A new stage of repression Three experts weigh in on the Kremlin’s changing approach to silencing dissent
On July 15, a judge in Komsomolsk-on-Amur acquitted artist and LGBT activist Yulia Tsvetkova after three years of legal proceedings. Tsvetkova was accused of “distributing pornography” after she published drawings of vulvas on a social media page called the “Vagina Monologues.” Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine, the number of absurd cases like Tsvetkova’s has only grown; Russians can now be charged for as little as putting quotation marks around the phrase “special [military] operation.” For insight into how the authorities' censorship methods are evolving, Meduza asked a human rights advocate, a political scientist, and a state repression historian about the purpose of cases like Tsvetkova's.
Judging by which organizations have been deemed “foreign agents,” women’s rights groups, minority rights groups, and organizations that fight domestic and sexual violence rank high on the government’s list of “enemies.” They’ve simultaneously been persecuted by both local and federal law enforcement. As Yulia Tsvetkova’s case made clear, working on these issues is dangerous.
Nobody can say for sure why authoritarian political regimes take such interest in their subjects’ personal lives. But it’s important to remember that the list of authoritarian personality traits compiled by [German sociologist Theodor] Adorno included authoritarian submission (a tendency to associate oneself with the strong), authoritarian aggression (a tendency to attack those who are different), intellectual simplicity, and an obsession with other’s sex lives. Perhaps this is because [others’ sex lives represent] a realm of uncontrollable freedom, which always irritates the authoritarian nature. Perhaps they really do see some kind of threat to the fabric of society there.
A somewhat inappropriate interest in other people’s sex lives is characteristic of [individual] authoritarian personalities, not just authoritarian regimes. In democracies, too, conservative-leaning people tend to be disproportionately concerned about what others are doing, with whom, and how; they see in it a threat to future populations and, consequently, the future of the country.
In our case, the current government views the younger generation with suspicion and mistrust, believing they’ve been indoctrinated with the wrong values, including those connected to family and sexual life. As a result, anything that might influence young people is watched closely and regarded with skepticism.
Around 2019, people who were used to fighting foreign spies [FSB agents] suddenly found themselves in charge of managing [Russia’s] domestic politics. [...] Since then, we’ve seen how the individual “foreign agents” registry has appeared, how it’s grown, and how “foreign influence” has become the explanation for all domestic troubles.
[Russia’s] domestic policy has been projected onto its foreign policy and its foreign policy onto its domestic policy to the point that the two have merged together completely. The new amendments to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code talk not only about treason but also about espionage; they introduce the concept of “secret cooperation,” and not just with foreign intelligence agencies, but also with international organizations or simply with [foreign] citizens.
These innovations complement the new version of the “foreign agents” law, which greatly expands the definition of a “foreign agent.” Now, being one doesn’t require any evidence of foreign funding; it’s enough to have “foreign influence,” which can be exerted on an organization or individual, magically — and unbeknownst to the target — making it a “foreign agent.”
In our case, these kinds of rules aren’t intended for widescale use; they’re intended to intimidate. People were told they could get up to 15 years for saying the wrong thing about the special operation; now they’ll be told they can get up to 20 years for communicating with foreigners — so they have to be as careful as possible and stop communicating with everybody.
For the first three months of the special operation, there was a lull in intra-elite repressions; we can now see it in retrospect. Until [Russian Presidential Academy head] Vladimir Mau was put on house arrest, we didn’t seen any high-ranking figures get persecuted, and any rumors of that happening (such as those about [Defense Minister Sergey] Shoigu, [Army General Staff Chief Valery] Gerasimov, or the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service [Sergey Beseda] falling from grace were quickly refuted.
It [the lull] ended with the charges against Mau. In addition to him, a number of security officials have found themselves targeted over the last two weeks. That includes [Interior Minister Vladimir] Kolokoltsev’s aide in St. Petersburg [Sergey Umnov] as well as two St. Petersburg police generals [Alexey Semenov and Ivan Abakumov]. If there was, in fact, a pause, it’s clearly over. We can now say with certainty that they [the Russian security forces] have woken back up.
Head of Agora, a human rights organization
People have always reported and denounced others. This didn’t appear out of nowhere, and it’s not limited to Russia. All kinds of indignant citizens have always gone to law enforcement agencies with complaints about things that don’t fit their perfect idea of how the world should be. It’s not a question of people complaining — it’s a question of how the government reacts.
If the government reacts to some complaints and not to others, thereby creating a policy of encouraging complaints about some things while ignoring others, that’s a problem.
If a person complains about local police officers beating homeless people, it’s likely that the government won’t react, or that its reaction will be insufficient. But if a person complains about someone putting up a Ukrainian or a rainbow flag [in a window, for example], the reaction will be immediate and even excessive.
The government’s selective attention has become obvious in recent months. Everyone understands perfectly well which things the government will respond to instantly. That spurs concerned citizens to seek out [problems] and report them. Thus the problem isn’t with the citizens, it’s with the government.
I’ve worked on politically motivated cases for almost 20 years and can tell you that ordinary citizens have always faced more [political] persecution than activists. Activists’ cases are more high-profile; everyone reports on them. That’s not the case with ordinary people. They often plead guilty, and the cases are held in silence. I know of an extremism case from the aughts, or of cases against people for statements they made online that were opened 10-15 years ago. Or the first few dozen cases of “disrespecting the authorities,” when that article was added to the Administrative Code: most of them were opened against ordinary people and Internet users who spoke out about their frustrations with the authorities and the president. It’s incorrect to say the repressions only started after the war began.
As for criminal charges, a total of about 200 criminal cases under twenty different criminal code articles have been initiated since the start of the war; only two of those articles were passed as “wartime censorship” legislation. All the others are laws that have been applied against government critics for years. The only difference is that now, all of these cases are being filed in connection with anti-war protests, which can look like anything from Internet posts to street demonstrations, performances, and street art.
The question of intimidation against politically active citizens is a question of interpretation. Some might say people really are being intimidated. The Investigative Committee and supporters of the government will tell you that they’re suppressing criminal activity. Overall, this all appears to be an attempt to punish people for opposing the authorities’ policies and to create a society-wide chilling effect.
Historian, Memorial employee Sergey Bondarenko
There’s no doubt that the case against Yulia Tsvetkova was politically motivated. The Soviet political repressions of 1960-1980 were largely individual; they didn’t affect an entire social group or class like those of 30 years early, in the late 1930s. The scale changed, but people were persecuted in various ways for their views. The issue isn’t that Tsvetkova committed some kind of crime; it’s that there’s a certain belief system that’s currently considered unacceptable. They [security officials] extracted this belief system from her work, and then she effectively began facing punishment for a political crime.
Another important difference [from the Soviet-era repressions] is how arbitrary current persecution methods are. My impression is that the work against [Soviet] dissidents was quite methodical. There were entire divisions working specifically on dissident circles. Now, they grab people one at a time — and not necessarily the most well-known people, just those unlucky enough to cross paths with a certain cop or Center E [Russia's Anti-Extremism Center] agent. Some of the victims, of course, are just meant to serve as examples.
The connection between state terror and fear is fairly direct: it’s clear that violent methods are effective. But it’s vital to remember that just as systems of terror are passed down, systems of resistance and the belief that it’s important to fight back are passed down. In that sense, Yulia Tsvetkova is in many ways continuing in the tradition of those who suffered for their beliefs before her.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale