Staunton, Oct. 6 – Since the start of 2014, Sergey Davidis says, the number of political prisoners in Russia registered by his Memorial organization has risen 1500 percent, from 40 to more than 600, with 419 of them having to do with religious persecution and 185 with political persecution. But for a variety of reasons, there are in fact far more and the numbers are growing.
The head of Memorial’s Support Political Prisoners effort notes there are almost no data on those charged with treason or on Ukrainians now living in the occupied territories, given the difficulties of gathering information. Moreover, there is a lag between the arrests and the classifying people as political prisoners (holod.media/2023/10/06/chislo-politzaklyuchennyh/).
Just before the rise in the number of political prisoners in Russia began in 2014, Putin cut the number from 70 to 40 in advance of the Olympic Games in Sochi; but in 2015, the number rose dramatically when Memorial included a new category of political prisoners, those persecuted for religious reasons. Their number has grown by 40 times since then.
The number of secular political prisoners has also grown over the last decade but far less rapidly. Between 2015 and 2023, Davidis says, it has gone up five times, from 36 to 180. This is still ten times less than in much smaller Belarus, but it is a sign that the Kremlin is prepared to keep raising the number as popular dissatisfaction increases.
Currently, the politically persecuted fall into three large groups: those who are members of religious groups the regime doesn’t approve of, those spreading what the Kremlin calls “fakes” about the Russian military, and those accused, typically without any basis at all, of engaging in terrorism by advocating resistance to the regime.
The range of people who are now classified as political prisoners is very wide: from youths to pensioners, from the uneducated to the much schools, the unemployed to those with jobs, and increasingly not just men but an increasing number of women. Moreover, those so classified now come not just from major cities but from small towns and rural areas.
Moreover, Davidis continues, torture by the authorities is spreading as well not for any specific reasons of state policy but simply because the siloviki can torture people without any consequences to themselves. In short, “they now torture people because they can,” and that suggests the situation is set to become even worse.
According to the Memorial expert, there are two reasons why it is critically important to maintain lists of political prisoners: the first is to show the rest of the world what is going on in Russia; and the second is to boost civic solidarity in support of political prisoners. After all, in Putin’s Russia, this is one of the few possibilities left to do that.