Meet the people caught up in Russia’s crackdown on dissent
In wartime Russia, citizens are risking decades in prison for previously permissible acts: denouncing the government and the army on social media, making political speeches — even criticizing the invasion of Ukraine in private with friends.
The Kremlin is jailing its critics at a turbocharged rate. After invading Ukraine, the government of President Vladimir Putin introduced draconian censorship laws that criminalize antiwar protest, make independent journalism almost impossible and outlawed calling its “special military operation” a war.
Russia’s crackdown on dissent has been expanding for years, notably with the 2021 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and many of his supporters, but the number of political cases is now snowballing. Students, an essayist, a theater director and a former police officer, among many others, have been sentenced to years in prison.
Nearly 20,000 people have been detained for opposing the war, the rights group OVD-Info reports; at least 537 people, including children and pensioners, have been charged criminally. The majority have fallen under the new laws — in particular under a provision that criminalizes the distribution of “false information” about the army.
“What we are now seeing is absolutely unprecedented,” said Maria Kuznetsova, a spokesperson for OVD-Info. “We have never seen such numbers in Russia.”
There’s also been an uptick in treason cases. Historically, such cases have typically involved military figures or scientists who were investigated over the course of years, and kept top secret. But in recent months, ordinary citizens have been charged, many in connection to Ukraine.
“It is important for the authorities to maintain the image of a collective ‘enemy’ — the components of which are oppositionists, Ukrainians, some ‘neo-Nazis,’ minorities and, of course, traitors to the motherland,” said Dmitry Zair-Bek, head of the rights group First Department. Zair-Bek says the number of treason cases has ballooned this year. Thirty cases can be confirmed through open sources, he said, but the number is probably much higher.
The spike in repression and treason cases has been followed by the arrest of U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich in March on espionage charges — the first case of its kind since the Cold War.
Below are some of Russia’s most distinctive wartime political prisoners and those facing the longest jail terms. Theirs are a small fraction of the cases now being prosecuted.
Human rights defender Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British national and contributor to The Washington Post, was sentenced last month to 25 years for treason and other charges. The charges were based on speeches he made abroad and public criticism of the war.
Kara-Murza has likened his prosecution to a Stalinist show trial. “I know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will be gone,” he said at his sentencing. “And then our people will open their eyes and shudder at the sight of the horrific crimes committed in their names.”