By Lee Clark
Free political expression has never been tolerated in Russia. In the most severe instances, dissent or perceived deviance from accepted lines of thought has resulted in executions and forced labor. In less extreme cases, dissidents have been jailed, ostracized, exiled, and beaten. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the international community hoped against hope that Russia would become more open to freedom of expression and dissent, but civil liberties and open discourse have taken a backseat to stability and martial prominence since Russia’s reemergence.
Russia emerged from the chaos of the 1990s seeking to rejoin the international arena and began to portray itself as a just and organized world power focused on productive relationships and promoting the rule of law. Instead of improved public debate and freedom of expression, there has been an eruption of intimidation against opposition figures and restrictions on public discourse.
While dissidents in Russia are no longer sent to labor camps in Siberia or lined up for firing squads, criticizing the positions and actions of the Kremlin remains as dangerous as ever. Vocal opponents of Moscow are at best a profoundly unlucky group and at worst are the targets of a clandestine censorship campaign. Though concrete evidence is hard to come by, the international community has long assumed that the Russian government regularly engages in violence and intimidation against its opponents, both at home and abroad.
Some less violent instances of the opposition experiencing intimidation include the situations involving Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In both instances, repressive actions came from official state facilities instead of threats to personal safety. Both instances also brought international attention to the weaknesses of Russia’s judicial system.
The arrest and detention of several members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot drew international attention and criticism. In February 2012, several members of the band performed a song critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Two of the women served 21 months in separate prisons before being granted amnesty, and several members of the band fled Russia following the arrests.
In another instance, Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky’s company Yukos participated in illicit practices for years during its rise, but sought to legitimize its operations in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. During this time, Khodorkovsky began funding political action groups and inviting international auditors to examine Yukos’s records. After Khodorkovsky’s arrest, many of Yukos’s assets were seized by state-run oil companies, and standards for determining guilt in the Russian courts relaxed considerably. Khodorkovsky was released in 2013 and has been in exile since.
In addition to the use of state functions to pressure dissenters, a new disturbing trend has emerged. Though violence against Russian dissidents has never been directly linked to the Kremlin, assassinations have become increasingly common. If the Kremlin is not directly responsible for these acts of violence, there is at least an atmosphere in Russia that is encouraging and conducive for violent retaliation against public figures critical of Moscow’s policies.
Physical attacks are a major deterrent faced by Russian dissidents. Whether the Kremlin is involved or not, it cannot be denied that Moscow’s opponents experience violence regularly. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko demonstrates this danger for enemies of Moscow. Litvinenko was an officer in the Federal Security Service before moving to England and becoming a vocal critic of Putin. Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in 2006, and his killers have never been caught.
Anna Politkovskaya’s murder also drew international attention to violence against Russian dissidents, though the attack on her was more aggressive and abrupt than Litvinenko’s slow death from exposure to radioactive material. Politkovskaya was a journalist known for human rights advocacy and her opposition to Russian military actions in Chechnya. She was shot to death in her apartment building in 2006 and her death remains unsolved.
In an attack similar to the one on Politkovskaya, Russian activist and politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down near Red Square in early 2015. Nemtsov began his public career in the administration of Boris Yeltsin and grew into the most visible liberal activist in Russia, regularly participating in demonstrations against Putin. After the killing was deemed “professional,” Putin took personal control of the investigation and shortly thereafter four Chechens were arrested in connection with the killing.
In addition to obvious homicides, questionable circumstances surrounding deaths are also not rare. In 2013, exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky was found hanging from the shower rail in his home in England. Berezovsky was one of the richest people in Russia before he was exiled during a highly publicized disagreement with Putin. Berezovsky’s death was originally ruled a suicide but conflicting coroner reports make this conclusion suspect.
The instances above are merely a sample of violent acts against dissenters in Russia, and countless others can be found with even the most cursory Internet search. Given the reemergence of Russia as a major player on the global stage and the international reaction to the Ukraine crisis, the state of free expression and open debate in Russia is unlikely to improve in the near future. The current regime has little interest in improving the state of public discourse, and violence is on the rise in Russia. Ethnic violence, gender-based violence, and political oppression all remain active problems in Russian society.
Despite these discouraging realities, this situation is not irreversible. Though the current Russian regime is not hospitable to discourse or free expression, there are limited ways in which other nations could affect Russia’s attitudes toward dissent. For instance, the international community could help discourage the culture of violence and intimidation against civil dissidents by facilitating investigations into crimes against high-profile Russian activists and public figures. Increasing the attention paid to the deaths of dissidents could pressure Moscow into relaxing its policies, albeit in a small way. While substantive changes in the tolerance of opposition cannot be forced onto Russia from without, the global community can play a role in encouraging Russia to loosen its grip on public speech.
Lee Clark is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School for
Diplomacy and International Commerce. His professional interests include diplomacy, security, and humanitarian work. He is currently interested in study abroad and internship opportunities. He can be contacted at email@example.com.