News | Participation / Civil Rights - War / Peace - Eastern Europe It’s 2023, Not 1937

Repression in Russia has reached unprecedented levels, but comparisons to the USSR are misleading



Alina Ledenyeva,

Relatives and mourners gathered in the Garden of Memory at the Butovo shooting range in Moscow on the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, 30 October 2023. Photo: IMAGO / SNA

Political repression has become a fact of life in today’s Russia, reminding us more and more of Soviet times. Humans are by nature inclined to look for the logic behind processes and phenomena, no matter how complex and random they may seem. It is highly tempting to latch onto a historical analogy that provides you with a model, a vision for how things might play out, and the possible repercussions. But analogies, while being very useful for illustrations or making comparisons, can be extremely tricky when it comes to giving explanations.

Alina Ledenyeva is a Russian sociologist writing under a pseudonym for security reasons. Her identity is known to the editors.

At a press conference with the Russian President, journalist Andrei Kolesnikov asked Vladimir Putin whether we were living in 1937, mentioning criminal cases brought against playwright Yevgeniya Berkovich[1] and political scientist Boris Kagarlitsky.[2] The President replied that this was the first time he had heard those names, and that he did not know what they had done nor what had been done to them; all he knew was that Russia was in a state of armed conflict with its neighbour, so there needed to be certain rules of conduct — the state could not tolerate those who caused it harm from within. Putin added that, in Ukraine, people are shot for doing just that. But he also began his answer by clarifying that, in Russia, it is not 1937, but 2023. And he is absolutely right, not only according to the calendar, but also politically.

The point is not only that repression in modern Russia is still, fortunately, less brutal than that of the Stalin era — although we are sad to say that such a state of affairs could develop over time. The main difference lies in the context, i.e. in the condition of society, as well as in the goals of the repressive body itself, i.e. the state.

Participatory Repression

First and foremost, during Stalin’s purges, it was fundamental to have the participation of the whole of society. This participation may have been under duress and also in itself repressive, but it was participation nonetheless. High-profile show trials would always take place against the backdrop of the meetings of labour collectives, which obediently resented, condemned, and stigmatized “hirelings of the bourgeoisie”, “right-wing and left-wing draft-dodgers”, “homeless cosmopolitans”, “murderous doctors”, and so on. Even minor cases needed to be publicized, and to both find penitent relatives, and condemnation and stigmatization from workplace assemblies.

Fear of repression was widespread and commonly understood, although the assessment of what was happening naturally varied from person to person. Fear is not the best basis for solidarity, and the purges had a detrimental effect on the civic spirit and social activity of Russians. The atomization of today’s Russian society stems from this period, although the following years did not contribute much to the development of civil society either. Both the Khruschev Thaw and perestroika were too short for the majority of citizens to experience public politics as being open to them, since politics became closed and non-public too quickly in both cases.

At the same time, there were positive grounds for consolidation during the Stalin era, i.e. real factors contributing to solidarity. The country was developing, the people’s participation in this created a sense of unity, and there were genuine successes, which could not but sustain enthusiasm. Yes, the ideological machine was working at full capacity, but in addition to ideology there were ideas that were intrinsically attractive, being that they were edifying and humanistic. If ideology served politics and politicians, then education and enlightenment, culture, and art worked to spread the ideas of communism, humanism, and solidarity. These ideas were not sufficient to cause people to break the cycle of repression and oppose the system that implemented them.

Today’s Russian authorities do not need collectives. They regard any solidarity, let alone self-organization, as a potential danger.

However, those who took seriously the dream of a new, more equitable society, who were devoted to humanism and the development of communism — those people could evaluate what was going on around them, recognize the choice that reality put before them, and make this choice consciously. No amount of repression can prohibit reflection. And if most people chose silence and submission, they made the choice internally, telling themselves that, at the end of the day, it was for the sake of communism, for the sake of the country, for the sake of the family.

It bears repeating that the USSR took great strides under Stalin. Modern apologists for Stalin’s repression either consider it a price worth paying for the country’s development and collective achievements, or, like nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, tend to rationalize the USSR’s successes in the economy, education and culture, foreign policy, and World War II precisely as a result of repression. For example, Dugin writes: “as long as there was repression, the country was developing. When the repression ended, the country crumbled”. He and others like him do not want to recognize that the country advanced in spite of repression, not because of it — and also not in parallel with it.

It developed precisely because of social activity and initiative. The authorities consciously moulded solidarity for the sake of the country’s development: solidarity for a five-year plan in four years, solidarity to condemn traitors. Yet for the sake of their own preservation, the Soviet authorities sought to strictly control the collectivism and social initiative they had created. This contradiction was evident in the USSR and developed over the course of its lifespan: education, enlightenment, culture, and ideology encouraged social activity, but the political system placed such limits on this activity that it could not develop fully.

Atomization and Self-Organization

Today’s Russian authorities do not need collectives. Moreover, the authorities regard any solidarity, let alone self-organization, as a potential danger. There are absolutely no contradictions in modern Russia: any social activism, let alone collective activity, has been blacklisted. Now, Russian authorities are doing everything they can to make society even more divided than it already is. They have effectively destroyed the academic community: rankings, contracts, salaries being dependent on one’s superiors — the whole way in which science and education are organized is aimed at division. Trade unions are persecuted, NGOs are culled. It is even dangerous to protect whales and seals, if you do this as part of a collective.[3]

This is perhaps the most important element of the logic of contemporary repression in Russia: it is quite consistently directed against any self-organization of citizens, against any attempt to organize people around a socially useful cause. A recent striking example is the persecution of the election observation movement Golos, which had already been declared a foreign agent in Russia. On 17 August, the coordinators of the movement were searched in Voronezh, Veliky Novgorod, Ryazan, St. Petersburg, Tambov, and Chelyabinsk. The co-chairman of the Golos movement, lawyer Grigory Melkonyants, was prosecuted for organizing the work of an “undesirable” non-governmental organization.[4]

A related, amusing incident also found its way into the news around the same time. On 5 August, Peskov gave an interview to the New York Times, where, among other things, he expressed his views on elections and democracy. The media quoted it thus: “Our presidential election is not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy … Mr. Putin will be re-elected next year with more than 90 percent of the vote”. It was honest, it was audacious, but even for our completely anti-democratic agenda, such “sincerity” proved somewhat excessive.

The authorities consider people who have a diverse audience to be especially dangerous.

Already on 6 August, Peskov began to justify himself by saying that he had been misunderstood, going on to quote his own words verbatim: “The level of consolidation around the President is absolutely unprecedented and it can already be said that if he runs, he will be re-elected by an overwhelming majority. Elections, theoretically, only entail unnecessary expenditure”. However, according to Peskov, he had told the reporter that “the President insisted that elections be organized on a compulsory basis as a democratic requirement”. Of course, the President’s spokesman insisted that this was his personal opinion, although it is not very clear to me why he expressed it in an interview given precisely in his capacity as the President’s spokesman. I am equally unconvinced by the caveat that Peskov gave, supposedly out of the goodness of his heart. Most likely, it was a signal to the public that order will be preserved as well as being a command to governors to ensure appropriate results in the 2024 elections.

Less than two weeks after Dmitry Peskov’s statement, the destruction of Golos — which had tried, not without success, to monitor elections — began. People were coming together in order to exercise their right to vote as part of an efficient democratic process. They were inspired to act in a socially meaningful way, distracted from their private lives, and involved in a network of solidarity. This was what prompted the attack on Golos. It seems that Peskov’s statement was a manifesto after all: only one kind of consolidation was deemed permissible — consolidation around the President. But even to love the President is not allowed in a collective. Only individual adoration is permitted. Let us recall the sad example of Igor “Strelkov” Girkin.[5] I am sure that even if the Club of Angry Patriots were called the Club of Enraptured Patriots, Girkin would still have been imprisoned sooner or later. If Girkin had called himself an Aggressive Patriot or Patriot-Terminator, maybe he would have been forgiven.

A New Situation

The persistent persecution of self-organizing initiatives is rather surprising, because Russian society today is not fundamentally inclined towards solidarity. However, the authorities apparently believe that social initiative is contagious, so it is necessary to destroy its roots at every instance.

Both Soviet and modern Russian society have accepted repression with resignation. However, today’s submissiveness is fundamentally different to that of Soviet times. In Stalin’s USSR, fear was the main factor keeping people from protesting against repression, whereas today this is accomplished through the majority being isolated within their own private lives. Soviet citizens could justify their fear for themselves and for others either through the lens of this serving the interests of the country or their families, but they largely perceived fear as something shameful.

More precisely, public consciousness — especially during the Khruschev Thaw and partly during perestroika — perceived fear of the repressive machine as a kind of surrender, as a breaking of the personality or, depending on the nature of the actions that fear inspired, as its dehumanization. This was wonderfully reflected in literature and cinema. Today, Russians quite often justify their passivity solely because they fear repression, believing such fear to be a perfectly normal phenomenon, a manifestation of rationality and wisdom, and do not show remorse or regret. Interestingly, supporters of Putin and the war against Ukraine do not deny that freedom of speech is being violated or that dissent is being persecuted in Russia, but they either justify such repression with reference to the situation at home, or simply view it uncritically as a guideline for everyday behaviour.

However, society will not completely slip into a coma, and the state understands this perfectly well. Here we can identify another crucial element of the logic of repression: the persecution and discrediting of people who have an influence on some sections of the public. The authorities consider people who have a diverse audience, i.e. not homogenous in terms of social status and political views, to be especially dangerous.

Let me give you the most notable examples. In December, politician Ilya Yashin received a sentence of eight-and-a-half years in prison, accused of spreading false information about the Russian armed forces. Yashin spoke extensively about the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine, including in Bucha. He has 1.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, but the main issue was that Yashin was a municipal deputy in Moscow and a member of many liberal political and social movements. Many people are familiar with him, including people far removed from politics. He was a very active and popular deputy.

Speaking of which, in the summer of 2022, Alexei Gorinov, another municipal deputy from Moscow, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. The charge was the same — spreading false information about the army. Alexei Navalny, who had already been in prison for two years, on 4 August 2023 received an additional sentence of 19 years in a high-security prison. Navalny’s audience was also very large and diverse. On 25 July, Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist and political scientist, and editor-in-chief of the channel and website Rabkor, was arrested on charges of justifying terrorism. Kagarlitsky also enjoyed influence across a wide range of audiences: students at Moscow universities, regional activists, and municipal, regional, and even federal deputies who managed to maintain some degree of opposition. In addition, Kagarlitsky is well-known in the international left-wing community. On 7 August, Dmitry Glukhovsky, a writer who is very popular among young people in Russia, was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison.

It appears that the Russian political system is becoming less diverse in an attempt to survive in its current form.

The logic, as we can see, is easy to follow: the neutralization of interesting and influential people in various circles of Russian society. At the same time, the authorities are relying on the fact that these prison sentences will scare off their audiences, and are not seeking — at least for the time being — for these victims of persecution to be cut off from all contact with society. Yashin continues to run his YouTube channel from prison with the help of his associates. Navalny transmits his letters to the outside world, and following his conviction he published a manifesto titled “My Fear and Loathing” that was widely discussed by Russian intellectuals. Kagarlitsky corresponds with his audience from prison.

The authorities seem to recognize the high degree of apathy in Russian society, and hope that giving absurdly harsh sentences to more-or-less-famous individuals will be enough to scare people off. According to the logic of the Russian authorities, the followers of popular opposition figures will retreat or, at the very least, become less enthusiastic — and these figures’ audiences will not grow any larger. Just in case, the technique of discrediting is also utilized. For example, Alexei Navalny was accused of insulting veterans and tried for extremism, while Boris Kagarlitsky, after his arrest, was added to the list of legal entities and individuals involved in extremist activities or implicated in them.

It appears that the Russian political system is becoming less diverse in an attempt to survive in its current form. However, both in theory and in practice, it is diversity that helps systems survive — and Putin’s regime does not believe in theory, while it learns nothing from practice.

We have already identified two elements of the logic of Russian repression. Firstly, the persecution of people who have some visible influence on a diverse audience — in order to reduce this influence, intimidate the audience, and prevent it from growing. Secondly, the suppression of any self-organizing group, regardless of the activity in which it is involved. Admittedly, there is no consistency in the authorities’ behaviour, but this is where the common vices of governance in modern Russia make themselves known. There are no real goals, no will, only arbitrariness — and it is difficult to expect consistency from arbitrariness.

The Russian authorities are in no hurry to scale up their acts of repression because, firstly, they lack the organizational capacity and, secondly, they rely on the obedience and passivity of Russian citizens. But their hopes are not particularly solid, and they are moving towards the logic of repression as a safety net. Indeed, even a society as dormant and submissive as Russia’s can make the authorities this anxious and tense. It appears that Putin’s regime does not feel particularly confident, and wants to create a situation in which it is not the state that fears the people, but rather the people that fear the state.

Translated by Christopher Fenwick and Rowan Coupland for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

[1] Theatre director Yevgeniya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk were detained in May 2023 and accused of justifying terrorism. Both are currently in custody and an investigation is underway. The reason was their documentary play Finist, the Brave Falcon, which told the stories of Russian women who became the wives of terrorists.

[2] Left-wing journalist, social and political scientist, Marxist, editor of the Rabkor YouTube channel and website, and professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences.

[3] In March 2023, the Russian Ministry of Justice declared the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) a foreign agent. In June, the Fund was then declared an undesirable organization in Russia. The explanation given was that the WWF impedes the development of infrastructure and industrial facilities.

[4] Since 2016, Golos has not constituted an organization, but has rather acted as a movement. The “All-Russian Public Movement for the Protection of Voters’ Rights, Golos” is listed individually only in the register of “foreign agents” and is not recognized as an “undesirable” organization. However, the Prosecutor General’s Office has included the legal entity European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), previously associated with Golos, among such organizations. However, Golos withdrew from ENEMO in 2021.

[5] Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin, also known by the pseudonym Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, is a Russian military, state, and political figure, journalist, military expert, military blogger, and critic of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. From 1996–2013 he was an FSB officer, and in 2014 he was the Minister of Defence of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In 2022, a court in the Netherlands found him guilty of being one of the perpetrators of the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing flight MH17, and sentenced him to life imprisonment (a sentence he is unlikely to serve). The Club of Angry Patriots is a Russian nationalist organization founded by Girkin in the spring of 2023. Its members ideologically support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but criticize the policies of the Russian authorities. On 21 July 2023, Girkin was arrested by Russian authorities on charges of extremism.