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date: 25 February 2024

Legal Repression in Russiafree

Legal Repression in Russiafree

  • Katerina TertytchnayaKaterina TertytchnayaUniversity College London
  •  and Madeleine TiratsooMadeleine TiratsooUniversity College London


Contemporary authoritarian regimes use the law in order to stifle their rivals’ ability and willingness to challenge the state. Research has investigated the conditions that make legal repression more likely in electoral autocracies and advanced our understanding of the ways in which legislation may be used for repressive ends in these settings. To a lesser extent, studies have also explored the consequences of legal repression in nondemocracies, focusing on its impact on dissent, opposition leaders, protesters, and civil society.

This article discusses how, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the law has been used to exercise political power vis-à-vis the opposition. Since the early 2000s, the Russian authorities have used legislative channels to adopt and refine laws and regulations aimed at hindering protest and inhibiting the development of an independent civil society. The discussion of the Russian case contributes to comparative research on legal repression and authoritarian politics in various ways. First, it offers important insights into the direct and indirect consequences of legal repression on dissent, the development of civil society, and public opinion toward groups targeted by legal repression. Second, the study of Russia illustrates how institutional capture and power consolidation facilitate the adoption and implementation of repressive legislation. Finally, the Russian case advances our understanding of the dynamic nature of legal repression. Reforms to laws regulating protest and civil society in Russia showcase how domestic and external events may cause legal repression to escalate. The article concludes by identifying fruitful avenues for future research on legal repression.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Politics, Law, Judiciary
  • World Politics


The term legal repression refers to the process by which the authorities aim to dampen their rivals’ ability and willingness to challenge the state by way of law (see, e.g., Ellefsen, 2016, p. 445). Legal repression involves the violation of due process in the administration and arbitration of law and results in the violation of fundamental human rights, such as the right to freedom of assembly, association, and expression (DeMeritt, 2016). Repressive law does not check or constrain power-holders (e.g., Nonet & Selznick, 1978). It is instead used to uphold the social order and prevent or punish dissent. In contemporary authoritarian regimes, the use of the law for repressive ends, defined as the subordination of the law to politics, results in “rule by law” as opposed to “rule of law.”

Integral to the practice of legal repression are legal processes such as summary and show trials, hearings, and public prosecutions. Laws that criminalize civil liberties and freedoms, suspend constitutional protections, and hinder collective action are also central to the practice of legal repression (e.g., Jones, 2020, p. 46). Other legislation, such as defamation laws and legislation on extremism, can also often be repurposed for repressive ends. Even though these laws do not explicitly acknowledge their targets as the authorities’ political opponents, they are instrumental in suppressing dissent (e.g., Rajah, 2012, p. 19).

Examples illustrating the use of the law for repressive ends abound. To deprive the opposition of legal outlets for protest, governments in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile during the 1960s and 1970s used “states of exception.” To stifle opposition following the coup attempt of 2016, the Turkish authorities issued decrees that limited the right of citizens to demonstrate lawfully. To secure their tenure, the authorities in Bahrain responded to the 2011 upsurge of protest with emergency laws that criminalized political activity. To detain progressive activists and those deemed critical of the government, the Indian authorities have also relied on the “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act,” ostensibly a terrorism prevention law. Singapore continues to use the law to sideline the opposition and erode rights while claiming to be a “Western-style” democracy (Rajah, 2012, p. 3). In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, “anti-extremist” legislation was brought to bear against Russians who took to the streets to express their opposition to the war. Authoritarian governments also use protest permit requirements to discriminate against groups for the content of their speech (State Watch, 2013, pp. 9, 39). While antigovernment protests face insurmountable challenges in authoritarian settings, pro-regime protests are allowed to go ahead uninterrupted. The arbitrary and politically motivated implementation of laws and regulations is integral to the practice of legal repression. These and similar strategies can be described as channeling—activities that do not involve the use of coercion yet are meant to “diminish or affect future activism, limiting the range of spaces, activities, and issues in which activism can safely occur” (Earl, 2003, p. 51).

This article begins by discussing what we know about the origins and consequences of legal repression in electoral autocracies, regimes that combine authoritarian practices with multiparty elections. The discussion engages with the conditions and incentives that encourage autocrats to adopt and implement repressive laws. It also reviews research on legal repression’s effect on dissent, protesters, and civil society. Several findings emerge. First, autocrats’ reliance on legal, nonviolent strategies of repression has been partly a response to the growing costs of repression strategies that involve the use of brutal force and coercion. Second, legal repression has several reputational advantages for nondemocratic incumbents; it may allow them to maintain the appearance of legality and to justify repressive measures to domestic audiences and foreign observers alike.

Moving on, the article provides an in-depth discussion of the practice of legal repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia is representative of other electoral autocracies that have used the law as an instrument of governance, in order to exercise power vis-à-vis the opposition. Using legislative channels, the Russian authorities have adopted and enacted legislation that restricts the right to freedom of assembly, expression, and association. The implementation of laws and regulations has also been discriminatory in the country. For example, authorities tasked with authorizing protests have used protest notification requirements to discriminate against groups for the content of their speech.

The article argues that the study of Russia generates important insights into the practice of legal repression in a comparative setting. First, studies of legal repression in Russia, reviewed in this article, have offered important insights into the direct and indirect consequences of this strategy on protest, civil society, and public opinion toward protest and the opposition. Second, the process of authoritarian consolidation in Russia expands our understanding of how factors such as institutional capture, the executive’s soaring popularity, and power centralization may facilitate the adoption and day-to-day implementation of legal repression. Finally, the Russian case advances our understanding of the dynamic nature of legal repression, showcasing how domestic and external events may cause legal repression to escalate. The article concludes by identifying fruitful avenues for future work on legal repression.

Explaining Legal Repression in Authoritarian Regimes

As studies in authoritarian politics remind us, a “regime’s ability to exercise power beyond any legal or constitutional constraints is the essence of dictatorship” (Gehlbach et al., 2016, p. 566). Why is it then that authoritarian leaders elect to use the law to repress? To some extent, the growing reliance of contemporary autocrats on legal, nonviolent strategies of repression is a response to the increasing costs of violent repression. The emergence of an international human rights movement, social and economic modernization, and positive conditionality from international organizations have made brutal force harder to justify (e.g., Blanton & Blanton, 2007; Carnegie & Marinov, 2017). Global and social media have also made violence harder to hide. Brutal repression, Guriev and Treisman (2022) remind us, is more public and more economically harmful in developed societies. In addition to harming the legitimacy of autocrats and making backlash mobilization more likely at home, acts of brutal force and coercion could harm the national economy, depressing foreign investment and stimulating capital flight. As studies suggest, rather than crushing opposition, instances of repression which citizens perceive as illegitimate can escalate expressions of dissent (e.g., Bratton, 2017). Using the law to repress allows autocrats to exercise power vis-à-vis the opposition and to avoid some of the costs of brutal violence.

Legal repression comes with additional advantages, some of which are reputational. For example, using the law may allow authoritarian leaders to bolster their legitimacy (e.g., Moustafa, 2014, p. 238), maintain the appearance of legality, and justify repressive measures to domestic audiences and foreign observers (e.g., Josua, 2021). As researchers have argued, domestic audiences perceive “lawful” attacks against civil society, individuals, and organizations as more justified and acceptable than repression which relies on coercion (e.g., Chaudhry, 2022). Perceptions of repression as “lawful” or “justified” can also reduce the likelihood that it will generate feelings of anger or outrage leading to a decline in support for its perpetrators and to backlash mobilization.

Repression implemented through legal means also complicates international and domestic efforts to monitor and hold authoritarian leaders accountable for their actions. Gradual reforms that erode the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression are less likely to attract the attention of domestic and international audiences and provoke outcry than acts of repression that involve the use of brutal force or coercion, such as beatings or arrests of opposition members and activists. As Rajah’s (2012, p. 17) study of legal repression in Singapore reminds us, while the dangers of 21st-century authoritarianism are manifold, its insidiousness is perhaps its most threatening characteristic.

Studies have also engaged with the consequences of legal repression: its direct and indirect effects on dissent, opposition leaders, civil society, and public opinion. Research, for example, has suggested that by using the law to label independent media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as “foreign agents,” contemporary autocrats aim to prevent targeted groups from engaging in activities critical of the government and to discredit them in the eyes of the public (e.g., Bakke et al., 2020; Buyse, 2018). Research also shows that several strategies of legal repression used in anticipation of protest, such as protest permit rejections, impose layers of control upon protest organizers and may influence the types of groups that take to the streets. Groups that dissent despite obstruction have greater resolve and a higher threshold for violence than others who—faced with a ban on protesting, for example—choose to stay at home (e.g., Ritter & Conrad, 2016). Repression, legal or otherwise, has also been recognized as one of the factors affecting demobilization (Demirel-Pegg, 2017). Finally, we know from research on the public opinion effects of legal repression in democracies that strategies of repression that rely on the law may discredit targeted groups (Crozat, 1998). During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, for example, criminal prosecutions and hearings were used to attach negative associations to protesters’ reputations and to reduce support for their demands (e.g., Barkan, 2006; Shriver et al., 2018).

Research on Legal Repression in Russia

The study of Russia has contributed to comparative literature on the origins and consequences of legal repression. For example, studies of legal repression in Russia and the broader region have improved our understanding of its origins, illustrating why and when autocrats adopt repressive legislation. This work emphasizes the role of external and domestic threats in the form of protest or independent civil society on the one hand and regional learning on the other. For example, according to Lemon and Antonov (2020), governments in Central Asia and Russia, faced with the “color revolutions,” learnt from one another, adopting restrictive legislation to regulate peaceful assembly, civil society, and political participation. Joint membership in regional organizations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, facilitated learning and legal harmonization. To a large extent, legislative reform was prompted by the experience of the color revolutions, the symbolically named series of peaceful uprisings that led to political change in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s, and the events of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.

Studies on the origins of legal repression in Russia have also examined how the tightening of political control through legislative means reflects wider trends in Russian politics. According to Horvath (2012), some of the controls on civil society and restrictions on demonstrations and electoral competition in Russia were adopted in the early 2000s in response to perceived threats stemming from growing domestic opposition. The legislation governing NGOs and, in particular, the 2012 “foreign agents” law have also been studied as symptomatic of an authoritarian turn in Russian politics during Putin’s third term as president (Flikke, 2016). Bogush (2017), too, sees Putin’s third term as marking a turning point in the regime’s attitude to dissent. Bogush’s study examines the laws introduced after the large electoral protests of 2011–2012 criminalizing certain forms of speech and argues that this legislation aimed to stigmatize opposition views and create a “chilling effect” on free speech. These works examine the consolidation of legal repression through legislative reform as indicative of political tides more generally.

There are also excellent case studies of how Russian authorities tried to justify the adoption of repressive legislation. In particular, the “Bolotnoe delo” or “Bolotnaya square” case, including a series of prosecutions brought against participants in the electoral protests of 2011–2012, inspired extensive research on how autocrats use domestic protest in order to intensify legal repression and justify its use. In May 2012, Russia’s Investigative Committee launched a public investigation into the events that took place during an opposition rally on May 6, 2012—the eve of Putin’s third inauguration as the president of Russia. Protesters calling for political change were accused of participating in riots and attacking the police. Writing on the events, Gelman (2015) suggested that the stigmatizing charges brought against protestors as part of the “Bolotnoe delo” case were used by the Kremlin to legitimize subsequent repressive legislation. Lanskoy and Suthers (2013) have also argued that the decision to bring criminal charges to bear against protesters was part of a more general move toward repressive law, including with the introduction of the various laws governing NGOs.

Studies have also considered the indirect effect of the “Bolotnoe delo” hearings and prosecutions on dissent and public opinion. Gelman (2016) has argued that the harsh punishments exhibited in the “Bolotnoe delo” case, as well as the selective nature of their enforcement, created a “politics of fear” in Russia. Widely publicized prosecutions were intended to act as a deterrent, intimidating other would-be protestors and discouraging opposition activism and political participation. According to Sakwa (2014), the “Bolotnoe delo” case was apparently intended as a deterrent to ordinary citizens considering joining protests: rather than launching full-scale repression or targeting high-profile activists, authorities selected a few protesters to make an example of, thereby trying to deter turnout in future political protests. On the other hand, in examining the weakness of the opposition movement in the aftermath of the “Bolotnoe delo” case, Lasnier (2017) acknowledges the impact of legal repression on mobilization but argues that decision-making within opposition organizations and the priorities of opposition leaders were also significant factors in compromising further activism. These works helpfully put criminal prosecutions and hearings in the wider political context and go some way to charting their impact on dissent and on citizens’ views of protest mobilization.

The Russian case has also advanced comparative understanding of the impact of repressive legislation on civil society. The work of Bogdanova et al. (2018), Skokova et al. (2018), Flikke (2018), Moser and Skripchenko (2018), and Tysiachniouk et al. (2018) illustrates how repressive legislation stifles the development of an independent civil society without the need for the state to resort to coercion. This line of research demonstrates that the requirements of the “foreign agents” law, along with other regulations governing NGOs, dramatically changed the landscape for the sector. As Tysiachniouk et al. (2018) have shown, many NGOs themselves made the decision to move abroad or depoliticize their work because of the inhibitive conditions in Russia.

Studies on Russia, made possible by rich data on protest notifications, protest event catalogues, and opportunities for public opinion research that Russia afforded, have advanced comparative understanding of the indirect effects of legal repression on public opinion in nondemocracies. In a study on the effect of protest authorizations on public opinion, Tertytchnaya (2023) has shown that when the authorities engage in legal repression, such as when they deny protest permits, the ability of protesters to generate support is compromised. This study also suggests that the effects of legal repression on public opinion may be contingent on voters’ beliefs about the law. Individuals who view the law as legitimate are more likely to see legal repression as “rule of law.” Those who question the legitimacy of the authorities and of the law could see legal repression, such as protest permit denials, as “rule by law,” synonymous with repression. Other legal repression strategies can have similar consequences. For example, legislation targeting independent media and civil society groups as “foreign agents” could serve to discredit these groups in the eyes of the public. By denying civil society groups the opportunity to register as organizations, the authorities can also criminalize the political participation of these groups and compromise their ability to generate mass support.

Finally, research has considered the role played by Russian courts in implementing legal repression, a process sometimes described as political or politicized justice (see, e.g., Kirchheimer, 1961). According to Popova (2012), political actors may enact legal repression by influencing the law’s implementation as well as by constructing repressive legislation. This research has informed our understanding of the ways in which courts which are not independent of political interference can become sites of legal repression.

In the sections that follow, this article draws on evidence from Russia to consider in greater depth how institutional capture facilitates the adoption and day-to-day implementation of repressive legislation in nondemocracies. The article also considers how the Russian case helps generate helpful insights into the dynamic nature of legal repression. Consecutive reforms to repressive legislation in Russia help us better understand what factors prompt autocracies not only to engage in legal repression, which has been the subject of extensive research, but also to intensify its use.

Consolidating Legal Repression

Existing research shows that the adoption of legal repression in electoral autocracies is sometimes a step in the broader process of authoritarian consolidation (e.g., Scheppele, 2018; Svolik, 2019). Twenty-first century authoritarian leaders like Putin came to power through elections and then used constitutional tools to consolidate their rule by capturing judiciaries, reducing the parliament to a rubber stamp, and entrenching illiberal constitutional reform. In turn, institutional capture facilitated the adoption of repressive legislation with limited resistance. The study of authoritarian consolidation in Russia provides further insights into this process. The consolidation of political power in the hands of Putin, the ruling party’s control over the national and regional parliaments, the co-optation of parliamentary opposition, and, to some extent, Putin’s own soaring popularity are among the factors that have allowed the Kremlin to use the law as a tool of political control with limited resistance.

For example, during Putin’s early years in office, the party of power, United Russia, gained control of the State Duma, the lower house of the national parliament. Institutional reforms in the early 2000s, such as the increase of the threshold to enter parliament and the decision to allocate seats exclusively through party lists, reduced the number of parties in parliament and bolstered the Kremlin’s influence over legislative affairs. These electoral changes were reversed in time for the 2016 parliamentary elections, but by that time United Russia, the dominant party, had effectively consolidated their position in parliament. United Russia had little difficulty advancing its legislative agenda and passing repressive legislation at will. Indeed, repressive laws often enjoyed the support of opposition parties with seats in the State Duma and regional parliaments that were loyal to the Kremlin. Often referred to as Russia’s “systemic” opposition, political parties such as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia seldom opposed the adoption of legislation that violated the freedom of association, assembly, and expression and in doing so stifled the development of protest and of an independent civil society in Russia.

Federal control over regional politics, gained through the appointment of federal district envoys reporting directly to the president and regional governors loyal to Moscow, also served to subordinate the interests of the regions to those of the executive. Changes were also made to the selection of senators to the Federation Council, the upper house of the national parliament, giving the Kremlin greater powers to “suggest” representatives. These changes compromised the Council’s ability to oppose the executive and defend the rights of regions. They also gave the Kremlin much greater freedom to enact legislation: where the Boris Yeltsin administration had been forced to battle a rebellious upper house, a compliant Federation Council helped Putin save energy and political capital, freeing the presidential administration to focus on constructing policy.

Taking control of regional politics was also important as legislation aimed at restricting protest is often adopted and enacted at the regional level. Local mayors and governors have political incentives to ensure that repressive legislation gets applied locally. Take the case of protest, for example. For many of Russia’s governors and vice-governors, the extent of protest mobilization in their region is one of the key criteria used by the Kremlin to determine their reappointment or promotion within the administration (e.g., Pertsev, 2018). As such, despite regional variation in the laws regulating protest, the Kremlin is able to ensure subnational coordination when it comes to the implementation of legal repression. For example, protest permit rejections—an example of legal repression delegated to the regions—increase in predictable patterns across Russia on days of nationwide protests and in the lead-up to federal elections, periods of greater threat to the Kremlin (e.g., Tertytchnaya, 2023).

The Kremlin was also afforded broad discretion to enact repressive legislation by Putin’s personal popularity. Putin’s soaring popularity fueled support for United Russia and aided legislative dominance (e.g., Smyth, 2014). His popularity also made it difficult for systemic parties to criticize repressive legislation. In the period following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Putin’s approval ratings consistently exceeded 80%. Opposition activists spoke of the difficulty they faced communicating their message to the public, given that the president was perceived so favorably at the time (Greene & Robertson, 2019, p. 37). As the adoption of repressive legislation intensified after the annexation of Crimea, the opposition’s ability to criticize the introduction of further repressive measures declined even more.

Finally, the absence of independent courts that could otherwise limit the discretionary and arbitrary implementation of legislation in Russia has facilitated legal repression and enabled abuses. Executive influence over the courts, secured mainly through the appointment process as well as institutional norms, served to align the interests of courts with those of the executive and restricted the ability of targeted groups to challenge the authorities. As Hendley (2019) notes, the internal incentives for those working within Russian courts encourage them not to challenge the work of law enforcement or prosecutors. Defense lawyers do not generally engage in independent investigations either. Interviews with judges reflect a great reluctance to acquit and an acknowledgment that to do so can be a risky career move.

The Dynamic Nature of Legal Repression

In the sections that follow, the article briefly reviews amendments to the laws and codes governing peaceful assembly and civil society in Russia. The discussion advances our understanding of how domestic and external events can drive variation in the intensity of legal repression within a single case. This is an important contribution to the literature on legal repression. While studies examine why autocrats prefer strategies of legal repression over other repressive strategies, less is known about the factors that could cause legal repression to escalate. Evidence from Russia suggests that reforms to repressive legislation and the adoption of new provisions developed in waves, often in response to developments such as protest at home and abroad.

Legislative Reforms in the Early 2000s

The first wave of reform to laws and provisions regulating the freedom of association, expression, and assembly in Russia came in the early 2000s. Legislative changes took place in the shadow of the color revolutions of the early 2000s. Mass uprisings that led to the overthrow of incumbent authoritarian leaders in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005) concerned the authorities in Moscow. Protests against the monetization of social benefits, which took place in Russia in early 2005, exacerbated the Kremlin’s fear of dissent. In an effort to defeat-proof the streets, the authorities imposed wide-ranging restrictions on protest and civil society.

For example, in 2004, new provisions regulating demonstrations came into force. According to them, protest organizers should notify the authorities of upcoming protests with more than a single participant, and were proscribed from holding protests in certain spaces. Restrictions on the permitted location of protests served to undermine the ability of protesters to generate awareness of their demands and to elevate their agenda in the public consciousnesses. The Administrative Violations Code, through which the authorities can impose fines and jail terms, also allowed the authorities to draw up administrative protocols against protest participants and organizers who violated laws on protest. Harsh punishments associated with protest have built up gradually since this original legislation was passed in 2004.

Legislation coming into force in 2006 also targeted civil society. For example, new provisions expanded the grounds for rejecting the registration of NGOs with the tax authorities, including on some vague and discretionary criteria (e.g., documents prepared “inappropriately”) and on criteria which risked being applied in a discriminatory manner (e.g., organizations whose names “insult public morality, ethnic and religious feelings”; Human Rights Watch, 2008, p. 24). Certain groups, such as foreign citizens whose presence in Russia had been deemed “undesirable,” were proscribed from registering NGOs altogether. New regulations also introduced new mechanisms for authorities to inspect NGOs and imposed additional requirements for reporting funding from abroad. Russian NGOs engaging in political activity were no longer allowed to receive foreign funding (Wilson, 2010). These restrictions created a host of administrative burdens for a sector that had relied on foreign funding and support as it developed through the 1990s and early 2000s (Bogdanova et al., 2018).

Legal Repression Solidified After the Protests of 2011–2012

The large electoral protests of 2011–2012, which coincided with Putin’s re-election to a third term as president, ushered in a second wave of reforms to laws regulating protest and civil society and solidified Russia’s reliance on “rule by law.” For example, the introduction of the so-called “foreign agents” law in 2012 gave authorities the ability to designate organizations as “foreign agents” if they received funding from abroad and were engaged in political activity. The label of “foreign agent” subjected these organizations to additional controls and monitoring on the part of the Kremlin. “Foreign agents” were required to register with the Ministry of Justice and were subject to regular additional audits and scrutiny. The term “foreign agent” was also stigmatizing, implying that organizations were operating in the interests of foreign countries and, according to the Kremlin’s narrative, against Russia’s sovereignty. Federal Law No. 272, known as the “Dima Yakovlev Law,” was also passed in 2012, introducing further restrictions for NGOs. Namely, organizations engaged in political activity could be suspended if they received U.S. funding or were found to be a “threat to Russia’s interests” (Human Rights Watch, 2013). These reforms not only introduced administrative burdens for the civil society sector but also served to erode public trust in NGOs (cited in Bogdanova et al., 2018, p. 507).

The right to protest also came under attack. In 2012, amendments to the 2004 Federal Law on Protest increased fines for the participants and organizers of unauthorized protests, those that had not secured the authorities’ approval to go ahead. In a similar vein, the 2013 so-called “Lugovoi Law,” named after Andrei Lugovoi, the State Duma deputy with the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia who sponsored it, empowered the authorities to block online sources that disseminate calls for mass riots, extremist activities, or participation in unauthorized mass public events.

The 2012 amendments to the Federal Law on Protest also specified which provisions regulating protest should be decided at the regional level. Regions were obliged to set out in legislation lists of areas in which protests would always be prohibited. According to federal legislation, regions should preclude protest events where they might disrupt transport or other infrastructure, obstruct pedestrians, prevent citizens from entering their homes, and so on. In the event, however, this was interpreted variously across federal subjects, leaving some major cities where protest was prohibited across virtually the entire city center (OVD-Info, 2018). To make matters worse, the lists of prohibited locations in regional legislation were often vaguely worded, leaving protest organizers unsure of their legal standing. For example, legislation in several federal subjects bans protests that are “adjacent” to specific buildings but does not give a legal definition of “adjacent.” Legislation that is left open to interpretation leaves protesters vulnerable, as they cannot unambiguously defend themselves using the law. This vagueness, however, should be interpreted not as a flaw in the legislation but as an intentional feature of it, creating uncertainty for protest organizers and participants while allowing flexibility to authorities to deny permission as they see fit. Legal reform as a response to opposition mobilization ensued in later years.

Political Control Tightens Up After Crimea

Laws intended to crack down on opposition and subject to broad interpretations by police and courts have multiplied in the aftermath both of Crimea’s annexation in the spring of 2014 and of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Throughout this period, legislative expansion was often in reaction to specific developments in public life. This can be seen particularly clearly in the cat-and-mouse game between the Kremlin and the organizers of opposition protests: protestors would adapt their tactics to existing loopholes in legislation, which would then be closed by new amendments to protest restrictions, forcing new adaptations in protest tactics.

For example, a 2014 amendment to the Federal Law on Protest introduced criminal liability for breaching protest regulations more than twice in 180 days. This charge carried a fine of up to 1 million rubles or 5 years’ imprisonment. Fines for protest organizers also increased (Human Rights Watch, 2014). The definition of events for which the submission of protest notifications was required expanded in 2016 to include motor rallies and pickets involving tents. This was done in response to high-profile protests the previous year. It also closed the loophole on “tent cities,” a form of picketing which had been widely used. New regulations on how deputies of the State Duma could hold “meetings with voters” were also introduced in 2017. Led by deputies from opposition parties, “meetings with voters” had effectively been a form of protest under an alternative name. Amendments adopted in 2017 introduced limits on where “meetings with deputies” could be held and made these meetings subject to the same authorization requirements as other forms of protest.

Additional amendments passed in December 2020 widened the definition of “public event” requiring authorization under the law to include single-person pickets held consecutively in the same location. Spontaneous protests staged in response to “breaking news” events had gained prominence around 2019, when people queued for hours for their turn to hold up a sign in protest. Queues to picket had been able to legally occur spontaneously and did not require notification, but following the 2020 amendments, all the people queuing to take a turn would be considered participants in one event. Where demonstrators had found loopholes in legislation to engage in novel forms of collective protest, legislators were also responsive to trends in protest action.

The period after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 also saw the expansion of legislation governing the civil society sector. The “Undesirable Organizations Act” of 2015 further enhanced the powers of the state to proscribe citizens’ activities. Federal Law No. 129, passed in 2015, gave the prosecutor’s office the power to designate certain organizations as “undesirable,” thereby rendering their continued operation in Russia illegal. It also banned the dissemination of any information about the activities of such organizations and introduced administrative and criminal sanctions for any individuals or organizations that continued to collaborate with “undesirable” organizations (Bogdanova et al., 2018). In 2017, in the midst of a cycle of protests led by Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, the foreign agents law was expanded from applying only to politically active organizations which received foreign funding to include news outlets as well. In 2019, the foreign agents law was extended once more, making individuals subject to the “foreign agent” label.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, legal repression has escalated even further. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, legislation was introduced that criminalized certain kinds of speech relating to the war. Laws coming into force on March 4, 2022 banned public actions “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” including calls for forces to be withdrawn or to cease fighting and publicly supporting or calling for sanctions against Russia. These offences carried a fine of up to 50,000 rubles for a first offence under the administrative code, but repeat offenders would be subject to the criminal code and face up to 3 years’ imprisonment (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Within days of the law’s introduction, dozens of cases were opened against peaceful antiwar protestors. A separate offence which came into force in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine introduced criminal liability for deliberately spreading “false information” about the armed forces. Doing so could, under certain circumstances, carry prison sentences of up to 15 years. Finally, in June 2022, legislation expanded the powers of the existing “foreign agents” law. Under the new legislation, the “foreign agent” designation could be applied to anyone who was deemed to be under foreign influence, even if they had not received financial support from abroad (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2022).


This article has discussed the practice of legal repression in Putin’s Russia. Russia is representative of other authoritarian regimes in which legal repression has become widespread. The article began by providing a brief overview of research on the origins and consequences of legal repression in electoral autocracies and proceeded to discuss how the study of Russia has contributed to the field. Moving on, the article considered what factors have facilitated the adoption of repressive legislation in Russia. A review of reforms to laws and provisions regulating protest and civil society served to illustrate the dynamic nature of legal repression in the country. Responding to protest at home and abroad, the Russian authorities adopted restrictive legislation that allowed them to stifle dissent and hinder the development of an independent civil society. Successive waves of amendments to legislation illustrate how repressive lawmaking can be an iterative process, in which authorities react to external and domestic protest that exacerbate perceptions of threat and to the changing behavior of their political challengers.

Several questions remain for comparative research on the practice of legal repression. Future research should investigate the actors tasked with adopting, implementing, and challenging repressive laws. These include members of parliament, local administrators, the police, and courts. Some of these actors, such as local administrators tasked with implementing repression (e.g., by banning protests), are seldom considered to be “agents of repression,” even in authoritarian settings.

Future research could also investigate in greater detail how repressive laws impact targeted groups, their supporters, and public opinion in general. Additional evidence is also needed to identify how legal repression impacts mass beliefs about the legitimacy of the law, both in Russia and in a comparative setting. Could legal repression encourage a large share of the population to view the law as an instrument of repression? Could the long-term legacy of legal repression strategies, like those reviewed in this article, be to undermine the legitimacy of the law? In a similar vein, additional empirical research is needed to assess the mechanisms through which the effects of legal repression are realized. For example, different types of repressive laws may act on different parts of the mobilization decision. Some laws and restrictions could influence protest leaders, others could influence demonstrators, and many could shape the decision calculus of both. Interviews or surveys of opposition leaders and protesters would be able to disentangle these effects, adding greater clarity to scholarship on the mechanisms through which the effects of legal repression are realized.

Finally, scholarship would benefit from considering in greater detail how the law provides opportunities for dissidents to challenge the authorities: both by creating opportunities for disruption and for contesting the authorities’ decisions in courts. Future study could investigate whether and under what conditions repressive legislation leads opposition actors simply to abandon all attempts to work within the bounds of the law or conversely to take pains to meet the requirements of restrictive laws. In the latter case, it could be fruitful to examine whether even repressive law can act as a defense for those challenging the authorities and to what extent systems using legal repression can rely on flexible interpretations of the law to suit their needs.

Further Reading

  • Dollbaum, J. M., Lallouet, M., & Noble, B. (2021). Navalny: Putin’s nemesis, Russia’s future? Oxford University Press.
  • Ginsburg, T., & Moustafa, T. (Eds.). (2008). Rule by law: The politics of courts in authoritarian regimes. Cambridge University Press.
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