Russia is one of the many countries holding elections in 2024. Unlike most of the others, though, the inevitable winner is already decided. Vladimir Putin cleared all hurdles in his path to victory —  from the most compelling leader of the opposition (Alexei Navalny, who was murdered in a far-away prison two weeks ago) to the quasi-independent candidates, such as Boris Nadezhdyn, who was unceremoniously and predictably disqualified.

Notably, for the first time in Russia’s history, voting for the head of state will span several days, starting today and extending through Sunday. Putin’s objective is clear: he aims to make time for what he hopes will be enough votes to create – or manufacture if needed — the impression of an unparalleled level of support from his citizens, framing even his most appalling actions, such as the war in Ukraine, as the will of the Russian people. In other words, he seeks to implicate the entire nation in his crimes.

But don’t be fooled. A closer look at the numbers reveals a more accurate picture of Russian support for – and most importantly, opposition to — Putin.

The news from Russia continues to terrify, and only the most ardent Russia watchers can keep up. We have not yet processed the gruesome death of my friend and compatriot, Alexei Navalny, as we learned that Oleg Orlov, one of the preeminent human rights defenders in Russia, was given a two-year prison term for “discrediting” the Russian army. We already know Russia has more political prisoners now than it did during the height of the Cold War and can say with sad certainty that Orlov is not the last in the long list of victims of this regime.

My team at Proekt (The Project in English), an investigative news platform I launched in 2018, modeled after ProPublica in the United States, collected and analyzed Russian court data from the last six years of Putin’s reign, his fourth term as president (and that’s not counting the term he served as prime minister, when he still made the rules while his acolyte, Dmitry Medvedev, was president). Now armed with the numbers, we comprehend the extent of Putin’s repressions, where high-profile cases only scratch the surface. The results are harrowing, painting a dark picture that shows the number of people convicted on political charges during this term alone exceeded the figures recorded in the former Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, placing Putin only behind Stalin.

In contrast to the harrowing terror witnessed in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, claiming millions of victims, the eras of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Putin appear comparatively less severe. But the numbers make clear that the State repression machine has been growing steadily under Putin’s reign, reaching its peak in 2022, with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Our investigation showed that Putin has prosecuted at least 116,000 people in his fourth term.

This number includes more than 10,000 people who were charged and subsequently imprisoned for disseminating so-called false information about the war, or for extremism, and other charges that major human rights bodies have cited as pretext for political repression. Approximately 105,000 people were fined or faced administrative arrests for public statements or participation in public protests or rallies, which is comparable to the number of individuals who faced non-criminal punishment during the times of Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

A bar graph entitled "In Putin's Russia, more people are being tried for `extremism' and criticizing the authorities than were tried for `anti-Sovietism' under Khrushchev and Brezhnev."

Courtesy: Proekt

Courtesy: Proekt

Some of the harshest sentences handed out are under the pretext of an “armed conflict or engagement in combat actions.” But the courts handing out these sentences are not deterred by the fact that, formally, Russia is not engaged in war. Russian authorities still usually require the verbiage “special military operation,” so there is no state of emergency that would be declared in wartime that might allow such penalties, and the mobilization of soldiers that did take place was deemed “partial,” another effort to disguise the true extent of Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The above numbers do not take into account the large number of people who were forced into exile, unable to return to their jobs, studies, friends, or families.

And in addition to the 116,000 judicially repressed individuals in just six years, the number of those dissatisfied with and ready to resist Putin is likely even higher. People are deterred from speaking out for fear of ending up in Russian prisons — dreadful, inhumane places.

I was once deterred too. That’s precisely why I have to write this column in exile. I left Russia in July 2021 after being labeled a “foreign agent” by the government for my work as an investigative journalist. My organization was declared “undesirable,” prompting the urgent evacuation of our staff because we feared imprisonment.

I am dismayed every time I hear in the West the accusation that most Russian citizens agree with Putin. Those 116,000 people are only the ones who have bravely faced repression. There are hundreds of thousands, or even millions more who oppose Putin, but do not dare to engage in open conflict with the system.

We saw a glimpse of this bravery when at least 16,500 mourners came to Navalny’s funeral on March 1: do not forget that every single person who took part in it can be identified and prosecuted for demonstrating support for an extremist organization, which is a label the state attached to Navalny’s Foundation Against Corruption. We are already hearing reports of several detentions since the funeral based on facial recognition technology.

Putin distances himself from the machinery of repression carried out by his thugs, but he is entirely responsible. These numbers are far from exhaustive, but they paint a picture of a leader who, if left unchecked and uncontested, will only continue to harm his people – and countries in his geopolitical orbit. Keep these statistics in mind when you watch the inevitably triumphant Putin declare his victory following the March 17th election weekend.

IMAGE: This picture taken on February 6, 2024 shows an electronic screen on the facade of a building displaying an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a quote from him on the achievements of Russia in 2023, in Moscow. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)