Last week, for the first time since the Soviet era, the Kremlin officially classified opposition to its rule as a criminal offense. In a decision harking back to the infamous Article 70 of Soviet Russia’s criminal code that penalized “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” — and that landed prominent dissidents, from Vladimir Bukovsky to Yuri Orlov, in prisons and labor camps — Moscow prosecutors suspended the activities of the nationwide organization of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent. Navalny is currently incarcerated in a prison camp after surviving a state-sponsored assassination attempt last year.

“Under the guise of liberal slogans these organizations are creating conditions for destabilizing the social and political situation,” read a statement from the Moscow prosecutor’s office. “Their actual goal is to change the constitutional order, including through a ‘color revolution’ scenario.” (“Color revolutions” refer to popular uprisings that toppled authoritarian regimes in many post-Soviet states, including Ukraine and Georgia.) Prosecutors requested that the Moscow City Court designate three organizations linked to the opposition leader — the Navalny Headquarters, the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Foundation for the Protection of Citizens Rights — as “extremist.” The court hearing is scheduled for May 17, but everyone already knows the outcome.

The “extremist” label would place Navalny’s organization — a peaceful political movement whose methods include holding demonstrations, supporting opposition candidates in elections and conducting public investigations of government corruption (most notably of Putin’s $1.3 billion palace on the Black Sea coast) — on par with terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Anyone working for the Navalny organization — a network of nearly 40 regional affiliates across Russia — could face up to six years in prison. Anyone donating money could be jailed for up to eight years. Anyone leading or directing the groups’ activities could get up to 10 years behind bars.

“We have never encountered a case where the fight against corruption has been called a threat to state security,” said Ivan Pavlov, the lead lawyer representing Navalny’s organization against the extremism charges. On Friday, Pavlov himself was arrested. His offices were raided by the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service, and he was subjected to legal restrictions that will make it almost impossible for him to conduct a meaningful defense.

Pavlov is only the latest target in the ongoing crackdown against Navalny’s allies. In Tomsk, Andrei Fateyev, a member of the city council, was jailed over last month’s opposition rally (which he did not even attend). In Arkhangelsk, Andrei Borovikov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, received a 2½-year prison sentence for a 2014 social media post of a song by the German band Rammstein. In Moscow, Sergei Davidis, who leads the political prisoner support program at the Memorial Human Rights Center, is now himself a political prisoner, serving an administrative arrest for tweeting about demonstrations in support of Navalny in April.

In addition to Davidis, other prominent participants of the April rallies — including poet Dmitry Bykov and political analyst Leonid Gozman — received visits from the police. It seems Russian authorities are changing their tactics: Rather than letting world media broadcast violent dispersals of peaceful demonstrators under the Kremlin walls, they are indicting protesters after the fact, using photos from social networks and Chinese-style video surveillance technology. “It’s a new type of dictatorship, a dictatorship of the 21st century,” said Vladimir Milov, a former government minister and a close aide to Navalny. “It’s about high-tech totalitarian control over society.”

The devastating effects of this high-tech dictatorship have long been in evidence — but few as dire as one that came to light last month. During its annual meeting, the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that Russia’s brain drain has reached unparalleled proportions, with the number of scientists and highly skilled professionals who are leaving the country rising fivefold, from 14,000 in 2012 to nearly 70,000 last year. Russia is fast losing its most talented citizens, who are unwilling to put up with a corrupt and repressive regime — a trend that will have a disastrous impact on its long-term competitiveness in the global economy. For its part, the Kremlin sees “nothing tragic in this situation,” as Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov candidly admitted. The fewer intellectuals left in the country, the easier for any dictatorship.

“A dark time is coming for all freedom-loving people in Russia,” the managers of the Navalny organization said in a statement before formally disbanding the groups to shield their supporters from criminal prosecution. Russia has known many dark periods for its freedom-loving citizens, ranging from the triumph of reaction in the late 19th century to mass purges under Soviet rule to the near-complete stifling of dissent under KGB chairman-turned-party chief Yuri Andropov in the early 1980s. Ever the optimists, Soviet dissidents, whose movement was broken during Andropov’s rule by arrests, imprisonments and forced exiles, contended that “night is always darkest before the dawn.” Amazingly, they turned out to be right.

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