The Coup in the Kremlin
How Putin and the Security Services Captured the Russian State
The Olympic Summer Games opened in Rio de Janeiro this week without many of the 387 Russian athletes that the Russian Olympic federation originally selected to participate. The International Olympic Committee may have failed to enact the blanket ban on the country’s athletes that was recommended by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but the scandal that prompted it has inflicted great harm on the reputation of Russian athletics and heaped disgrace on a government that believed it could bring glory by cheating.
Disgrace, but little shame. Many ordinary Russians, politicians, and athletes claim that Western outrage over Moscow’s elaborate state-run doping in at least 30 sports—under which the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB, oversaw the provision of performance-enhancing drugs and the covering up of incriminating urine samples by sneaking clean ones into supposedly tamper-proof bottles—is really a ploy to undermine Russia.
The ability of the Russian people to disregard overwhelming evidence that President Vladimir Putin—whose greatest claim to their support is supposedly restoring their country’s standing as a great power—is actually undermining that goal is breathtaking. It has much to do with a formidable force in the country’s history: Russian envy.
The doping scandal—which appears to have been run on a grander scale than even the notorious Soviet version—is just one indication of what Russia has become under Putin. Although most Russians may still freely travel abroad, buy foreign goods, and read critical publications, the country is outdoing the Soviet Union in other respects. It is all but certain that the Kremlin, which regularly accuses Washington of meddling in Russian politics, directed the country's intelligence services to hack into U.S. computers belonging to Democratic political organizations and release emails to influence the presidential campaign to favor Putin fan Donald Trump. Inside Russia, the security services harass U.S. diplomats as if it were the real Cold War.
Much more damaging for Russians, the recent uncovering of a whole industry that sells fake doctoral dissertations to leading businessmen, politicians, and other strivers revealed yet one more facet of an epidemic of fraud that is degrading the pool of professionals available to run the country. Meanwhile, some of the actual best and brightest are fleeing; no wonder, when people have been handed prison sentences of two years for liking Facebook posts.
Russia has essentially become a police state in which the wide discretion that law enforcers enjoy renders the law virtually meaningless. Putin dealt the law another blow earlier this year when he reorganized the police to make it directly subservient to Kremlin. He followed up last month by enacting the latest in a series of draconian laws, this one a package of “counterterrorism” measures that criminalize “failure to report a crime” and require Internet and telecom providers to store records of customers’ data and communications for six months.
The resulting brutish climate of fear and greed was on clear display at the UEFA championship in France this summer, when Russian football hooligans viciously beat British and other fans in such a coordinated and methodical way that London was justifiably prompted to accuse Moscow of unleashing them as part of its so-called hybrid war against the West. Apparently fake Twitter accounts later publicized the view that the Russians were provoked by other fans. Meanwhile, a top member of parliament reflected officialdom’s general response in his own tweet: “Well done lads, keep it up!”
Perhaps Moscow is just lashing out as it falls further behind the West. In one respect at least, however, Russia far outpaces its rivals: corruption. It even beats its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Some Soviet dissidents convincingly argued that the entire Communist Party was a criminal outfit, blurring any theoretical distinction between officially sanctioned and illegal activity. Still, in Soviet academia, education, even the legal system—when cases concerned criminal and civil matters that had no political implications—a degree of freedom and professionalism existed that is disappearing under the current Mafia-like state.
When Russia emerges from its current course in the coming years or decades, it will be nearly as shell-shocked as after the Soviet collapse in 1991.Russian corruption is hardly new. In one form or another, cheating has been characteristic of the Russian state at least since 1648, when a new universal tax prompted what historians believe to have been the country’s first anti-corruption protest in the form of the so-called salt riot. The deceit that underpins Russian society was certainly no surprise to Nikolai Gogol. The near-total nature of corruption provided rich material for his 1842 novel Dead Souls, in which the rogue protagonist travels the countryside buying up lists of deceased serfs who can be counted as property because their deaths have not been officially registered. Soon after its publication, Tsar Nicolas I complained to his son, the future tsar Alexander II, about military personnel filching guns, clothing, and food during the Crimean War of 1853-1856: “Sashka, I think there are only two people in Russia who don’t steal—you and me.”
In the 1980s, the Sovietologist James Millar coined the term “Little Deal” to describe the petty corruption the Kremlin allowed among ordinary people as a form of economic distribution. That tacit agreement eased crippling shortages and allowed the government to go on refusing to reform. The real economic system thus became a mix of faking, bribing, and last-minute improvising. Too many people were too busy swiping scraps for feathering their nests to care about the survival, much less efficiency, of their factories and offices. Even Mikhail Gorbachev’s prime minister deplored that the Soviet Union’s “most terrifying feature” was “our society’s moral condition. People steal from ourselves, take and give bribes, and lie in reports, in newspapers, and from high podiums. From top to bottom, we wallow in our lies and hang medals on one another.”
In a typical instance, factory bookkeepers in the Siberian city of Orsk pocketed wages supposedly paid to workers who were long dead and buried. Complicit supervisors who managed the scheme made certain to give a cut to their confederates in local government, who no doubt passed some of it to their Moscow protectors because the racket was apparently widespread in the city. Several directors took the trouble to copy names from gravestones in local cemeteries, in some cases of people who had died well before 1842, the year Dead Souls was published. But by 2005, even padding payrolls was small potatoes. That year, entire goods trains began to disappear; Putin has exploited the penchant for deceit on a grand scale.
It’s impossible to do business in Russia at any level above retail sales without at least some participation in the country’s supremely pervasive cheating and stealing. The level at the very top makes former communist leaders appear positively ascetic. In just the latest of an apparently endless string of revelations, last week, the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta linked Igor Sechin—the crony of Putin cronies and head of the state oil company Rosneft who is widely believed to be the country’s second-most powerful man—to one of the world’s most luxurious superyachts, the St. Princess Olga, valued at a minimum of $100 million. The paper matched sightings of the yacht in the Mediterranean and elsewhere with Instagram photos of Sechin’s young wife Olga posing in string bikinis on an identical-looking craft—a luxury Sechin could hardly afford honestly even on his admirable official salary of $12 million a year.
And this is where Russians’ deep sense of envy comes in. In their country, where life is difficult and cheating is the easiest way to get ahead, Kremlin propaganda has helped harness resentment toward the more efficient, prosperous West by tapping into a historical sense of moral superiority. Hardships have persuaded generations of Russians that they behave a certain way because they think differently from others, as illustrated by a much-quoted passage from Vasily Aksyonov’s 1980 novel The Burn.
“In Europe,” he wrote, “there are frivolous democracies with warm climates, where an intellectual spends his life flitting from the dentist’s drill to the wheel of a Citroën, from a computer to an espresso bar, from the conductor’s podium to a woman’s bed, and where literature is something almost as refined, witty, and useful as a silver dish of oysters laid out on brown seaweed and garnished with cracked ice.”
“Russia,” he continues, “with its six-month winter, its tsarism, Marxism, and Stalinism, is not like that. What we like is some heavy masochistic problem, which we can prod with a tired, exhausted, not very clean but honest finger. That’s what we need, and it’s not our fault.”
Aksyonov’s typically idealized picture of Europe, laden with envy, reflects Russians’ belief that concern with deeper matters makes them better. The same sentiment—which may also have helped explain the relentless communist promise to catch up with and surpass capitalism—helps Putin to direct blame for the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs to foreign evildoers. Thus the massive state propaganda machine accuses Washington of seeking to overthrow the government and steal Russia’s natural resources. Russians remain ready and willing to make sacrifices for the state, whose supposed greatness is the primary achievement to which they can cling. Putin must keep ratcheting up his confrontation with the West in order to maintain that illusion.
Of course, confrontation can’t last forever. When Russia emerges from its current course in the coming years or decades, it will be nearly as shell-shocked as after the Soviet collapse in 1991. The people will be confronted with the same massive task of reforming not merely the economy and government but also some of their cherished attitudes and thoughts. For now, however, they will no doubt dismiss the suspicion that will naturally fall on Russian Olympic medals in Rio, failing to see just what the Russian revelations have exposed about their country’s real place in the world.