Russia Is Returning to Its Totalitarian Past

A month after Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny, Russia is well along the path from ordinary authoritarian control to full-on totalitarian repression. As in old Soviet times, Moscow is awash with rumors of purges among the top military brass. Elsewhere, the machine of state repression is churning at an accelerating rate as the Russian authorities cast an ever-wider net for purported enemies within.

A month after Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny, Russia is well along the path from ordinary authoritarian control to full-on totalitarian repression. As in old Soviet times, Moscow is awash with rumors of purges among the top military brass. Elsewhere, the machine of state repression is churning at an accelerating rate as the Russian authorities cast an ever-wider net for purported enemies within.

With many of the most vocal anti-war activists already dead, imprisoned, or exiled, the security services are now targeting even mild whiffs of dissent. Last week, they arrested the Marxist academic Boris Kagarlitsky and charged him with “promoting extremism.” His supposed crime: In a Telegram post written after Ukraine’s first attack on the Kerch Strait bridge connecting Russia to occupied Crimea in October 2022, Kagarlitsky called the strike “understandable” from a purely militaristic standpoint. Even a neutral, objective assessment is now a crime.

Russians of all walks of life now face kangaroo courts and long sentences to prison or hard labor for something as trivial as a social media post. Nikita Tushkanov, a history teacher in Mikun, a town in Russia’s northern Komi Republic, was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in a labor camp for calling the bridge explosion “a birthday gift for Putler,” using a portmanteau of “Putin” and “Hitler” that has been popularized on social media. Private conversations are suspect, too, as former police officer Sergey Klokov found out when he was sentenced to seven years in prison for speaking to Ukrainian acquaintances on the phone about crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has long been an authoritarian state. But the persecution was focused mainly on opposition politicians and activists, from murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov to imprisoned anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. Even after the adoption of strict new censorship laws at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, harsh prison sentences weren’t very common, and they were mostly used as exemplary punishments for high-profile dissenters. These included Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician who condemned the massacre committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha, Ukraine, in a series of social media posts. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians still had plenty of opportunities to speak their mind—among themselves, on social media, or with the occasional small-scale political protest.

But more recently, Russia’s totalitarian mask has come off, with less and less toleration for any kind of dissent. Not only is the persecution of dissenting opinions official now, with new laws explicitly banning any criticism of the so-called special military operation in Ukraine, but its scope has vastly widened. Victims include more and more ordinary Russians, and the infraction can be as small as posting an approving emoji reaction on a social media post critical of the war. In another parallel to 20th-century European totalitarianism, children are now both snitches for the state and victims of repression: Some children have reported on their teachers and parents, while others have been denounced by their classmates or teachers. Some have been separated from parents arrested for their activism.

In another reversion to the communist past, Russian schools are being militarized. State media recently reported that children will soon begin basic military training, including piloting classes for unmanned aerial vehicles. There are even reports of forced labor at drone factories using press gangs of students from a local technical school in Alabuga, Tatarstan. State propaganda justifies and idealizes this kind of militarized childhood with references to World War II, when Soviet children aided the war effort by assembling artillery shells after school.

As in times of old, Russians are also being cut off from the outside world. A new law on military conscription makes it much harder for men up to age 30 to leave Russia. Interaction with independent media is being curtailed as well. Not content with driving Russia’s last critical journalists out of the country, the Kremlin recently declared TV Rain, an independent Russian news channel operating from exile in Latvia, “undesirable.” That makes it a crime for any Russian to post links to its content on social media, as is already the case with Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, and other media on the official list of banned organizations that keeps growing by the week.

Russia is also implementing Chinese-style internet controls as the state censorship agencies force ever more sophisticated filtering protocols on Russian internet service providers. That makes it increasingly difficult for Russians to use workarounds, such as virtual private networks, to access banned sites, including media and social networks outside the country. The prospect of completely isolating Russian users from the global internet—which struck Russians as a fever dream when Putin first floated the idea in 2014—is now a real possibility, pending a few real-life  test runs.

As usual, repression is accompanied by scapegoating. Putin’s Russia has branded the LGBTQ+ community, already among the most marginalized, as public enemy number one. Not only is any kind of activism or self-organization illegal, but LGBTQ+ Russians’ very existence is restricted, too.

As the net tightens, not even the most fervent supporters of Russia’s war against Ukraine are safe. These include right-wing nationalists, who have been crowdfunding gear for the Russian army, calling for the harshest possible treatment of Ukraine, and complaining about the Russian military leadership as weak and indecisive. On July 21, Russian police arrested the most prominent of these voices, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin—a former Russian intelligence officer wanted by The Hague for war crimes —on charges of promoting extremism. Among other outbursts, Girkin had demanded on his Telegram channel that Russian army bureaucrats responsible for soldiers’ wage arrears be executed. The severity of the charges make it very likely that Girkin will spend the next few years behind bars. Until now, the Kremlin’s most ardently nationalistic supporters have felt relatively free to speak out and criticize the war effort as not being consequential or genocidal enough. Now, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of the stick.

The shift suggests a fundamental change in the regime’s very nature. If authoritarianism is about shutting down the political opposition, totalitarianism requires an individual’s total alignment with the state. While previously most ordinary Russians were expected to refrain from actively opposing state policies, mere silence is no longer enough. Today, active and outspoken support for the war is required. Those who refuse to participate in these rituals risk being harassed, threatened, ostracized, and pushed out of their jobs—as Ekaterina Mikryukova, a family doctor in Moscow, found out last month after refusing to join a donation drive her neighbors had organized for a wounded Russian soldier. She has since left Russia.

Wartime repression is a useful smokescreen not only for getting rid of vocal opponents, but also for ensuring the loyalty of the Russian elite. That includes not only those who aren’t explicit enough in supporting the invasion, but also those who criticize the invasion for its supposed lack of vigor and ruthlessness against Ukrainians. Similarly, the Russian military itself is being purged of real and potential dissent. Several major military figures who may have been friendly with Prigozhin, including Russian Aerospace Forces Commander in Chief Sergey Surovikin, have been missing from the public eye. Others have been removed or demoted from their posts.

Accelerated repression is also a signal of the regime’s nervousness about the presidential election scheduled for March 2024. While Russian elections are obviously rigged and there is no doubt that Putin will stay in power, they still inject some uncertainty into the system. Next year’s election will be a spectacularly complex piece of political choreography, during which many things could go wrong on the way to the 80 percent majority for Putin, which the Kremlin has set as a minimum goal. This is where Girkin’s arrest comes in: Angry nationalists unhappy with the way the military leadership is conducting the war are an unpredictable wild card. In the next few months, it’s safe to expect more of them to be arrested.

The clampdown also suggests that the regime is digging in for a prolonged war in Ukraine. In the face of multiple military failures and no realistic prospect of victory, Putin appears to have settled for the next best thing to solidify his power. A forever war in Ukraine, presented to Russians as an existential struggle for the future of their nation, comes with almost limitless possibilities for stifling dissent, aligning Russians behind the regime, and rooting out the slightest whisper of opposition.

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