In this week’s Western media highlights, Andrei Soldatov explains in Foreign Policy the implications of the potential revival of the Ministry of State Security in Russia, which he calls a “reincarnation of the KGB.” Timothy Snyder delves into Russia’s political history and analyzes the influence that one particular figure—philosopher Ivan Ilyin—has gained over Putin and the rest of the Kremlin elites. Meanwhile, in the Russian media, experts have been discussing Russia’s recent parliamentary elections and the flaws in Russian liberal thinking. 


Some analysts observe that Vladimir Putin plans to revive KGB in its former glory. Left to right: Mikhail Fradkov, director of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), president Vladimir Putin, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB (Federal Security Service). Photo: Alexander Druzhinin / TASS.


From the West

Putin Has Finally Reincarnated the KGB

Andrei Soldatov, Foreign Policy

While Russian voters had their attention focused on the recent parliamentary elections, a number of significant changes began to take place in the structure of the country’s security services. In his detailed piece in this week’s Foreign Policy, Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and expert on Russia’s security services, analyzes the metamorphosis of the FSB (Federal Security Service) into what he calls “the resurrection of the KGB in all but name.” Soldatov cites a report by Kommersant that Vladimir Putin is planning to merge the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) with the FSB, thus creating a single institution responsible for both foreign and domestic security. This new institution is to be called the Ministry of State Security, and parallels are being drawn between Joseph Stalin’s secret service, which went by the same name, as an institution primarily designed to protect the interests of the ruling party. Soldatov notes that after the fall of the Soviet Union Boris Yeltsin failed to reform the security services, and simply “broke them into pieces” instead. Since his rise to the presidency in 2000, Putin, a former KGB officer, has allowed the FSB to subsume further powers over the army and the police, and has increasingly sought to recruit government officials from its ranks. According to Soldatov, in the late 2000s Putin seemed to be growing less enamored of the FSB, allowing it to be investigated and sanctioning a parallel structure, the Investigative Committee. But starting this year, Putin’s inner circle has been dramatically reshuffled, and in the wake of the Kommersant reports it seems that he has opted to restore the FSB to its former power and glory as part of the ongoing restructuring. As Soldatov notes, “Putin has made it clear that what he needs is an instrument, pure and simple, to protect his own regime.”


How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election

Timothy Snyder, The New York Times

Professor of history at Yale and author Timothy Snyder’s op-ed in The New York Times offers an insight into the changing political climate in Russia and the ideas that drive moods and attitudes among the elites. Regardless of his infamous statement on the fall of the Soviet Union being the 20th century’s greatest “geopolitical disaster,” Vladimir Putin seems to be drawing political inspiration not from Vladimir Lenin, but from the 20th century political philosopher Ivan Ilyin, a man whom Snyder calls “a prophet of Russian Fascism.” According to Snyder, Ilyin is highly regarded in the upper circles of the Russian political elite: Putin’s top aide Vladislav Surkov views him as an authority, and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev recommends his writings to Russian students. Ilyin, who taught that individuality should be replaced by a nation’s “living totality,” revered Hitler and Mussolini for their attempts at “dissolving democracy in Europe.” Thus, Snyder tells us, “In the light of Ilyin’s rehabilitation as Russia’s leading ideologue, Moscow’s manipulations of elections should be seen not so much as a failure to implement democracy but as a subversion of the very concept of democracy.”  By this logic, the attempt by the Kremlin to sow distrust in democracy abroad comes as no surprise, while the anti-establishment line taken by Donald Trump is in itself an act of subversion: “If Mr. Trump wins, Russia wins. But if Mr. Trump loses and people doubt the outcome, Russia also wins.” Snyder claims that it is easier for Russia to conduct an assault on democracy internationally than it is to hold open, fair elections at home, and he goes on to say that America has security in the simplicity of its democracy, and it is this simplicity that should be defended.  


Russia’s Election: Every Choice Was a Bad One

Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

“Oba Khuzhe,” or “Every Choice Was a Bad One” is the phrase journalist and author Masha Gessen uses in her commentary for The New Yorker to describe the situation in which the Russian opposition found itself during the parliamentary elections last Sunday. In light of widespread allegations of electoral fraud, combined with the record-low turnout in the country’s modern history, United Russia, the “party of power,” claimed a decisive majority of seats in the new Duma. Gessen notes that this happened despite the fact that this year half of the seats were selected through direct voting, but what remained very much the same was how independent candidates and opposition parties were constrained by a lack of access to mainstream media. The opposition faced the usual dilemma: to boycott the elections, which some (e.g. Garry Kasparov) deemed as “illegitimate,” or to participate, despite everything, and “use this opening in the political system,” as argued by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who supported a group of candidates who ran for deputies from single mandate districts. Two opposition parties, PARNAS and Yabloko, participated, though Gessen calls the latter “quasi-opposition” for being too soft on Putinism. Still, not a single parliamentary seat went to the opposition. The Kremlin adopted numerous strategies to sway the vote, and Gessen also cites research by independent data analyst Sergei Shpilkin, which shows conspicuous abnormalities in the voting statistics, suggesting that data was deliberately distorted in favor of United Russia. After the vote, many opposition activists and voters lamented having been “conned into playing bit parts in Putin’s bad theatre—again,” but as Gessen observes wryly, they probably wouldn’t have felt better after boycotting, because for them, every choice was essentially a bad one.


From Russia

Non-Putin Majority

Andrei Pertsev,

After the recent parliamentary elections the Kremlin received the “most manageable” Duma in the country’s modern history: the United Russia party formed a constitutional majority, while the liberal opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS suffered a devastating defeat, failing to get 5 percent of the vote combined. Despite the appearance of the Kremlin’s all-out success, political commentator Andrei Pertsev suggests that in fact these results highlight a number of issues for the Russian authorities. First, the record-low turnout (48 percent) is evidence that the Kremlin is losing touch with the public. Second, it’s not clear who represents the vast majority of the population who didn’t vote for United Russia: the numbers who used to show up to support the Communists, the Liberal Democrats (LDPR), and even Yabloko dropped, thus handing United Russia a decisive victory. Third, the higher than usual percentage of the vote gained by the LDPR means that more voters now back the “deny everything” style of party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Pertsev concludes that the new “non-Putin majority” is faceless at present, but its dissatisfaction will continue to build up.


Russian Liberal Utopia

Dmitry Travin, Vedomosti

Political scientist Dmitry Travin dissects some of the discussions unfolding in Russia’s liberal circles, and notes that these circles are going through a “mental crisis” for fear that “Russia has failed to become a country that shares European values.” Travin, however, takes a different slant on the issue, framing it as “Russia-centrism”: by exaggerating the mistakes of Russian liberalism, these circles tend to eulogize the achievements of its Western ancestor. The author labels “Russian uniqueness” as an erroneous concept: “Only Russia looks for a special way! Only in Russia is the tsar good, and the boyars bad!” History shows that it’s not quite so: Western countries went through a similar period of searching for their own “special way.” Other liberal views also need to be revised, for instance the fallacy of liberalism’s landslide victory in the West. “Today’s West is a great compromise of three ideologies—liberalism, socialism, and nationalism,” argues Travin. Finally, the illusion prevails among Russian liberals that a Western voter is pragmatic and immune to brainwashing, as opposed to a Russian one, and this myth needs to be dismantled. Travin observes that it hasn’t been always the case, and today’s Western voter is also “stuffed with dogmas,” albeit constructive ones, not obstructing development. All of the changes in the West took place during a long period of modernization, so Travin advises Russian liberals to stop “inventing a perpetual-motion machine” and engage in modernization “without the fuss and convulsions.”


The Return of the KGB. What the Reunification of the Special Services Can Result In

Boris Sokolov, 

This week it was reported that the Kremlin is preparing an overhaul of the special services apparatus: a new Ministry (or as the author calls it, a “superministry”) of National Security will be created on the basis of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and may also absorb the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Guards Service (FSO). Historian Boris Sokolov delves into the issue, recalling that in Russia’s modern history unification of the special services usually portends a new wave of political repression. For example, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) was enlarged in 1934 to launch the Great Terror. After World War II,   the Ministry of State Security was established to conduct a new wave of political repression; it received almost all its executive powers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and included a unit of the military counterintelligence called SMERSH (an acronym of the Russian phrase “death to spies”). Finally, another attempt at merging the internal affairs and national security services (MVD and MGB) was made in 1953, right after Stalin’s death: Lavrentiy Beria headed the new “superministry” for a little while before being arrested. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin tried to weaken the new-fledged FSB, the successor to the KGB. Sokolov argues that Putin’s aim is essentially to recreate the KGB structure in the form that existed for 35 years before the demise of the Soviet regime.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.