Russian citizens under threat from within: The increasing repression of anti-war voices in Russia

Amid continued international condemnation and sanctioning of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, voices opposing the war can be heard within Russia too. However, Russian citizens are exposed to an increasing risk of repression due to excessive state control over their opposition to the war, and the institutional manipulation that justifies the invasion and criminalises anti-war voices.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, individuals, organisations, and governments around the world have condemned the Putin regime and are calling for an immediate end to the war. While every voice is precious, of particular note, however, are the voices against the war blossoming inside Russia. Russian citizens are taking political action, individually and collectively, to express their opposition to the devastating actions of the Putin regime. For example, not only did an online petition in Russia, initiated by a human rights activist, demanding an end to the war garnered more than 1.5 million signatures in just a few days, but also sizeable anti-war protests continue to be held in cities across the country.

Anti-war protests in Russia are not a one-time event, but have rather continued as a series of popular political actions targeting the Putin government. However, their action often ends badly. In late February, thousands of Russian citizens started a protest, and more than 1,700 people in 54 cities were detained by the police under the charge of conducing illegitimate protests. Since 24 February, over 15,000 people have been detained for anti-war actions, according to the OVD-Info, an independent Russian media outlet on human rights and political repression. Anyone – children, ordinary adults, independent reporters, opposition politicians, and activists who openly criticise the invasion – can fall into a cycle of intimidation, detention, and criminal prosecution. The police in Moscow even took two women and five children to a police station for holding placards displaying the words ‘No War’ and attempting to place flowers in front of the Ukrainian Embassy.

The Putin regime is, now, more boldly directing the institutional conditions to its advantage to justify the invasion and to silence anti-war voices. This month, the Putin regime enacted laws that identify independent reporting or public opposition to the war as crimes of spreading false information, and which are subject to up to 15 years imprisonment. Also, recent provisions added to the Criminal Code and to the Code of Administrative Offences criminalise criticisms of the activities of the Russian Armed Forces, and are linked to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. The authorities nip public protests in the bud by pre-emptively hindering organisers and independent media outlets from sharing details on protest plans with others, and by imposing heavy fines for disseminating information on the ‘illegal’ action of holding a protest.

Through these measures, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is legitimised, at least at the institutional level, whereas public opposition and criticism of the invasion are framed as illegitimate. In this context, Russian citizens raising their voices against the war are particularly exposed to a greater risk of repression and being perceived as law-breakers. Therefore, the language of ‘false information’ and ‘undermining the Russian army’ incorporated into the set of legal documents significantly confines the scope of political action that citizens can engage in, free of the threat of punishment.

According to Freedom House, Russia is categorised as a ‘Not Free’ country, scoring 19 out of 100 — 5/40 in ‘Political Rights’ and 14/60 in ‘Civil Liberties’. These relatively low scores imply that rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and media were being circumscribed even before the invasion of Ukraine. In 2012, Russia put a law into effect that drastically increased the fines for protesters violating public order rules — fines increased nearly 150 times, from 2,000 roubles to 300,000 roubles (approximately 2,000 euros), and up to one million roubles (approximately 7,500 euros) for protest organisers. Furthermore, several rounds of legislative amendments since 2014 have led to even non-violent protest organisers and participants experiencing severe and frequent curtailment of freedoms, leading to questions about the extent and conditions under which even peaceful protests are identified as unlawful by the Russian authorities.












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About the author:







Dr. Seohee Kwak is a Guest Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Her academic interests include political rights, contentious political action, authoritarian/democratic politics, and state-society relations.

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1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    10 April 2022

    Thanks for such an informative overview of the present delicate situation for peace activists inside Russia and the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, anti-Russian sentiment is another problem, on the everyday and official, governmental levels in the West. Quite hypocritical, given that the majority of large businesses have been investing with and partnering up with Russian money for decades. We should take care to distinguish between people and regimes. War blurs this distinction, but the distinction remains.