Russia’s “managed thaw”


This week, two political prosecutions in Russia were quashed — to much applause. But it’s too early to talk about positive trends — the authorities are merely changing their tactics.

Pavel Chikov
8 March 2017

Political prisoner Ildar Dadin is reunited with his wife Anastasia Zotova following his release. Altai Region, Russia. Image still via Krym.Realii/YouTube. Some rights reserved.

This article was originally published in Russian on RBC. We are grateful for their permission to translate and republish it here.

This week, a Russian regional court revoked the five-month prison sentence against a children’s camp instructor and released her from prison. Evgenia Chudnovets had already served four months in prison for alleged distribution of child pornography online. In August 2015, Chudnovets reposted a 30-second video showing the humiliation of a child at a summer camp — plus, of course, a few words of outrage.

Russia’s deputy general prosecutor rewrote the conclusions of Chudnovets’ appeal almost word-for-word. Previously, when the Kurgan court examined Chudnovets’ appeal in December 2016, it refused to release her, although both the state prosecutor and defense lawyers asked for her release. The same court then refused the cassation appeal against Chudnovets’ sentence. Indeed, the sentence against Chudnovets was only quashed after the involvement of Russia’s General Prosecutor and the Supreme Court. Evgenia will now have the right to seek compensation for the harm caused by an unlawful criminal prosecution.

There was little doubt that these individuals were released or amnestied in service of purely political or tactical aims

The case of Chudnovets developed alongside the far more prominent case of Ildar Dadin, the first Russian citizen to be prosecuted for repeated violation of new legislation governing public assembly under Article 212.1. In December 2015, Dadin, a political activist, received a shocking three-year prison term.

Dadin’s sentence was handed down despite the fact that this was the activist’s first offence (a mid-level offence at that), and that the prosecution was clearly political motivated and conducted under the gaze of the Moscow media. There was a minor correction to the court’s decision at appeal, and a reduction to Dadin’s sentence before he was transported to the penal system in Karelia, northwest Russia, which is infamous for its cruel treatment. After Dadin revealed evidence of his torture in Karelia in November 2016, a scandal broke out — and the prison authorities responded sharply. In December 2016, Dadin was sent — secretly and by a circuitous route — to a remote colony in Altai, southwest Siberia. 

In February 2017, Russia’s Constitutional Court held an open hearing where it recognised that, in Dadin’s case, Russia’s Criminal Code had been incorrectly interpreted. The Supreme Court soon involved itself directly, and Dadin’s jail term was quashed and he was released.

Vegetarian epoch

In both of these cases, Russia’s judicial system has demonstrated phenomenal speed. Chudnovets’ criminal case literally flew from Kurgan to Moscow (indeed, there and back). 

Such a speedy decision is possible only when a case is being tightly controlled, and has been agreed at the top — the sudden release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (December 2013), the activists sentenced as part of the Arctic Sunrise case (November 2013), Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (December 2013). The record, of course, was set by the Kirov regional court, which, in summer 2013, revoked its five-year sentence for alleged embezzlement against Alexey Navalny within 24 hours. 


Yevgeniya Chudnovets discusses her case on a news broadcast. Image still via YouTube / Rossiya24. Some rights reserved.In all of these previous cases, the reasons for the system’s “softer” approach were clear. The “thaw” of December 2013 was connected to the coming Winter Olympics at Sochi. The amnesty decision for Navalny was clearly linked to his candidacy in Moscow’s mayoral elections. There was little doubt that these individuals were released or amnestied in service of purely political or tactical aims. 

Back to 2017, and the system’s recent signs of “weakness” have been met with a cry of celebration from Russian progressive circles. Freedom for Dadin and Chudnovets; the release of Dmitry Buchenkov, the last figure in the Bolotnaya Case, and Ruslan Sokolovsky, the blogger about to be tried for playing Pokemon Go at a Ekaterinburg church, under house arrest. The liberal genie was about to burst out of the bottle, if not for the 11-hour search of prominent rights activist Zoya Svetova’s home in connection with the now ancient Yukos case. The Svetova search, of course, was just as sudden and hard to explain as the prisoner releases that preceded it. 

We cannot talk of an improvement, only, instead, a slowdown in the degradation. There are still dozens of political prisoners in Russia

The federal authorities haven’t tried to curb the conversations about this new “thaw”. Instead, they’ve encouraged them. For instance, a number of official figures — president Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, head of the Supreme Court Vyacheslav Lebedev, human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova and representatives of the Ministry of Justice — have all publicly come out for a review of Article 212.1, the law that put Dadin in prison.

Not backward, but not forward either

Prior to this, we noticed that the number of politically motivated criminal cases had stopped rising. My twelve years of working to defend civic activists, human rights defenders, journalists and directors of civic organisations allows me to feel which way the wind is blowing. We cannot talk of an improvement, only, instead, a slowdown in the degradation. There are still dozens of political prisoners in Russia. 

Political commentators have begun to talk about how the screws are being “loosened”, legal experts – their desired judicial reform. Either way, it’s clear that what’s going on now didn’t start last month, and that the changes are clearly coming from the top, consciously, but without any kind of explanation.  

Taking into account that previous reviews of prominent criminal cases were governed by tactical aims, there are serious grounds to believe that the thaw of 2017 is connected with the main political event of the coming year — the presidential elections. Preparations for this began in spring 2016. There were shifts in the law enforcement agencies. The Federal Drug Control Service and Federal Migration Service, surplus to requirements, were wound up. A new politicised security agency, the National Guard, was created. Meanwhile, the influence of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the agency behind the state’s repressive domestic policy in 2012-2016, has been fallen sharply. 

The old format has gradually worn itself out. Show trials don’t work as well anymore — hounding activists is now the work of pro-government civic organisations

The old format has gradually worn itself out. Show trials don’t work as well anymore. Leading figures of the opposition are used to working under permanent risk of criminal prosecution. Some have left the country, and are now beyond the security services’ reach, albeit falling out of political life in the process. Protests have long failed to attract big crowds. Non-commercial organisations are demoralised by Russia’s law on “foreign agents”. Self-censorship is rife on the internet. Statistics on criminal investigations into “extremism” are, on the whole, generated by marginal statements made by provincial internet users and “non-traditional” Russian Muslims.

The Russian state’s function of spreading fear and targeted repressions has been gradually handed over to pro-government, “patriotic” civic organisations. Today, it’s not Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, who’s gunning for Alexey Navalny, but organisations like the National Liberation Movement or AntiMaidan. 

Two scenarios for the future 

Now it’s not a case of frightening Russian citizens and repressing them, but to collect information and conduct “preventative action” against protest activity. And this is the job of very different state agencies. Indeed, it’s the FSB that has taken control of Russia’s domestic politics. Employees of Russia’s state security service arrest governors, generals and influential businessmen, devalue the reputations of companies and agencies, and, of course, defend the Russian internet from the harmful influence of the west.


Riot police block a square in central Moscow during an anti-Putin demonstration following presidential elections in 2012. (c) Finistre Arnaud / ABACA / PA Images. All rights reserved.Nothing creates extra work for the security services like a managed “thaw”. Brave statements, new leaders and initiatives, planned and discussed protests attract the security services’ attention instantly. The coming presidential elections, the election campaigns that have begun, the good news from the courts as spring begins cannot fail to stir up Russia’s dormant civic protesters. Gradual civic mobilisation will continue right up until the culmination of this campaign, in March 2018. Indeed, by summer 2018, the data on Russian citizens will have been collected, analysed and transferred to the agencies who make the decisions — and by autumn 2018, legal experts will have plenty of work to do. This scenario has to be taken into account. 

There is, of course, another scenario. The intended recipient of the Kremlin’s “liberal signals” might not be inside the country, but outside. Russia’s foreign policy, which remains at the centre of the president’s attention, is going through turbulent times. 

For liberal opinion in the west, Vladimir Putin personifies those dark forces that are threatening the current world order. Any sudden moves towards democratisation will only increase the level of uncertainty, and so the Kremlin would gain a tactical advantage in the diplomatic game. 

There are, after all, no small number of politicians in the world ready to deceive themselves — the ranks of the Russian president’s allies could too easily swell.


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