While markets in Russia might be freer than they were under Leonid Brezhnev, the resurgent power of the police state in the country today would make Stalin smile. The method of governing Mother Russia through a thuggish ruling class has been a central feature of the nation since Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century. Under Ivan, the secret police were the Oprichniki, who used torture and murder to root out and eliminate enemies of the government. In turn, the police were taken care of very well by the Tsar. Down through the centuries, Russian heads of state have continually emulated Ivan’s example. The names have changed from the Okhrana under Nicholas II, to the NKVD, to the KGB and all of the incarnations in between. Today, the FSB has replaced the KGB, but apart from two consonants, there doesn’t appear to be much that separates the two organizations. Unless, of course, it’s that the FSB has more money to work with than its predecessor. The mission remains the same as it ever was: to ensure that the regime in power stays in power. The FSB seems to be accomplishing that all-important task with the same ruthless efficiency that its ancestors in this “state within a state” have displayed throughout Russia’s long, tragic history. In this case, the modern version of the Oprichniki are just looking after one of their own. Putin neatly bridges the gap between the KGB that he worked for in the USSR, and the FSB that he led in the Russian Federation.
Like modern-day China, Putin seems to have digested the lesson that while a free market – or at least a near approximation thereof – is desirable, the other, more troublesome parts of freedom need not go along with it. Russians are relatively free to ply their wares, so long as the state and the mobs get their cut, but freedom of the press, freedom of dissent and the freedom to have an opinion that conflicts with state policy are fast disappearing. After all, Oleg Kashin wasn’t an investigative journalist, he simply expressed his point of view, but that point of view was often critical of the ruling regime. For the crime of having an opinion, Kashin was beaten half to death and his life hangs by a thread. The old adage says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In Russia today, that bit of wisdom remains as true as ever.
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