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Russia’s descent into totalitarianism: How it happened

by Katie Marie Davies February 25, 2024 6:57 PM 10 min read
Law enforcement officers guard the closed Red Square during the New Year's Eve celebrations in downtown Moscow late on December 31, 2023. (Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP via Getty Images)
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It is difficult to pin down the exact moment that Russia began morphing into a totalitarian state.

For over a decade, the Kremlin was taking away civil liberties and feeding the population a revamped and increasingly more aggressive version of nationalism. For nearly a decade, most Russians didn't seem to care.

In 2012, the Kremlin ruthlessly ended the wave of demonstrations known as the Bolotnaya protests. Named for the square in Moscow where demonstrators gathered, the rallies began in December 2011, when thousands of Russians flooded the streets to protest against election fraud.

Among key protest leaders were charismatic opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny. Many believed Russia could see its own pro-democracy revolution inspired by the bubbling tail-end of the Arab Spring.

That dream, however, never materialized. Russian President Vladimir Putin was reelected as president for the third time, methodically decreasing the space for dissent.

"Afterwards, (Putin) became fully invested in this narrative that Russia is surrounded by enemies. That's when the regime fundamentally changed the basis of its legitimacy from electoral and economic performance to a national fight against the West in the name of Russian civilization," says Graeme B. Robertson, director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Over the coming years, Russia's political and social fabric continued to disintegrate.

In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow. Last week, on Feb. 16, Alexei Navalny died in a remote penal colony in the Russian Arctic.

Both his supporters and governments across the world believe that the Russian government killed Navalny for his continued fight against the state. No large-scale protests followed.

Navalny's demise marks 12 years that transformed Russia from a competitive authoritarian state, in which the opposition was allowed to compete in local elections, into an aggressive totalitarian regime where any form of dissent is punishable by imprisonment or death.

How did this happen, and why, despite having all the tools, did the Russians opt out of putting up a fight?

There was no key turning point that struck a fatal blow to Russia's civil society. Instead, there was a slow erosion of rights, says Dan Storyev, an editor at OVD-Info, a rights group that tracks political arrests and provides legal aid.

"The repressions didn't start overnight. To create this kind of war machine that the Kremlin possesses right now, they needed to neuter civil society, they needed to repress the people, they needed to terrify everyone into submission," says Storyev.

"You have this gradual, slow, deliberate restriction of civil liberty with the purpose of creating a highly militarized, highly repressed, highly autocratic state."

This erosion often took the form of vaguely worded, piecemeal legislation.

People stand on the tightly packed Bolotnaya Sqare during an authorized opposition protest against the alleged mass fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections in central Moscow, on Dec. 10, 2011. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2012, for example, Russia introduced its infamous "foreign agent" law, initially presented as Moscow's version of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. It required individuals and organizations that received foreign funding and worked in the "political sphere" — a deliberately nebulous term — to submit to strict auditing requirements.

They were also forced to carry a disclaimer on all of their work labeling them as a "foreign agent": an emotionally loaded, Soviet-era term suggesting national disloyalty.

Used sparingly at first, the law started to be rapidly applied to Kremlin opponents. In 2013, eight organizations were named as foreign agents, according to OVD-Info. In 2014, that number hit 25. By 2015, it was 85.

Later down the line, that law was also strengthened. In July 2022, foreign agent laws expanded so that any Russian individual or business that appeared to have "fallen under foreign influence" could receive the designation — even if they received no financial support.

These laws were never popular among the large majority of Russians.

"There was a minority of people who did support such legislation, but it is quite a small minority. I don't think there was ever any real groundswell support," says David Lewis, professor of Global Politics at the University of Exeter.

But such legislation also wasn't broadly condemned. While each blow to human rights would spark some protest, usually in Russia's large cities, there was never enough unrest to reach a critical mass.

Most complied. Many Russian people and organizations, who, after the start of the full-scale war left Russia, continued to write the dull wording forced on them by the foreign agent law when sharing posts online.

The quick repression of street rallies by riot police was enough to deter some demonstrators. But the gradual nature of such laws also caught people off guard. Many ordinary Russians simply thought that such rulings would never affect them, says Lewis.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in support of opposition and independent candidates after authorities refused to register them for September elections to the Moscow City Duma, on July 20, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

"Until quite recently, prosecutions under these laws have been quite selective. So although there were these widespread repressive laws, it didn't seem that you or your friends would ever be targeted," he says.

"Most Russians thought that these laws were only focused on a few people in Moscow, perhaps liberals they didn't have a great deal of sympathy for, people with whom they have little in common."

It also helped that Putin and his United Russia party remained broadly popular. In the early 2010s, the Russian economy was on the rise, and Moscow was becoming a more dominant force on the world stage.

Even when Putin's approval rating began to suffer at the end of 2013 — a trend attributed to slowing economic growth rather than social policy — it only dipped to 61 percent, according to Levada Center, a mostly independent pollster.

That popularity and acceptance only grew with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which marked the start of Russia's war against Ukraine.

Despite some demonstrations, largely in the country's major cities, many Russians rallied around the Kremlin's cause as troops appeared on the streets of Ukrainian Sevastopol, eager to embrace the narrative of a strong, proud Russia.

Two months after the start of the war, Putin's approval was as high as 82 percent.

For many years, even Russia's great liberal hopes, such as Navalny, were unwilling to commit to returning Crimea to Ukraine and risk upsetting their electorate.

Asked in an interview whether he'd be willing to return occupied Crimea to Ukraine, Navalny famously said "Crimea is what, a sandwich to be passed around?"

At this time, millions of Russians began to emotionally invest in the Putin regime and its narrative of a great Russia reclaiming its destiny as a global superpower, says Professor Robertson.

For the Kremlin, that popularity meant greater security, knowing that the vast majority of Russians would accept it as they tightened the noose around the neck of civil society.

Laws targeting the media and NGOs ramped up in the years following the annexation.

In May 2014, two months after the formal annexation of occupied Crimea, Russian laws made it illegal to call for the return of occupied and annexed land to its rightful owners.

In 2015, Russian authorities were given the power to name foreign and international groups deemed to threaten the country's security, defense, or constitutional order, as "undesirable organizations" and shut them down.

In the same year, Putin's approval rating remained as high as 89 percent, according to Levada Center.

"I'm not saying that if Moscow had failed to annex Crimea that Putin wouldn't be in power and that Russia wouldn't be repressive," says Robertson. "But there is a huge difference between the type of repression done by an unpopular regime. It's far easier for a popular regime to be oppressive."

Putin's high approval ratings also provided a greenlight for the Russian state to crack down on those who did not support the Kremlin.

Pro-Ukrainian protests in 2014 were quickly put down.

Dmitrii Anisimov, a spokesperson for OVD-Info, has spent months tracking Russia's authoritarian decline.

"Elements of Russia's legal and political process have been rotten for years," he says. "But the number of people being detained at rallies or coming under legal sanctions used to be far, far less."

Pitfalls of adaptation

Ultimately, Russian civil society decided not to fight but to adapt to the state's increasingly repressive laws.

American Jennifer Castner has worked with Russian environmental NGOs since the 1990s.

For more than a decade, she was director of the Altai Project, an environmental charity focused on the Altai region: an area that spans Russia, western Mongolia, northwestern China, and far eastern Kazakhstan. As well as protecting species such as snow leopards, it worked with regional partners to support nature conservation and local indigenous practices.

She saw many international donors pull out of Russia during the 2010s, often because they didn't want to put their Russian partners in the Kremlin's firing line.

They had reason to be worried.

"The 'foreign agent law' passed in 2012," says Castner. "Two or three years later, six out of my seven NGO partners in Altai had been named foreign agents and had to liquidate their organizations."

Castner believed that the best thing her organization could do was adapt to this hostile landscape.

"We worked really hard to be able to support those activists and meet them where they were," she says.

Yet these activists were also squeezing themselves to try and fit state requirements. It didn't help the organization survive, nor did it save people from prosecution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on Sept. 30, 2022. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

Ultimately, the sliver of space for Russian civil society would disappear.

In July 2023, Castner's Altai Project was named an "undesirable organization." The Russian Prosecutor General's Office accused the group of threatening the country's economic security, obstinately due to previous work with groups who sought to reroute the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline away from Altai, it said.

The organization made the decision to close after 25 years of work in Russia.

Over time, oppression became normalized across wider Russian society, says journalist Olya Churakova, who also wasn't saved from the state's attack.

"At first, every media outlet that was shut down (by the authorities) got so much attention, it was huge," she says. "And then it became routine that they will just destroy everyone."

"It's funny because when I graduated and started working for (independent Russian TV channel) TV Rain in 2015, I used to think it was such a shame how my generation of journalists had missed the golden age when publications had more freedom and money," says journalist Sonya Groysman.

"Now, I think how lucky we are that we at least got some years working and reporting from our country, not from exile. It was so much easier to get access to the courts to the Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament). And then, year after year, we lost all of that."

Olya Churakova and Sonya Groysman were named foreign agents in 2021 while working for independent Russian investigative outlet Projekt. Today, they live abroad, continuing to work on journalistic projects, including their joint podcast, "Hello, You're a Foreign Agent."

Whether Russia's civil society could have wrested back control from the state if they had taken different or more decisive action earlier is a question with no clear answer.

Long before the crackdown against civil society began in earnest, Russia was already skilled at clamping down on dissent: threatening protesters' jobs and putting pressure on their relatives, as well as police brutality.

Jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link from the IK-3 penal colony above the Arctic circle on Jan. 11, 2024. (Vera Savina/AFP via Getty Images)

But even as threats continued to mount, the Russian opposition largely remained fractured and ununified, inhibiting its ability to rally, organize, and fight back effectively, says Professor Lewis.

"The Russian opposition is very diverse. They may all be against the regime, but they've not always had a common cause or an idea of what they actually want," he says.

But many feel that warning signs were missed, including by the West.

"Among the veteran activists I know, there is this sense that we kept banging on all doors, we kept engaging with policymakers, and we kept telling them: hey, something really big is coming. There are going to be consequences to these years of repression. There is going to be a mass atrocity. They are turning Russia into a warlike state," says OVD-Info's Dan Storyev.

"Unfortunately, we have to say that many Western leaders did not listen."

Now, as the full-scale invasion enters its third year, both the violence in Ukraine and repression back at home has become normalized to many Russians.

While opposition activists in Russia are jailed, the country's silent majority keep their heads down and try to maintain a bubble of normality, ignoring atrocities at home and abroad.

Similar behavior was seen in the Soviet Union and in authoritarian regimes across the world, says Lewis.

"In a lot of authoritarian regimes, if you don't get involved in politics, you can maintain a relatively normal lifestyle," he says. The majority in Russia tends to try and wait it out, experts agree.

Lewis says that Russia is not unique in this regard.

"We like to think of revolutions as mass affairs. But most people just want to wait and see what happens when it all blows over," he says.

In the meantime, repression in Russia is likely to worsen, says Professor Robertson.

"Political scientists talk about a repression trap, where dictators become caught in a cycle. Repression is a ratchet that's easy to turn up and hard to turn back down again," he says.

"I worry that that's what we're seeing in Russia today. When you see people in restaurants or on buses reporting on others, these are very worrying signs."

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