20 years under Putin: a timeline

In December, the Russian State Duma adopted a law reviving the Soviet rule of propiska—official residential registration. A key feature of the new law will be administrative and criminal liability for violating registration rules. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, this is another step toward transforming Russia into a country with a repressive system of ideological control.



The restriction of the freedom to choose one’s own place of residence is a fundamental feature of any totalitarian regime. Divide the country into zones, install police outposts, checkpoints, and barriers on the roads, impose a curfew and propiska, passport control, and a gate check system—these are all ways to control citizens, preventing them from making their own decisions without the authority’s knowledge.

Without going into political philosophy, it should nevertheless be noted that totalitarianism is not born out of the blue—it is preceded by favorable conditions. In the case of the Soviet Union, these conditions consisted of centuries of serfdom, during which the movement of the overwhelming majority of the Russian population was significantly restricted.

Soviet totalitarianism disappeared, but its values are alive and dear to the Russian leadership. Trying to hold on to power illegally obtained through fraudulent elections, the president and the government have returned to proven methods of totalitarian control. These include, first and foremost, the manipulation of justice, control of the media, political repression, and the denial of demonstrator’s rights.

Restrictions on freedom of movement and choice of residence weren’t left by the wayside, of course. It would just be weird if the current authoritarian regime had neglected such tactics. On December 13, the State Duma adopted a law reviving Soviet rules of residence in the community.

Until now, the existing rules for registration were hardly reflective of a democratic state, but the newly adopted laws promptly return Russia to totalitarian times. The main innovation of the new law is administrative and criminal liability for the violation of registration rules.

A new concept was introduced with this law: fictitious registration, defined as “registration of a citizen of the Russian Federation at the place of stay or residence on the basis of deliberately false information or documents for such registration or its registration in a residential area with no intention to stay (reside) in this place.” This notion was included in the law solely to soften the impression that the regime is moving to criminally repress registration violators. Punishing someone for registration violations alone seems excessive, but for providing bogus information, it seems justified. The concept was no sooner introduced than it was legislated. The same law made ​​additions to the criminal code—articles 3222 and 3223—criminalizing fictitious registration. The punishment? Up to three years of imprisonment.

We’re witnessing a duplication of the Soviet system of residential control. What was in Soviet times was called “permanent residence” is now called “registration”; one’s “temporary residence” is now one’s “registration record.” Article 198 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (the last Soviet Criminal Code) covered “violation of passport rules,” which punished violations of residence rules; this now takes a new form in the recently adopted law. The Soviet article, however, had milder sanctions—up to just one year of imprisonment.

The Code of Administrative Offences has also been amended. Now, registration violations or living without registration is punishable by a fine of two to eight hundred thousand rubles. Living without a passport or with an expired passport carries a fine of two to five thousand rubles.

Needless to say, all these innovations run contrary to many norms of international law in the field of human rights—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 12), and Protocol No. 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 2), among others. Most flagrantly, it violates the right to freedom of movement. The new laws also contradict Russian constitutional law. Article 27 of the Russian Constitution states that “everyone who is lawfully within the territory of the Russian Federation shall have the right to move freely and choose their place of residence.” The Constitutional Court, whose decisions have the force of law, in a February 2, 1998, decision, rejected the authorization-based procedure of registration and criminal liability for its absence.

Trying to hold on to power illegally obtained through fraudulent elections, the president and the government have returned to proven methods of totalitarian control.

In its ruling, the Constitutional Court explicitly states that the lack of registration does not give rise to any citizen rights and responsibilities and cannot justify restrictions on rights and freedoms. The current legislators could not ignore the decision of the Constitutional Court and thus included this provision in its law almost verbatim: “Registration, or lack of it, cannot serve as a restriction or condition for the realization of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, federal laws and constitutions (charters) and laws of the Russian Federation.”

But if the lack of registration cannot justify restrictions on freedoms, how can one be given up to three years of imprisonment for lack of registration? How is this contradiction reconciled in the head of the new law’s legislator?

Alas, the answer is simple. Creators of totalitarian legislation do not concern themselves with apparent contradictions. Moreover, they create them. They will point out to critics of the law that rules protect the rights of citizens, and meanwhile, the law enforcement officers will put those same citizens in prison for three years. Quite a Bolshevik dialectic! At the same time, the critics will complain about the difficulty of enforcing the law.

The restriction of the population’s civil and political freedoms is a natural desire of power usurpers. These limitations are achieved through repressive legislation, emergency measures, or martial law. In the near future, we can expect a revival of criminal liability for vagrancy and parasitism, for homosexuality, for slandering the state, and for insulting the national or state ideology.

Steps have already been taken in this direction. Administrative sanctions for promoting homosexuality among minors have been established. State Duma deputy from the United Russia party Evgeny Fedorov proposed excluding from the constitution the rule that “no ideology can be established as a state or obligatory” ideology. Former KGB officer and current children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov suggested reinstating criminal liability for parasitism. And many other legislative initiatives are also aimed at reviving the totalitarian Soviet system.

The forecast is unfavorable. If the political efforts of Russian authorities are not stopped, Russia will turn into an ideological state with a repressive system of control.