With Victory in Ukraine Out of Reach, Putin Is Stepping Up His War on Domestic Enemies

Vladimir Putin promised to “denazify Ukraine,” but this week he suppressed Russia’s own watchdog monitoring the far right. Unable to crush Ukraine, his government has turned its fire on domestic critics of war and nationalism.

Police officers detain a protester during an unsanctioned rally in protest against the military invasion of Ukraine on September 24, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. (Contributor / Getty Images)

“How are things going for the Russian left? Really poorly,” says the young woman we’ll call Masha, smiling incredulously at what she clearly considers a bit of a stupid question. She’s standing in a Moscow basement, amid the overflowing bookshelves of the small, activist-run Cipollino Library. The collection covers the typical range of leftist literature, from the revolution in Rojava to feminist struggle and the history of the anarchist movement. The library’s name comes from a children’s story by Italian author Gianni Rodari that was popular in the Soviet Union. In Rodari’s tale, a revolutionary onion named Cipollino struggles against the unjust reign of fruits over vegetables. It’s a story of repression and resistance — one that’s become more relevant in today’s Russia than at any other time in Masha’s life.

Since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, persecution of oppositional organizing, especially from the Left, has escalated dramatically. Given the central role Putin has played in the run-up to and since the invasion — acting the part of decisive commander in chief in several martial speeches to the nation — his government’s future is now intimately tied to the outcomes of his military misadventure in Ukraine. For him, failure in Ukraine is not an option. The genuine popularity Putin had enjoyed since the beginning of his tenure was largely thanks to the fact that he was seen as having returned a degree of stability and economic development to a country reeling from the chaos of the wild, post-socialist 1990s. Now that both stability and economic growth have been sacrificed to foreign-policy goals, the war must somehow be cast as a national triumph, and no criticism of it can be tolerated at home.

This was made clear from day one, as spontaneous antiwar protests were met with violence and mass arrests. Since then, the Russian antiwar movement has been subdued with draconian new laws, introduced swiftly last spring, that criminalize criticism of the invasion as “discreditation of the military” and “spreading of false information.” But despite all official jingoist propaganda, there is not much popular enthusiasm for the war. Although some polls have suggested that large segments of the population condone it, experts have cautioned that response rates are low, and respondents are likely reluctant to answer in ways they fear might be punishable by the newly passed laws. Anecdotal evidence confirms this skeptical interpretation: a year into the war, voluntary displays of pro-war zeal, in the form of Z-patches on clothes or stickers on cars, are so rare in Moscow’s bustling streets, that days can go by without any sightings.

With a clear military victory in Ukraine out of reach, and general moods toward the invasion ambivalent at best, Putin now seems set to at least crush his remaining internal enemies. And while the supposed goal of “denazifying” Ukraine is claimed as a key justification for the invasion, in Russia, it hasn’t been fascists, but rather those struggling for progressive change who have borne the brunt of the ensuing crackdown.

Harassed and Humiliated

It’s a development that the Cipollino Library collective, to which Masha belongs, has experienced firsthand. The library is located in a volunteer-run venue called Open Space, which welcomes initiatives and events considered undesirable by the state. It’s meant to be “a safe space for all,” as a rainbow-colored poster by the entrance proclaims.

In wartime Russia, however, no such safety remains. This became clear one evening in November, when police stormed the premises. It wasn’t just any police either, but what Masha, in Russian activist lingo, calls “cyborgs,” meaning masked men in black tactical outfits. They came for the activists who had gathered on the upper floor to write letters to anarchist political prisoners, but everyone inside, including those down in the library, were detained.

“Guys were made to lie facedown on the floor, women were lined up to face the wall, and everyone had to stay put that way for several hours,” Masha recalls with a shudder. According to her, the detained were forced, under threats of violence, to unlock and show the contents of their phones. A mutual support group for drug users, who happened to be there for their regular meeting, got so terrified by the ordeal that they’ve stopped gathering at the venue.

Since then, the mood at Open Space has remained tense. “We’re a little nervous again tonight,” Masha admits during a conversation one February evening; she continues, “the event currently taking place above is about conditions in the country’s women’s prisons.” But things remained quiet that night. Instead, the “cyborgs” returned last week, on March 19, during a presentation of comics by Sasha Skochilenko, an artist who is herself currently in pretrial detention on charges relating to an antiwar protest action.

Again, the cops were there to harass and humiliate. According to eyewitnesses, one attendee was beaten bloody, while others were forced to sing along to patriotic tunes. It’s a bizarre trend that seems to be spreading, as security officials have declared open season on undesirables: The same week, masked police had also stormed two Moscow bars, which they suspected of being pro-Ukrainian hangouts, and humiliated patrons with a similar enforced sing-along routine.

The more dangerous — that is, capable of political mobilization — those targeted are deemed to be, the harsher the intimidation tactics deployed against them. Take, for instance, the case of Moscow State University math instructor Mikhail Lobanov. In 2021, the self-described democratic socialist ran for his local district’s seat on the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Though Lobanov was an independent, his candidacy was coordinated with the Communist Party, or KPRF. While this party is loyal to the government on most topics, including foreign policy, its lower echelons have at times had leeway to mount more genuine opposition. Having previously made a name for himself as a union organizer at the university, Lobanov led a grassroots campaign with great success. After all physical ballots had been counted, he led by thousands of votes. Only once online votes came in — a process critics decried as untransparent — the ruling-party candidate, notorious TV-propagandist Yevgeny Popov, suddenly surged to victory.

In the wake of the invasion, Lobanov spoke out against the war, helping initiate, for example, an open letter titled “Socialists and communists against the fratricidal war,” which called on KPRF deputies to defy their party leadership’s complacency and condemn the invasion. Today, Lobanov belongs to the small — and shrinking — number of antiwar politicians remaining inside Russia who have not yet gone to prison. But he has had to pay a price. On December 29, police forced their way into his home, beat him, and detained him for fifteen days.

“The raid was a shock, of course, and very scary,” he says one February day, in the apartment he shares with his wife Aleksandra. On the floor are piles of books, on the wall behind him a handmade sign from a past protest, demanding freedom for a jailed union organizer. The harassment, he explains, is ongoing.

Returning home from a trip to friends in Armenia during the winter break, the couple found a nasty surprise waiting for them: the letter Z, symbolizing Putin’s war against Ukraine as well as against the government’s internal enemies, had been spray-painted on their apartment door. They suspect it’s the work not of random government supporters, but rather of the security services. Their neighbors, too, have been approached by strangers, with questions about the couple’s personal life and routines; recently Lobanov’s in-laws were rudely woken up early one morning by strangers, haranguing about ties they claimed he had to foreign intelligence services.

Enemies Silenced

In parallel to such physical harassment, authorities have also mobilized a range of bureaucratic means, using newly passed laws and new interpretations of existing legislation to shut down venues and organizations deemed enemies of the state.

One such case is the Sakharov Center, a half-hour stroll south from Open Space. The center, named after Soviet nuclear physicist, Nobel Prize laureate, and dissident Andrei Sakharov, has functioned as an archive, exhibition venue, and meeting place dedicated to human rights, democracy, and disarmament since it was established in the early 1990s. While it is generally associated with the liberal spirit that characterized much of the Soviet-era dissident movement, it has also been a hub for Russia’s democratic left. Among its board members is historian Ilya Budraitskis, a driving force behind the Russian Socialist Movement, or RSD.

“The center has been one of the most important public meeting places for oppositional, independent politics, including for the Left, for social movements, and for trade unions, who would arrange gatherings, conferences, and seminars there”, Budraitskis told Jacobin. Himself in exile since last spring, he adds, “The closing of the center is like a final nail in the coffin for independent politics and civic activity.”

The Sakharov Center’s death sentence came in January, when the city of Moscow — which owns the late dissident’s apartment and a nearby mansion, where the center has been based — terminated the rent-free deal that had made its work there possible. This follows legislation passed this winter, according to which “foreign agents,” meaning organizations that have received financing from foreign donors, must not receive Russian state support.

“This is a catastrophe, an immense loss,” says an elderly man with a background in the arts world, attending the opening ceremony of the center’s final exhibition, on February 15, when asked what the closing of the center meant for him. “It feels like Germany in 1939, what’s happening in our country,” he adds.

“We will continue our informational work in other ways, but exhibitions or events will no longer be possible,” the Sakharov Center’s chairperson, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, said in an address that night. He summed up the situation in today’s Russia: “we are surrounded by red lines, the violation of which is being punished to the full extent of the new laws.”

“Denazification” Versus Antifascism

In some cases, though, the government doesn’t even need to pass new laws to shut down undesirable groups — with the judiciary fully under its control since long ago, new interpretations of existing legislation can do the trick as well. That’s what is currently happening to a renowned think tank, called the SOVA Center. Since its foundation in 2002, it’s been Russia’s top independent watchdog of the domestic far right, monitoring and publishing reports on racism, violent nationalism, and hate crime. More recently, SOVA has also focused on the thousands of instances where Russia’s anti-extremism and hate-speech laws have been abused to silence government critics and opponents of Putin’s war. According to SOVA’s director, Aleksandr Verkhovsky, this is likely the reason it is being shut down.

On Monday, March 20, Russia’s Ministry of Justice officially petitioned Moscow city court to order SOVA’s immediate liquidation, citing the fact that in the past three years, the organization’s staff had participated in twenty-four public events, such as seminars and roundtables, outside the Moscow region. “The law says that a regional organization operates in the region of its registration, in our case Moscow. Now this is suddenly being interpreted literally, such that one must not operate outside this region. It’s ridiculous, of course,” Verkhovsky tells Jacobin. While the case will go to court, it’s unlikely SOVA will prevail. In January, a court in the Russian capital complied with a similar request on nearly identical grounds, and closed down the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization.

How Verkhovsky and his colleagues will proceed if, or, more likely when, their organization has been liquidated, is yet unclear. “Well, they cannot ban us as people. We will have to find a new juridical form, but we’ll come up with something,” he says defiantly. “After all, they cannot prevent anyone from working on whatever they like, other than by throwing them in jail, of course. So far though, we haven’t seen any such signals.”

Whether such defiant optimism is tenable, however, is another matter. Only a day after this conversation, on Tuesday, March 21, police raided the homes of several key figures of the already-liquidated human rights group Memorial, recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, and charged them with criminal offenses including “discrediting” the Russian military. With the slaughter in Ukraine, that army has already done much to discredit itself. But Putin is at least winning the offensive against enemies closer to home.