The Escalation of Repression: Russia’s Suppression of Dissent in 2023

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By ISSG Staff

In 2023, Russia witnessed a notable absence of mass protests and scenes of police brutality, yet behind the façade of normalcy, the Kremlin’s suppression of dissent intensified, resembling the repressive systems of the post-Stalin Soviet era. President Vladimir Putin’s security forces shifted their tactics from visible street repression to systematic crackdowns within pretrial detention centers, courts, and the prison system.

Human rights activist Aleksandr Cherkasov of Memorial, even after being banned in Russia, expressed concern, stating, “It is a return to the repressive system of the post-Stalin period.” He suggested that Putin is not merely maintaining stability but is engaged in social engineering, echoing the Soviet logic that involved suppressing one person to control the actions of many.

One significant development in 2023 was the imposition of increasingly lengthy prison terms in politically motivated cases. Notable figures like opposition politician Alexei Navalny, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, and artist Aleksandra Skochilenko faced extended sentences, drawing parallels to Stalinist tactics.

OVD-Info, a rights project monitoring repression in Russia, reported that the Kremlin employed a complex web of laws, including those criminalizing the spread of “false” information about the armed forces, justifying terrorism, and rehabilitating Nazism. These laws featured vague language and arbitrary applications, enabling authorities to target dissenting voices.

The law on “discrediting” the armed forces (Article 20.3.3) saw 2,830 cases in 2023. Additionally, the application of Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code, criminalizing “repeated” discrediting of the armed forces, increased significantly, resulting in prison terms for repeat offenders.

Prosecutions under Article 207.3, criminalizing the dissemination of “false” information about the war in Ukraine due to “political hatred,” surged, with 794 defendants charged. Journalists, such as Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, faced harsh sentences, illustrating the Kremlin’s crackdown on media.

A new law criminalizing statements or actions against national security (Article 280.4) led to 134 cases, often connected to criticism of Russia’s military mobilization in 2022. Notably, this intensified suppression of dissent coincided with the addition of 217 individuals and organizations to the Justice Ministry’s “foreign agents” list, and 53 organizations were declared “undesirable,” demonstrating the broader crackdown on civil society.

The criminalization of the “justification” of extremism and the rehabilitation of Nazism resulted in 45 cases. Volunteers associated with the banned Memorial human rights group faced charges for including collaborators with Nazis in their database of Stalinist repression victims.

OVD-Info analyst Yelizaveta Shtiglits noted that laws on public statements, “foreign agents,” and “terrorist activity” became “significantly harsher” in 2023, potentially responding to attacks on recruiting centers and railroad lines.

With UN Special Rapporteur Mariana Katzarova describing the situation in Russia as “very difficult” and the foundation of civil society destroyed, the future seems bleak. The trend of stifling dissent and anti-war messages is likely to persist, setting the stage for continued repression and challenges to human rights in 2024.

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