20 years under Putin: a timeline

According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, there are 313* political prisoners in Russia today—a record number in recent decades. How does one become a political prisoner? What do the cases of political persecution say about Vladimir Putin’s regime? Memorial council member and head of its political prisoners program Sergei Davidis discusses these and other questions in an interview with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova. 


According to Sergei Davidis, Russian political prisoners have been recently gaining more attention—if not among the general public, then at least in its most active, pro-democracy minority. Photo: Denis Styazhkin (March of Peace)


Olga Khvostunova: What do you make of the Russian government’s reaction to the latest protests in Moscow? Is it similar to its reaction to the Bolotnaya protests? Should we expect a new wave of political persecutions as in the Bolotnaya scenario? 

Sergei Davidis: There are similarities in these cases. The growing discontent with the government has again incurred public protests, and the government has once again responded with repressions and fabricated criminal cases. But there are differences as well. On the one hand, public discontent is both wider and deeper today. The protest sentiment is no longer limited to the “creative” class of the large urban areas—it is caused by, among other factors, a protracted decline in people’s incomes. This sentiment is also largely shared by the youth. On the other hand, over the last seven years, Russia’s political system has become harsher, tougher, more primitive. The government has essentially abandoned democratic and legal pretenses and succumbed to using direct force. Political repression is in line with the government’s course, so it will continue and aggravate. However, the massive scale of the public discontent and ensuing protests might, at some point, render this course counterproductive and make the government offer at least some concessions.

OK: Earlier this spring, a major report on Russia’s political prisoners was released in the United States, and you helped to produce it. Do you see any differences in the way the term “political prisoner” is interpreted in Russia and in the West? 

SD: I don’t think there is a clash here. Historically, and today as well, the term has been used with different connotations. For example, over a hundred years ago, the term was applied to members of Narodnaya Volya[1] or later to the bombers among the Socialist Revolutionaries.[2] In other words, they were people who committed crimes for political motives. In Soviet times, political prisoners were redefined as those persecuted by the state for its own political motives.

OK: Is the term still used both ways? 

SD: Until recently, the term was used in both contexts. Amnesty International, when this organization still used the term “political prisoners” (in recent decades it has stopped), held that a political prisoner is a person whose prosecution includes a clear political motive, whether it’s on the part of the state or the individual. But it is clear that for the sake of social solidarity, it was not a very fitting definition, since it equalized people who disseminate their beliefs in a peaceful way to those who engage in violence. Today, Amnesty uses the term “prisoner of conscience.”

OK: How does Memorial define the term “political prisoner” today? 

SD: We, together with human rights activists from other countries—Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan—have developed a detailed manual on how to apply the term. It is based on the resolution of the 2012 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that briefly describes the term. Our definition also covers cases that Amnesty International describes as “prisoners of conscience”—those convicted exclusively for dissemination of their beliefs because they belong to a certain group (race, religion, nationality) and those imprisoned for a clear political motive of the state. The latter group includes people whose cases are based on trumped-up charges and fraught with evident violations of the right to a fair trial and other rights guaranteed by international conventions. Our definition also includes cases where justice was administered arbitrarily or the verdict was disproportionate to the alleged offense. However, the scale of persecutions in Russia is so massive that only people who are absolutely innocent of the crimes they are accused of end up in Memorial’s list of political prisoners. In all cases of persecution whose victims are included in our lists, there is a political motive on the side of the state.

OK: The report you worked on lists 236 people, but Memorial’s website shows a different number. Moreover, your list is broken down into parts. Why the difference?

SD: Memorial’s list of political prisoners is divided into two groups. A separate group was created for those people who are persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of conscience. This does not discriminate them in any way—they are as much political prisoners as those included in what we call the “current list.” But the nature of the persecution of these groups is different, which prompted us to break the list down—so it would be more convenient to interpret and analyze the information. Unfortunately, due to the dynamics of persecution in Russia, the number of political prisoners grows almost weekly. Of course, people get released, but others are imprisoned at a much higher rate. Since the report was published, the number has grown to 313 people, as of today.*

OK: How do you assess this trend? What does it tell you?

SD: First of all, the authoritarian regime whose authority is not legitimized electorally, the regime that operates in the absence of an independent judiciary, inevitably succumbs to coercion as one of the crucial instruments of influencing the public. Extreme versions of such coercion are criminal prosecution and imprisonment. If in the 1990s only a handful of cases could be viewed as political, with Putin’s ascension to power and especially in the wake of the Yukos case, these statistics became noticeable. The numbers were no longer in single digits—there were now dozens of political prisoners, and their number was growing. 

Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the government had made some targeted efforts to improve Russia’s image in the international arena, resulting in the release of many political prisoners through amnesty or pardon. At that moment, we observed what seemed like a minimum compared to previous years. But after Russia’s foreign policy turned to aggression and the Kremlin started to tighten the screws inside the country, the number of political prisoners began to grow again.

OK: Why after 2014? Wasn’t there a massive surge in Putin’s public support after the annexation of Crimea? 

SD: On the one hand, the regime cannot govern and exercise control without intimidation. On the other, beside intimidation, the regime relies on two other pillars—propaganda and financial instruments of rent distribution. Following the 2014 Crimea-related rallying around the flag, the Kremlin had to “harmonize” foreign and domestic policies. Aggression abroad demanded corresponding behavior inside the country. If Russia is besieged by enemies, there must be enemies within. Hence, the tightening of the screws. At the same time, the government’s ability to act by economic means has weakened, as the state budget revenues have shrunk (and this trend continues). In other words, the government now has fewer ways to “bribe” the public, so to say. Finally, compared to 2014, the effectiveness of propaganda has substantially diminished. In this context, the importance of repression is growing. 

“The government perceives certain associations as high-risk groups. It fears the horizontal organization of people and attempts to preemptively repress such activity, which it sees as a potential source of a Maidan, disorder, revolution.”

OK: The Kremlin’s current repressions are clearly targeted. What is their function, beside intimidation?

SD: Repressions pursue several objectives. One is to cease the activity of some people whom the government finds “unpleasant”—not necessarily the federal government, regional governments, too. The relationship model of the federal government trickles down to local officials. Clearly, Putin doesn’t care about an activist in Krasnodar and doesn’t give instructions on that account. Perhaps, neither does [head of Russia’s Investigative Committee Alexander] Bastrykin. But this activist might be unpleasant to a regional governor, or a district head, or a chief of the local FSB branch. This could be sufficient to use methods of criminal coercion against this activist. Today’s political repressions against 313 people in a country of almost 150 million are, of course, not comparable to the Stalinist purges. But the purpose of today’s repressions is to serve as a signal from the government to the public. A case in point is persecution for posting certain things online. Victims are often random people who get punished, even though there are many other Russians who engage in similar activities with no repercussions. The targeting of one individual is an illustrative example, and the public gets the signal—this is a risk zone, it is better not to post things like that online. Or it is better not to participate in unsanctioned protests...

OK: Are you referring to the Bolotnaya case?

SD: The Bolotnaya case is a classic example of this signal system. About 70,000 people went out to the protest [on May 6, 2012], several thousand remained after the police shut it down, just over 30 people were persecuted, and only 20 or so were eventually imprisoned. It is absolutely clear that this group was thoroughly composed based on sociological factors. The victims were young, old, educated, uneducated, men, women, left, right, liberals—anyone who potentially, according to the government, could participate in similar protests. It was done so that anyone could put themselves in the place of a certain victim and recognize that the threat applies to them, too. In the Bolotnaya case, this proactive, preventive function of the persecutions is well demonstrated.

OK: What signal is being sent to those who are persecuted on religious grounds?

SD: The government perceives certain associations as high-risk groups. It fears the horizontal organization of people and attempts to preemptively repress such activity, which it sees as a potential source of a Maidan, disorder, revolution. This especially concerns organizations with links to other countries. All the religious organizations declared, baselessly, extremist are headquartered abroad and operate internationally—a fact interpreted by the Kremlin as a special threat. These organizations include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nurjalar, Tablighi Jamaat. The same logic applies to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was declared, again baselessly, a terrorist organization. People accused of being members of this organization account for the majority of Russia’s political prisoners today.

OK: Would you say that the persecution of Open Russia activists follows the same pattern? 

SD: Today’s persecution of Open Russia activists is clearly artificial and groundless. Not only is it based on an unconstitutional article of the Criminal Code—“activity of an undesirable organization”—but what’s more, these people have not been working for an “undesirable” organization, because the Russia-based Open Russia civic movement is no such thing! This is a manifestation of the government’s paranoid anxiety over organized groups that, as the Kremlin believes, can be managed from abroad.

Another example is persecution based on nationality against Crimean Tatars, who are persecuted today on a massive scale, especially in proportion to their overall population. Even those Crimean Tatars who are not doing anything disloyal [to the Kremlin] are still perceived as potentially disloyal.

OK: What are the objectives of the repressions against Ukrainian citizens? 

SD:  The Kremlin needs to confirm its propaganda messages through actual deeds. For example, to confirm that Russia is encircled by enemies. How else can it explain the absence of democracy or violations of rights and freedoms? The case of Karpyuk and Klykh is a classic example. Random people were kidnapped from Ukraine, and tortured for six months to force a confession. As a result, the indictment paints a ridiculous—and false—picture of what happened in Chechnya in the 1990s. There were no such battles in the named places! Still, Karpyuk and Klykh were sentenced to 20 and 22 years, respectively. These people were not the Kremlin’s enemies, they did not belong to groups potentially threatening to the Kremlin, but they were needed to showcase the alleged long-term hostility of Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalists toward Russia. A clearly propagandist objective.

Since the threat of Islamist terrorism plays an important part in propaganda, similar motives can be found in the government’s persecution of Muslims, especially from Hizb ut-Tahrir. It is not that easy to find and capture real terrorists, so [the Kremlin] looks under a streetlight and finds someone who is later presented as a terrorist. The same logic applies to spy cases, such as cases of Russian scientists persecuted for alleged espionage. The goal is to show that everyone is interested in our great secrets, wants to harm us, etc.

OK: How strategic are these objectives and the targeted groups? Who makes decisions about them, the Presidential Administration?

SD: Decisions on the majority of these cases are not made in the Kremlin, but rather on a much lower level. The actual executors of criminal persecutions look for signals from the Kremlin, interpret them according to their understanding, and then fabricate cases—in order to be mainstream, get a promotion, earn gratitude, rewards, achieve better statistics, etc. These are important incentives for many. The absence of an independent judiciary allows them to improve statistics by any means. It is impossible for them to bring a case to court and be told “but you haven’t proved it,” which is why they are free to do whatever they want.

OK: What happened in the case of Ivan Golunov, then? Why was it possible to get him released and the case against him dropped? How is his situation different from the dozens of other similar cases? 

SD: I wouldn’t say that Golunov’s case is categorically different from others. There are cases that trigger powerful and successful public campaigns. If you remember, there was the case of Svetlana Davydova, accused of treason. She was arrested and then released a week later. There were cases of women from the Krasnodar Territory who had been convicted for sending text messages to Georgia during the August 2008 conflict with Russia. When their cases became known to the public, all of them were very soon released. There was the case of Ildar Dadin, who was released following the ruling of the Constitutional Court and then of the Supreme Court. Cases like these do happen, but rarely—when the circumstances are favorable.

OK: Which circumstances?

SD: Of outmost importance is a powerful public campaign. It is important that the injustice and baselessness of the persecution are evident to the public. It is also important that the accused is not perceived as a direct enemy by the government, and the case is local. In all the cases I mentioned, except that of Dadin, these three factors were present. In Dadin’s case, the baselessness and inadequacy of the persecution was too obvious: he was sentenced to three years in prison for four peaceful, harmless protest actions. But Dadin’s courage and the powerful public campaign in his support got him released. Such an outcome is especially likely for women. The Russian state is quite patriarchal by nature, and with all other factors being equal, it is more likely to release a woman than a man.

OK: But weren’t Golunov’s investigations posing a threat to the government?

SD: His investigations are specific and instrumental, focusing on concrete areas. They are not about Putin, and they are not like the investigations of [Alexei Navalny’s] Anticorruption Foundation. Even his latest investigation, which allegedly triggered Golunov’s arrest, did not target the top echelons of power—it did expose high-profile people, but not the key state actors. It is absolutely clear that Golunov is not an enemy of the state. And neither Putin nor Bastrykin essentially had any interest in jailing him. Possibly, they hadn’t heard about his story until the protests began. And here Moscow journalists played a crucial role. They are one of the few groups that combine sufficient unity, personal connections, ability to mobilize in support of each other with information resources. In this sense, they are likely to be beyond competition—no one else in Russia can achieve such a powerful public effect. Corporate solidarity of the journalists, blatant mistakes made by the investigation in fabricating the case, and the lack of interest in pursuing this case at the top level of the government—all of these factors worked together to yield results. Why should Putin accept the costs of a case whose sole beneficiaries are some FSB generals from Moscow and Moscow region? And one more crucial point: recently, the government has been showing a degree of acquiescence as its ratings are declining while the protest activity is growing. The government clearly fears fanning local discontent into mass protests and sometimes cunningly retreats, at least in less significant cases. 

“The goal [of the personal sanctions] is not to straighten out those who deserve to be added to the sanctions lists, but rather to send them a cautionary signal. So that every other Russian judge or investigator realizes that their actions are not without consequence…”

OK: How do you think the Russian public perceives political prisoners? Does it show support or condone the government’s actions? Or is there no interest in the matter?

SD: It’s a difficult question as regards the public in general, because as far as I know such surveys have not been done yet. But I suppose that under current conditions people often don’t even think about the fate of political prisoners. One can say that without a poll, since people are not likely to think about things they cannot influence. There are no public discussions about political prisoners. No one is asking what the public thinks about this issue—and other issues as well, for that matter. People perceive the government’s repressive policies as a sort of a given. But other surveys conducted this year have shown that the public opinion focus is shifting to controlling things at the local level. Ultimately, Golunov was defended by his own kind. People are not ready to fight for the universal good because they understand that they have no instruments and no means to achieve it.

OK: Do you see any dynamics in the public interest since the number of political prisoners has grown so rapidly?

SD: I think so, yes. The amount of attention paid to the topic of political prisoners and support for them are growing—if not among the general public, then at least in its active, pro-democracy minority. This can be judged by indirect indicators—crowd-funding of MediaZona, the number of people who write letters to political prisoners, the amount of articles in the press about this issue.

OK: What can one do to help political prisoners both from inside Russia and from abroad? 

SD: Inside Russia, it’s dissemination of information about political prisoners and participation in public actions in their support. It’s financial support, too. There are organizations, including Memorial, that take donations and distribute them to help political prisoners. There are groups and resources, such as OVD-Info and again MediaZona, that spread information and also take donations. There is the option of writing letters to political prisoners, but that’s only possible in Russia, because Russian prisons accept letters written in Russian only [and posted inside the country]. As many former political prisoners said, it is a crucial factor of psychological support. Besides, it sends an important signal to the administration of those places, showing public support and thus protecting the political prisoner. As for foreign support, all these options are available, except for letters, and play a similar role.

OK: How would you explain to Western observers why they should take interest in Russia's political prisoners and demand their release? Why should they care about the fates of just 313 people in Russia?

SD: I could refer here to unlawful Russian legislation that violates the county’s foreign commitments. Or to the total subjugation of the Russian courts to the executive branch. Or to the miniscule share of not-guilty verdicts—0.35 percent in 2018. All these factors demand international attention as they serve as evidence of the profound depravity of the entire political system in Russia. But the problem is not just the violation of the legal norms or even humanism… These repressions inside the country embolden the Putin regime to act more freely and aggressively abroad. In this sense, it seems logical that other countries and international organizations should take a pragmatic interest in the matter and turn their attention to Russian political prisoners.

OK: What concrete steps would you recommend for the West?

SD: Information and solidarity campaigns in support of concrete individuals as well as larger issues. Beside these, the world still has sanction tools—at least, personal sanctions against repeat human rights violators. The goal is not to straighten out those who deserve to be added to the sanctions lists, but rather to send them a cautionary signal. So that every other Russian judge or investigator realizes that their actions are not without consequence and that the preferences they expect to gain will be at least partially offset by the international sanctions. So that they understand that they have a choice and that one day, when [the Putin regime] ends in Russia, these historical records will become a real threat to them.

*At the time of the publication of this interview.


[1] Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, was a 19th-century revolutionary political organization in the Russian Empire that pursued regime change and was responsible for political terrorism that culminated in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

[2] The Socialist Revolutionary Party was one of the largest parties in early 20th-century Imperial Russia. Its paramilitary wing, known as the Combat Organization, operated as an autonomic subgroup that focused on political terror. In 1904, its members assassinated Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve.