Vienna, April 2 – The Russian FSB resembles Stalin’s secret police in that it is “absolutely outside the law” and its officers “do what they want” without even the fear of legal persecution that the late Soviet dictator sometimes visited upon his officers, according to Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the dean of Russian human rights activists.
At a roundtable on “The FSB in Contemporary Russia: Special Services or a Punitive Organ,” the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group acknowledged that of course, “there is now no Stalinist mass terror,” but she suggested that the ability of the FSB to ignore the law opens the way to new horrors (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/FSB/m.149432.html).
Indeed, she continues, the situation under Vladimir Putin is far more frightening in some respects than it was under Leonid Brezhnev. “In Brezhnev’s times,” Alekseyeva said, she was called to the Lubyanka “more than 30 times, where she was subject to many kinds of intimidation but never physical violence.
At that time, she said, “there was an order from above: one could scare people, but one must not apply physical force. But now this law does not operate, and thus the FSB has gained access to all available criminal methods,” as can be seen in the recent series of attacks on opponents of the regime.
Other speakers at the session seconded Alekseyeva’s disturbing conclusion. Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the Russian Popular Democratic Union, said that Putin had told the FSB officers that his rise to power showed that the Chekisty, as its officers are still known, had taken control of the situation.
When he heard this in December 2000, on the anniversary of the formation of the Soviet secret police, Kasyanov said, he thought it was a not particularly clever joke, “but all the succeeding years showed that this was not a joke,” either for Putin, the FSB or the Russian Federation.
The FSB today, he continued, “has access not only to political power but also to financial flows, which is no less terrible,” and its officers “really think that they are the real saviors of Russia,” having on the basis of their action “rescued” the country after it had gone through the turmoil of the 1990s.
The willingness and ability of the FSB and its representatives in the political establishment to ignore the law in pursuit and defense of power was not so obvious when times were good, Kasyanov said, but now that the country is in economic difficulties, this tendency “has become more than obvious” and the actions of the organs ever more violent.
A third speaker at this meeting, Academician Yury Ryzhov spoke about what he called “the unprecedented cynicism of the powers that be.” They seem to have decided that Russia needs only 40 million residents to handle the export of oil and gas, and consequently “the other 100 million [Russians] are superfluous.”
Even as this discussion was taking place, many in still relatively free Russian Internet and among the political opposition suggested that with the crescendo of attacks against independent journalists and rights activists like Lev Ponomaryev, the regime has moved toward open terror against the opposition” (forum.msk.ru/material/news/795206.html).
The Ponomaryev case has attracted international attention. Reportedly, US President Barak Obama raised it with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at their London meeting. But it is only one of a series of attacks, many of which the authorities have refused to investigate fully and openly.
In cataloguing these crimes, Yabloko party leader Sergey Mitrokhin echoes Alekseyeva and Kasyanov when he notes that such actions are “a challenge to society and to the state itself,” even if many in both places do not understand that, preferring to accept the mistaken notion that those attacked somehow had it coming.
Perhaps the most succinct and accurate description of these actions against journalists and rights activists like Ponomaryev, however, has been offered by the Russian Solidarity Movement. It released a statement declaring that tragically, such increasingly frequent attacks are “the visiting card of Putin’s Russia” (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49D3B08952344.html).
If violent actions not surprisingly attract the most attention, they are far from the only way in which Russia’s security services are restoring noxious aspects of the Stalinist past. Life.ru this week, for example, reports on the return of the system under which ordinary citizens either volunteer or are compelled to serve as confidential informants of the regime.
In the archive of Stanislav Markelov, the lawyer who had represented the family of the victim of Russian Colonel Yury Budanov and who was killed on January 19th of this year, the Internet journal says, there was a list of new “seksots” – or “secret collaborators” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.149407.html).
This list included the names, pseudonyms, contact information, and “commentaries by MVD workers on their ‘usefulness,’ and Life.ru suggested, according to the Grani.ru report, that Markelov “had been able to use information from it for conducting his own investigations” into various crimes with which officials were associated.
But even if someone like Markelov could turn the seksot system against its creators, its re-establishment is extremely dangerous: it will increase the atomization of Russian society by sowing distrust, a trend the current regime appears to welcome precisely because that development precludes the emergence of a civil society capable of resisting the powers that be.