In April, a series of protests hit the Moscow region. They were neither overtly political—citizens were protesting toxic landfills in their neighborhoods—nor very numerous, comprising, at most, a few thousand people in a region of over seven million. At their peak, people took to the streets in nine towns surrounding the city.
The protests, however, seemed well coordinated, and in some towns, the city authorities supported people and granted them permission to protest. Even for officials, it was difficult to ignore the awful smells emanating from the landfills, or the furious mothers and fathers of poisoned children. One of these cities was Serpukhov, some 60 miles south of Moscow.
One week after the protests started, an official from the Serpukhov district, Alexander Shestun, was invited to the Kremlin. There, he met with Ivan Tkachev, a general from the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s powerful intelligence agency and the successor to the Soviet-era secret police, the KGB. Apprehensive about the meeting, Shestun decided to secretly record the conversation, which he later posted on YouTube.
In the recording, Tkachev threatens Shestun. “You will be steamrolled if you don’t resign,” he says. “You will be in prison. Like many before you, you don’t understand, it’s a big [purge].” Intimating that he was receiving orders from the Kremlin, Tkachev then lists several top-level officials who had already been jailed, including a general from the interior ministry and two governors. Tkachev even suggests that Andrey Vorobyov, governor of the Moscow region and former chair of the ruling party United Russia, could be the next target.
The FSB’s clumsy attempt to silence Shestun was not an isolated incident. Rather, in its intimidation and selective repression—directed by the Kremlin and carried out by the FSB—the episode was a revealing example of the new governing model developed by Russian President Vladimir Putin over the last three years, and the role of the intelligence services within it.
THE NEW NOBILITY
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