Even though I’ve been writing for more than two decades about authoritarian regimes and how they act, particularly in wartime, I still find it difficult understand one common aspect of their behavior.
They have power and want to show it – to their citizens and to the world. But they then sometimes lash out against dissent in ways that are so ridiculously unnecessary, as if they feel nervous about their grip on power.
We saw a textbook example of this in Russia last week, when a court sentenced artist Aleksandra Skochilenko to seven years in prison. What did she do to earn such a harsh sentence? Some act of violence, perhaps? Some serious threat to the Kremlin?
No, all Skochilenko had done was replace five supermarket price tags with information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
That’s it. Seven years in prison for five small pieces of paper.
The formal charge was spreading “fake” information about the war. Her slips of paper noted how decades of Putin’s televised lies conditioned some Russians to justify the war. She also called out Russia’s bombing of the theatre sheltering civilians in Mariupol, Ukraine. She said Russia is sending conscripts to fight, a fact the Defence Ministry admitted. And she called for an end to the war.
Receiving any prison sentence for that – let alone a seven-year one – is ridiculous. If you saw it in a novel or a TV series, you’d think the writer had gone too far in asking you to suspend disbelief to such a ludicrous degree.
But it’s no laughing matter in Russia where the authorities’ absurdity has horrific consequences.
Given Skochilenko’s health conditions and the severity of imprisonment in Russia, her seven-year prison term risks becoming a death sentence. The authorities’ cruelty was already seen during her 19 months of court proceedings. Prison officials confiscated her medications, and during transfers from pretrial detention, she was left without any food for days.
Russian authorities’ actions in this case represent a blatant injustice, and this is only the most recent example. More than 200 people have faced prosecution for “fake” news on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and authorities have thrown hundreds behind bars for opposing the war using other draconian laws.
Like many other cases, the sheer madness of the authorities’ persecution of the pacifist Skochilenko was revealing in other ways, too, which she noted in her closing statement to the court. Had she not been arrested, she said, the bits of paper “would have been known only to one granny, a cashier, and a security guard at the [supermarket].”
Indeed. The authorities turned an obscure, miniscule act of dissent into an internationally known protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Whatever’s going on with the psychology of authoritarian regimes, in terms of human rights, the results are sadly clear. Inside Russia, the abuses against fundamental freedoms keep mounting.