The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Putin uses Russian law to crack down on dissent

Autocrats make things like protests illegal so they can blame individuals for breaking the law — while avoiding blame for passing unjust laws.

Russian police detain protesters during rally against entry of Russian troops into Ukraine in St. Petersburg, on April 2. (Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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On April 2, a Moscow man was arrested for holding up a package of sliced meat. The meat’s brand name was “Miratorg”; he had crossed out the final five letters so it read “Mir,” the Russian word for peace. This week he will have his day in court, and will probably — as others have — receive a hefty fine for “discrediting the Russian military.”

That same day, police opened a criminal case against an English teacher for distributing “false information” about the Russian military. Her eighth-grade class had recorded her talking about the war and reported it to police. She is currently under house arrest awaiting trial.

These are just two examples of many in which the Russian government is using law to dissuade and punish antiwar sentiment. Why do autocrats bother to use the law? The simple answer: It works.

Three types of authoritarian law

Authoritarian regimes have three types of laws. First are laws for ordinary problems faced by ordinary people — for example, getting a divorce or suing for breach of contract.

Second are laws that have reasonable aims but can be repurposed for repression. Those include such things as laws on blocking traffic, failure to obey a police officer and extremism. The first two help keep public order but can also be used to punish peaceful protesters. Similarly, extremism laws are important for combating terrorism and other violent groups, but they can be used to suppress opposition groups and dissenting points of view.

The third group includes laws that are purely repressive, intended solely to crack down on opposition. These laws are vague, flexible and subject to broad interpretation by police and courts. Russia has increasingly been using these over the past several years and has ramped that up further in the early days of the war.

Though criminal charges are part of this toolbox, the Russian government also frequently uses the Administrative Violations Code, through which it can impose fines and jail terms up to 30 days, called “administrative arrest.” This tactic has been used widely in punishing people who participate in or organize protests.

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The Kremlin’s new legal tools and technologies

Anti-protest laws could not stretch far enough to cover all antiwar activity, however. So, on March 4, the Russian legislature gave the police and courts new legal tools. The first punishes “public activities aimed at discrediting the use of Russia’s military,” an administrative violation, which carries a minimum 30,000 ruble fine — a bit more than half of the average monthly wage in Russia before economic sanctions — and becomes a criminal offense if committed twice in a year.

The second is a criminal violation for spreading “false information” about the Russian military. This can include anything that contradicts the official line, including calling the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine a war or an invasion. Sentences range from a 700,000 ruble fine — roughly a year’s pay for the average Russian citizen — to 15 years imprisonment.

To make it easier to open these cases, anonymous denunciation websites and Telegram bots have sprung up in cities throughout Russia where “concerned residents” can report antiwar activity to the police.

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Why does this work?

Russians generally believe that people should obey the law and that people should be punished for violating it. Autocrats make things illegal so they can shift blame away from themselves for passing unjust laws and instead blame individuals for breaking them.

Even in clearly politicized cases, the Russian government follows legal processes. People are not simply thrown in jail. They go to court, have an opportunity to present evidence and defend themselves, and receive a sentence written in legal language justified with reference to laws on the books, no matter how absurd. Judicial decisions are then posted publicly on court websites. In other words, Russia abides by the letter of the law, but not its broader spirit.

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Is it effective?

The strategy appears to be effective. Since the war began, the Russian government has conducted more than 15,400 arrests, charging 10,000 of them with administrative violations. Most of these have resulted in large fines, but at least 700 have included administrative arrests, with those arrested serving an average of 10 days in jail. At least 56 criminal cases are in process on such charges as using violence against police officers, hooliganism, vandalism and extremism.

Police and courts have quickly made use of the new law on discrediting the Russian military. Courts have already processed more than 400 cases in at least 43 regions of Russia.

Those who’ve been charged under these laws have done such things as holding a piece of paper with asterisks instead of words; posting antiwar statements on social media; wearing patches with antiwar messages on backpacks; and writing “no to war” in snow. Many were charged based on anonymous denunciations.

Courts have mostly issued the minimum fine of about 30,000 rubles. But there are rumors that security services are now monitoring social media of people convicted of this offense, hoping to catch them a second time so they can be criminally prosecuted.

So far, police have opened only seven criminal cases for spreading false information about the Russian military, but more are likely. As in administrative cases, each investigative agency involved takes pains to meet the basic requirements of the law to avoid acquittal or a reversal by a higher court. This means putting together a case file with evidence, no matter how flimsy; collecting witness statements, no matter how accurate; and conducting searches of residences and electronic equipment.

All this takes time. As law enforcement agencies start to develop standard operating procedures for putting these cases together, the pace of prosecutions will probably increase.

In autocracies, law works best when it does not need to be used at all, scholars have observed. In the short term, fear of denunciation, jail time or crippling fines has already resulted in fewer large protests and more subtle forms of dissent — gluing “no to war” signs inside bathroom stalls, writing “no to war” on paper money and coins, or leaving tiny antiwar clay figurines in prominent places around cities. In the longer term, the government’s goal is self-censorship, atomization and suspicion, reducing the need to rely on repression by the police and courts.

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Lauren A. McCarthy is associate professor of political science and legal studies and director of legal studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of Trafficking Justice: How Russian Police Enforce New Laws, from Crime to Courtroom (Cornell University Press, 2015).

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