The killing of Russian military journalist Vladlen Tatarsky has set off angry demands among politicians and commentators in Russia for the return of the death penalty, and for a merciless crackdown on dissent through greater use of terrorism and treason charges.
Tatarsky was killed when an improvised device exploded during an event in St. Petersburg on Sunday. A 26-year old suspect, Daria Trepova, is now in custody in Moscow and charged in connection with his death, under a section of the Russian criminal code that deals with terrorism.
One of Russia’s most popular television hosts, Vladimir Soloviev, said that Trepova “should be shot,” along with her husband, who is living abroad.
“Drag him by his ears back to Russia and put him up against the wall,” Soloviev said on his show.
Soloviev also said that other Russian dissenters living abroad “should be thrown into sacks, brought back to Russia” to “rot in prison” or “be shot.”
On another popular Russian show called “60 Minutes,” one senior regional official, Andrey Gurulev, said he longed for the “days of Stalin…when the enemies of the people would get a pick and an axe and have fun waving it at a [Siberian prison camp].”
The head of the Wagner private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is from St. Petersburg, visited the café where the explosion occurred on Tuesday and joined the chorus demanding a return of the death penalty.
“There needs to be a return to the death penalty and the toughest measures in relation to those who participate in this kind of internal squabbling,” he said.
The demands from hardliners go beyond the already severe measures taken in Russia to stifle dissent and free expression. Dozens of NGOs and independent media outlets have been declared ‘foreign agents,’ a law that was expanded in December “to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials’ conduct could be designated a foreign agent,” as Human Rights Watch has put it.
Hundreds and likely thousands of civic activists have left the country since the invasion began. Anti-war protests were met with force and mass arrests.
Another figure prominent in demanding draconian punishment for dissent and opposition is former president and current security council head Dmitry Medvedev.
In November, he recalled how traitors were dealt with during World War II. “The verdict to such scoundrels was the same: execution by firing squad without trial. Right at the scene of the crime… If you are a traitor who committed such a crime… you’ve given up your right to life.”
He suggested that “if necessary, the legal positions of the Constitutional Court of Russia can be changed.”
After the killing of Tatarsky, Medvedev said on Telegram that “terrorism is back on our streets,” and blamed those championed in the west as “fearless knights of justice and anti-corruption,” a not-so-veiled reference to jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
“These scoundrels not only openly wish defeat for Russia and the destruction of our homeland, but they are now executing their own compatriots,” he said.
“There is no negotiating with terrorists,” Medvedev continues. “They should be exterminated like rabid dogs… forgiveness and compassion do not apply to them.”
There does appear to be a concerted effort to combine internal and external opponents of Russia as culpable for Tatarsky’s killing.
The official national anti-terrorism committee claimed Monday that the “explosion was planned by the special services of Ukraine with the involvement of agents from among persons collaborating with the so-called Anti-Corruption Foundation Navalny, of which the detained Daria Trepova is an active supporter.”
Ukraine has said little about the explosion, beyond blaming in-fighting in Russia. Navalny’s organization is already categorized as extremist and banned in Russia, and one of its senior figures has denied it was involved in any way in Tatarsky’s killing.
A senior politician with the governing United Russia party picked up the theme, demanding that “stringent measures” must be taken against the informal opposition in Russia.
Andrei Isaev, deputy head of the “United Russia” faction in the Duma, said such opposition was “despite being relatively ideological, progressively turning into a gang of murders and terrorists during the war.”
“There need to be stringent measures taken in relation to this gang of spies, murderers and terrorists,” he said. “This is treason. All these people related to such organizations, should be prosecuted a traitors. This is a matter of honor to detain the heads of these organizations no matter where they are.”
The charge of high treason in Russia was broadened in 2012 to include consultations or any other assistance to a foreign state or international or foreign organizations. It is already being used against opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Already detained on other charges, he was accused of high treason in October last year. His lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said the high treason charges related to Kara-Murza’s public criticism of the Russian authorities in international forums.
Currently, according to Article 59 of the Russian Criminal Code, the death penalty may only “be imposed for especially grave crimes affecting life. The death penalty may not be imposed on women, persons under the age of 18, and men who have reached the age of 65 at the moment of sentencing.”
The last person to be executed in Russia was a convicted serial killer in 1996.