Photo illustration of Ilya Yashin, Ivan Safronov, Alexei Navalny, and Alexandra Skochilenko, among silhouettes and photos of the Kremlin.
(Illustration by Natalie Vineberg/The Washington Post; Yuri Kochetkov/Reuters; Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock; Yulia Morozova/Reuters; Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters; Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty; iStock)

Meet the people caught up in Russia’s crackdown on dissent

7 min

In wartime Russia, citizens are risking decades in prison for previously permissible acts: denouncing the government and the army on social media, making political speeches — even criticizing the invasion of Ukraine in private with friends.

The Kremlin is jailing its critics at a turbocharged rate. After invading Ukraine, the government of President Vladimir Putin introduced draconian censorship laws that criminalize antiwar protest, make independent journalism almost impossible and outlawed calling its “special military operation” a war.

Russia’s crackdown on dissent has been expanding for years, notably with the 2021 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and many of his supporters, but the number of political cases is now snowballing. Students, an essayist, a theater director and a former police officer, among many others, have been sentenced to years in prison.

Nearly 20,000 people have been detained for opposing the war, the rights group OVD-Info reports; at least 537 people, including children and pensioners, have been charged criminally. The majority have fallen under the new laws — in particular under a provision that criminalizes the distribution of “false information” about the army.

“What we are now seeing is absolutely unprecedented,” said Maria Kuznetsova, a spokesperson for OVD-Info. “We have never seen such numbers in Russia.”

There’s also been an uptick in treason cases. Historically, such cases have typically involved military figures or scientists who were investigated over the course of years, and kept top secret. But in recent months, ordinary citizens have been charged, many in connection to Ukraine.

“It is important for the authorities to maintain the image of a collective ‘enemy’ — the components of which are oppositionists, Ukrainians, some ‘neo-Nazis,’ minorities and, of course, traitors to the motherland,” said Dmitry Zair-Bek, head of the rights group First Department. Zair-Bek says the number of treason cases has ballooned this year. Thirty cases can be confirmed through open sources, he said, but the number is probably much higher.

The spike in repression and treason cases has been followed by the arrest of U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich in March on espionage charges — the first case of its kind since the Cold War.

Below are some of Russia’s most distinctive wartime political prisoners and those facing the longest jail terms. Theirs are a small fraction of the cases now being prosecuted.

Vladimir Kara-Murza

Human rights defender Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British national and contributor to The Washington Post, was sentenced last month to 25 years for treason and other charges. The charges were based on speeches he made abroad and public criticism of the war.

Kara-Murza has likened his prosecution to a Stalinist show trial. “I know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will be gone,” he said at his sentencing. “And then our people will open their eyes and shudder at the sight of the horrific crimes committed in their names.”

Outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was jailed for 25 years by a Moscow court on April 17, 2023. (Video: Reuters)

Ivan Safronov

Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, tried last year on secret evidence, was sentenced in September to 22 years for treason. A former reporter for the Russian newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, he is believed to have been targeted for revealing details of Russia’s sale of fighter jets to Egypt. His was the first conviction of a journalist for treason in Russia since 2001.

In a recent letter from prison in Krasnodar, Safronov told The Post that no ordinary person should be made to endure what he’s endured. “If you have this experience,” he wrote, “you cannot escape from it.”

Ilya Yashin

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8½ years for social media posts denouncing atrocities committed by Russian troops in Bucha, Ukraine.

Yashin was one of the few vocal opponents of the invasion who decided to stay in Russia after the invasion. “Antiwar voices sound louder and more convincing if the person remains,” he said. At his sentencing, he said he had no regrets: “It’s better to spend 10 years behind bars as an honest man than quietly burn with shame over the blood spilled by your government.”

Ilya Yashin was arrested in June 2022 for statements that he made about war crimes allegedly committed by Russian forces in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. (Video: Reuters)

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who survived a Novichok poisoning attempt in 2020, was sentenced initially the following year to over two years in prison. With new charges, he could be sentenced to 30 years in jail.

Navalny continues to criticize Putin from behind bars for the war, corruption and abuses of power. His supporters say they fear for his life: Since his detention, he has rapidly lost weight, has been denied family visits, and has been placed in solitary confinement for up to 15 days at a time.

The hearing was to consider a motion by the federal prison authority to replace a 2014 suspended sentence handed to Alexei Navalny with a jail term. (Video: Press Service of the Moscow City Court via Storyful)

Sergei Vedel

Sergei Vedel, a police officer of Ukrainian-Russian heritage, was sentenced last month to seven years for spreading “fakes” about the army. The charge was based on his criticism of the war in private conversations with friends on his tapped phone.

A former driver who worked at Moscow’s police headquarters for nearly 20 years, Vedel expressed his concerns to friends in the days after the invasion. “We think we are fighting fascism,” he told one, “but there isn’t fascism there.”

Alexei Gorinov

Moscow city councilman Alexei Gorinov was convicted last year of discrediting the army. He had spoken against the war during a council meeting. Gorinov refused to plead guilty. He kept up the criticism during his trial. At his sentencing, he held a sign that read “Do you still need this war?”

“I am convinced that this war is the fastest route to dehumanization, when the line between good and evil is blurred,” he said.

Maria Ponomarenko

Journalist Maria Ponomarenko was convicted by a court in western Siberia of spreading “fakes” after she posted about Russia’s bombing of the Mariupol drama theater last year, which killed hundreds of civilians. The mother of two was sentenced to six years in a penal colony.

At her sentencing, she declared herself a patriotic pacifist. Under Russia’s constitution, she said, she’d done nothing wrong. “No totalitarian regime has ever been as strong as before its collapse,” she said.

Alexandra Skochilenko

Five weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Alexandra Skochilenko, an LGBTQ+ musician with no history of political activism, walked into a supermarket in St. Petersburg and began sticking notes criticizing the war on top of price tags.

“The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol where about 400 people were hiding from shelling,” read one. “Weekly inflation reached a new high not seen since 1998 because of our military actions in Ukraine. Stop the war,” read another. A fellow shopper reported Skochilenko to police, and her trial is ongoing. She could be sentenced to 10 years.

Yevgeny Bestuzhev

Yevgeny Bestuzhev, a political scientist and essayist from St. Petersburg, was accused in November of spreading “fakes” about the Russian army in dozens of antiwar posts on social media. Bestuzhev, who reportedly has multiple chronic illnesses and has had several heart attacks, could be sentenced to 10 years.

Yevgenia Berkovich

Theatre director Yevgenia Berkovich was arrested May 4 and put in pretrial detention with her colleague Svetlana Petriichuk, a playwright, for allegedly “justifying terrorism.” The charge related to their play “Finist: The Brave Falcon,” about Russian women who joined the Islamic State, which was first performed two years ago and won a national theater award last year. An expert opinion reportedly found the play contained elements of ISIS thought and “the ideology of radical feminism.”

Hers is the first high-profile criminal case relating to a play since the Soviet era. The charge carries up to seven years in prison. “Do not make a Joan of Arc out of me!” she wrote to a friend from detention. “I’m a girl, I want to go home, I want prosecco and a big fat steak.”

Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova contributed from Riga, Latvia.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.