How we got here Meduza looks back on Russia’s most high-profile incidents of repression over the past six months
Six months ago, on January 17, 2021, opposition politician Alexey Navalny returned to Russia and was immediately arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Russian prison authorities accused him of violating probation while in Germany (where he spent about five months recovering from an assassination attempt) and a Moscow court incarcerated him under a reinstated sentence on February 2. Over the next several months, the Russian authorities destroyed Navalny’s political and anti-corruption movement and launched an all-encompassing campaign of repressions against activists, human rights defenders, and independent journalists. Meduza looks back at the key moments in this crackdown.
The “Sanitary Case.” Thousands of people attended a rally in Moscow protesting Alexey Navalny’s arrest and calling for his release. That same day, the Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against a number of well-known activists for allegedly violating pandemic regulations. According to the investigation, they called for people to take to the streets in support of Navalny, thus provoking people to violate sanitary and epidemiological rules.
In total, there were ten defendants in the so-called “Sanitary Case,” including opposition politician Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh, his brother Oleg Navalny, Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Lyusya Shteyn, and municipal deputy Konstantin Yankauskas. Investigators dropped the charges against Yankauskas in early June, but the other defendants are still under investigation.
Suppressing protests by force. Pro-Navalny demonstrations on January 23 and 31, and on February 2, were met with violent police action; in total, nearly 10,000 people were detained at rallies across the country.
The Russian authorities launched more than 90 criminal cases against protesters and nearly two dozen of these defendants were sentenced to jail time. Thousands of the detainees were charged with misdemeanors and ordered to pay major fines. Government officials maintained that no undue force was used against the demonstrators, despite the abundance of videos showing riot police officers beating people up.
Another conviction for Navalny. Alexey Navalny, who was already serving time in prison, was found guilty of slandering World War II veteran Ignat Artemenko. Navalny’s supposed crime was saying that the people who appeared in a promotional video supporting the government’s constitutional reforms were “corrupt bootlickers” and “traitors.” Since Artemenko briefly appeared in the video, a Moscow court fined Navalny 850,000 rubles (about $11,500) for insulting him.
Pressuring independent municipal deputies. Moscow police disrupted the Municipal Russia Forum, which was attended by around 200 independent deputies from 56 of the country’s regions. The police detained all of the participants, claiming that the forum was allegedly organized by an “undesirable organization.” Later, Moscow police officials said that the event was carried out “in violation of the established sanitary and epidemiological requirements.”
On May 22, police disrupted a similar forum in Veliky Novgorod. The Interior Ministry said that its participants violated the anti-coronavirus restrictions in force in the Novgorod region.
IStories gets raided. FSB agents spent seven hours searching the apartment of IStories editor-in-chief Roman Anin, in connection with a criminal case for privacy violation. The case was launched back in 2016 over an article Anin wrote for Novaya Gazeta about a $100 million yacht belonging to Olga Rozhkova — the then-wife of Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. Anin is currently a witness in the case.
The FSB simultaneously raided the IStories newsroom — none of the investigative outlet’s staff were there at the time.
The “Doxa Case.” Moscow police raided the office of the student journal Doxa. The authorities pressed criminal charges against four of the journal’s editors for allegedly involving minors in unauthorized protests. A Moscow court placed them under de facto house arrest pending trial.
The case was supposedly launched over a video Doxa published on January 23, in which the student journalists condemned university administrators for illegally threatening to expel students for attending pro-Navalny demonstrations.
The “Apartment Case.” Moscow’s Mirovoy District Court found opposition politician Lyubov Sobol guilty of trespassing and handed her a one-year provisional sentence of community service, in addition to garnishing 10 percent of her wages.
The case against Sobol was opened in December 2020, after she visited the home of Konstantin Kudryavtsev — one of the FSB agents implicated in Navalny’s August 2020 poisoning. The injured party in the case was Kudryavtsev’s mother-in-law, who claimed that Sobol pushed her and entered her apartment without permission. Kudryavtsev himself was neither a witness nor a victim in the case, because investigators couldn’t establish his whereabouts.
Meduza is branded a “foreign agent.” The Russian Justice Ministry added Meduza to its registry of “foreign agent media.” It also blacklisted the website First Anti-Corruption Media project, which was launched in 2012.
The business outlet VTimes, which was founded in 2020 by journalists who left the well-known newspaper Vedomosti, was designated a “foreign agent” on May 14.
Meduza lost nearly all of its advertising revenue due to its “foreign agent” status, but has continued to operate thanks to donations from readers. VTimes, however, was forced to close.
The “anti-FBK law.” A draft law was introduced to the Russian State Duma banning anyone involved in the activities of outlawed “extremist” groups from running for elected office in Russia at any level. Despite the fact that it contradicts the constitution, the bill has retroactive effect, meaning it applies to individuals who were affiliated with these groups before they were recognized as “extremist.”
The media dubbed the legislation the “anti-FBK law” due to speculation that it was passed to prevent Navalny’s supporters from running in Russian elections. The bill was adopted as quickly as possible: just 30 days passed between its submission to the State Duma and President Vladimir Putin signing it into law.
Open Russia disbands. The nonprofit organization Open Russia (Otkrytaya Rossiya) announced that it was completely shutting down its operations against the backdrop of plans to tighten Russia’s legislation banning cooperation with “undesirable organizations.” Open Russia, which is linked to exiled former oil company executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, isn’t formally recognized as “undesirable” in Russia, but its activists have faced persecution for many years.
On May 31, law enforcement officers in St. Petersburg boarded a plane at the St. Petersburg airport to detain former Open Russia executive director Andrey Pivovarov, who was set to depart for Warsaw. Pivovarov was remanded in custody on charges of involvement in the activities of an “undesirable organization” — the criminal case was opened over a post he allegedly shared on Facebook in August 2020.
Gudkov leaves Russia, Reznik is detained. Police officers raided the home of opposition politician and former State Duma lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, and detained him as a suspect in a criminal case for allegedly “causing property damage through deception or breach of trust.” Moscow police released Gudkov after 48 hours without pressing charges — the opposition politician fled Russia for Ukraine. According to Gudkov, he was unofficially warned that if he didn’t leave the country the case against would be continued. He also claimed that the property damage case was “solely to prevent” him from running in the fall elections.
Later, on June 17, St. Petersburg police detained opposition politician and local legislator Maxim Reznik on drug charges. He was placed under house arrest. Meanwhile, law enforcement officers in Moscow arrested municipal deputy Ketevan Kharaidze on fraud charges; she was transferred to house arrest after spending a month in a pre-trial detention center. Both politicians believe that criminal cases were opened against them to prevent them from standing for election in the fall.
Team Navalny declared “extremist.” The Moscow City Court designated Navalny’s political and anti-corruption organizations as “extremist,” including his Anti-Corruption Foundation (the FBK) and his national network of campaign offices.
This decision deprives people with any connection to these organizations of the right to be elected in Russia, in accordance with the aforementioned “anti-FBK law.” Putin signed the bill into law four days before the court’s ruling.
Pressure on Pussy Riot. Moscow police arrested Pussy Riot activist Veronika Nikulshina. The next day, she was jailed for fifteen days on charges of disobeying a police officer. The police report claimed that Nikulshina allegedly intended to disrupt the events of the Euro 2020 soccer championship in St. Petersburg. The day after her release from a special detention center, Nikulshina was arrested again and jailed for another 15 days. She left Russia on July 18, after being released from custody for the second time.
Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Alexander Sofeev were also handed back-to-back jail time, along with their friends — director Anna Kuzminykh and photographer Dmitry Vorontsov.
The “anti-FBK law” in action. Election officials in Moscow refused to register opposition politician Ilya Yashin’s candidacy for the upcoming City Duma election, citing his support for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (the FBK). Yashin argued that this decision was illegal because 1) his ties to an “extremist” group were never proven in court and 2) the verdict outlawing Navalny’s FBK hadn’t yet entered into force. On July 7, the Moscow City Court sided with election officials and ruled that it was legal to refuse to register Yashin’s candidacy.
Oleg Stepanov and Sergy Ukhov, who ran Navalny’s campaign offices in Moscow and Perm region, respectively, were also barred from running in the fall elections on similar grounds.
Proekt is outlawed as “undesirable.” The Russian Attorney General’s office declared the American company “Project Media Inc.” — the publisher behind the investigative outlet Proekt — an “undesirable organization” and outlawed its activities. Simultaneously, the Justice Ministry added five of Proekt’s journalists, including editor-in-chief Roman Badanin, to its list of “foreign agents” (along with two other journalists from Open Media and a Radio Svoboda correspondent).
Team 29 disbands. Russia’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, blocked the website of Team 29 — an association of lawyers, attorneys, and journalists who specialize in defending clients charged with treason, divulging state secrets, and espionage. Roskomnadzor claimed that Team 29 published materials on its website from an “undesirable organization” — the Prague-based NGO “Spolecnost Svobody Informace” (Freedom of Information Society). Team 29 denied the allegations.
Two days later, Team 29 announced it was disbanding to protect its members and supporters from prosecution.
Translation by Eilish Hart