20 years under Putin: a timeline

October 30 marks the Day of Political Prisoners in Russia. According to the latest data, there are currently 331 in the country. Sergei Davidis, Memorial council member and head of its political prisoners program, explains whom the Russian state is trying to repress.


Photo: Wilson Center.


Olga Khvostunova: When we spoke about political persecution in Russia last year, there were 320 political prisoners in the country at that time, according to Memorial. How many are there today?

Sergey Davidis: Today, there are 331 people on our list. Almost the same number as in the past, but over the year the situation has developed in leaps and bounds. After we spoke last year, there was a large exchange of war prisoners between Russia and Ukraine, and the list got smaller at first. But then the number of political prisoners, especially those persecuted for religious reasons, went up and is still growing. In addition, we always stress that our lists are incomplete.

OK: Why? 

SD: This is due to limited access to information and our own limited capacities. For example, if we had 30 people studying cases with a political component, the number of political prisoners could be much higher. But, of course, we try to intensify our work as such cases grow.

OK: What are the main trends you see in politically motivated cases? What groups of people are targeted most often?

SD: The main trends have not changed significantly compared to previous years. And the key groups remained the same. If we look beyond cases related to religious beliefs, then, first of all, people are persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly. One example is the so-called “Moscow case,” where the defendants still remain in custody. Then there is the so-called “Ingush case,” in which dozens of people are being prosecuted on charges of violence against police officers. Seven leaders of the Ingush protest movement, who undoubtedly did not use any violence, are accused—absurdly—of organizing it. There is no evidence of this claim, on the contrary: all of them tried to prevent violence, despite police attacks on the peaceful protest [against the controversial border deal with neighboring Chechnya].

There are other more minor cases as well. Some people are still being persecuted under the so-called “Maltsev revolution” case. Especially outrageous is what happened with [his supporters] Yan Sidorov and Vladislav Mordasov. Sidorov has just been denied parole. Their situation is absolutely clear. These two young men came to a peaceful picket in support of Maltsev [an outspoken Kremlin critic and nationalist opposition leader] and were consequently charged with attempted mass disorder [later sentenced to more than six years in prison]. 

OK: Has the pressure on the opposition increased?

SD: Over the past year, the most notable case has been the Set (Network) case, in which the appeal court recently upheld the conviction. But the basic accusations in this case—the creation of a terrorist organization and participation in it—are groundless. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that there was no organization at all, only an artificial construct invented by the investigation. Also noteworthy is the Novoye Velichiye (New Greatness) case, in which [on October 29] one more defendant, Pavel Rebrovsky, was convicted. There is also the case of the Kaliningrad anarchists from BARS[Baltic Avant-garde of Russian Resistance], who did not practice violence and did not call for it, but were nevertheless accused and found guilty of creating a terrorist organization.

We also see a parallel trend—repressions against people who exercise the right to freedom of speech. The most striking example is the case of [activist and blogger] Mark Halperin, who recently got sick with coronavirus in  a penal colony, but is not being given medical assistance. He was accused of extremism for making some metaphorical calls for a change of power. At first, he was given a suspended sentence, but it was replaced by a real prison term in December 2019 for his participation in summer protests in Moscow.

Another outrageous case is that of Bashkir journalist Airat Dilmukhametov, who was sentenced to a long term under several articles of Russia’s Criminal Code. The most ridiculous accusation against him is his alleged calls for the violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, based on his statement that the federal agreement with the regions should be renegotiated on more equal terms. Also here, I need to mention the case of Daria Polyudova, who was arrested on similar charges for calling for a referendum on the ownership of the Kuril Islands. It is clear that this whole discussion around the islands is a political construct and does not pose any public danger.

OK: One of the high-profile cases this summer was the arrest of former Kommersant special correspondent Ivan Safronov on charges of treason. What is Memorial’s view of his case?

SD: The case is really high-profile, and we see its illegality at least in the fact that Safronov himself still does not know what he is accused of. Unfortunately, the mere fact that a journalist is accused of high treason does not give us sufficient grounds to consider him a political prisoner. In the case of Ivan Safronov, as in most espionage cases, we cannot formulate an informed opinion because such cases are classified. But we are following it, no doubt, and making public statements. In a situation where the public has great doubts about the validity of the accusations, the state must be especially convincing. The investigation should at least reveal the prosecution’s theory, if not the content of the accusation, such as what secret data Safronov allegedly transferred abroad. I do not exclude that in the course of the investigation more information will come into light, and if we can substantiate our position, we will recognize him as a political prisoner. Like any case against a journalist or human rights activist, Safronov’s requires increased public scrutiny, since these activities—journalism and human rights—are of particular public importance. If the state persecutes people for conducting these activities, such cases are especially dangerous.

“Administration and interpretation of law is becoming more primitive. The investigation, the prosecutor’s offices, and the courts are moving farther away from meaningful legal categories.”

OK: Speaking of the persecution of human rights activists, what, in your opinion, is the reason for the authorities’ fixation on Karelian historian Yuri Dmitriev? 

SD: Naturally, we pay close attention to his case, not only because Dmitriev is our colleague at Memorial’s Karelian chapter, but primarily because he was engaged in the restoration of historical memory [for many years Dmitriev was engaged in restoring the memory of the Great Terror victims and led expeditions that discovered mass graves in Karelia. One of the largest and best-known is in the Sandarmokh forest tract, where in 1937-38 more than 6,000 people—residents of different Soviet republics and regions—were executed. – Ed. note].

Although the charges in his case concern minors—and this part is classified—the very actions of the state indicate Dmitriev’s innocence. Twice a local court acquitted him on most charges. In the second case, on one of the charges, where the minimum sentence is 12 years, he was given less than four years. Considering the specifics of the Russian judiciary, this clearly speaks of a person's innocence. We understand well how this system is built: each judge is selected by the presidential administration and approved by the president, which means that her career fully depends on the acceptability of her decisions for the executive power. This system also allows  “erroneous” decisions by the lower courts, where people spend less energy on building careers within the Russian political system, to be corrected by the higher courts. In Dmitriev’s case, they were corrected by the Supreme Court of Karelia. These repeated acquittals and subsequent repeated reversals of the not-guilty verdicts are clear signs that this case is not about justice. It’s a political hit. 

OK: Why Dmitriev?

SD: Perhaps some people in the FSB, originally in the Karelian branch, made such a decision. Why? It is difficult to say. Each Russian region has its own specifics. But on balance, Dmitriev’s activities clearly irritated the authorities, and the goal of his persecution was likely to terminate them. He created an information space and agenda that showed Karelia in the wrong light—not the way the authorities would like their region to be portrayed. The authorities do not want to talk about the crimes of their predecessors, or about the memory of victims, or about the fact that people from different countries can be united by their common historical memory of these tragic events and by the desire to prevent their recurrence in the future. These things don’t bode well. Plus, the authorities aim at discrediting the entire human rights movement. In Dmitriev’s case, they target not only his work, but also, more generally, Memorial, human rights activists, and historical memory. This could be a goal that is unrelated to Dmitriev per se.

OK: Have you noticed a surge in political persecution after the constitutional referendum? 

SD: Only three months have passed since the vote, and I don’t think we can see a surge. The dynamics are constant: the number of persecutions is growing. However, there is a case that has emerged as a result of this referendum, namely that of Yulia Galyamina, who was charged under Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code [“repeated violation of the established procedure for organizing or conducting an assembly, rally, demonstration, march, or picket,”]. First, this case is connected with the protest campaigns against the constitutional amendments, and second, it bluntly contradicts the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which determines how this very article should be applied, although the article itself is unconstitutional by default. For example, in order to criminally prosecute someone under this article, evidence of significant damage to protected legitimate interests is required. In other words, mere “repeated violation,” as stated in Galyamina’s case, is not enough. Not that there were any violations on her part in the first place.

What the amendments to the Constitution did is consolidate the tendency toward the coarsening of the law enforcement system, including further breakdowns of the legislative system and the “checks and balances,” which had remained at least on paper. Administration and interpretation of law is becoming more primitive. The investigation, the prosecutor’s offices, and the courts are moving farther away from meaningful legal categories.

OK: How can one help Russian political prisoners today? What is best—donations, public campaigns, personal letters? 

SD: Charitable donations and material aid are, of course, very important. Especially now during the pandemic when offline crowdfunding activities are difficult. Letters of support to prisoners are also of great value. Public attention, acts of solidarity, and dissemination of information about repressions are crucial. It is equally important to raise awareness in other countries—among the authorities, media, NGOs. The Kremlin might say that they don’t give a damn about what is being said about them abroad, but they still don’t want to have a reputation as “cannibals” unless absolutely necessary. Resolutions by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the US Congress, and other actions aimed at solidarity with Russian political prisoners and at symbolic punishment of those who grossly violate human rights and carry out repressions are still useful, if only in the medium term.

OK: Why should Russian political prisoners be a concern for the West?

SD: Because Russia is a large, significant country with nuclear weapons and serious ambitions on the world stage. The Russian government has already shown itself as a malicious violator of international law, carrying out aggression against neighboring countries. If the West turns a blind eye to the tools employed by the Kremlin to suppress civil society domestically, the more it has a free hand for foreign aggression.