Russia’s crackdown on dissent has been expanding for years, most notably with the 2021 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and many of his supporters, but the number of political cases is on the rise now. Students, an essayist, a theater director and a former police officer, among many others, were sentenced to years in prison.
Nearly 20,000 people were detained for opposing the war, rights group OVD-Info reports; at least 537 people, including children and pensioners, were criminally charged. Most fell under the new laws — specifically under a provision that criminalized the distribution of “false information” about the military.
“What we are seeing today is completely unprecedented,” said Maria Kuznetsova, a spokeswoman for OVD-Info. “We have never seen such numbers in Russia.”
There has also been an increase in cases of infidelity. Historically, such cases usually involved military personnel or scientists who were investigated over years, and kept secret. But in recent months, ordinary citizens have been charged, many with ties to Ukraine.
“It is important for the authorities to maintain the image of a collective ‘enemy’ – its parts are oppositionists, Ukrainians, some ‘neo-Nazis,’ minorities and, of course, traitors to the motherland,” said Dmitry Zair – Bek, head of the rights group First Department. Zair-Bek said the number of infidelity cases has grown this year. Thirty cases could be confirmed through open sources, he said, but the number was likely higher.
The rise in charges of repression and treason followed the arrest of US journalist Evan Gershkovich in March on espionage charges — the first case of its kind since the Cold War.
Below are some of Russia’s most notable wartime political prisoners and those who faced the longest prison terms. Theirs is a small fraction of the cases being prosecuted today.
Human rights defender Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British national and contributor to The Washington Post, was sentenced last month to 25 years for treason and other charges. The charges were based on speeches he made abroad and public criticism of the war.
Kara-Murza compared his persecution to a Stalinist show trial. “I know the day will come when the darkness will disappear from our country,” he said in his sentencing. “And then our people will open their eyes and shudder at the sight of the heinous crimes committed in their names.”
Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, tried last year on secret evidence, was sentenced in September to 22 years for treason. A former reporter for Russian newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, he is believed to have been targeted for revealing details of Russia’s sale of fighter jets to Egypt. He is the first journalist convicted of treason in Russia since 2001.
In a recent letter from prison in Krasnodar, Safronov told The Post that no ordinary person should have to endure what he endured. “If you have this experience,” he wrote, “you cannot escape from it.”
Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8½ years for social media posts denouncing atrocities committed by Russian troops in Bucha, Ukraine.
Yashin was one of the few vocal opponents of the invasion who decided to stay in Russia after the invasion. “Antiwar voices are louder and more convincing if people stay,” he said. At his sentencing, he said he had no regrets: “Better to spend 10 years behind bars as an honest man than to burn quietly in shame for the blood your government has spilled.”
Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who survived a Novichok poisoning attempt in 2020, was sentenced early the following year to more than two years in prison. On the new charges, he could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Navalny continues to criticize Putin from behind bars for war, corruption and abuse of power. His supporters say they fear for his life: Since his incarceration, he has rapidly lost weight, denied family visits, and been placed in solitary confinement for up to 15 days at a time.
Sergei Vedel, a policeman of Ukrainian-Russian heritage, was sentenced last month to seven years for spreading “fakes” about the army. The charge was based on his criticism of the war in private conversations with friends on his tapped phone.
A former driver who worked at Moscow’s police headquarters for nearly 20 years, Vedel expressed his concerns to friends in the days after the raid. “We think we are fighting fascism,” he said to one, “but there is no fascism there.”
Moscow city councilor Alexei Gorinov was convicted last year of discrediting the army. He spoke against the war at a council meeting. Gorinov refused to plead guilty. He continued to criticize during his trial. At his sentencing, he held a sign that read “Do you still need this war?”
“I am convinced that this war is the fastest route to dehumanization, when the line between good and evil is blurred,” he said.
Journalist Maria Ponomarenko was convicted by a court in western Siberia of spreading “fake” after she posted about the Russian bombing of the Mariupol drama theater last year, which killed hundreds of civilians. The mother of two was sentenced to six years in a penal colony.
In his judgment, he declared himself a patriotic pacifist. Under the Russian constitution, he said, he had done nothing wrong. “No totalitarian regime has been as powerful as it was before it fell,” he said.
Five weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Alexandra Skochilenko, an LGBTQ+ musician with no history of political activism, walked into a supermarket in St. Petersburg and began putting notes criticizing the war on top of the price tags.
“Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol where about 400 people were hiding from shelling,” read one. “Weekly inflation has reached a new high not seen since 1998 because of our military actions in Ukraine. Stop the war,” read another. A fellow shopper reported Skochilenko to the police, and his trial is ongoing. He could be sentenced to 10 years.
Yevgeny Bestuzhev, a political scientist and essayist from St. Petersburg, was accused in November of spreading “falsehoods” about the Russian army in dozens of antiwar social media posts. Bestuzhev, who reportedly has multiple chronic illnesses and several heart attacks, could be sentenced to 10 years.
Theater director Yevgenia Berkovich was arrested on May 4 and placed in pretrial detention along with her colleague Svetlana Petriichuk, a playwright, for allegedly “justifying terrorism.” The charge is related to their play “Finist: The Brave Falcon,” about Russian women who join the Islamic State, which was first performed two years ago and won a national theater award last year. According to the expert’s opinion, the play contains elements of the ideology of ISIS and “ideology of radical feminism.”
His is the first high-profile criminal case related to a play since the Soviet era. The charge carries up to seven years in prison. “Don’t make me Joan of Arc!” he wrote to a friend from prison. “I’m a girl, I want to go home, I want prosecco and a big fat steak.”
Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova contributed from Riga, Latvia.
A year of Russia’s war with Ukraine
Photos of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its massive invasion a year ago — in ways big and small. They learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and damaged markets. Scroll through photos of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Fight attrition: Over the past year, the war has transformed from a multi-front invasion that includes Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition that is largely concentrated in the expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the battle is focused.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law barring the departure of combat-aged men from the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, whose former interrelated life is no longer recognized. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening the global divide: President Biden has touted the reinvigorated Western alliance formed during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. There is plenty of evidence that efforts to isolate Putin have failed and that sanctions have not deterred Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.