Draconic measures against political opponents for speaking out against the war and the Russian regime, like the 25-year sentence for opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, are reminiscent of the political repression in Soviet times. The Russian authorities also launched a new criminal case against opposition leader Alexey Navalny. His team fears that the activities of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation will be defined as 'extremist', allowing prosecutors to seek a 35-year cumulative sentence. Meduza spoke to a lawyer, a historian and a criminal-policy expert, who reflect on these extreme sentences and political repression in Russia. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza in a cage in the courtroom at the Moscow City Court. 

It’s no secret that the Russian authorities have been charging people with treason, terrorism, and other political crimes at an increasing rate since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine. The lengths of prison sentences have gone up as well: in the fall of 2022, for example, journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison, while more recently, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was given a 25-year sentence, and two public employees were sentenced to 19 years each for setting fire to a military enlistment office. Meduza spoke to a lawyer, a historian of political repressions, and a criminal-policy expert about how Russia’s 'justice system' is evolving and whether today’s political repressions are comparable to the Stalinist Great Terror.

Darya Korolenko: 'We’re only going to see more harsh sentences'

Lawyer and analyst, OVD-Info

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‘It’s important to understand that the sentences handed down in recent months have been for violations of articles of the Russian Criminal Code that are stricter than the one against spreading “disinformation” about the Russian army. One example is the sentence under the article on terrorism (Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code) that was handed down to a firefighter and a former Russian National Guard driver from the Chelyabinsk region who set a government building on fire. Other rulings with long prison sentences also involved charges of sabotage and other articles related to state “security,” which generally call for long sentences.

The amendments increasing the penalties for state treason to life imprisonment, and the fact that increasing numbers of cases are being opened right now, indicate that we’ll see more and more of these kinds of sentences (both in cases related to state security and terrorism and in more “typical” cases, like the ones under the articles on “disinformation” and “discrediting” the Russian army).

It’s also important to understand that excessively long prison terms aren’t a fundamentally new phenomenon — it’s just that now courts have begun issuing these kinds of sentences more often. Similar sentences have been coming out for many years — Crimean Tatars, for example, have been sentenced to terms ranging from 15–19 years.

Since the mobilization was declared, the article on terrorism has been applied more frequently

The trend towards harsher terms, of course, is intended to scare people. But the practice of using intimidation isn’t new. The first prison term under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code (outlawing “disinformation” about the Russian army), a seven-year sentence handed down to Alexey Gorinov, was designed to serve as an example for anyone who still wanted to speak out against the war.

Now these kinds of sentences are being issued against people who have tried to burn down military enlistment offices or to protest in other non-peaceful ways. The number of these articles and the prison terms for them are so high to discourage others from even trying to do anything similar.

Initially after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, committing arson at enlistment offices was categorized either as “disorderly conduct” or under Article 167 (“the intentional destruction or damaging of another’s property”). But since September, since around the time mobilization was declared, Article 205, the Criminal Code’s article on terrorism, has been applied with increasing frequency.

The new articles on sabotage and the possible tightening of the treason article indicate that we’re only going to see more harsh sentences

But if we look at the most recent cases that we know about, such as the arson cases, the article on destruction of property has been applied no less often than the article on terrorism. In other words, for the time being, there hasn’t been an order to categorize all enlistment office arson cases as terrorism.

For now, how specific cases are categorized and what crimes people are charged with is likely up to local police. We don’t know what ultimately makes them categorize a case one way or the other, of course, but the new articles on sabotage and the possible tightening of the treason article indicate that we’re only going to see more harsh sentences.'

In March 2022 Navalny was sentenced to nine years strict regime penal colony. Screenshot YouTube.

Criminal Policy Expert (anonymous): 'It's Stalinist logic'

'At this point, we still haven’t seen the Russian Supreme Court judicial department’s statistics on the most recent sentences — as of now, we only see data for trials completed as of June 30, 2022. What do we see at the expert level? It’s not term lengths that have changed, it’s classifications. Things that used to get qualified as “participation in the activities of an undesirable organization” are now filed under “state treason” or “extremism.” And [Russia’s] sentences for treason, meanwhile, have always been high.

It’s not term lengths that have changed, it’s classifications

Based on that, we can conclude that the changes in term lengths is not a result of courts imposing harsher sentences but a result of investigative bodies giving different classifications to similar cases, applying the Criminal Code’s articles on terrorism and state treason to cases that would have been categorized as less “serious” crimes in the past. Russian courts have a very difficult time categorizing offenses under less serious articles after a precedent of prosecuting them under more serious articles has been established — that much is clear from judicial department statistics. When handing down new verdicts, courts look to the Supreme Court, see that defendants in similar cases have been sentenced to 12–15 years, for example, and take their lead from what’s being done in practice.

There’s a subtle distinction here: until recently, modern Russia essentially didn’t have the kinds of special “political” offenses that existed in the Brezhnev era, to say nothing of the Stalin era. Now the situation is similar: we have “soft” political offenses — the ones on “disinformation” and “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces — and we have ordinary ones like state treason or terrorism. This is where today’s practice is starting to resemble that of the Brezhnev era. There’s a full-flowing stream of people who are being charged with political offenses that just can’t exist in reasonable countries, and another stream of people who are being charged with terrorism, state treason, sabotage — offenses that exist in every country’s criminal codes but that usually require clear evidence.

In Russia, what happens in cases that fall under the second category is that some action, often a verbal statement — like in the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza — is interpreted as a general violation. Right now, everything is beginning to resemble the Stalinist model. In that period, too, there were “soft” political offenses that didn’t require factual proof. We’re not yet in the Great Terror, of course, but if we’re talking about models, the logic currently being applied is that of the Stalin regime.

The Russian government has plenty of sources from which to draw inspiration. The entire “fight” against “economic crime” throughout the last 15 years worked exactly the same way: we take any action by any economic entity, attribute criminal intent to it through the will of the investigator and get the story the prosecution needs. My feeling is that the security officers working on political cases right now are actively learning from the ones who have worked on economic cases in the past.

Right now, everything is beginning to resemble the Stalinist model, when factual proof wasn't required

As for the possibility of a further increase in repressive practices, it’s important to understand that the Russian system has a critical capacity; it can only process a certain number of cases. It will continue working according to the old bureaucratic standards, and there hasn’t been any sign that the pseudo-standard of proof is decreasing. Filling a case with “paperwork” is still the security officials’ sacred duty.

That means that with the existing number of investigators, we can’t rule out, say, a 200 percent increase in the number of cases under a theoretical 150 percent increase in the number of investigators. But we can’t expect, for example, a tenfold increase. That offers a kind of insurance. Sure, this system could break down, and they could switch to a different standard of evidence. Felony cases in the Stalin era required about 20 pages — not 300, like right now.

On the other hand, the Russian system runs on quotas. For example, if you hit ten activists with treason charges in a given region, then you have ten treason cases in your records. That means the next year, you need to “deliver” ten more treason cases — and eleven is even better. And so on, regardless of how things develop, the bureaucratic mechanism continues working in this way and is unable to stop without a clear command from the top. Once the machine has sped up, it can’t slow down on its own.'

Alexander Cherkasov: 'The sentences today are much longer than the standards of the Brezhnev period'

Former chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which was disbanded by the Russian authorities in 2021

alexander charkasov

'Can what’s happening in Russia right now be called “mass repressions?” Let’s compare. In the 1970s, there were several dozen sentences under the “anti-Soviet” articles — Articles 70 and 190 of the Criminal Code — every year. And the hundreds of criminal cases opened per year in 2022 and the start of 2023 are a lot more numerous, if we compare them to the Brezhnev era.

If we also consider the fact that the country’s population size is about half of what it was in the U.S.S.R., then there have been even more criminal cases opened per resident of Russia. During the Khrushchev era, 1,796 people were repressed for anti-Soviet agitation; in 1958, it was more than 1,000, and in 1959, it was about 800. In the first year of Brezhnev’s rule, the number fell sharply: in 1964 there were about 240 cases, and in 1965, there were about 40. So we’re currently not back in the Brezhnev period, but in the Khrushchev period, if you go by the number of cases opened “for speech.”

As for the mass repressions of the 1930s, we should immediately note that these were large-scale operations, convictions on the basis of membership in a “category,” whether that be class, status, or nationality. This was a conveyor-belt judicial system that used, among other things, NKVD troikas, when normal judicial processes weren’t applied. And the system’s “productivity” really was high. In 1937–1938, about 800,000 people were executed.

After that, the system went into a different mode. After People's Commissar for Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov was removed and replaced with Beria (in late 1938), the mass convictions ended. They only returned on territories that were newly annexed to the USSR (in particular against Poles — the Katyn massacre). But on the main, “old” territory of the USSR, the practice was over. A death penalty screening procedure was even put in place, in the form of a Central Committee special commission. This kept the machinery of repression from developing too rapidly; it continued to work, but at a lower speed.

solovjetski kamen wikipediaThe Solovetsky Stone, monument on Lyubanka Square in Moscow to the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union. Photo: Wikipedia.

A repeat of this was feared after Stalin’s death as well. After the Hungarian Revolution, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party under Khrushchev launched a campaign of repression in a closed letter on December 25, 1956, fearing a repeat of the events in Hungary — that communists and Chekists would start being hung in the USSR as well. Then they began to fear the result themselves.

Earlier in this interview, I gave absolute figures on sentences for anti-Soviet offenses, and the ratio between the years is striking. In 1957, the number of “speech” cases quadrupled from 1956 (and 1937 saw a fourfold rise from 1936 as well). That scared the Central Committee: they still remembered how the people operating the meat grinders had been dragged inside them. And the leadership of the USSR tried to develop a new means of controlling society, this time without mass repressions.

A solution was found in 1959 by Nikolai Romanovich Mironov, the head of the KGB directorate in Leningrad and the surrounding region, who became the head of the administrative services branch of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. His idea was to use “preventative” measures, rather than imprisoning people en masse — in other words, to apply extrajudicial methods such as expelling people from the Komsomol or university, drafting them into the army, or firing them from their jobs. Sometimes these were limited to “conversations” in which people were forced to sign letters of repentance.

Extensive lists of people are a resource for launching mass repressions but so far, the command to launch mass repressions hasn’t been issued 

At the same time, from 1960 to 1986, for every person convicted under the articles in the Soviet Criminal Code that are comparable to Articles 207.3 and 280.3 [in the Russian Criminal Code], which prohibit “disinformation” about the Russian army and repeated “discrediting” leading to “dangerous consequences,” there were about 100 “preventative” measures applied. Altogether, about 10,000 people were repressed during that period, whereas about 1 million were subjected to “preventative” measures. In other words, comparably few people were imprisoned, but the “lawnmower” of “prevention” ran over a million people, who could have become the future elite of the “new democratic Russia” in the 1990s if these repressions hadn’t occurred.

So now back to our time. What will we see if we compare the Stalinist practices to the modern ones? For a person to be convicted categorically, it’s necessary for him to be on some kind of list, or to belong to some category. For example, maybe he belongs to an organization that’s been declared extremist or terrorist or is listed on some database, such as the registries of extremists or foreign agents. The presence of extensive lists of people is a resource for launching mass repressions. And it’s a resource they have. But so far, the command to launch mass repressions hasn’t been issued. And it’s not clear what speed the repression machine might be set to.

Today, a person hit with an administrative fine for “discrediting the army” is already walking on thin ice, because if he faces another “discrediting” charge, it will be a criminal offense. In other words, for us, the combination of misdemeanor and felony prosecution has become analogous to the “prevention” of the USSR reinforced by repressions. It developed in such a way that, perhaps unwittingly, the authorities have replicated a situation from 50 years ago, and today’s repressive structures call to mind the late-Soviet Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Andropov ones.'

Intensification of repressions?

'Add two more circumstances. First of all, the USSR had the death penalty, and it could be used to threaten people when necessary. Now it’s formally gone, but there are political murders. As a systemic factor, they’ve existed in Russia since the 2000s. And since at least the second half of the 2010s, there’s been a system of poisonings of opponents of the authorities by intelligence officers. De facto, this is not an officially imposed death penalty. But the extrajudicial killings in the North Caucasus — and in the realm of the so-called “counterterrorist operations,” as the Second Chechen War was called, all the way up until the present day — are a different conversation. This is something more analogous to mass terror, if you count the number of victims relative to the population.

Today’s government rules by means of signals, and repression is the signal they’re sending to society

Second of all, we can consider the detainment conditions in pre-trial detention centers and other prison facilities. With these two additional components, we get a return to the repressive practices of the Brezhnev period, and if you go by the number of criminal cases opened, it brings us to the Khrushchev era.

What is it that justifies talking about an intensification of repressions? The use of “sleeping” articles in the Criminal Code, like in the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, for example. The inclusion in the Criminal Code about a year ago of articles that were too strong even for the Brezhnev era — those articles on “discreditation” and “disinformation” about the army. Even in the late Soviet period, that would have been bad form: the prison sentences today are much longer than the standards of the Brezhnev period. To get seven years in those days, you had to be an editor of the samizdat periodical A Chronicle of Current Events, not just somebody who spoke out a single time.

In many cases, what’s important for “setting” the repressive machinery isn’t direct instructions to judges and prosecutors from the center, but the system’s logic itself. The bloodiest “mass operation” of the Stalin period was the so-called kulak operation under NKVD Order No. 00447. Half of the people executed during the Great Terror were killed under that order. Initially, 79,500 people in the USSR were slated to be “placed in the first category,” or executed. But then regions produced what was called a “counter plan”: the department heads realized that those who came first would be promoted, while the fact of those who fell behind was anybody’s guess. The mechanism of the Soviet campaign, the competition between officials who hoped to avoid incurring the wrath of their superiors, resulted in the ultimate number of deaths being five times higher: about 400,000 people. That’s the danger of that kind of campaign.

A new “model” sentence comes out, and then all the rest of the judges look to this first ruling

Under Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code (on “disinformation”), there’s been a trend: at first, some people would be charged under the first part of the article, while others would be charged under the second part, and their sentences were determined on a case-by-case basis and were not very long. Then the authorities started handing down more severe sentences — up to nine years. And after that cases of people who had previously been sentenced under the first part of the article would be recategorized under the second. In other words, there was a certain harmonization of judicial practices going on. This could have been the result of a letter sent down from the top. But I get the sense that the instructions are sent out a bit differently.

After all, things here in Russia generally work like this: a new “model” sentence comes out, and then all the rest of the judges look to this first ruling. A lot here, too, follows the model: a judge concocts a new phrase, it ends up in the sentence, and then it wanders from that sentence to others.'

This article was originally published by Meduza.