As Russia's confrontation with the West escalates, so has its crackdown on dissent at home

As Russia’s confrontation with the West deepens, domestic critics of President Vladimir Putin say they’re paying a heavy price. Activists with pro-Western leanings are being arrested and jailed and journalists say they are facing intimidation.

Russian authorities toughen repression against perceived enemies within the country

Nikita Golovizin faced intimidation and later arrest by Russian security services after he flew a European Union flag from his balcony next to a sign calling President Vladimir Putin a 'thief.' (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

For opponents of President Vladimir Putin in Russia, it seems as if there's no place that's safe these days — including in their own homes.

"It was like 'bang, bang, bang' for half an hour," said Nikita Golovizin, an activist from the city of Voronezh about five hundred kilometres south of the capital Moscow, as he described how security agents parked themselves outside his apartment for several hours on one recent evening.

He said they pounded on his door, screamed obscenities at him and turned off the electricity in his unit in an effort to get him to come out and turn himself in.

Golovizin, 20, said his alleged "crime" was to wave the gold and blue colours of the European Union flag out of his apartment window next to a handwritten sign that said "Putin is a thief."

"They are afraid of any other opinion about the future of the country," he told our CBC Moscow crew who visited him in Voronezh.

Golovizin's experience came during an intensified crackdown on dissent in Russia, as the country finds itself buffeted by increasing confrontations both domestically and abroad.   

A security camera surveys an outside the Kremlin in Moscow, which is in the midst of installing 200,000 cameras around the capital, creating one of the largest such surveillance systems in the world. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Police caught up with Golovizin a few days after our visit, arresting him as left his apartment for work. He was sent to jail for seven days for promoting an anti-government protest.

"I'm angry — I'm angry at the repression," he said Thursday, shortly after his release.

The influential newspaper Novaya Gazeta suggested that "arrest at home may replace ... traditional mass detentions" and represents a new tactic in Russia's growing crackdown on anti-Kremlin voices.

Likewise, the human rights group Amnesty International said the idea is to instil fear into opponents that nowhere is safe.

'Come for you at any point'

"The repressive state knows who you are and can come for you at any point," Natalia Zvaigina, director of Amnesty's Moscow office, told CBC News in an interview. 

On the night of April 21, as protests in support of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny swept across Russia,  police in most cities appeared unusually reserved and made few arrests.   

But in the subsequent days, they visited the homes of hundreds of activists — and journalists — using security cameras and facial recognition technology to track them down after the fact.

Some reporters for independent publications such as Novaya Gazeta and Moscow's TV Rain were taken to police stations and made to prove they were at the protests as part of their job — not as supporters of Navalny.

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is seen on screens via video link before a hearing to consider an appeal against an earlier court decision that found him guilty of slandering a Russian Second World War veteran in Moscow on Thursday. (Press Service of Babushkinsky District Court of Moscow/Reuters)

Navalny, 44, is a longtime crusader against corruption involving members of the Kremlin elite and is openly despised by those who rule the country. 

Last August while travelling in Siberia, he survived an assassination attempt that Western countries say was carried out by Russia's security services.   

Navalny defied Putin by returning to Russia after his recovery in Germany and was sent to prison for three years. The official charge was for violating the conditions of his parole, but he and his supporters say the real reason is that  Navalny directly accused Putin ordering the attempt on his life.

Harassment for supporters

Since then, prosecutors have moved to declare his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as an extremist organization. Much of his leadership team has fled to Europe. Other high profile supporters who have stayed are under house arrest and are facing possible criminal charges. 

On Thursday, his associates announced they had no choice but close all 40 regional offices following a court order to halt all political activity.

Rows of riot police and security services personnel keep watch on protesters and activists in Moscow on April 21. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

A statement by Russian prosecutors reiterated their position that shutting down Navalny's network was justified.

"Under the guise of liberal slogans, these organizations are engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and socio-political situation," said the statement.

On Friday morning, Navalny's lawyer in the extremism case, Ivan Pavlov, was detained by the FSB,  Russia's secret police, at his Moscow hotel and his home in St. Petersburg was searched according to a Facebook post by a colleague. He has apparently been charged with disclosing information from a preliminary investigation.

Pavlov is one of Russia's most prominent lawyers in cases involving alleged extremism or treason and he was set to appear in court today to defend Russian journalist Ivan Safronov who is also in jail on espionage charges.

Since Navalny's return to Russia — but especially over the last several weeks — Russian conflicts with Western countries have intensified.

The United States recently hit the Putin government with a new round of economic sanctions in response for using the chemical weapon Novichok to try to poison Navalny, as well as for what it says was a massive Russian cyberwarfare attack.

In the past two weeks, European countries have expelled dozens of Russian diplomats after Russian secret agents were accused of staging a series of deadly espionage operations.

And Russia also mobilized more than 100,000 military personnel on the border with Ukraine, accusing NATO and Ukraine of trying to provoke a war before announcing a drawback last week.

'Foreign agent'

In another major escalation against domestic opponents this week, prosecutors moved against one of Russia's most respected independent online news sources, Meduza, declaring it to be a "foreign agent."

"The environment becomes darker and darker every day," editor in chief Ivan Kolpakov told CBC News in an interview from Riga, Latvia, where Meduza has its editorial headquarters. 

Although based in an EU country, Meduza's audience is primarily in Russia and much of its team of 60 employees work in the country.   

Ivan Kolpakov, editor in chief of Meduza, one of Russia's most-respected independent online news sources, works in Riga, Latvia, where Meduza has its editorial headquarters.  (CBC News)

"They mark us as a foreign agent. They are trying to undermine our impartiality in the public's eyes and of course it works very good," said Kolpakov.

While Russia has applied the "foreign agent" designation to media organizations before, such as the Voice of America,  which is funded by the U.S. State Department, this would be the first time a commercial media enterprise has been targeted.

Kolpakov said the measure has already scared away advertisers. In a statement Thursday, the editorial team called on readers and "caring people to unite to save this wonderful project."

"These people [in the Kremlin] really believe that Western countries are trying to destroy 'Mother Russia,' " said Kolpakov.

"And they can really believe that we are a foreign media outlet, broadcasting in Russia, so we should be marked as a foreign agent."

Repression more widespread

While Western-leaning activists and independent media outlets have never had an easy time of it in Russia, until recently the authorities had resisted heavy handed tactics, opting instead to use propaganda and state TV to try to drown them out.

But since Navalny's arrest in January, the situation has changed dramatically, with the repression becoming far more pronounced and widespread.

"The non-systemic opposition [Navalny's organization] lost its political right to exist," said Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst and non-resident scholar at Moscow's Carnegie Center.

A man walks past graffiti depicting Navalny in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

"Liberal media ... in the eyes of the [security services] is a player on Navalny's side and therefore must be neutralized."

Russia's deteriorating and increasingly confrontational relationship with Western countries is also fuelling the crackdown on those in Russia perceived to be critics of the regime, Stanovaya told CBC News.

"All that is anti-Putin and liberal ... is considered by the authorities to be a tool of Western secret services … to rock the boat and destabilize the situation in Russia."

How Kremlin opponents will respond to the repression is an existential question — with few answers at this point.

Golovizin, the activist, said he believes Russia's economic and political problems run deep and authorities aren't taking steps to solve them, so dissent in some form will continue.

"We have more and more people who are not afraid so even after this, they will go to the streets."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.