Saturday, December 31, 2022

Intensifying Repression Means There are Far More Political Prisoners in Putin’s Russia than Activists Can Document, Davidis Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Dec. 31 – Those who remember Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” will recall her observation that totalitarian states are far more able to cover their tracks as far as repressions are concerned than authoritarian ones, something that often means they are not seen as being as horrific as they in fact are.

            Her observation springs to mind on reading the report of Sergey Davidis, head of Memorial’s program for supporting political prisoners, about the rapid deterioration of human rights practices in Putin’s Russia during the course of 2022 (

            Davidis argues that the number of political prisoners in Russia that his organization has been able to count has increased from 430 in 2021 to 516 this year but that the repressiveness of the Putin system and its draconian controls over information mean that the actual now is far larger and that the 516 is “only the tip of the iceberg.”

            A year ago, he continues, experts described 2021 as “the worst year for human rights” in the history of the Russian Federation. “The level of repressiveness seemed excessive for achieving the goals of the authorities regarding control of Russian society.” But “as it turned out,” 2021 was only a prelude for a still worse 2022.

            The deterioration of human rights in Russia across the board over the last ten months has been driven by the war. To be sure, some repressive campaigns like the one against the Jehovah’s Witnesses have continued “by inertia,” but most reflect new steps by the powers that they feel confident they can take given the state of war.

            That includes new laws, more repressive application of old ones, and an intensifying rejection of even imitative democracy and “the decorations of a legal state.” That trend has only accelerated now that Russia has been expelled from the Council of Europe for its criminal invasion of Ukraine, Davidis says.

            Two developments related to this are especially disturbing, he suggests. On the one hand, the Russian authorities are increasing disdainful of relying on even their own law, with ever more officials acting in ways that are prohibited by the texts on the book or asserting that “the words of Putin are higher than any law.”

            And on the other, there has been “a further ideologization of repressions,” with ever more frequent persecution for displays of a lack of respect to the symbols of the regime, from the role of the USSR in the war and its veterans to the FSB and Vladimir Putin personally,” the Memorial activist says.

            In these catastrophic conditions, Davidis concludes, it is extremely difficult to talk about successes and achievements; but there have been some and they deserve to be noted including most importantly “mass resistance to the war and the dictatorship” given that those who engage in such actions know they risk facing repression.

            “No less important,” he says, “is the appearance of dozens if not hundreds of public initiatives of solidarity which unite both those who have left Russia and those who have remained in the country. These networks of solidarity and support involve providing help to refugees, political prisoners, those who resist mobilization, and many others.”

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