As noted earlier at Reason 24/7, international independent charity Human Rights Watch has declared that the crackdowns on free expression and political activism in Russia that took place during 2012 were the worst since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Human Rights Watch hits some of the lowlights in their latest report:

In Russia, since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May, a parliament dominated by members of the pro-Putin United Russia party has adopted a series of laws that imposed dramatic new restrictions on civil society. A June law introduced limits on public assemblies and raised relevant financial sanctions to the level of criminal fines, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content.

A July law forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a move Human Rights Watch said aimed to demonize nongovernmental organizations in the public eye. Another law, adopted in November, expands the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize involvement in international human rights advocacy.

In December, Putin signed a law allowing the suspension of nongovernmental organizations, and the freezing of their assets, if they engage in “political” activities and receive funding from US citizens or organizations. Organizations can be similarly sanctioned if their leaders or members are Russian citizens who also have US passports.

The law, which also bans US citizens from adopting Russian orphans, was passed in retaliation for the so-called Magnitsky Act, which US President Barack Obama signed into law in December. The Magnitsky Act calls for visa bans and asset freezes for Russian officials allegedly involved in the torture and killing of whistleblowers in Russia.

The crackdown on dissent notably put members of the female punk group Pussy Riot in prison. Russia’s hostility to gay rights has also been codified. Promoting gay rights is a crime in several cities, and Russia's Parliament is considering (and likely to pass) a national law. Gay pride marches have been banned in Moscow for the next 100 years.

In our January 2013 issue, Cathy Young explored how the ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state contributed to the re-establishment of an oppressive regime in a nation once famous for its government-enforced atheism. Read her piece here.