"So, let them put me in jail. I'm not afraid at all. I won't last more than a few days, and frankly at my age I'm likely to die before they manage to throw me behind the bars," 85-year-old Ludmilla Alexeeva told me nonchalantly in November. Widely referred to as the grandma of the Russian human rights movement, she leads the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the oldest active civil society organization in Russia, founded along with several other Soviet dissenters back in the 1970s.
"I lived in a real totalitarian state and that was scary," she said. "But now the country is different, people are different -- you just cannot compare. Back in 1976, MHG was the only independent group in the USSR. Now things just aren't the same."
Things sure aren't the same, but Alexeeva seems be faced with the very same dilemma she confronted all those decades ago: stop your work or pay a high price. During the Soviet period, she was fortunate enough to be offered exile as an alternative to imprisonment (she lived in the United States for almost 20 years before returning to Moscow after the fall of the USSR). Now she counts herself lucky because her old age won't allow for prolonged imprisonment.
While today's Russia cannot be compared to the Soviet Union, it is certainly moving in that direction. In fact, during the first seven months of Vladimir Putin's new presidency, the echo of the old times has become alarmingly strong. So strong, in fact, that the most prominent human rights defender in the country is seriously contemplating the prospect of soon landing in jail. This is especially poignant since just a year ago, when mass public protests erupted in Moscow following the December parliamentary vote, Alexeeva and other human rights defenders were rejoicing about the awakening of Russian society and hoping for positive change.
Such hopes were apparently premature. In 20 years of on-the-ground human rights monitoring in post-Soviet Russia, Human Rights Watch has not seen a political crackdown as sweeping as the one we are witnessing today. The crackdown was foreshadowed in the lead-up to Putin's May 7 presidential inauguration, when authorities in some cities repeatedly used beatings, threats from state officials, arbitrary lawsuits and detention, and other forms of harassment to intimidate political and civic activists and interfere with news outlets that are critical of the government. State-controlled media, including pro-government websites, did their best to discredit the Kremlin's critics by subjecting them to venomous and often depraved smear campaigns.
The Kremlin tightened the screws as soon as Putin returned to power, possibly in response to the humiliation and threat posed by the growing protest movement. The government, it seems aspires to go back to the end of 2007, when Putin was finishing his second presidential term and the Kremlin utterly dominated public and political life.
Parliament has proven to be a particularly useful tool in Putin's campaign to reinstate strong authoritarian rule. Since May, it has rammed through a raft of laws that set out broad new restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and provide powerful mechanisms for putting pressure on civil society activists. One such piece of legislation, commonly referred to as the "foreign agents law," requires non-governmental advocacy organizations that accept foreign funding to register with the Justice Ministry and identify themselves publicly as "foreign agents," which of course demonizes them in the public eye as foreign spies. Groups are expected to register voluntarily and can have their work suspended or be taken to court if they don't. If an NGO refuses to register, the head of the organization may face criminal sanctions and go to prison for up to two years. Meanwhile, if the institution registers as a "foreign agent," the organization must deliver biannual reports on its activities and carry out an annual financial audit. It must also publicize details about the "agent" receiving the funds and the "principal" who's providing them in a manner that sends a clear message: If you accept foreign funds, your donors are your master.