February 22, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 573

On Putin's Reign Of Terror

February 22, 2024 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 573

Alexei Navalny's death in a Russian prison located on the permafrost soils beyond the Arctic Circle was shocking but expected. In my very first column for MEMRI in 2021, I concluded that the probabi­lity that Navalny would be a prisoner for life (at least, during Russian President Vladimir Putin's life) greatly exceeded the probability that he would become Russia's president.[1] This de­ath – not the first and by no means the last in Putin's Russia – is a good occasion to ad­dress the changing nature of the current Russian regime, which has evolved from a rather liberal political system into a repressive authoritarian order under the same man – Vladimir Putin.


The "Third Decade" Of Putin's Rule Over Russia

Many people these days argue that Putin has continuously chan­ged his agenda: In Russia, experts are often talking about three types of the so-called "Putin consensus."[2] The first, they suggest, emerged in the 2000s with Russia's eco­nomic boom and presupposed that the Russian people became ready to exchange some of their political liberties for increasing well-being. The second, it is believed, arrived in 2014, when the annexation of Crimea provoked a "patriotic" wave making most of the people ready to cease even the economic hopes for a feeling of be­longing to the global "superpower." The third "consensus" is far less obvious than the first two, but it seems that Putin still enjoys if not support from his subjects at least a non-resistance to almost all of his actions.

However, what should be noted here is that this gradualism that brought the Russian regime to evolve from a rather liberal political system into a repressive authoritarian order has been a core reason why both Russians and West­erners were fooled. I recently called Putin a Führer-surprise because for so many people it was hard to believe in his intentions prior to 2022.[3] In fact, many people believed that not everything was lost.

Back in 2020, I predicted that the "third decade" of Putin's rule over Russia would be the "decade of terror and pure authoritarianism (my article has soon disappeared from Snob magazine's website but remains available on other websites).[4] Since the early 2020s, President Putin possesses very little "positive" levers for influencing the Russian society: He may consolidate it during the war by prolifera­ting the sense of outside threat, he may increase the people's well-being spending the nation's currency reserves and funding the military production by borrowed money, but fundamentally all these efforts cannot produce long-term stability for the regime. What might deliver such a result is fear, and President Putin has used this option masterfully, both by igniting what may become an endless war and by extending pressure on his own subjects.[5]

Oppression And Terror In A Rather Moderate Form

Nevertheless, the repressions I would focus on a bit later we­re not the only method of developing fear in the Russian public. The two consensuses mentioned earlier prepared the ground for what is happening today.

In the 2000s, millions of Russians became engaged in entrepreneurial activities and gained sig­nificant assets and property, invested in real estate and other valuables, in this way they developed a feeling that Russia had turned into a country in which one could live.[6] This is what makes Putin these days able to frighten his subjects by either confiscating their property if they oppose his policies or by the economic disarray that may follow his ousting and the regime change that would result in restitutions, requisitions, and paying decent reparations to Ukraine, depriving Russia, and the Russians, of billions of dol­lars.[7]

In the 2010s the Russians became "patriots" and to­day even many of those who do not support Putin's war in Ukraine are fiercely against returning Crimea to Kyiv or embracing defeat in the "war with the West," as the Kremlin used to call the continuing showdown.[8] This kind of fear is also widespread in the country and facilitates Putin's management. So, the "pure terror" that arrived in the 2020s sho­uld not be treated as producing something completely different from the kinds of fear the Russians felt before – it looks like an addi­tion to the previously nurtured concerns rather than as a unique method of Putin's rule over Russia.

The very specific feature of Putin's current system is that it uses oppre­ssion and terror in a rather moderate form. Since 2012, dozens, if not hundreds of laws, were adopted in Russia allowing the authorities to punish almost anyone for almost anything. After the start of the war with Ukraine, the legislation beca­me especially cruel, and the famous law that punishes the dissemination of "fake news" about the Russian military[9] was launched together with one criminalizing "the glorification of Nazism." These laws are supposedly to protect against the spread of Nazi ideology, but more often they prohibit criticism of the Soviet regime.[10] Some cases were recorded in which the law that punishes the dissemination of "fake news" was applied to the people who went to the streets with slogans praising peace, and the laws criminalizing "the glorification of Nazism" were used to accuse a lady who posted a funny video in which she "touched" the breasts of the giant statue in Volgograd,[11] symbolizing the Soviet Motherland. The young woman was sent to jail after returning to Russia from her trip to Europe.[12]

Nevertheless, even while the Russian and emigrant me­dia report such cases happening almost every day, the overall number of criminal cases brought against the Russian citizen for such wrongdoings remains relatively low. According to the OVD-Info database, since 2012, just 3,600 politically motivated criminal cases have been opened in Russia.[13] There are significantly more administrative cases. From March 2022 to October 2023 alone, and only in connection with the "fake news" about and "discrediting" of the Russian army, more than 8,000 protocols were received by Russian courts, as follows from data collected by Mediazone (as the result of most of these cases the accused were fined or spend up to two weeks in jail).[14]

The Atmosphere Of Fear Is Produced Without Mass Terror

At the same time, the Kremlin has supposedly decided that the limited num­ber of cases may be compensated for, on the one hand, with extremely cruel punish­ments for a rather small crowd of dissenters, and, on the other hand, by neglecting all the basic principles of the rule of law in many of these cases. Addressing the first point, I would remind the reader that in Russia in 2023 several dozen court rulings were announced imposing prison sentences for up to seven years for posting text on social media either accusing the Russian army for some wrongdoings, as  happened to former municipal deputy from Moscow Alexei Gorinov, who was sentenced to seven years for condemning the war in Ukraine during the local council's session, while many other less dramatic rulings were issued in Russia in the past two years,[15] for disseminating leaflets calling for peace or displaying the Ukrainian flag, as in the case of a Saint-Petersburg artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who was jailed for seven years for five leaflets imitating store price tags. The leaflets contained information about the actions of the Russian army, which the Russian Ministry of Defense said was untrue,[16] or writing posts that might be considered "glorifying ter­rorism." Just recently a globally renowned Russian leftist sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky got a five-year term for his analysis of one of the Ukrainian attacks against the Crimea bridge. He was accused of justifying terrorism.[17]

These rulings are now announced in Russia regularly and have become a strong argument for ordinary people to stay silent not only on the Internet, but also in public life and in conversations with their relatives and friends, so the atmosphere of fear is produced without mass terror. I would mention here that last month the Russian parliament passed a law that enables the authorities to con­fiscate the property of those who committed such "crimes."[18] This law, to my mind, targets first of all the Russian emigrant community, who now feels relatively safe. However, since Europe and the post-Soviet states are stuffed with the Russian agents who take photos and recordings of anti-war rallies organized by Russians abroad, many of these people may face problems in Russia where most of them own private apartments and houses while living on the money from their lease.

So, I would argue that in regard to dissenters, the Russian authorities now use the strategy of rare but harsh punishments, and it looks like it pays off. However, as it comes to more stubborn opponents, the fight takes a more radical turn. Alexei Navalny was a good example of this approach: till some time, he was just squeezed out of the public sphere, and when it appeared to be not enough, he was jailed for three and a half  years for an "economic" crime,[19] later got another 19 years for "participating in an extremist organization,"[20] and after that the authorities declared his Anti-Corruption Foundation "an extremist organization."[21]

In such cases, the principle of non-retroactivity, which seems to be one of the pillars of criminal law everywhere in the world, has no force. For example, a woman from Tomsk, Ksenya Fadeyeva, who has been a pro-Navalny activist and  in 2020 was elected to the Tomsk City Duma, had recently got an nine-year prison term for participating in an "extremist organization,"[22] even while Navalny's organization was designated as such only in June 2021,[23] long after she won her mandate and ceased her par­ticipation in Naval­ny's campaign.

None of these rulings were overruled in cassation or by high­er courts. When it comes to the most devoted critics of the regime, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, the terms can go indefini­tely high. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for calling on Western policymakers to impose more sanctions on Russia for both its war in Ukraine and human rights violations.[24]

However, in their fight against any kind of opposition, Russian parliamentarians contradict their own decisions. For example, the fa­mous law on "foreign agents" does not formally prohibit those people from expressing their views. It is only required that financial reports be submitted to the Ministry of Justice. Furthermore, foreign agents cannot teach in universities, become a deputy or a state employee, and cannot participate in political parties or electoral commissions,[25] but the newly proposed legislation rules that those who place their advertising in media, which are owned or controlled by foreign agents, may face up to two years in prison,[26] which looks, I would say, simply unexplainable.

Conclusion – No Huge Internal Resistance Inside Russian Society

To conclude, I would say that the most important challenge that the Russian authorities are facing these days is whether they can limit themselves to such a "moderate" terror. The reaction to Alexei Navalny's death suggests that there is no huge internal resistance inside Russian society. To honor the memory of Navalny, several thousand people brought flowers to monuments remembering the casualties of Stalinist terror, which were erected in many Russian cities back in 1990s, as a result close to 400 people were detained by the police and around 40 people got administrative arrests for up to 15 days.[27]

Court rulings against dissidents are mounting every day and are hot topics for the media for one or two weeks – not more. People are getting arrested, judged, and sentenced, or just disappear. There are around a thousand prisoners of conscience, but even those Russians that closely follow internal politics could hardly manage to name 20-30 detainees, while the majority of the population simply does not care about what is going on. If this trend continues, it will rather become a usual background for more dramatic economic, geopolitical policies, and will not threaten the regime's stability.[28]

Everything may change if the siloviki[29] believe that they can act on their own, not only on the Kremlin's orders, and start to increase the pressure for either their career aims or for gaining control over the assets ow­ned by those whom they target. If this happens, the situation may go out of con­trol causing significant reaction from the Russian people – but until now nothing speaks in favor of such a scenario. President Putin seemingly understands the inner mechanics of Russia quite well for not allowing any overstrain to emerge. While he refrains from another mobilization, preferring to beef up his army by raising the sala­ries of the servicemen, he has also decided not to try to repeat the Stalinist terror prac­tices in the country. Putin's regime masterfully combines oppression with the manipulation of economic means, and so he will seemingly not recreate those policies that were used in Stalinist times. In essence, modern Russia is pursuing a new type of repression that does not really resemble that of the old Soviet Union.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor, and Founder and Director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1563, Alexey Navalny: Future President Or Prisoner For Life?, March 11, 2021.

[2], March 18, 2019.

[3], December 20, 2023.


[5], June 21, 2023.

[6], October 2010.

[7], January 16, 2024.

[8], November 28, 2023.

[9], March 5, 2022.

[10], March 15, 2023.


[12], February 9, 2024.


[14], October 10, 2023.

[15], July 8, 2022;, July 8, 2022.

[16], November 16, 2023.

[17], February 13, 2024.

[18], February 14, 2024.

[19], February 2, 2024.

[20], August 4, 2024.

[21], June 9, 2021.

[22], December 12, 2023.

[23], June 9, 2021.

[24], April 17, 2023.



[27], February 19, 2024.

[28], February 1, 2024.

[29] Those who work for a Russian state organization that is authorized to use force against citizens or others.

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