Repression is working, says Russian journalist

Investigative journalist Roman Badanin says many criminal and administrative charges have either been newly introduced, or more aggressively pursued, in the last six years to suppress dissent in Russia.

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, March 18, 2024 — Roughly six months ago, investigative Russian journalist Roman Badanin set out to answer a question he is often asked in the West: “Why don’t Russians protest against Putin?”

Speaking at a Center for European and Russian Studies event in late February, Badanin called it a prudent question. Until recently, he lacked the kind of concrete data needed to judge the level of public protest against the regime. But today he has an answer: Russians do protest.

His nonprofit media organization Agenstvo recently published “2024: A Study into Repression under Putin.” The research report finds roughly 116,000 people in Russia have been charged with fines, administrative penalties or prison sentences for politically related offenses over the course of Putin’s latest presidential term (2018 to date).

Badanin has worked exclusively in digital Russian media since the early 1990s, including for Izvestiia, and Dozhd’ (as editor in chief). In 2018, he founded Proekt Media as a nonprofit, digital investigative news organization along the lines of ProPublica in the United States.

Less than three years later, the Russian government declared the media venture an “undesirable organization.” Badanin and his staff immediately relocated outside of Russia, where they continue their investigative journalism at Agenstvo.

Breaking down the data

The new report, available online in Russian and English, used machine learning tools to analyze six years of published verdicts by Russian administrative, criminal and military courts in cases that concerned a specific set of politically related charges.

The overwhelming majority of the 116,000 cases of repression involved administrative arrests and fines, but in more than 6,000 cases, people were imprisoned on criminal charges. Although the total number of politically related cases dropped considerably in 2023, verdicts related to criminal cases rose sharply as a share of the total in that same year.

“In my view, it can be interpreted in only one way: the system [is becoming] more serious in punishing people,” said Badanin. He attributed the drop total in cases last year to both increased fear among the Russian population and the exodus of many people from the country. “[W]e have to be honest, repression works. People now are more afraid of doing something against Putin.”

Over the past six years, many criminal and administrative charges have either been newly introduced, or more aggressively pursued, to suppress dissent in the country. These charges concern such offenses as criticizing the Federal Security Service (Russian acronym, FSB), insulting the Russian armed forces, insubordination to or violence against officials, protesting mobilization for the war in Ukraine and criticizing the war — charges that are frequently based on benign social media posts.

In many cases, explained the journalist, accusations that were once charged under the administrative code are now increasingly being charged under the criminal code — which is causing some people to be charged twice. Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov, for example, was just sent to prison for two and a half years on criminal charges. But the state had previously brought administrative charges against him for the exactly the same accusations, said Badanin.

The politically related charges investigated by the Agenstvo report are often identical to the criminal charges used to suppress dissent and “anti-Soviet activity” in the late Soviet period, said the journalist. Such charges were, and are today, often supplemented with “prophylactic” measures that include public criticism and firing people from their jobs.

Analysis of comparable public court data from the late Soviet era, the archives for which are no longer publicly accessible, produced another notable finding: more people have been tried in the last six years in Russia for criticism of the authorities than were tried under Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Russian courts, explained Badanin, have never been independent and answer directly to the Kremlin. In fact, he noted, only two months after Putin came to power, the Russian leader appointed a longtime FSB colleague as deputy head of the presidential administration and put him in charge of overseeing the Russian courts. As in Soviet days, not-guilty verdicts continue to comprise a miniscule volume (about 1%) of all verdicts in criminal and administrative court proceedings.

Badanin found the sharp rise in a new type of criminal charge to be the most compelling finding of the report. “[W]e have a number of articles in the Russian Criminal Code and Administrative Code which [are] related to so-called nepovidonenie predstavitel'nym vlasti, which can be roughly translated as insubordination [toward] any official.” The number of these cases based on these charges has been steadily growing, meaning “the system [has] started to treat people as a threat,” he said.

Repression is now the stabilizing factor of the Putin regime, concluded Badanin. “Putin was smart enough to invest a lot of his efforts, a lot of money, a lot of resources into building [a machine of repression], which is huge… [and] needs to reproduce repression, again and again.”

Roman Badanin (left) with UCLA Professor of Political Science Dan Treisman at Hershey Hall Salon on February 27, 2024.


The future of Russian investigative journalism

When they left Russia, Badanin and his team believed it was still possible to do hard-hitting investigative reporting from outside Russia. “But,” he reflected, “we understand that it’s more and more difficult right now to get through the, let’s say, Iron Curtain to extract information from Russia.”

He was both optimistic and pessimistic about the future of Russian investigative journalism. Subscribers to digital news services produced by Russian journalists abroad appear to be growing, although the numbers are difficult to verify.

YouTube has also become an important platform for information distribution within Russia, and Russian users of the channel continue to grow, both of which are positive developments. Yet, said Badanin, “My assumption is that YouTube will be prohibited or limited somehow just after the presidential elections [in mid-March 2024].”

Overall, he observed, Russia is becoming less and less transparent. Government data in many spheres that was once regularly made publicly available is no longer being published, including monthly data on economic indicators. Concurrently, it has become more difficult to purchase data on the Russian Dark Web (e.g., mobile phone call and geolocation records, airplane passenger logs, etc.) that has become crucial to investigations in the absence of reliable public information.

Badanin believed it would be possible to conduct journalistic investigations from outside Russia for another year or two. “But it will take more and more money, more and more time, and more and more sophisticated instruments,” he said.

In his view, the information environment — both within and about Russia — is highly alarming. “We have a country of people of 140 million people, a nuclear stockpile and a lot of resources, and we don't know what is going on inside, and they don’t know what is good [information] and what is bad [information] from outside.”


Photos in text: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.