The Russian parliament recently passed a law that now makes treason against the state a life sentence, harking back to the days of the USSR. Putin’s government has been cracking down on civil liberties for years, with laws that criminalize criticism of the government and the army and impose heavy fines and prison sentences for those who violate them. The government has increased pressure on NGOs and independent media outlets, forcing them to register as "foreign agents" or face closure. The country is now reverting to its history under the Tsars and Soviet Union, with its authoritarian rule, lack of civil liberties, and the establishment of a police state. Putin's government continues to work on perfecting the police state that has been evolving in Russia for over a century.
Under the Tsars, Russia was characterized by a highly centralized government that tightly controlled all aspects of public life. The state secret police, the Okhrana, was given almost unlimited power to suppress any opposition or dissent, and they operated outside of the law. The Bolsheviks replaced this system after the Russian Revolution and continued the tradition of using secret police and harsh repression to maintain their grip on power.
The Soviet government, which ruled Russia for most of the 20th century, continued along the path to a perfect police state, using a combination of propaganda, secret police, and forced labor to keep the population in line. The KGB, the successor agency to the Cheka and NKVD, was notorious for its brutality and used a vast network of informers to spy on the population.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia underwent a period of political and economic liberalization. However, this period was short-lived, and soon the government began to move back towards authoritarianism. Putin, who took power in 2000, has been steadily building up a new totalitarian regime, using a combination of propaganda, secret police, and repression.
The mass protests that occurred during the presidential election campaign in 2011 shocked Putin. The Russian leader saw firsthand the potential risk of allowing open political dialogue and dissent. Since then, Putin’s government, learning from the mistakes of past regimes, is using new technologies and tactics to maintain control. The internet, which was supposed to be a tool for democracy and free speech, has been heavily censored in Russia. The government uses sophisticated methods to block access to content it deems dangerous. The government has also been using social media to spread disinformation and propaganda, effectively shaping public opinion.
The war in Ukraine, and its ineffective execution, has only amplified Putin’s need to complete the construction of his police state. The Russian people must be vigilant and fight against this trend or risk sliding back into the dark days of the past. Opposition to Putin will be challenging, with many leading Putin critics, such as Navalny, serving long prison sentences and an exodus of hundreds of thousands of men who opposed the war in Ukraine. Given NATO’s reluctance to militarily confront Putin, the best hope might be that the long-term impact of economic sanctions convince some in the Russian president’s inner circle that a change is necessary.