Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent critic of Putin and anti-Kremlin lobbyist, has been in jail since April, when he was arrested in Moscow and charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian army in Ukraine.
For many years Kara-Murza’s activities annoyed the Kremlin, and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned him twice – in 2015 and 2017, but the dissident author survived. He also continued to attack Putin and his regime, and that was why he was thrown into jail.
Then came October, and a new accusation – this time, of high treason. Investigators claimed that Kara-Murza had committed high treason when he spoke against the war in Ukraine three times at public events in Lisbon, Helsinki, and Washington. And since the US is a NATO member-state, the logic goes, Kara-Murza is deemed to have cooperated with NATO. That came as a shock even for trained Russia watchers: Putin was upping the stakes once again against his political opponents.
In November, a 21-year-old student Gleb Verdiyan was arrested by the FSB and thrown in jail on treason charges. He became the youngest person ever accused of high treason. The FSB claimed the sophomore studying architecture and civil engineering at Astrakhan State University had been caught by the FSB attempting to pass secret information to foreign security services. The case is classified, but at first sight looks ridiculous; students do not habitually have access to classified secret material in Russia, or most other countries.
In the past, the FSB used treason charges for intimidation purposes, for instance, to harass Russian scientists and other experts, but it was never used against young people.
And finally, Evgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s so-called chef and a founder of a private military company Wagner, known as one of the very best at sensing the changing political winds, joined in this new crusade. He demanded that the Prosecutor’s office and the FSB investigate his old rival, the governor of Saint Petersburg, for alleged treason.
All of this suggests a deep shift in the Kremlin’s view of the world; loyalty to the state and loyalty to the regime are being merged. If there were any doubt at all that the Putin regime is now fighting the most desperate war in its history, it has now been removed.
In Russia, high treason has never been a legal concept; it is an ideological and highly emotional notion tracing its roots to the Soviet times.
In 1922, five years after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin’s government approved the first Soviet Criminal Code, which put a huge emphasis on fighting and persecuting those who opposed the revolution. The Code had a section headed “On counter-revolutionary crimes.” This included “any action aimed at overthrowing the power of worker-peasant soviets [councils] and the constitutionally-based existing worker-peasant government; also any action aimed at assisting that section of the international bourgeoisie which does not recognize the Communist system now replacing capitalism.” In 1926 the code was updated, but this article was almost unchanged.
After the war, and Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet government needed a new Criminal Code. It had become very unfashionable to talk about world revolution in an increasingly nationalistic country, traumatized by the horrible costs of World War II, so the new code, introduced in 1960, saw the first appearance of a new treason charge termed “betrayal of the motherland” (Article 64).
And the punishment related to this crime was very severe — so severe that it carried heavier sentences than crimes against human beings. As a rule, a Soviet citizen got seven years in jail for killing someone, if committed the first time. Those found guilty of treason were shot. Nor did the traitor’s punishment end with death; the whereabouts of their grave were kept secret, and relatives were strongly discouraged from asking any questions.
The Yeltsin Criminal Code of 1996 was more liberal (the death sentence was abolished) but crimes against the state still carried harsher punishments than those against people. Those guilty of high treason can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Russian society cares very little about this issue. It is, after all, a matter affecting relatively few people: those with no access to secret information had no need to worry. And anyway, Yeltsin never used treason charges against his political enemies.
Putin changed that, and for purely political reasons. In 2012, in the aftermath of the Moscow protests, which so rattled the Kremlin, Putin had parliament expand the definition of high treason to include “granting financial, technical, consulting or other help” to those seeking to damage Russia’s security, including its “constitutional system, sovereignty, territorial and state integrity.”
From then on, anyone — a journalist, or expert, sharing information with foreign organizations, including other journalists, could be charged with treason. But even then, Putin stopped short of using treason charges against his political enemies – activists and politicians.
The war in Ukraine has changed that. With the charges leveled at Kara-Murza, the Putin regime has taken a significant step in returning to the Soviet definition of loyalty as allegiance not to the state itself but to those who run it. Russia is once again a state claiming to represent the people, but terrified of their anger. Its citizens now hear an old and familiar mantra — “You’re either with us, or against us.”
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.