20 years under Putin: a timeline

A bill is being prepared by the State Duma under which people convicted for terrorism and extremism would be held in separate facilities from those housing other convicts. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, this bill is yet another step that will bring Russia closer to a Soviet-style totalitarian state.


Duma Deputy Mikhail Starshinov is oddly preoccupied with “extremism” issue in the country (the Soviet-style poster on the left reads: "If you incite [enmity], remember [Article] 282.")


When talking about the new bill, one has to understand that only a few individuals have ever been tried for terrorism in Russia (the Russian secret services prefer to kill terrorists before allowing them into court), and that anyone who in one way or another expresses opposition to the current Russian regime can be accused of extremism. “Extremism” today is just about the same thing as “anti-Soviet activity” in Soviet times. A blogger can be labeled an extremist by publishing a statement criticizing the police or reposting someone else's opinion; so can a protester or a journalist by publicly doubting the official opinion of current or historical topics. “Extremism” is becoming a universal accusation for any political opponent of Putin's regime.

Just as in Soviet times, when the Communist government was not satisfied with isolating dissidents from society and tried to further isolate them from criminals in prisons, today’s regime is pondering the idea of isolating “extremists” from other prisoners. According to Mikhail Starshinov, a State Duma deputy from the All-Russia People’s Front (ARPF), “it is necessary to improve measures curtailing the [spread of] extremist ideology, including in prisons, which are fertile ground for [the dissemination of] terrorist propaganda through unlimited communication with other inmates who have already broken the law once.” The deputy finds an easy solution to the problem: “Containment standards should be introduced, according to which prisoners convicted for extremist or terrorist activity are held only in prisons where the regime of keeping prisoners in cells limits opportunities for communication. This will not only help to prevent new members from joining terrorist and extremist associations, but also to reduce the distribution of extremist propaganda in institutions of confinement.”

The ARPF website offers statistics from the Russian Federal Service for the Execution of Sentences (FSES), according to which, in 2013, 537 individuals convicted for crimes of a terrorist and extremist nature were held in pretrial detention, 24 were held in prisons, and 1,119 were held in penal colonies. It is fair to say that the 24 convicts in prisons are probably terrorists convicted in the last 10 to 15 years, whereas those serving a term in a penal colony are likely “extremists” who do not pose any threat to public safety. It is this latter category that I will talk about here.

Deputy Starshinov prepared the terrorism and extremism bill, which has already been approved by the FSES and is now undergoing an examination by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Starshinov’s proposition obviously does not conform to the current Russian laws. This, however, does not appear to be a reason to reject the legislative initiative entirely, but to change it. On the ARPF’s website, Starshinov states the following: “Preachers of extremism have, as a rule, a rather high level of psychological training to attract a considerable number of people to their ideology. And in institutions of confinement they demonstrate an increased activity, on the one hand by provoking inter-ethnic conflicts, and on the other hand by promulgating a radical ideology among prisoners. At the same time, it is very difficult to isolate such prisoners from the rest of the convicts under the current legislation: they usually do not disturb the peace and do not support the prison subculture. According to the current legislation, only people convicted for especially grave crimes, dangerous recidivists and people transferred from penal colonies for gross violation of the set procedure for serving the sentence serve time in prison.”

“Extremism” today is just about the same thing as “anti-Soviet activity” in Soviet times. Extremism is becoming a universal accusation for any political opponent of Putin's regime.

Is it clear what the problem is? Terrorists are mentioned in the bill just to add drama and nothing else. The bill’s primary concern is “extremists”—the new Russian political prisoners. In fact, terrorism is classified under current law as an “especially grave” crime, with a sentence of up to 20 years’ jail or life imprisonment. Under the law, such convicts can be kept behind bars. One may assume that they are. Extremism, on the other hand, is not classified as an “especially grave” crime, because the harshest punishment it entails is up to 5 years’ imprisonment. The borderline between especially grave and other crimes is 10 years of imprisonment. This is the circumstance that saddens Starshinov.

I can hardly be wrong in supposing that of the 537 people who were held in pretrial detention and the 1,119 who were held in penal colonies in 2013, the majority were sentenced under Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Incitement of National, Racial, or Religious Enmity, and Abasement of Human Dignity”). This is the most popular article used to prosecute “extremists.” Reports of the initiation of criminal proceedings under this article have become the backdrop of public life in Russia. Article 282 is “political” by definition, because it punishes individuals for distributing information freely, as well as for expressing opinions and points of view. Fifteen hundred people in the Russian penitentiary system can be classified as political prisoners. It is worth noting that nowhere near all of those convicted under this article are liberals or supporters of freedom, democracy, and tolerance. However, this does not change the fact that they were convicted for expressing their opinion.

The abovementioned figures were taken from the ARPF’s website. The most recent statistics published by the FSES are for the year 2012. Moreover, no statistics are available on the number of prosecutions under Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The scale of repression is, however, clear, even if the government’s concern about the dissemination among prisoners of points of view that the regime considers dangerous is understandable. The logic of an authoritarian system does not leave other options than to gradually take a series of steps from the restriction of rights and freedoms to the persecution of dissidents, political trials, the appearance of political prisoners, and finally the isolation of those prisoners from other convicts within the penitentiary system.

Starshinov’s legislative initiative was logical and rather predictable. It cannot be ruled out that this proposal will be brought to life in some other way—for instance, by increasing the prison term for “extremism” under Article 282 to 10 years or more. It is possible that in order to take such a step, the government will need some major event, such as a terrorist attack during the Olympics, to demand the “necessary countermeasures.” At the same time, the government will be able to put pressure on the opposition and toughen legislation in many different spheres. In Russian politics, the experience of the past 15 years points solidly toward such a conclusion.