The inability to achieve a quick and convincing victory on the battlefield makes the Kremlin to resort not only to “real” measures, such as the mobilization of the population or the nationalization of enterprises (“the transition to military rails”) but also to “virtual” ones. It is primarily about finding new narratives to justify the invasion of Ukraine (“people’s war”), as well as ways to “shut up” dissenters.
Among the latter, there is the state’s monopolization of the media and restrictions on freedom of speech up to the point of outright censorship, the establishment of control over “warlords”, fines and long prison terms for “fakes”/ “discredit” and the systematic liquidation of human rights organizations.
The probable reasons for such a situation are the general trends towards strengthening authoritarianism in Russia (the government is beyond criticism), the usurpation of the right to justice by the Kremlin, the belated “revenge” of the security forces against whistle-blowers of the crimes of the Soviet state security, preparations for the continuation of external aggression and, possibly, mass repressions inside the country.
However, even if such terror is unleashed, it is unlikely to reach “Stalin’s” proportions with millions of repressed people. The Russian infrastructure is not ready for this, and the risks during the war may outweigh the benefits. Therefore, most likely, the repression will cover several tens of thousands of dissenters, but the massacres against them will be as visible as possible for intimidating the rest of the disloyal population.
Dissent prohibition and liquidation of human rights organizations
These days Russia’s ability to repeat a large-scale offensive against Ukraine like it was in February 2022 seems low. However, the Russian elites are betting on the protracted nature of the confrontation (“war of attrition”), when Ukraine or its partners from the EU and the USA will be forced to enter into negotiations.
In such a scenario, it is critical for the Kremlin to have the problem of non-acceptance of their political course by the population, criticism of the authorities’ decisions and manifestations of dissatisfaction with the life quality and the war course. It was partly solved by effectively abolishing freedom of speech with the enactment of Federal Law No. 32 of March 4, 2022, known as the “law on fake news” or “law on discrediting”. During the year of its application, the number of criminal cases (terms from 3 to 15 years) exceeded a hundred, administrative cases (fines from 30 thousand to 1 million rubles) – several thousand, blocked media – hundreds of thousands. On March 1, 2023, a proposal was submitted to the State Duma to extend the law to “volunteers” (that is, criminals recruited in prisons).
Two important categories of citizens and organizations remain somewhat outside this law’s scope:
1. War veterans and so-called “warriors”, who can become an information base for the protest sentiments of the radical right-wing part of society;
2. Human rights organizations that will provide information about losses, unsatisfactory work of the social protection system, as well as restrictions on freedom of speech and censorship (which will reduce public trust in propaganda). After all, it is human rights organizations that are a means, if not of counteraction, then at least of informing about political persecution of opponents of the authorities.
If the Kremlin’s policy regarding the first category is characterized by changeability (this should be the subject of a separate study), then a proven method is used in relation to human rights defenders – judicial closure. It can be assumed that the accelerated liquidation of human rights organizations indicates the preparation of a new round of internal repression. The question of the institutional capacity of the Putin regime to deploy mass terror on a “Stalin’s” scale remains open.
The beginning of the systematic fight against the human rights movement in Russia dates back to 2012 – the time of the adoption of Law 121-FZ on the status of “foreign agent” organizations. Its appearance was, among other things, the reaction of Vladimir Putin’s regime to the speeches on Bolotnaya Square and marked the transition from “hybrid” to classical authoritarianism in Russia. In 2015, Law 272-FZ introduced the status of “undesirable organizations”, and in 2017, Law 327-FZ introduced the status of “foreign media”. From 2019, individuals could be recognized as “foreign agents”, from 2021 as such were called unregistered organizations.
The pace of imposing restrictions on the activities of individual human rights defenders and collectives, as well as mass media (“foreign agents”, “undesirable organizations”) has increased significantly in the last two years. In particular, on December 29, 2021, the “Memorial” society (founded in 1987), the largest and most influential human rights organization in Russia, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was liquidated, and on January 25, 2023, the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest (since 1976) followed the same way.
The joint statistics of “foreign agents” by year look the following (the statistics also include those who were later excluded from the lists, several dozen people):
|Year / status||Registered organizations||Media||Individuals-Media||Individuals||Unregistered organizations||TOTAL|
The statistics of “undesirable organizations” are less dramatic, but also revealing:
2015 – 4; 2016 – 3; 2017 – 4; 2018 – 4; 2019 – 4; 2020 – 12; 2021 – 18; 2022 – 6; 2023 – 3
Starting from 2012 (and especially from 2014), the Kremlin took a course to the “crackdown” in Russian society after the anti-presidential speeches on Bolotnaya Square and the annexation of the Crimea. There are at least four explanations for the systematic pressure of the Russian authorities on human rights organizations:
1) The general course of strengthening authoritarianism in Russia and building the personality cult of Putin. In these conditions, any criticism of the government, especially for election manipulation and rampant corruption, is seen as a threat to state security and leads to repression against opposition activists.
2) The Kremlin’s usurpation of the right to justice. The consensus is that there is no independent fair court in Russia, both at the district level and the Supreme Court. In search of “full sovereignty”, Putin abandoned the priority of international law over national law (2020), and after the invasion of Ukraine, Russia refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the ECtHR (2022). In these conditions, it was only a matter of time before organizations that systematically helped victims of the Russian power system, questioned court verdicts, and helped international justice shut down.
3) Belated “revenge” of the security forces against whistle-blowers of the crimes of the Soviet state security. Until the end of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, Russia maintained a balance between heroizing the Chekists and commemorating their victims. After 2012, the state monopolized the right to historical truth, which resulted in censorship, the introduction of a “unified textbook”, repression against historians and ordinary citizens “for the rehabilitation of Nazism” (more than 9 thousand people), as well as the defeat or raiding of several historical and human rights organizations direction (“Memorial”, “Perm-36”). Details are in the study of the UIF “Ivan Vissarionovich Putin. How the historical machine of the Russian Federation works”.
4) However, another explanation is also possible – preparation for the continuation of external aggression and, possibly, mass terror inside the country. As you can see, the sharp increase in the number of repressed organizations and individuals occurred in 2021, when, most likely, Putin decided on the future invasion of Ukraine (article “On the historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people”). From this point of view, the Kremlin does not need organizations that will systematically record the government’s future crimes against the population and may act as witnesses in the future. And since today the ability to repeat a large-scale attack on Ukraine seems low, it can be assumed that the accelerated liquidation of human rights organizations indicates the preparation of a new round of internal repression.
Is Russia ready for mass repressions?
In recent years (especially in 2022), the Kremlin has prepared the appropriate infrastructure for repressions:
1. Amendments have been made to the legislation, including in terms of “discrediting the armed forces”. This greatly expands the field for persecution, allowing a person to be punished even for Soviet posters such as “peace to the world”;
2. The system for monitoring social networks has been improved (and is expanding), considering the monopolization of the Internet media segment by one of the “Kremlin towers” – the Gref-Kiriyenko group;
3. The mobilization of prisoners and sending them to the front “liberated” at least several tens of thousands of places in colonies and prisons.
Another condition that makes it possible to effectively launch the machine of mass repressions is the monopolization of the power component, that is, the concentration of powers in one body – a kind of analogue of the NKVD or the MGB. In the Russian system, on the contrary, there is some decentralization: the Ministry of Justice (and the Federal Penitentiary Service), the Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, and the National Guard. Under these conditions, the launch of repressions as a state policy can lead to a “war of departments”, which will only increase internal contradictions and conflicts in the key “Kremlin tower” – a group of security officials.
And, finally, mass repressions during the war are too risky, since they directly affect the mood of the society and can reduce the level of support for the authorities.
But the most important condition for the start of truly mass repressions is the construction of an “enemy image” – a generalized idea of the causes that threaten the usual way of life. At the moment, Russian propaganda has transformed the thesis “SWO against the Ukrainian Nazis” into the thesis “SWO is a war with the “collective West” for the survival of Russia”. The scaling of the image of the enemy, on the one hand, “explains” the lack of visible successes at the front and the protracted war, on the other hand, it allows them to start promoting the thesis of a “patriotic war”, that is, to try to inspire fear in the population for their (personal) future in case of defeat. It can be argued that the first component is already presented – the construction of an “external enemy” is being formed.
However, the structure of the internal enemy has not yet been formed. In the event of a war with the “collective West”, it would be logical to “appoint” as such those Russians who have connections in the EU and the USA – from civil activists to those who have gone abroad. But this approach looks risky and unprofitable for the Kremlin for the following reasons:
1. Most of the emigration that continues to live in the Russian information field is a natural conductor and a kind of lobbyist for the Russian agenda in the EU countries. A typical example is excesses with a destroyed tank in Germany, pro-Russian rallies in other countries of Western Europe;
2. Russian big business is quite actively working with partners from the EU and the US, despite the sanctions;
3. A significant part of Russian officials have relatives and children who live abroad, they themselves have real estate in the EU countries, Israel, the USA. And to declare all those living abroad as potential “enemies” is to create the prerequisites for possible persecution of them personally.
4. The Russian liberal opposition is marginal and does not have broad support even among the emigration.
Under these conditions, labelling “Western spy”, which was actively used during Stalin’s time, is not appropriate.
Thus, Stalin-style repressions, when tens of millions of people fell under persecution, are hardly possible – the Russian Federation is not ready for this.
There remains another way – to play on the fears of the population:
1. Cultivate the fear of defeat – create a picture of a personal threat to a citizen in the event of a failure of state policy and a change in leadership;
2. Cultivate the fear of expressing own opinion. The existing system of persecution for speeches, posts on social networks, comments and even likes works here;
3. Cultivate the fear of dissent. And here it is worth remembering the story of “executions with a sledgehammer”. Moreover, both cases, where the first was a demonstration of the fact that a dissent/traitor can be dealt with without trial at any time. The second, where the “repentant” appeared, demonstrates the correct line of behaviour – ask for forgiveness and guarantee loyalty.
So, at least until the end of hostilities, the Russian Federation is unlikely to start the flywheel of repressions of the Stalin’s model – there are no suitable conditions for this. Instead, the Kremlin is likely to follow the path of harsh propaganda and defiant persecution of “dissenters”, creating a picture that frightens the average Russian. Either deliberately public prosecution (and long sentences), or extrajudicial execution can be used. In such a scenario, the flywheel of repression will affect not a few million, but several tens of thousands. And this, at this stage, will be enough to retain power.