For activists seeking to challenge discriminatory laws, protest government policies, or oppose an entrenched, autocratic political system, contemporary Russia is an inhospitable and dangerous place to participate in acts of collective protest, civil disobedience or political dissent. With the rise of Vladimir Putin as the undisputed political power in Russia, the government has undertaken a vigorous and systematic suppression of social, political and environmental activists.
Over the past two years, activists who challenge the policies of the Russian government have experienced stiff consequences – often involving lengthy detentions and prison sentences – in a clear attempt to stifle dissent. Some of the more high-profile examples of the crackdown against activists in Russia have included:
The Russian punk band that staged a guerilla protest performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012 was eventually charged and convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for their criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of Vladimir Putin. As discussed in an earlier Anthropology & Activism column, the international community quickly and forcefully condemned the two-year prison sentence meted out to band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Yet despite the criticisms leveled against the Russian government for their treatment of Pussy Riot, the three women remain imprisoned and consistently denied parole. Furthermore, rather than becoming more cautious of how the repression of political dissidents tarnished the Russian image abroad in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot incident, Putin and his government have pursued critics and activists with greater intensity.
Anti-“Gay Propaganda” Activists
In 2012, the Russian parliament considered and ultimately passed a law designed to punish “homosexual propaganda” that is directed at minors. Since the law failed to identify what constitutes propaganda and who is considered a minor, critics of the legislation have argued that it is intended to criminalize homosexuality and keep the LGBT community ostracized in Russian society. In addition, the Putin government also approved a law that enabled Russian police officers to arrest, detain and expel tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being homosexual. In light of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, international activists and agencies strongly condemned the law and complained to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which deflected the criticism by stating that the committee was satisfied with “assurances” given by Russian officials that no discrimination of homosexual athletes would occur during the Games. While Putin’s government pledged not to discriminated against homosexual Olympic athletes, it was far less sympathetic to members of the Russian LGBT community who have been denied the right to assemble, fined, detained and arrested for being open about their sexuality.
Kosenko, an activist who participated in anti-Putin demonstrations in 2012, was arrested in a police round-up after clashes between protesters and law enforcement on the eve of Putin’s inauguration as President. While awaiting trial, Kosenko, who was diagnosed with mild schizophrenia in 2001, was evaluated by state psychiatrists who contended that he was unaware of the “public danger of his actions” due to a “chronic mental disorder”. Consequently, Kosenko was ordered toundergo forced treatments at a prison-like mental institution for an unspecified period of time. Despite the diagnosis of independent psychiatrists who argued that Kosenko was mentally stable and neither a threat to himself or others, Kosenko remains imprisoned. The punitive application of mental health institutionalization against opponents of the Putin government is widely seen as having a chilling effect on political speech and, as human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina argues, “sends Russia back in time to the dark period when a political protest was considered a mental disease.”
In the fall of 2013, the environmental group Greenpeace engaged in a protest against the inauguration of a Russian oil rig in the Pechora Sea. During the action, two Greenpeace activists about the boat Arctic Sunrise attempted to board the rig in order to unfurl a banner protesting oil exploration in the Arctic. In response, Russian border guards boarded the boats via helicopter, towed the Arctic Sunrise to the port of Murmansk and arrested 30 Greenpeace activists. The activists were later charged with piracy and possession of narcotics, which carry sentences of greater than 15 years in prison. While international legal experts and Putin agree that “obviously [the Greenpeace activists] are not pirates”, the prosecution of the activists is a clear indication that the Putin government does not view opposition to national priorities as a positive social good.
Pussy Riot, anti-gay propaganda activists, Mikhail Kosenko and Greenpeace activists are perhaps just the most recognized victims of Putin’s suppression of social and political dissent in Russia. They join other dissenting voices, like those of Alexei Navalny, Alexander Litvinenko andMikhail Khodorkovsky, who have suffered severe consequences for questioning or opposing the Putin government. The result is a system where activism is restricted and dissent is silenced. Moving forward, Russian activists opposed to the policies and practices of the Putin government may continue to voice their disagreement with the direction Russia is headed, however, the prosecution of activists engenders a chilling environment that will ultimately reduce open dialogue and debate within the country.
While Russian activists must carry forth their opposition to Putin government on their own terms and in their own manner, it is incumbent upon the international community to offer a more steady and vigorous support for their efforts; one that does not rise and fall with the latest sensational arrest or detention. In the face of insidious and forceful suppression by the state apparatus, Russian activists need the consistent assistance of the international community to avoid its silencing.