Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 also marked the start of a new, all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia. Russian authorities doubled down in their relentless attack against civic activism, independent journalism, and political dissent, in an apparent attempt to silence public opposition to the war, any criticism of the government, or any expression of social non-conformism.
Parliament adopted a broad range of new bills introducing war censorship with long prison sentences for “offences” such as referring to the armed conflict in Ukraine as a “war,” criticizing the invasion, discussing the conduct of Russian armed forces, and reporting on war crimes by Russian military or Ukrainian civilian casualties.
In their conduct of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces have carried out indiscriminate bombing and shelling in civilian areas, torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, forcible transfers of civilians to other occupied Ukrainian territories or to Russia, and extrajudicial killings of civilians in areas under Russian occupation. Ukrainian civilians have also been forcibly enlisted into Russia’s armed forces. For more information on Russian forces’ violations of the laws of war in Ukraine, including potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, see Ukraine chapter.
In addition to being suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council and leaving the Council of Europe, Russia at home adopted a “besieged fortress” mentality, amplifying its rhetoric of malevolent foreign influence, and adopted bills akin to the Soviet-era ban on foreign contacts. The scope of these new laws varies from drastic expansion of the “foreign agents” legislation to include individuals or organizations “under foreign influence,” to branding political candidates as “affiliated with foreign agents,” and introducing strict control over international academic cooperation programs. Authorities also continued to add more individuals and groups to the “foreign agents” registry and blacklist foreign organizations as “undesirable.”
Russian authorities also proposed new, homophobic legislation and ramped up homophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric.
Two large waves of emigration from Russia took place in 2022—one immediately after February 24 and the other after the announcement of a general military draft of reservists in September.
In September, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, confirmed his role as founder and a leader of the Russian private military contractor group Wagner; in November, Wagner opened its first headquarters, in St Petersburg. UN experts, several governments, and Human Rights Watch research found evidence that Wagner forces have summarily executed, tortured, and beaten civilians in Central African Republic in 2019. In Mali, Human Rights Watch has documented the involvement of forces widely believed to be associated with the Wagner group in serious abuses during military operations. Wagner has also played a role in Russia's war against Ukraine since the February invasion.
In October, President Putin declared martial law in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and in parallel introduced varying “alert levels” in bordering regions of Russia, authorizing local governors to impose differing limitations on rights, in particular freedom of movement.
Freedom of Expression
On February 24, as thousands of Russians peacefully protested the war against Ukraine and numerous public figures condemned the invasion, Roskomnadzor (RKN), Russia’s state media and communications regulator, warned mass media against disseminating “unverified” and “false” information, demanded that media referred to the war only as a “special military operation,” and required that they use information only from official Defense Ministry briefings. RKN said that failure to comply would result in instant blocking of online resources and hefty fines.
Between February 28 and March 3, 2022, Russian authorities blocked access to at least eight Russian-language media sites.
On March 4, Russia’s parliament expeditiously adopted, and President Putin signed, new laws that effectively outlawed anti-war speech and protest. The laws, which entered into force immediately, criminalize spreading information about the conduct of Russian armed forces that deviates from official information and discrediting them or calling for them to withdraw. The maximum penalty is 15 years’ imprisonment. Two weeks later, amendments expanded these provisions to penalize “discrediting” any Russian state agencies abroad.
An exodus by independent Russian and foreign media outlets, which had started shortly after the invasion, continued after the laws’ adoption, due to concerns for journalists’ security. Several prominent outlets relocated outside Russia or switched to alternative platforms for broadcasting such as social media.
Authorities closed several other prominent independent outlets. Novaya Gazeta suspended operations in Russia on March 28, after two RKN warnings. In subsequent weeks, authorities blocked two new Novaya Gazeta online platforms, launched in the wake of the suspension, for “discrediting” and “false information.” In August, they fined Novaya Gazeta 650,000 rubles (more than US$10,000) for alleged “media freedom violations,” and in early September, a Russian court annulled the newspaper’s printing license.
The first three criminal cases on the new charges were opened on March 16. The first accused was placed in pretrial detention. In October, Russian authorities announced that they had opened over 4,500 administrative offence cases and over 100 criminal cases on “discreditation” or “false information” about Russian Armed Forces. According to Russian human rights watchdogs, almost half of the criminal cases were against journalists, bloggers, or civic activists.
The charges proved a convenient tool against prominent opposition figures, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin. In December, Yashin was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison with a subsequent four-year ban on use of the internet and Kara-Murza remained in pretrial detention since April, for public criticism of Russian forces’ attacks on civilians.
In July, Aleksey Gorinov, a deputy of a Moscow municipal council, received a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment, with a four-year ban on holding official positions, for delivering an anti-war speech during a council meeting.
Activist Alexandra Skochilenko remained in pretrial detention since April on “false information” charges for replacing price tags in a grocery shop with information about the war in Ukraine to attract attention to civilian casualties.
In August, opposition politician and former Yekaterinburg Mayor, Yevgeniy Roizman, was charged with “discreditation” for using the term “invasion.”
In August, the Justice Ministry issued guidelines, clarifying that a factual statement should be qualified as “intentionally false information” and expressing negative opinions about the conduct of the military as “discrediting.”
Hundreds more were prosecuted on these charges for a wide range of actions, including displaying or the wearing the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag holding peaceful protests, and displaying anything that hinted at pro-peace slogans.
The new law also criminalized any repeat offense of calling for sanctions against Russia, its nationals, or legal entities, punishable by up to three years in prison.
Russian authorities escalated their “foreign agents” branding campaign, based on the law which imposes this toxic label and burdensome labelling and reporting requirements on people and entities that accept any amount of foreign funding and engage in activism. They designated as “foreign agents” well-known public figures who were vocal in their opposition to the war, including opposition politicians, musicians, and bloggers.
In some cases, authorities used the notion of “indirect funding,” where recipients were held responsible for funding sources of, for example, their contractor. Also in April, Russian authorities for the first time used the registry of individual foreign agents, adding dozens of activists, journalists, and prominent figures and claiming they were receiving unspecified funding from Ukraine. In July, Putin signed a new bill that drastically expands the notion of foreign agents by making it about undefined “foreign influence” rather than foreign funding.
Another law adopted in 2022 penalizes public calls “against national security,” including public calls to impede the work of the security services.
Another law criminalizes “confidential cooperation with a foreign state, international or foreign organization,” reminiscent of the Soviet-era ban on contacts with foreigners.
In September 2022, the Moscow City Court sentenced journalist Ivan Safronov to 22 years in a maximum-security prison and a hefty fine on high treason charges. The case materials were classified and trial was closed, but independent journalists who obtained the indictment concluded that the information he supposedly transferred to foreign intelligence could be obtained from open sources. Safronov’s defense lawyers came under immense pressure from the authorities: two had to flee the country, another at time of writing was in custody for his social media comment about Russian armed forces.
In October, authorities charged Kara-Murza with treason for criticizing the Kremlin publicly while abroad; it was the first time they invoked a provision that equates “assistance to international or foreign organization” with treason.
An April law introduced administrative penalties for equating the USSR’s leadership or military to those of Nazi Germany, denying the Soviet people’s decisive role in Nazi Germany’s defeat, or denying “the USSR’s humanitarian mission” during the liberation of European countries. In August, a court sentenced opposition politician Leonid Gozman to the maximum penalty, 15 days’ detention, on these charges for an old social media post, in which he stated that Stalin was worse than Hitler because he unleashed a total war on his own people. After 15 days authorities immediately re-arrested and sentenced him on the same charges to another 15 days for a similar 2013 social media post.
In September, a St. Petersburg court sentenced Igor Maltsev (aka Yegor Skorokhodov) to 44 months in prison on charges of hooliganism aggravated by “political hatred” for burning a wicker statue dressed in military uniform to protest the war.
Freedom of Assembly
Russian authorities continued to use Covid-19 as a pretext for blanket bans on public assemblies organized by civic and political activists and prosecuted organizers and participants for noncompliance, despite lifting almost all other pandemic-related restrictions. The pandemic also did not prevent the authorities from holding mass pro-government or state-sponsored events.
For over a month after February 24, demonstrators in different parts of Russia held mass protests against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The authorities responded with mass detentions, police brutality, and criminalization of anti-war protests. They arrested over 15,000 protesters in the first month alone and opened thousands of administrative and hundreds of criminal cases against them.
In September 2022, a wave of protests sparked by the introduction of the draft (“mobilization”) for military reservists took place in different regions of Russia, notably in regions whose population consists of ethnic minorities but who are overrepresented in draft numbers and were among the highest-ranking among military casualties. In Dagestan, where mass protests lasted several days, authorities violently dispersed protesters and opened at least 20 criminal cases against protesters for alleged violence against police.
Russian authorities continued to use criminal provisions envisaging up to five years in prison merely for repeated participation in entirely peaceful, albeit unauthorized public assemblies. In August 2022, a court in Kaliningrad sentenced Vadim Khairullin to one year in prison for attending a protest in support of imprisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny. At time of writing, Kirill Ukraintsev remained in pretrial detention where he had been since April on the same charges, for labor rights protests.
Freedom of Association
In 2022, Russian authorities also doubled down on blacklisting organizations as “undesirable” and persecuting activists for alleged involvement with such organizations.
Under Russia’s repressive “undesirables” laws, the General Prosecutor’s Office can designate as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The organization must then cease its activities in Russia. Russian citizens’ continued involvement with them carries a criminal penalty.
In 2022, new amendments allowed Russian law enforcement to prosecute activists for anything they might have done abroad that could be qualified as affiliation with “undesirable” organizations.
In May, a court sentenced Mikhail Iosilevich to 20 months imprisonment for allegedly providing space at his café for Open Russia—blacklisted as “undesirable” in 2019—even though it was in fact organized by another group and Iosilevich had no connection to Open Russia. In July, Andrey Pivovarov, the former executive director of the Open Russia Civic Movement, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on charges of leading an “undesirable organization.”
Human Rights Defenders
In late December 2021, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights organization, in liquation proceedings against its two key entities, International Memorial Society and Memorial Human Rights Center. The proceedings had been initiated by prosecutors over alleged violations of the “foreign agents” law. The liquidation was finalized in February 2022, when the Supreme Court rejected their respective appeals.
Also, in late December 2021, Russian authorities blocked the website of OVD-Info, a human rights watchdog focusing on freedom of assembly.
In April 2022, Russian authorities revoked the registration of 15 foreign NGOs and foundations, forcing them to shut their offices in Russia, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Torture, Ill-Treatment in Custody, Police Accountability
In July 2022, parliament adopted a law that explicitly introduced the notion of torture and provides for a penalty higher than other charges that had previously been used for cases that fit the international definition of torture, including in the context of coercion of confessions.
Nevertheless, ill-treatment, including torture, by law enforcement officials persisted.
On September 26 police arrested and beat Artyom Kamardin for public recitation of his anti-war poetry.
In September 2022, anti-fascist activist Yury Neznamov, detained on allegations of plotting a terrorist attack on a power plant, stated that he was electrocuted and waterboarded by law enforcement officers to coerce a confession.
In March, police at several precincts beat and used other physical violence against numerous anti-war protesters in custody. In September, three women anti-war protesters who had been tortured in Moscow police stations at that time, managed to identify their abusers, but authorities did not investigate.
Penitentiary administrations repeatedly placed Navalny and Yuri Dmitriyev, a researcher and rights advocate, in punishment cells known for their poor conditions. Both are serving lengthy prison sentences on politically motivated charges. From August to October, Navalny was sent to a punishment cell six times, Dmitriyev three times in less than a month, for minor “violations” of prison rules.
Chechen authorities under governor Ramzan Kadyrov continued to ruthlessly quash all forms of dissent. In December, Chechen security agents rounded up, subjected to ill-treatment and kept in incommunicado detention, dozens of family members of five Chechen bloggers and activists, who live abroad and criticized Kadyrov online. They forced the families to “apologize” and publicly dissociate themselves from their exiled relatives.
1ADAT, an anti-Kadyrov social media channel, was one of the key targets. In January, Chechen police abducted Zarema Mussaeva, the mother of 1ADAT’s supposed administrator, Ibrahim Yangulbaev, and human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev, and forcibly brought her from Nizhny Novgorod to Chechnya, where she remained in detention at time of writing on bogus criminal charges.
In August, media reported on the extrajudicial execution of 19-year-old Salman Tepsurkayev dating back to September 2020, days after his abduction. Tepsurkayev moderated the Telegram channel 1ADAT, which routinely features Chechen dissident voices, including those critical of Kadyrov. Authorities have not opened an investigation into his disappearance or alleged torture and killing.
Kadyrov became a major official spokesman glorifying abusive warfare in Ukraine and in October he called for the “razing of Ukrainian cities to the ground.” He organized the deployment of several thousand Chechen servicemen to Ukraine; human rights organizations reported complaints from Chechnya’s residents about forced recruitment of their family members.
In November 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Luisa Tapayeva, a divorced Chechen woman seeking to reunite with her four daughters. In Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucuses, local authorities enforce local customs that treat children as the property of their father and paternal family, which makes it difficult for single mothers to gain custody.
Counterterrorism and Counter-Extremism
In March 2022, authorities designated Meta, the new company name for Facebook, an extremist organization and blocked the use of Facebook and Instagram, another Meta-owed platform, for anti-war speech.
Lilia Chanysheva, the former head of Navalny’s team in Ufa, remained in detention since her November 2021 arrest on unsubstantiated charges of leading an extremist group. In May 2022, Navalny was indicted on the same charges. In January, Russian authorities added Chanysheva, Navalny, and some of his aides and allies in exile to the registry of terrorists and extremists.
In 2022, dozens were fined on charges of displaying “extremist” symbols for social media posts that included or mentioned symbols of Navalny’s “Smart Voting” electoral project, displayed the logo of the Foundation Against Corruption, or showed old photos taken with Navalny. The number of such cases in Moscow spiked in summer of 2022, apparently linked to the autumn municipal elections. Extremism-related convictions preclude candidates from running.
In October, Russian authorities charged Navalny with “propagating terrorism, publicly calling for extremism, financing extremist activities and “rehabilitating Nazism.”
In late September, prosecutors started issuing bloggers warnings about “attracting users” on Facebook and Instagram, alleging that this may be considered as “extremist” activity. In October, they warned users against placing ads on these platforms.
In June, Tatarstan’s Supreme Court ruled to ban as “extremist” the All-Tatar Public Center. In 2021 the Justice Ministry had suspended the center’s activities on allegations of “ethnic enmity.”
Russian courts sentenced at least 20 persons to 11 to 18 years in prison on politically motivated charges of membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), a pan-Islamist movement that seeks to establish a caliphate but denounces violence to achieve that goal. At least another 13 persons were detained on the same charges and also face lengthy prison terms. Russia banned HuT as a terrorist organization in 2003.
Police continued to raid houses and open new criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses, banned as “extremist” in Russia since 2017. In 2022, at least 84 Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to up to 7 years in prison, and 68 were behind bars awaiting trial.
Several people were indicted for supposed affiliation with Nurdzhular, a group of followers of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi that Russia banned as extremist in 2008, even though it has no history of incitement or violence.
Environment, Climate Change, and Human Rights
As one of the world’s top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases, Russia is contributing to the climate crisis that is taking a mounting toll on human rights around the globe. It is also the third largest producer of fossil fuels and a top gas exporter. The Climate Action Tracker rates Russia’s climate action plan as “critically insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Watchdogs continued to report physical attacks, harassment, intimidation, and prosecution of grassroot activists and environmental groups.
Massive forest fires again raged in different parts of Russia and by late September nearly 4 million hectares of forests burned, over half of them in Siberia and Russia’s Far Eastern region. Almost half of Russia’s forests were explicitly excluded from fire-fighting measures, according to Greenpeace.
In September 2022, a group of environmental activists lodged the first ever “climate lawsuit” against the government in the Supreme Court, demanding radical reduction of Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Right to Asylum, Prohibition of Refoulement, Migration
Russian authorities facilitated forcible returns of North Korean workers who tried to escape strict surveillance by North Korean officials and apply for asylum.
In September 2021, Russian authorities adopted a law on simplified naturalization of foreigners who serve in the Russian military and started to actively lure and coerce migrants to join the Russian military, presumably to fight in Ukraine, and even opened a military recruitment office inside the migrant processing center in Moscow. In response, three Central Asian republics publicly warned their nationals of criminal liability for mercenary activities.
In one incident captured on camera, police harassed migrant workers from Central Asia, demanding that they go to the draft office and fight for Russia.
Domestic Violence, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The government continued its trajectory of anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) discrimination.
In February, a St. Petersburg court ruled in favor of the Justice Ministry’s lawsuit to close Sphere Foundation, the legal entity used by Russian LGBT Network to receive funds and implement various efforts to support LGBT people.
In July, a court in Komsomolsk-na-Amure acquitted Yulia Tsvetkova, an artist and LGBT and women’s rights activist, in an absurd, politically motivated criminal pornography case related to her activism, after 31 months of investigation and trial. The ruling was upheld on appeal.
In December, a new law was enacted that extends to adults the earlier ban on “gay propaganda” among children, and also bans “transgender propaganda”. Earlier, RKN supported the bill, stating that the “popularization of deviant relations does not fit with our society’s traditional values” and that “such information … is dangerous for the entire society.”
Another bill submitted to parliament in September would ban spreading among children information about voluntary childlessness, which its authors consider “foreign ideology that forms destructive social behavior… [and] contradicts Russia’s traditional family values and state policy.”
Five years after the decriminalization of some forms of domestic violence, legislation to strengthen protections against and penalties for domestic abuse remains stalled. Groups report increasing numbers of women seeking assistance but continued underreporting to authorities as inadequate police and judicial response persists.
Rights to Freedom of Expression and Privacy Online
Over the past year, Russian government continued restricting access to popular censorship circumvention tools such as Virtual Private Network (VPN) services and anonymizers, further undermining the ability of people in Russia to access arbitrarily blocked information.
Authorities fined technology companies for their failure to comply with overbroad state laws that censored online content. In March 2022, the Russian government restricted access to Facebook on the grounds that the platform was spreading “discrimination against Russian media,” and to Twitter on the grounds that the platform was “spreading false information” about the war in Ukraine. Later that month, authorities blocked Instagram in response to the company’s changes to its violent speech policies.
Russian authorities expanded their control over people’s biometric data, including by collecting such data from banks, and using facial recognition technology to surveil and persecute activists.
In July 2022, a new law was adopted allowing Russian authorities to extrajudicially close mass media outlets and block online content for disseminating “false information” about the conduct of Russian Armed Forces or other state bodies abroad or for disseminating calls for sanctions on Russia. The bill also envisaged liability for reprinting or reposting of such materials.
The Education Ministry failed to act following reports that it had recommended unsafe online learning products for children’s use during the Covid-19 pandemic, which transmitted children’s personal data to advertising technology companies.
Key International Actors (see also Ukraine chapter)
From February 24, new international sanctions were imposed by the European Union, the US, the UK, Canada, and other governments against Russian individuals, companies, and other entities.
In October, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a UN human rights monitoring mechanism on Russia (UN special rapporteur for Russia), for which international and Russian human rights groups had actively advocated.
In July, a group of UN human rights experts condemned Russian authorities’ crackdown on civil society groups, human rights defenders, and media and urged the international community to redouble its efforts to support Russian civil society in the country and in exile.
In July, member states of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) invoked OSCE’s Moscow mechanism to examine serious concerns about Russia’s fulfilment of its human rights commitments. The rapporteur’s report, published in September, found that increasing repression is “forcing non-governmental organisations, anti-corruption activists, journalists …, human rights defenders, lawyers and researchers to reduce or abandon their activities or to leave the country.”
In July, the EU issued a statement on the 10th anniversary of the “foreign agent" law, strongly condemning the government’s systematic attempts to instill fear and crack down on civil society and the democratic opposition.
In April, the United Nations General Assembly suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council over reports of "gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights" in Ukraine. It also passed resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of and atrocities in Ukraine.
In March the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers decided to expel Russia from the organization in connection with the invasion of Ukraine, one day after the Russian government notified the council of its withdrawal.
Several other international bodies and intergovernmental organizations have also suspended Russian membership, or expelled Russia altogether.