester simply went out into the street holding a poster expressing his personal political opinion.

As the judge pronounced the harsh 3-year sentence, which was actually one year longer than the 2 years recommended by the state prosecutor, Dadin’s supporters shouted out in disbelief. Dadin’s “crime” was standing alone holding a sign in the peculiarly Russian “single-picket” protest: twice to protest against the war in Ukraine, once in support of political prisoner Nadiya Savchenko, and once to protest the arrest of another protester! Dadin’s conviction was condemned by Amnesty International, which concluded: “It is more dangerous to be a peaceful activist in Russia than at any time in recent years.”

While Dadin was the first peaceful protester to be imprisoned under Russia’s new anti-protest law, elderly activist Vladimir Ionov was the first to be arrested. 76-year-old Ionov is a veteran of the Soviet penal system, having been arrested for dissent in what had been a bygone era. Like Dadin, Ionov was heavily fined, and then put on trial for standing alone with picket signs one too many times. Ionov also suffered abuse at the hands of pro-Kremlin thugs who recently threw a caustic substance in his face during one of his single-person picket protests.

Last week the court announced its verdict in the Ionov case, giving him a 3 year suspended sentence. Ionov apparently didn’t trust the Russian justice system. Can you blame him? He decided to leave Russia instead, seeking political asylum in Kharkiv, Ukraine, according to a report from RFE/RL.

This week another young man Ivan Nepomnyashchikh,  a 25-year old engineer was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for participating in the mass anti-government protest on Bolotnaya Square three years ago in Moscow. He was actually trying to calm the massive force of riot police who randomly attacked peaceful protesters chanting “shame on you.”

Online media outlet produced a compelling video report highlighting the absurdity of charging let alone convicting Nepomnyashchikh, since the video shows the young man doing little more than protecting himself and trying to keep the twitchy riot police from attacking innocent, peaceful protesters. Yet Nepomnyashchikh, like Dadin, is going to be locked away in the prime of his life, having been convicted for assault on the riot police — with an umbrella.

Another shocking case is that of a young woman Darya Polyudova, 26 of Krasnodar, who was tried and sentenced to 2 years in prison for an “extremist” post on her VKontakte social media page, Russia’s version of Facebook. There Polyudova is pictured in a post holding a sign that read “No war in Ukraine but revolution in Russia.” That was her crime.

Tanya Lokot of Human Rights Watch comments on the unprecedented and sweeping crackdown on government critics.

Since the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin in 2012, the Russian government has instituted an unprecedented and sweeping crackdown on critics of the government, and one of its tools has been overbroad and vague anti-extremism legislation. As the space for freedom of speech in the traditional media narrows, the government is now going after the Internet and targeting individuals who try to stir public debate about sensitive issues, especially Ukraine.

The pool of candidates for Russia’s jails under the new anti-protest law is virtually never-ending. The Bolotnaya matter, which had threatened dozens of peaceful Russian protesters with prison back in 2012 is the protest that keeps on giving, as it were. Bolotnaya obviously still looms as a continued threat to this day. So many people from all the various opposition groups, not just the liberals, were present that the authorities can and have arbitrarily decided to investigate or threaten with prosecution at the drop of a hat, as happened to opposition politician Natalya Pelevina.

And of course, there are the Orwellian “single-picket” protesters, governed by Russian federal law. Single person pickets were carved out as an exception to various requirements on the holding and organizing or public events codified in Russian Federal Law NO. 54-FZ passed in 2004. In June 2012, these protest laws were significantly amended by Federal Law NO. 65-FZ, which now reflect the true nature of Russia’s cruel new repressive era. Among its many provisions, NO. 65-FZ expressly states that people who want to picket can do so, however under strict conditions: (1) a picketer must be alone, without others, and (2) a picketer must stand at a minimum distance of 50 meters from any other nearby picketer. Furthermore, you can only protest in this restricted manner 2 times within 6 months. The third time will subject you to the criminal law against repetitive violations governed by Article 212.1.

How can anyone have any impact or even feel they have a voice under such repressive conditions? That, of course, is precisely the point. The Putin regime can’t get rid of every opponent, despite its remarkable record of political assassination (Boris Nemtsov), arrest (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), and persecution (Alexey Navalny). So the regime has crafted laws which appear to give limited freedom of expression with one hand but effectively take away the right of freedom of assembly with the other. The stringent conditions on the former effectively criminalize the latter. In other words, the Russian Constitution pronouncement that “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets” is nullified by the new criminal code provisions which specifically target the very heart of public assembly, the ability to join in solidarity with others. The law as it stands says, You can protest, but you must do so alone and not often. You have a voice, but it is very quiet, because it cannot be amplified by gathering with other voices.

As if these draconian laws restricting freedom of expression and peaceable assembly in Russia weren’t bad enough, in practice the laws themselves create the very circumstances that allow Russian authorities to make arresting protesters even more arbitrary and much easier.

First, the laws force anti-government protesters to appear anti-social. Who stands alone holding a sign in the middle of a city but someone odd, an outcast or a misfit? Add to this forced anti-social behavior the portrayal on state-controlled media of anti-government protesters as traitors to Russia, serving a western enemy, etc. and the message becomes even clearer. If you don’t support Putin or his policies, you are anti-social, unpatriotic, and not a true Russian.

This is exactly how high-profile opposition figures are portrayed, if they’re even mentioned, in Russia’s most popular television media. They are demonized as enemies of the state so thoroughly that average media-consuming Russians have no qualms approaching protesters and arguing with them, cursing them, even assaulting them.

This dehumanization of opponents to Putin’s regime has taken off in the wake of neighboring Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, also known simply as Maidan (Ukrainian for “square”). Despite the fact that Maidan was an overwhelmingly positive peaceful assembly, Russian propaganda media focused only on the scenes of bloody clashes and burning tires, calling the protesters Nazis and fascists. The very word “Maidan” is now a dirty word in Russian, having become a shorthand for protests which invariably turn violent. In this way, even peaceful protesters who oppose war in Ukraine, true peaceniks as it were, are now associated in Russian society with violent government overthrows. By the same faulty logic, anyone supporting Ukraine must be a traitor to Russia as well.

Under such intense conditions of demonization of opposition voices, it comes as no surprise that protesters, even single-picket protesters, standing alone with their signs, are ripe targets for abuse. That abuse, whether from organized pro-Kremlin provocateur groups, like NOD or SERB, or from ordinary Russian citizens, subsequently provides the circumstances in which single-picket protesters find themselves no longer alone. And thus no longer protesting “under the law.”

This is precisely what happened to activist Mark Galperin. As he describes the latest such incident on his Facebook page, he stood alone on Manezh Square with a protest sign, a single-person picketer, perfectly legal within the confines of Russian law. Two strangers approached him and unraveled their own placard. The police arrived out of nowhere and arrested Galperin, not the others.

Mark Galperin: “It’s time to change power”

This type of provocation whereby police in civilian dress and/or pro-Kremlin people appear to harass a “single picket” protester, who looks for all intents and purposes as if he is breaking the “single picket” law, has become the cynical MO routinely used against civic activists. This is so unnerving. Russian protesters are actually trying to abide by the draconian laws, standing along, looking like misfits, trying to express themselves. But even that isn’t good enough, because they’re still continuing to protest. The provocations are so facile, courts don’t question who or why others were present. They simply become part of the fulfillment of the requirement of the criminal code.  Radio Svoboda notes that similar provocations were arranged for other civic activists including Dadin and Ionov, making it appear that they were in violation of the single-person picket law.

I have a hard time even calling these “laws,” in the usual sense. As David Satter recently pointed out in an important essay, Russia is not a state based on law. Russia’s police, investigators, prosecutors and the courts are anything but independent. These institutions serve the state, not the people. That is why even people who have followed the repressive laws are still subject to arrest and prosecution. Many of the Bolotnaya protesters fall in this category, like Nepomnyashchikh. As does Georgy Satarov, one of the founding fathers of Russia’s constitution, who was detained last week while picketing on Russia’s Constitution Day.

Imagine you want to engage in public discourse on fair elections, say, like the Bolotnaya protesters did when Putin reversed course and decided to return to power through his infamous switcheroo with then president Medvedev. Or imagine you want to merely show solidarity with a tragic world event, such as the terrorist shooting of political cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. You now do so at a much higher risk of being sent away for years in prison.

This new reality was the subject of a comment by one Russian activist named Kirill Rogov on his Facebook page. Below is a translation. It poignantly speaks for itself:


This is our new reality today.

In recent weeks, there has been a sharp escalation in the scale of political repression in Russia. In just the past few days, several people who went out with protest signs or who posted on social media were quickly tried and sentenced to significant prison terms. This constitutes a transition to a fundamentally new level of political repression by the regime, and its attempt to accustom society to it.

This is not a trivial matter in the life of Russia. What’s been happening in the last few weeks is NOT a continuing trend toward tighter authoritarianism that we have seen in recent years. This is a fundamental change. It is an attempt to establish a swift means of direct and unlawful political repression.

I urge all people who have a sense of morality, civic and political responsibility, to think about this. Whatever position you may occupy, whatever arguments of “balance” and compromise you may have formulated for yourselves, we must remember that we are moving to a situation where these arguments are actually becoming prison terms for some people. It is a new situation, and it touches you, it is directed against you. You and your good intentions will soon be nothing in its wake. Your morals will mean nothing.

Resistance, aggressive, non-trivial resistance, to this attempt to accustom society to a new normal of direct political repression, it seems to me, is the main task of Russian civil society today.

We need to stop the machine of political repression. It will not stop on its own. That’s all.

These are the people who could and should be building Russia’s future, instead of reliving its tragic repressive past in penal colonies.

Updated December 28, 2015

A version of this article appears at


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