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:

Pussy Riot

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.

Police Waiting. Pushkin Square March 5, 2012 (Photo courtesy Bogomolov)

Police Waiting. Pushkin Square March 5, 2012
(Photo courtesy Bogomolov)

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 assemblefineddetained and arrested for being open about their sexuality.

Mikhail Kosenko

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.”

“I am opposed to Putin.” (Image courtesy Arsenii Gabdullin)

“I am opposed to Putin.”
(Image courtesy Arsenii Gabdullin)

Greenpeace “Pirates”

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 NavalnyAlexander 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.

Originally published by Anthropology News.

By on .

Leave a Reply


October 18th, 2015

Mapping the Dead in the Latest Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Basma Atassi at Al-Jazeera has put together a great storymap that explores the latest violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Complete with pictures, text and place location, this resource allows you to get a good sense of where, when and how the violence is occurring. Definitely worth a look.

October 16th, 2015

Netanyahu, Context & Responsibility

At the center of this current iteration of violence in Israel and Palestine stands the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has reacted to this violence as if he was surprised that Palestinians would resort to violence when for decades he has done everything within his power to thwart the establishment and growth of a responsible Palestinian civil society, expanded settlements with the explicit aim of crippling an emerging Palestinian state, and undermining the responsible leadership of Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity.

October 8th, 2015

Abbas, Netanyahu and Responsible Leadership

Abbas is demonstrating his commitment to deescalating tensions and calming the violence that is a direct result of Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to whip Israeli society into a panicked frenzy about an existential threat lurking behind every corner.

June 30th, 2015

Our Dictator in Cairo – Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

So, once again, the foreign policy of the US has chosen perceived immediate stability over the somewhat more bumpy and unpredictable evolution of democracy in the Middle East. It’s not the first time we’ve done this… it’s sort of our thing at this point… we’re pro’s out it.

June 22nd, 2015

The Many Victims at Mother Emmanuel

The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.

March 4th, 2015

Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Congress

There are two things to never forget when considering Netanyahu’s views of regional threats. First, he is desperately seeking his “Churchill moment”. Second, he has a record of being blinded by his own biases and is never, ever a sober analyst of a situation

February 16th, 2015

Cursed Be The Peacemakers?

This video, produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been released as part of the current Israeli political contest where the extreme right wing of Israel is attempting to maintain the rightist complexion of the Israeli government. For me, the truly offensive aspect of this video is how it makes the case that working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or defending Palestinian and Israeli human rights somehow makes you a threat to the country.

February 14th, 2015

The Danger of Molly White’s Islamophobia

Rep. White is the new poster child for the anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamic hatred and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded in American society that it can hide in plain sight.

July 15th, 2014

In Focus: The Gaza Strip

As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.

July 14th, 2014

Middle East News Review #28

The Middle East was plagued with news of violence this week. In Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Libya, episodes of violence resulted in death and destruction. Iran continued its negotiations with the US and EU this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement over the country’s nuclear program and removing the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. In Iraq, violence between the militant group ISIS and the Baghdad government reached new heights as 29 people were found massacred in an apartment and Human Rights Watch condemned the government for mass executions carried out earlier this year. The direct physical violence in Iraq was mirrored this week with political turmoil as the government of Nouri al-Maliki erupted into conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.