Were COVID-19 and the associated restrictions used by authoritarian governments as tools for information manipulation and repression? Using data from 83 Russian regions and the two-way fixed-effects design, we show that information manipulation (the difference between excess mortality and reported COVID-19 deaths) and repressions (e.g., arrests for violating lockdown rules) were influenced by the strength of the local civil society and opposition. Repression complemented propaganda: more arrests increased the extent of information manipulation. This came at a price: misinformation reduced compliance. These findings provide new evidence that authoritarian regimes are ill-suited to deal with public health challenges.