Putin’s Russia Now More Repressive Than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union Was – OpEd
By Paul Goble
Russia is “catching up and in many cases surpassing the level of political repressions” that characterized the later years of Leonid Brezhnev, Azamat Ismailov, a pseudonymous Russian journalist, drawing on available statistics about arrests and convictions of anti-government actions, says.
MVD data, he notes, show that for the past year, “the number of ‘crimes of extremist type’ rose almost 50 percent, to 1500 cases. The number of detentions at protest actions reached 20,000 for the year, which is an order of magnitude greater than a couple of years ago, and the list of political prisoners is comparable with that of the USSR on the eve of Perestroika” (russian.eurasianet.org/россия-догоняет-и-перегоняет-ссср-по-масштабу-политических-репрессий).
This upsurge recapitulates and exceeds that which followed the Crimean Anschluss. Then, Moscow stepped up repressive moves but ultimately decided they were counter-productive. Now, it has done the same but gone even further to the point that the system has changed its nature and may not back down as it did earlier.
If one compares the current statistics on repression with those in the five years before perestroika, one sees that they are roughly the same or in some cases even greater, Ismailov says. Indeed, detentions and arrests for protests against the war in Ukraine, now at 378, are greater than for any other demonstrations in modern Russian history.
The Bolotnoye protests in 2021 for honest elections led to only 36 criminal cases; and the protests in defense of Navalny in 2021 to only 181.
Not only have the charges in this area increased but they have shifted. Before the war, ethnic activists and Islamists were the chief targets; but now they are ordinary Russians and even officials who are opposed to the war, Ismailov says, citing the conclusions of SOVA head Aleksandr Verkhovsky.
Measured by number of criminal charges and convictions, Putin’s Russia has already surpassed Brezhnev’s USSR – and it is rapidly approaching the number of political prisoners the latter had incarcerated. The number of political prisoners in Russia has risen from 50 in 2015 to 529 now, on pace to soon surpass the Soviet figure in the late 1980s of about 700.
But technological changes such as the Internet give Russians greater opportunities for dissent than their Soviet predecessors had, but at the same time, monitoring devices are now nearly universal whereas 30 years ago video cameras were found only in a few places such as public squares and railroad stations.
As a result, historian Pavel Kudyukin says, the struggle continues; but despite the efforts of the regime, protest activity has not ended but changed form. Now, “the new dissidents continue to act in the underground or semi-underground by creating horizonal semi-virtual organizations on the basis of an anti-war agenda.”