MOSCOW – The year 2012 began with thousands of Russians taking to the streets to demand reform and a government that would obey the law. On Thursday, the group Human Rights Watch said Russia has just gone through its worst year for human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

Russian opposition supporters rally in Moscow against the adoption ban. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be difficult to describe it any other way. Laws on protests were sharply tightened, with severe punishments for infractions. Members of the punk group Pussy Riot were packed off to a prison camp after a protest in a cathedral. Nonprofit groups were required to register as “foreign agents” if they receive money from abroad. A law banning “gay propaganda” is working its way through parliament. Journalists have been attacked, and an opposition leader was apparently kidnapped in Ukraine and brought back to Russia. Russian orphans were barred from adoptions by Americans.

“We can’t be silent about the situation in Russia today,” said Rachel Denber, who presented the Human Rights Watch annual report here. The authorities, whom she characterized as “aggressive and cynical,” have equated human rights work with violating Russian sovereignty, she said. “Any activity can be portrayed as betrayal.”

Denber, who has worked in Russia on and off since 1991, said the new law on nonprofits sent a signal up and down what President Vladimir Putin calls the vertical of power. And that signal, she said, is simple: Time to put on the pressure. And officials all across Russia went to work.

Timeline: Putin flexes his muscles