The investigation of Prokopyeva is symptomatic of the worsening environment for free expression in Russia. The country ranked 148th worldwide in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, and in the nearly 20 years since Putin first became president—including an interlude when he was prime minister but widely seen as the power behind the throne—violence against journalists and human-rights activists has become worryingly frequent. The recent fake-news law zoomed through both chambers of the country’s Parliament in less than a month, and the Kremlin wants to make anything associated with the state sacred, walled off from criticism. Offending the feelings of Russian state officials is becoming a dangerous business.
The new law on disrespecting state symbols, in particular, intends to choke off freedom of speech, according to Rachel Denber, the Europe and Central Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “Why else is it necessary, other than to ban people who are critical of the government, to demonize criticism and dissent?” she asked me.