According to this article, Putin has signed two laws that further limit freedom of expression (law source):

Two new laws in Russia jeopardize the privacy and security of internet users and aim to further control Russians’ freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

The legislation, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on July 30, 2017, bans anonymous use of online messenger applications and prohibits the use of software to allow users to circumvent internet censorship. The new laws are part of Russia’s widespread crackdown on online expression, in violation of human rights law and democratic safeguards.

This is not something new according to this article:

Since 2012, the Russian authorities have intensified a crackdown on freedom of expression, selectively casting certain kinds of criticism of the government as threats to state security and public stability and introducing significant restrictions to online expression and invasive surveillance of online activity.

While new restrictions on freedom of expression appear to target political opposition or civic groups, they affect all Russians. Curbing free speech denies a voice to anyone dissatisfied with the ongoing economic crisis or even mildly critical of Russia’s foreign policy.

However, according to Telegraph, Putin seems to be a very popular leader, popularity that might be envied by other important leaders such as Donald Trump or Theresa May:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is viewed favourably by a big majority of his citizens, according to new research.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 87 per cent of Russians have confidence in Putin’s ability to do the right thing on world affairs.

The immense support bestowed upon him is a notch higher than many other politicians, making him one of the most popular leaders in the world.

Question: So, if the Russian regime is so popular, why does it need to invest into limiting freedom of expression?

Those against it represent a rather small minority that does not seem to pose a serious danger to the current regime.

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    You're confusing the cause and the effect, sorry. The reason those against it are a minority - at least one of big reasons - is the information control. Think how popular GWB or Trump would be without antagonistic press blowing up every single negative thing (and inventing some). With less effect, presumably Obama would have been more popular without Fox News and right wing blogs, though their influence is far less just by volume. If every bad thing about Putin/Russia was known to all Russian citizens, it would impact his popularity and generate feedback loop where he defends himself.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 21:10
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    It's 100% ontopic, though I'm afraid a GOOD answer may require a book or at least a large series of articles. I tried to post a short one but am not fully satisfied with it. I would urge you strongly to read whatever free publications/analysis Stratfor has on the topic as well as their podcasts. They aren't the only view out there but they are an influential and popular view that is often right in the predictions.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 21:20
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    That's what we call false equivalence. Being taken to court for advocating violence against people is different from being taken to court (or rather, just taken) for advocating freedom for people.
    – Gramatik
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 22:15
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    no, it's not false equivalence, as it's the same the US is executing on twitter, facebook and the EU even on every other media. express.co.uk/news/uk/886641/… it's all about containment
    – user18532
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 22:25
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    The EU and the US have several similar laws ... it's standard anti russian propaganda as usual. Germany has passed an even more agressive law against freedom of speech in the internet this year: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz
    – image357
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 0:31

3 Answers 3


TL;DR: The answer to "why" is because limits on freedom of expression makes the regime less disliked (your question is confusing cause and effect - the popularity of the regime is a consequence of limits on free expression) and reduces both the effort required to stay in power and the likelihood that it falls out of power. It's as simple as that.

Stratfor (pretty much any of their publications about USSR/Russia internal geopolitics would serve as citation) usually stresses that this is due to the combination of the following factors:

  1. Russia is - and has been since 17th or 18th century - a federated empire (loosely using the term, I'm open to a more precise technical term). It is extremely heterogeneous, especially ethnically (native Slav Russians are an overall 80% majority in RF but not in all regions; and were even smaller in USSR and Czarist empire, with total all Slavs only being 75%); but also ideologically.

    As such, there are very strong political centrifugal forces; which have succeeded in breaking the empire apart before (in 1917, and in 1991).

  2. Russia has unfavorable economic factors - the lack of inter-country navigation combined with out of date technological base combined with entrenched culture of corruption means far more relative expenses and greater friction in economic activity and far lower average standards of living (not exactly helped by 70 years of Socialism; but Russia was economically screwed over by the Czars for centuries before that; and by post-Soviet governments after that too).

    This means that the government can't easily buy the good will of the large percent of the populace with economic satisfaction, unless oil prices are booming - as happened in 1970s under Brezhnev or 2000s under Putin.

These two factors combined means that Russia has to expend far more effort at keeping itself whole and its population in line, compared to, say, USA.

Internal security and lack of political freedoms are two major levers towards that effort. They are among the major reasons Putin is so popular - nothing damaging to his regime is allowed to be known by the masses; and no popular opponents are allowed to gel to challenge him beyond a couple of tame ones.

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    I think those two points are a good summary that explains why Russian politicians are virtually forced into reducing political freedom. It is really useful for those that wish to have a basic understanding of why Russia does not afford the road to liberal democracy or something similar.
    – Alexei
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 21:30
  • 2
    @Alexei - I don't buy that anyone's being forced here. These are factors that makes things easier for a would-be dictator, not things that make dictatorship desirable. And of course further giving the lie to this, in Putin's case anyway, is Putin's enormous personal wealth, largely acquired through illegal or unethical means. If Putin were more purely motivated by altruism toward the Russian people, he would not be enriching himself in such a manner.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 21:36
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    @Obie2.0 - unfortunately, many people in Russia disagree. Heck, look at Stalin's popularity there. Russian cultural psyche likes a "strong hand" - and it makes sense, decision making and personal responsibility are generally hard and you need to be nudged into liking that effort.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 23:05
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    Great answer. But you also forget some points. There are several factors like cultural differences which may explain that democracy is less popular in Russia. And most of all, Putin rebuilt a country in severe crisis into a feared world superpower. Moreover the west by sanctions or type of attacks may federate the russian peoples against an external ennemy. The russian regime may be strenghtened by his own opponents.
    – xrorox
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 16:01
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    "the popularity of the regime is a consequence of limits on free expression". That's less and less true. Many russians can read english and are one click away from our "mainstream medias".
    – xrorox
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 16:03

That's how successful Autocracy works. Inspire radical nationalism where possible (see: Cult of Personality), put the fear of god into the rest. You can see this today in China and Turkey in addition to Russia. Xi in China touts a comparable approval score to Putin in this article's calculations, and Erdogan is reported similarly. All of these countries have oppressive regimes where anyone who vocally disapproves of the country is liable to disappear.

Why are approval rates so high then? The cost of voicing disapproval is much greater than the benefit gained from opposition, any media that isn't saying their country is the best in the world is shut down, and relatively speaking the living conditions of each country aren't bad enough to warrant revolt. In other words, the 'popularity' is a result of the limited freedom, it's not inherent to the regime.


I'll take a jab at what the official explanation for restricting the freedom of speech is, from most sensible to the least:

Democracy is overrated, we need a strong leader to run the country efficiently

This argument is absolutely true, in theory. A benevolent dictator can be a lot more effective than popularly elected leaders as they can implement the best policies with little regard to what the opposition says. China's success shows it's absolutely possible to achieve amazing results without even pretending to be a democracy.

But in practice, no dictator is ever benevolent in the full sense of the word and many are downright malevolent and corrupt to the core. Even China is facing a lot of issues over nepotism and corruption, which would be easier to prevent in an open society.

If we have the freedom of speech our enemies will use it against us

This is true in part, as even the leaders of the US and the EU admit that foreign actors are successfully influencing domestic elections, both through direct monetary contributions (see Marine Le Pen's party and Russia) and indirect manipulation of the public opinion (Russia Today, spreading "fake news").

However dictators conveniently forget that it's often far easier for foreign states to influence the local politics in non-transparent systems, as it's easier to obfuscate bribes to high level officials. Likewise it's easier to combat "fake news" when you have a developed media ecosystem of your own.

We don't need free elections as the opposition sucks anyway

Here the dictators conveniently forget that all viable candidates are promptly jailed (see Navalny and Khodorkovsky in Russia), exiled (Dalai Lama in China) or outright killed (Boris Nemtsov in Russia). But unfortunately people who don't have access to open media fail to see the holes in this argument so many actually believe that no good competition can run against the great leader.

  • 1
    Navalny never served any real jail time
    – Spc_555
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 23:38
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    It would be nice to link to Russia Today or a Putin speech and make each one of the banners a direct quote. Or remove at least the bolding from "official" at the start.
    – user9389
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 0:03
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    @VasilyAlexeev he's been in jail plenty of times, the longest stretch being 1 month. And his brother is serving a 5 year sentence. Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 6:49
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    I very much like the idea of playing devil's advocate, but according to a sizable portion of the US media and political actors, Russia was able to influence (some say manipulate, others reach for "steal") the election despite the hyper-developed media system. It appears that it's either not a deterrent for fake news, or those people are spreading fake news, while they ought to be a deterrent against it.
    – janh
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 20:35
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    @VasilyAlexeev yes it does. He is now inable to become a candidate in the presidential election as he's a former convict. And he can be thrown into jail at any time. Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 23:44

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