A guide to political persecution in Russia

Andrey Stenin - VisualRIAN - Dissident.jpg

A raft of new criminal offences allows the government’s opponents to be arrested for just about anything – or nothing.


Alexandr Litoy
13 March 2015

Non-sanctioned political activity has always been risky in Putin’s Russia. Huge administrative fines, anonymous attacks online and in real life, and prison terms, await people involved in opposition and activism, for all manner of things, from criticising the Kremlin to preventing planning applications to build over city parks.

Since 2012, however, it is clear that the situation has deteriorated, and that suppression of dissent is all the more necessary in the eyes of the authorities. This is in response to the protest movement of 2011-2012, and Maidan in Ukraine in early 2014. Keeping track of who is being suppressed is a full-time task.

OVD-Info, a Russian NGO, campaigns to highlight unfounded arrests and to provide legal support for people behind bars. and their families. Following detainees from the police van to the administrative courts, OVD-Info discovered that these people were increasingly likely to encounter more serious problems with the authorities in the future. As OVD-Info prepares a database of cases, it is clear that we are entering a new and increasingly risky phase: fines and a few days of jail are a thing of the past.

Fines and a few days of jail are a thing of the past.

‘For words’

A quick survey of the articles of Russia’s Criminal Code, under which opposition figures are charged shows the scale of repression. Articles dealing with ‘Extremism’ are couched in vague terms, which allow them to be used against dissidents.

To name but a few, the Criminal Code includes Article 280 (‘Public incitement to engage in extremist activity’); Article 282 (‘Incitement to hatred’); Article 282.1 (‘Organisation of an extremist association’) and Article 282.2 (‘Organisation of the activity of an extremist organisation’). On occasion, completely apolitical people find themselves in the dock after ‘expressing themselves incautiously’ on social networks. Other criminal articles involving ‘motives of hatred or animosity’ such as 119 (‘threat to commit homicide’), can also be invoked.

In 2013, Ivan Moseev was fined 100,000 roubles (£2,000) after allegedly writing a comment online, which insulted ethnic Russians. Moseev, who happens to be chairman of the Arkhangelsk Region Pomory Association, as well as director of an institute devoted to studying ethnic minorities, was sacked from his university post and banned from all Russian voluntary sector organisations. Though Moseev has since appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, his bank accounts were also frozen; he couldn’t even pay his fine.

In 2014, the independent ResPublika web platform in the Republic of Udmurtia, just east of Kazan, published an interview with ultra-conservative businessman and former presidential candidate German Sterligov, in which he said that women should revert to giving birth at home rather than in hospital. The police appealed to all the region’s obstetricians and gynaecologists to make an official complaint against the site for ‘inciting hatred of doctors’.

Dozens of Russians find themselves behind bars every year merely ‘for words’.

The situation in Ukraine has understandably affected how people think and act. In Chelyabink, Konstantin Zharinov has been charged with, ‘incitement to extremist activity’ for re-posting a campaign statement by the right-wring Ukrainian militant group Right Sector. Zharinov is a member of a local activist group which campaigns for free elections. And Aleksandr Byvshev, a teacher from the town of Kromy, near Oryol in western Russia, is accused of incitement to hatred for writing poetry expressing support for Ukraine. Dozens of Russians find themselves behind bars every year merely because they spoke out of turn, or, as they put it, ‘for words’. 

New offences

Two more new offences appeared on the statute books in late December 2013: Article 280.1 (‘Public incitement to engage in activity designed to violate Russia’s territorial integrity’), which arose out of events in Ukraine, and Article 354.1 ('Rehabilitation of the term Nazism'), legalising Russian TV’s insistence on referring to the Ukrainian government as Nazis.

The first of these two charges was invoked in August 2014 in the Krasnodar Region, the closest part of mainland Russia to Crimea, where marches were planned to demand ‘federalisation’ – greater rights for all Russia’s regions, along the lines of those claimed by the self-styled Peoples’ Republics of the Donbas. Two people are now under arrest, while another two have left the country. 

Other targets for political repression have been members of the Hisb ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat Islamist movements. Russia has close ties with the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, which sees these movements as a threat. Followers of the Sunni Muslim theologian Said Nursî (1877-1960) have also been singled out because of Russia’s fear of Turkish influence – the movement has played a vital role in the revival of Islam in Turkey. Cases have also been brought against members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, under pressure from conservative elements of the Russian Orthodox Church.

People taking part in peaceful protests can also be charged with a number of offences: Article 213 (‘Hooliganism’); Article 214 (‘Vandalism’), Article 212 (‘Rioting’) and Article 318 (‘Use of force towards a public officer’). These last two articles in particular have been used against the 30 defendants in the high-profile Bolotnaya Square Case.

Vladimir Astapkovich - Arrested dissident.jpg

An arrested participant in the police van. Image by Vladimir Astapkovich via VisualRIAN (c)

2014 also saw the appearance of Article 212.1: ‘Repeated violation of the regulations relating to the organisation or holding of public assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, processions or pickets’. The first people to be charged under this article were civil rights campaigners Vladimir Ionov and Mark Galperin, among whose ‘sins’ were solitary pickets (the only kind permitted in Russia) while holding ‘Je suis Charlie’ placards.

Article 318, on the other hand, is frequently used when a demonstrator is injured during a protest, and a criminal case might be brought against a police officer. In 2012, a case was brought against Stanislav Pozdnyak, a demonstrator who was slapped in the face by a cop. According to the police, it was the cop who was slapped, and Pozdnyak received a two year suspended sentence. And in May 2013, Sergei Cherepovsky was sent down for two years for injuring a police officer after having been arrested and beaten up during a protest demo in the city of Tver.

Stanislav Pozdnyak received a two year suspended sentence for hitting a cop, when in fact the cop had hit him.

Of course, one of the highest profile cases of 2012 involved Pussy Riot, accused of ‘Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and hatred of the “Orthodox believers” social group’ (Article 213 of the Criminal Code). And another much publicised trial involved the Greenpeace activists who protested against oil extraction in the Barents Sea off the north coast of Russia. The activists were tried for ‘hooliganism’, changed from the original charge of ‘piracy’ (Article 227).

The high number of political cases brought for ‘hooliganism’ discredited the authorities to such an extent that people convicted under Article 213 were included in an amnesty at the end of 2013. Not that this ended the use of this charge in 2014. It was invoked, for example, against the demonstrators who hung a German flag on the Kaliningrad regional FSB building in protest against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Three of them are still in a remand prison, awaiting trial.

Navalny and friends in the dock

One of Russia’s best known opposition figures, Aleksei Navalny, has had several criminal charges brought against him, the most notorious being for embezzlement (Article 165) of funds from the timber company Kirovles. On 18 June 2013, Navalny was sentenced to five years imprisonment, and his ‘accomplice’ Pyotr Ofitserov to four years. They were both released the next day after mass protests and, in October, an appeal court reduced the prison terms to suspended sentences.

Another case, in which Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused of fraud (Article 159)  against the Russian subsidiary of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, as well as money laundering (Article 174.1), also ended with three-and-a-half-year sentences for the two brothers, with Oleg being imprisoned, while Aleksei’s sentence was again suspended.

Other associates of Navalny have been subjected to absurd criminal trials for effectively victimless crimes. The most blatant of these concerned a charge of murder brought against nationalist politician, lawyer and human rights activist Daniil Konstantinov. Konstantinov had a cast iron alibi, and the investigators were unable to produce any proof that he was even at the scene of the crime, but the case was nevertheless brought to trial. In October 2014, the court ruled that the accused was guilty not of murder, but of hooliganism. Konstantinov was sentenced to three and a half years and then amnestied. Before his trial, however, Konstantinov spent two years in a remand prison.

At least 50 people in Russia today have been convicted at, or are awaiting, politically motivated criminal trials

The Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners estimates that there are at least 50 people in Russia today who have been convicted at, or are awaiting, politically motivated criminal trials.

Activists and administrative infringements

Minor offences in Russia are known as ‘administrative infringements’ and are dealt with more speedily and with less opportunity for the accused to present any defence, but the penalties are lighter – a fine or up to 30 days in jail. And the state uses these administrative procedures to marginalise public civil activism and present activists as law-breakers.

Procedural lapses at all stages of administrative prosecution – on arrest, on arrival at a police station, while drawing up a charge sheet and in court – are not restricted to politically motivated cases, and the general acceptance by courts of falsified police records and the ignoring of evidence for the defence erodes the distinction between calculated political repression and casual abuse of authority.

The state uses administrative procedures to marginalise civil activism and present activists as law-breakers

Administrative charges that can be used for political ends can be divided into two categories, the intrinsically politicised and the neutral. The first category includes articles of the Administrative Offences Code restricting the rights of sexual minorities (Article 6.21); public order offences relating to ‘the organisation and holding of public assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, processions or pickets’ (Article 20.2); ‘the organisation and holding of public events without prior written notice’ (Article 20.2.2); ‘the display of Nazi symbols’ (Art. 20.3) and ‘the dissemination of extremist literature’ (Art. 20.29).

In January 2013, the editor of Young Far Easterner, a newspaper based in Khabarovsk, a city 30 miles from the border with China, was fined 50,000 roubles (twice the average Russian monthly salary) for printing an interview with a geography teacher who had been sacked after coming out. In July 2013, new anti-gay legislation was first applied, when an individual was arrested for standing outside the Russian State Children’s Library in Moscow holding a placard reading ‘Being gay is normal’. Local authorities regularly use this legislation to ban any LGBT-orientated public activity. In July 2013, several Dutch citizens were detained while shooting a film about human rights in Russia. As the seized video footage included interviews with young gay people, the police charged them under Article 6.21, but the case didn’t come to trial.


Law enforcement officers detain blogger Alexei Navalny on Pushkin Square in Moscow. Image by Aleksandr Utkin via VisualRIAN (c)

The most common grounds for prosecution remain, however, the holding of public meetings without prior permission (in contravention of the right to peaceful public assembly enshrined in the Russian Constitution). The use of Article 20.2, which regulates public meetings, is also being extended to cover indoor gatherings: in October 2014, members of a religious group holding a meeting in a Sochi cafe were charged under this clause.

Article 20.2.2 (‘Organisation of the mass simultaneous presence or movement of citizens in public places leading to the committing of public order offences’) was added to the Administrative Offences Code in the summer of 2012. The banning of ‘mass simultaneous presence’ was an attempt by the lawmakers to outlaw unregulated ‘protest walks’. But this absurd blanket definition could apply to the most innocent of everyday get-togethers – birthday parties, shopping trips, even metro journeys. So all kinds of people are being prosecuted under this ‘anti-protest’ law: street musicians, random pedestrians, people taking part in flash mobs.

The anti-Nazi Article 20.3 has also been used inappropriately, such as when a bookseller in the far-eastern city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was arrested for selling a work on German history entitled Soldiers of the Wehrmacht, even though the swastika clutched in an eagle’s claws was mostly covered by the authors’ names in large print and the book was explicitly devoted to the crimes of the Third Reich.

The same article was invoked in 2013 against a member of liberal opposition party RPR-Parnas in Chuvashia, who had posted a blog comparing the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The blog was accompanied by a photo of Vladimir Putin with his right arm stretched out in a ‘Nazi’ salute, and Hitler with a swastika on his sleeve.

In September 2014, Moscow’s independent Sova Center for Information and Analysis recorded the first instance of prosecution for an online ‘spotting’: Perm resident Evgenia Vychigina was given a 1,000 rouble fine after she was spotted on a banned video posted on the VKontakte social network, and admitted that she was there. The young woman had no part in the making of the video, had not posted it on her page and had not even tagged her presence on it.

How the police work

Police practice is to detain people first and then decide back at the station what to charge them with, selecting the offence less on the basis of the detainees’ actions, and more on what is more convenient for them. To justify holding someone for more than three hours after their detention, which might happen simply because of procedural holdups or a large number of detainees, they resort to charging them with ‘arrestable’ offences, which allows them to be held for 48 hours without recourse to the courts.

Offences used in these cases include Administrative Code Articles 19.3 (‘Failure to comply with a police order’) and 20.1 (‘Petty hooliganism’). Both of these carry a fine of between 500 and 1,000 roubles or 15 days police detention, and so permit people to be held for 48 hours before being brought before a judge. The police also have the authority to impose a fine under article 20.1 without any recourse to the courts.

The police can fine someone for ‘petty hooliganism’ on their own authority.

While monitoring politically motivated arrests, OVD-Info noticed inappropriate use of other Administrative Code articles, such as 4.13 (‘Crossing the road in an unauthorised place’); 6.24 (‘Smoking in a public space’); 12.29 (‘Infringement of road transport regulations by a pedestrian’); 18.2 (‘Infringement of border regulations in a border zone’) and 20.20 (‘Drunkenness’), as well as charges requiring a court hearing, such as Articles 6.9 (‘Narcotics use’); 20.18 (‘Organisation of or participation in a blockage of transport’) and 20.15 (‘Failure to pay an administrative fine within the required period’). This last article is often used to justify preventive detention; and activists have also told us that people frequently do not pay fines for a simple reason: they were completely unaware of them in the first place.

Regional administrative regulations have also been used for political reasons. In Moscow, for example, people have been charged with ‘Damaging plants’ (Article 4.18 of the regional Administrative Code) or Article 8.13.1 (‘Distributing information materials in areas not specifically designated for that purpose’). In St Petersburg, Article 22 (‘Pollution of the urban landscape’) is often invoked, while in Nizhny Novgorod the articles of choice are 3.3 (‘Infringement of regulations governing non-residential buildings and structures, construction sites, external decorative elements, small buildings, advertising hoardings and other objects’) and 14.1 (‘Involvement in business activities without government registration or special permission’).

Other means of persuasion

In all spheres, Russian activists are constantly at risk of beatings, murder, destruction of their property, intimidation, peremptory arrest and harassment by any and every government body. They are subjected to violence from patriotic groups loyal to the Kremlin: the National-Liberation Movement, The Peoples’ Assembly, Cossacks and ‘Orthodox patrols’, as well as ‘anonymous’ thugs and agent provocateurs.

Convenient targets for the ‘guardians of morality’ are concerts by heavy metal bands and groups whose loyalty lies with Ukraine. Gigs are cancelled without warning on strange pretexts such as a freak accident leaving the venue without electricity.

According to research by Vitaly Cherkasov, a lawyer with the Agora human rights organisation, at least 42 attacks of this kind took place in the first nine months of 2014 – on civic and trade union activists, journalists, environmental scientists, historical heritage campaigners, politicians and LGBT activists.

The attacks generally take place during public actions, but they have also occurred on the street and in entrance halls of residential blocks; on one occasion the thugs broke into someone’s flat. Most of the beatings didn’t involve weapons, but in four incidents people were stabbed. Pepper sprays, a whip, iron bars and tasers have also been used, as well as Russia’s favourite antiseptic, a bright green liquid that stains skin and clothing. Attacks on property are also common, and many activists complain about anonymous phone and email threats.

In four incidents, people were stabbed; and pepper sprays, a whip, iron bars and tasers have also been used.

Another constant source of pressure is an invitation to a ‘chat’ with someone from Centre E (the Russian government’s ‘anti-extremism’ directorate), the FSB or the local police, which often involves threats, attempts at recruitment and ‘requests’ to refrain from public activity. People are often forced to sign statements (legally un-enforceable) promising not to take part in specific protest actions.

Social activists can also be thrown out of their jobs or places of study. Professor Andrei Zubov was dismissed from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations because he refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea. Business can also be very sensitive to pressure. Dmitry and Gennady Gudkov, prominent Duma deputies involved in the White Ribbon movement, found their security business under scrutiny. Prominent figures in the Bolotnaya Square case such as Maria Baronova and Evgenia Chirikova, involved in the campaign to save Khimki forest (part of Moscow’s green belt) from development, have been threatened with having their children taken from them.


Many online news platforms have been closed down or blocked, including Yezhdnevny Zhurnal (‘The Daily Journal’), Kasparov.ru, Grani.ru and Alexei Navalny’s blog site.

In October 2014, Crimean Tatars announced the disappearance of 18 members of their community, possible victims of race hate crime. Dozens of people in Crimea have also had their homes searched for politically unacceptable literature, and most of them have been forced to move to mainland Ukraine.

‘Undesirables’ encounter problems with travelling around the country. The police and FSB have a secret database of ‘extremists’; the criteria for inclusion on the list are equally confidential. A visit to another city might turn into a ‘chat’ with aggressive investigating officers at the station; a trip abroad might involve the confiscation of your USB stick or laptop by border control officers.

And if they really want to stop you, they can just tear up your passport, as happened last year to Rodion Sulyandziga, who had been planning on attending a UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York.  

Standfirst image: Man being detained in Moscow in 2014. (c) Andrey Stenin via VisualRIAN.

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