20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russia’s current leaders, just as their Soviet predecessors, deny the existence of political prisoners in the country. Author and former political prisoner Alexander Podrabinek discusses the relationship between an authoritarian regime and its captives.


A protester is holding a poster that reads "Freedom to political prisoners."


Everyone remembers, of course, the wonderful declaration made by Leningrad hotel manager Lyudmila Ivanova in 1986 during the Leningrad-Boston space-bridge: “There is no sex in the USSR.” She was the right kind of Soviet woman, saying what was considered proper. However, even then, it sounded ridiculous. Because everyone knew that in reality there was sex in the USSR.

It is akin to how “the right kind of people” talked in the USSR about political prisoners: “There are no political prisoners”—only, unlike sex, this was not funny. Everyone knew that there were political prisoners in the country, but no one was supposed to talk about it.

For some time after perestroika, it seemed that these issues were history: there was obviously sex in the country, but certainly no political prisoners. When Putin came to power, the situation began developing backwards—at least with regard to political prisoners, who appeared again.

There are political prisoners who support freedom and those who would prefer an even tougher despotic regime.

All of these prisoners are different. Some have been recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, and some have not. There are people among them who believe themselves to be fighters against the regime, and those who have been crushed by repressions despite being absolutely loyal to the government. There are political prisoners who support freedom and those who would prefer an even tougher despotic regime. They were all convicted because of their involvement in the sphere of political relations. This is the reason that they are political prisoners. Not all of them should, of course, be supported, but it is impossible to ignore their existence.

And who thinks that nothing is impossible in our country? That’s right, Communists, or rather Chekists (KGB operatives). Rumor had it that they all had died out or disappeared, but this rumor turned out to be false.

On September 1, Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin visited the Logos high school in Dmitrov to talk to senior students about Russia’s constitution and parliament. A fearless (probably the result of his inexperience) eleventh-grader asked Naryshkin about political prisoners in today’s Russia.

In the late 1970s, Sergei Naryshkin graduated from the KGB high school in Minsk. Had a student asked him such a question at the time, he would have known exactly what to do. The boy and his parents would have come in for a lot of trouble. But the atmosphere in the country today is not quite what it used to be, and instead of reaching for his holster, the former Chekist Naryshkin began the boy’s political education.

“Our Criminal Code does not have an article on political prisoners. Of course, some people want to consider them political prisoners, but if we are talking about prisoners, these are only persons who were convicted for economic or other crimes,” explained the Chekist speaker to the student.

It did not take long for Naryshkin to find an answer to an embarrassing question. He only had to remember—nothing more. His colleagues from the KGB and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union used to sing the same tune in those rare cases of contact with a Western audience and more often through Soviet mass propaganda outlets.

“Hitler henchmen, punishers, bandits, slanderers, rapists—this is who ‘prisoners of conscience’ are,” V. Mikhaylov and M. Yurchenko (surely pen names), the fighters of the ideological front, wailed in their article “The Bitter Taste of Cauliflower,” published in the spoon-fed digest the Moscow Workman in 1982.

“There are no political prisoners in our country and there cannot be any, since there are no political crimes in our Criminal Code,” Soviet propaganda officials explained to overcurious foreigners. They probably believed this explanation to be elegant and convincing.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn established the Fund to Support Political Prisoners with royalties from the sales of his book "The Gulag Archipelago."


For instance, according to the general line, the Soviet media declared Vladimir Bukovsky an ordinary criminal and a commonplace ruffian. The fact that this “ruffian” was exchanged for Luis Corvalán was rather embarrassing for the Soviet government, but it managed to endure this embarrassment.

This interpretation of the situation is well known to Sergei Naryshkin, who at that glorious time was working for the KGB. Now is the time to remember what was slightly forgotten.

The current Russian government’s attitude toward political prisoners is based on hypocrisy, just as it was in Soviet times. However, this attitude has not always been the same. In the Russian Empire, the existence of political prisoners used to be officially acknowledged. The nineteenth-century Code of Criminal and Correctional Punishment even specified the status of a political prisoner. After the February Revolution of 1917, the Provisional Government issued a special ordinance granting amnesty for all political prisoners.

After the Bolshevik coup d’état and especially with the beginning of the Red Terror on September 5, 1918, the country was overwhelmed by an avalanche of political repressions. With the appearance of concentration camps, political prisoners became a constant phenomenon in Soviet Russia. The authorities did not deny their existence at the time. Founded in the mid-1870s, the Political Red Cross, which provided aid to political prisoners, existed until 1937.

After the Khrushchev Thaw, when Stalin’s purges were denounced, holding political prisoners became improper. However, at the same time, the Communist regime could not abandon repressions. As a result, the authorities either prudishly avoided the subject of political prisoners in the USSR or declared that all political prisoners were in fact common criminals.

In 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn established a foundation for providing aid to political prisoners, and the fact that the organization proclaimed the existence of political prisoners in the Soviet Union served as an essential motive to persecute those who worked for the foundation.

Vladimir Bukovsky was declared an ordinary criminal. The fact that he was exchanged for Luis Corvalán was rather embarrassing for the Soviet government.

On October 30, 1974, the Mordovian camp inmates Kronid Lyubarsky and Alexei Murzhenko raised the idea of marking a day for political prisoners in the USSR. Human rights activists joined political prisoners in celebrating this day. At the same time, prisoners in political camps demanded that they be granted the status of political prisoners, which would differentiate them from criminal convicts. The authorities did not agree with this demand, of course, and those who were seeking such a status were subjected to tougher repressions in the camps.

After the last political prisoners had been released in 1988–1989, the government stopped pretending they had never existed. Also, the decision was made on the government level to mark October 30 officially. However, the new Russian government, which was expressing allegiance to democracy and human rights, was in fact formed by former Communist and Soviet officials and thus was wary of the “political prisoner” concept. Since 1991, October 30 has been officially celebrated as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions. Society as well as many former political prisoners pretended that they did not notice the substitution and sometimes celebrated this day with those who were themselves guilty of carrying out political repressions.

In 2006, a number of Russian human rights and political organizations issued a statement that the renaming of the Day of Remembrance had been premature, but this reaction was belated. By that time, political prisoners had once again become a distinctive feature of modern Russia.