Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent Is Working

A new law criminalizing “disrespect” for Russian society and institutions might mark the end of the country’s few remaining legal forms of protests.

A woman looks at newspapers at a Moscow newsstand in 2017.
A new Russian law that criminalizes "disrespect" for Russian society is just Moscow's latest crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia. (Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty)

MOSCOW—Soon after the 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky criticized the Russian security services and blew himself up in October outside an office of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, in the country’s far northwest, Svetlana Prokopyeva took to the airwaves.

Zhlobitsky was part of a generation that grew up entirely under Russian President Vladimir Putin, she said. Instead of protecting individual rights, she continued, the authorities were focused on suppressing freedom of expression. The judiciary, she added, had become a repressive system.

A couple of months later, Prokopyeva was made the target of a criminal investigation, accused by the authorities of “justifying terrorism,” making her the latest symbol of a worsening clampdown on journalists, activists, and human-rights defenders here. And the climate for free speech looks likely to get worse: This week, Putin signed into law new rules that criminalize any “disrespect” for Russian society, the government, official symbols, the constitution, or any state body, as well as what the authorities deem to be “fake news.” Watchdogs fear that the laws will be used to stamp out the limited pockets of dissent here, drowning out what were previously legal forms of protest.

Prokopyeva, a well-known journalist in the town of Pskov, near Russia’s border with Estonia, read out one of her pieces on Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station, in November, and a version of the article was published online, as well. The previous month, Zhlobitsky had injured three FSB officers when he blew himself up outside the security service’s offices, after announcing his affiliation to an anarchist movement and arguing in a note on the Telegram messaging app that the FSB had “fabricated cases and tortured people.”

Her piece criticized arms of the Russian government, and said the country had begun to view activists as enemies of the state. Russia’s federal communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, complained to the courts about the article, which was taken down soon afterward, and Echo of Moscow had to pay a 150,000 ruble, or $2,300, fine. Pskov Lenta Novostei, an online news outlet, was fined 200,000 rubles for republishing the article.

“I must have offended the FSB leadership in Moscow,” Prokopyeva told me, “because they are really angry with me.”

Last month, a group of security officers called the Special Rapid Response Unit, clad in helmets and carrying shields and rubber truncheons, searched her tiny, two-room apartment in Pskov, she recounted to me. They were accompanied by interior-ministry officials from Center E, an agency whose official role is to combat extremism and terrorism. Several uniformed officers began digging through her clothes, her papers, and even her underwear, and left with all of her technical equipment—two laptops, an iPad, and memory cards—and printouts of her freelance-journalist contracts. Prokopyeva, who also worked for the U.S.-funded outlet Radio Free Europe, said they were particularly interested in her agreements with the organization. The investigation into Prokopyeva’s work is ongoing, but if she is charged, she faces up to seven years in prison.

“To all of us professional journalists, this attack on our colleague means that each one of us can be accused of crimes for our work,” Tatyana Felgenhauer, Echo of Moscow’s deputy editor in chief, told me. Felgenhauer herself was stabbed in the neck in 2017 by a man who broke into the radio station’s offices and later claimed that he “had to hurt her to stop her,” yet she continues to criticize the Russian government on her morning show.

The investigation of Prokopyeva is symptomatic of the worsening environment for free expression in Russia. The country ranked 148th worldwide in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, and in the nearly 20 years since Putin first became president—including an interlude when he was prime minister but widely seen as the power behind the throne—violence against journalists and human-rights activists has become worryingly frequent. The recent fake-news law zoomed through both chambers of the country’s Parliament in less than a month, and the Kremlin wants to make anything associated with the state sacred, walled off from criticism. Offending the feelings of Russian state officials is becoming a dangerous business.

The new law on disrespecting state symbols, in particular, intends to choke off freedom of speech, according to Rachel Denber, the Europe and Central Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “Why else is it necessary, other than to ban people who are critical of the government, to demonize criticism and dissent?” she asked me.

Prokopyeva’s case is just one of many. Last week, the Interfax news agency reported that a court in Kaliningrad had convicted the human-rights defender Vyacheslav Lukichev, an activist in a local anarchist movement, of “justifying terrorism.” Lukichev will have to pay a fine of 300,000 rubles for reposting Zhlobitsky’s suicide note. Separately, Grigory Vinter, the leader of a small human-rights organization, told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that police had detained him on a train from Moscow and threatened to break his legs, accusing him of being a foreign agent and transporting forbidden extremist literature.

Prokopyeva and her backers—more than 50,000 have put their signature to a petition in support of her—are fearful that being officially charged, and then convicted, is only a matter of time. She has so far been questioned three times by investigators. One interrogator told her that working for Radio Free Europe was not patriotic.

If Prokopyeva is charged, Felgenhauer has vowed to continue speaking out, particularly in favor of her colleague. “Our screams will be very loud,” she said, before adding: “Unfortunately, this is the only tool we have to resist.”