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The Tragicomedy of Authoritarian State Terror

Image via Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

February 25, 2022. The morning wraps Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in a chilly fog cocoon. Anastasia Nikolaeva puts on a hoodie and a white coat, takes a sheet of blank paper, and makes her way to a busy intersection.

It’s been around 24 hours since her country launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Anastasia unwraps the blank sheet and takes her place next to a crosswalk. Her friend lingers nearby in case things go south, and they don’t have to wait long. Two policemen in ushankas and masks approach the woman.

“What are you doing? What’s this?”

Anastasia is asked to provide proof of identity and to follow the policemen to their car. That same day, she is slapped with an eight-day administrative arrest for “disobeying the police.” On March 1, the Rostov Regional Court refuses her appeal.

What threat did Anastasia’s sheet of paper pose to the security of the Russian Federation? “Disobeying the police,” Anastasia’s apparent crime, is one of the many labels the Russian government uses to silence dissent. Other such charges include “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces,” “non-compliance with the rules of public events,” “extremism,” and “[justification of] terrorism.” Anastasia’s nominal charge only labeled her as a threat to police and not Russia as a state. However, as a saying that has resurfaced in Russia since the beginning of the war goes, “все всё понимают”—“everyone understands everything.” A girl standing on the street with a blank protest sign after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine is not just engaging in a quirky social experiment—she’s attempting to take political action in an environment where her hands are tied and her voice is silenced by the draconian censorship policies of the state. The implications of her actions have made Anastasia a victim of the anti-dissent strategies implemented by the Russian government. This stems from the long-lasting issue of defining who and what is a threat to the security of the state. 

The lack of clarity concerning what exactly constitutes a threat to state security makes such charges the perfect tool with which to quell opposition. To avoid unnecessary polemic, in this article, I will define terrorism as an act of political violence committed by an individual, organization, or a state to induce fear in a group of people or a population to make them do or abstain from doing something, thus fulfilling a political purpose. It is extremely important to emphasize, however, that on the global and international levels of analysis, neither terrorism nor extremism have a commonly accepted definition by which to determine who poses a real threat to the state—and even if they did, the question of what constitutes a legitimate response to this threat remains. In a cruel twist of political irony, authoritarian states manipulate broad definitions of terrorism to take legal action against dissenters, delegitimize their accusations before the public, and achieve the political purpose of inflicting terror by inducing fear of non-compliance in its citizens.

In states where the justice system is exploited by the government to achieve its corrupt means regardless of a suspect’s innocence, the question is no longer whether a person charged with terrorism is guilty of political violence. The question is whether the state desires for the public to view this person as a terrorist and thus an inhumane enemy. Accordingly, charges—or even mere allegations—of terrorism, which evoke the scope of historical tragedy, act as a psychological trigger for an intense and negative public reaction. Broad definitions of extremism are endlessly malleable and allow states not to be held accountable for unjust charges against peaceful protesters. As both lawmaker and judge, the state creates the conditions for charges of terrorism and then lays them down, to the detriment of dissenters.

Russia has mastered this act. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, new laws have been passed to punish those who openly protest the government’s actions. As Russia persists in referring to the invasion as a “special military operation,” anyone who calls it a war, including on social media, can be arrested for “discrediting the armed forces.” The tragicomic absurdity of such prosecutions has thus expanded exponentially. A history teacher was fined 30,000 rubles (about one-half of an average monthly salary in Russia) for commenting a sad emoji under an anti-war post on social media. A man was arrested for standing in the street holding a pack of sausages—he had scribbled out several letters out of the producer’s logo so that the package would read “МИР!” (PEACE!). A woman was arrested, convicted for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces,” and fined 50,000 rubles (slightly less than one month’s worth of an average Russian salary) for holding up a sign reading “FASCISM WILL NOT PASS.” 

This manipulative approach to delegitimizing opponents is not a novel practice, both for the Russian government and other authoritarian states. In fact, it is a constant trend that is visible every time an authoritarian regime feels insecure. Similar techniques were employed by the Chinese Communist Party in relation to the 2019 extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, where the initial government response of silence and censorship was abandoned in favor of reports of “radical protesters […] destroying facilities, defacing the national anthem, and painting graffiti that insulted the country and the nation,” and, of course, the magic words: “signs of terrorism.”

An astonishingly similar tactic was employed by the Russian authorities in response to the 2021 protests in support of Alexey Navalny. The Russian government’s strategy in addressing the protests relied on the same principles as the Chinese tactic of disregard: The President’s Press Secretary Dmitriy Peskov asserted, “No, few people came out, many people voted for Putin”. However, more than 4,000 people were arrested and fined from 10,000 to 300,000 rubles (about five days to six months of average Russian wages) or charged with imprisonment for 15 to 30 days for “administrative violations.” Some were even criminally prosecuted for “using violence against a government representative,” which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment. Most importantly, this case demonstrates that the practice of using the word “terrorism” to achieve a political cause of delegitimization does not distinguish between a single woman holding a blank sheet of paper and thousands of citizens protesting the imprisonment of a prominent opposition leader—all cases are carefully placed into the “extremism” or “terrorism” boxes and prosecuted accordingly. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are: The moment the Russian government feels insecure in how you might influence the legitimacy of the country’s authorities and their choices, you’re a threat. Thus, nobody must know about the existence of such an act of dissent—and if they do, make sure to point out that it was a morally wrong thing to do and was punished harshly.

Following the aftermath of the protests, the opposition movement faced a direct “counter-terrorism” response from the government: On August 10, 2021, the Foundation For Combating Corruption (FCC), a nonprofit organization led by Navalny, was added to the list of individuals and organizations affiliated with extremism or terrorism. On April 26, 2023, Navalny himself announced that a terrorism affiliation charge was brought up against him. If added to the previous charges, this conviction would result in lifetime imprisonment for Navalny. 

The new charge facing Navalny is no outlier: In April 2023 the Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee concluded that the assassination of war correspondent Vladlen Tatarsky was planned and carried out by the Ukrainian intelligence services in collaboration with FCC. This allowed Russian authorities to hit two birds with one stone, demonizing both the Russian opposition and the Ukrainian intelligence services in one accusation. As a result, the public perception of both FCC and Ukraine now carry the bloody handprints of an assassination committed in the center of St. Petersburg.

Harsh persecution might be a legitimate tactic in the case of a government facing a threat to state or citizen security from violent individuals or organizations. A sovereign state may use its power and its monopoly on violence to punish those who commit acts of terror, thus setting a precedent to discourage future attacks. However, in the hands of authoritarian governments such as China or Russia, the flexibility of the label of terrorism serves as a weapon of fear by demonstrating the harsh consequences of expressing dissatisfaction with the government. This makes such a practice an act of political violence aimed “to provoke a state of terror in the general public… intimidate a population… compel to do or abstain from doing any act”—one of the few legal definitions of terrorism in international frameworks.

And so the grand drapes rise once again.