20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Alexander Vereschagin reviews the history of Russia’s special services, including the Cheka, KGB, and modern-day FSB; Konstantin Gaaze explains the rationale behind Alexei Ulyukayev’s guilty verdict; Vladimir Pastukhov discusses what the verdict in Ulyukayev’s case reveals about Russia’s political system; New Times writes about Russia’s State Duma recent bill to label bloggers as foreign agents; and Vitaly Gorokhov discusses the impact of the IOC’s ban on the Russian Olympic team.


December 20, 2017. Russia's top officials celebrate 100th anniversary of the creation of the Russian Security Forces. Left to right: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (2nd left), Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin, President Vladimir Putin, and Head of the Russian Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev / TASS.


  1. Vedomosti: The Cheka’s Centenary: One Hundred Years in Power

  • As the inheritors of the Cheka mark their 100th anniversary, the lawyer Alexander Vereschagin discusses the living “Slavic traditions” of the special service, drawing upon the history of the Cheka, KGB, and modern-day FSB.
  • After 1917, the Soviet authorities worked to disassociate themselves from Russia’s tsarist past. Belonging to the tsarist political police—even its lower ranks—was a black mark. Only the Federal Protective Service (FSO), whose activities are mostly apolitical, can be traced back to the revolutionary special service.
  • What really differentiated the Cheka from the tsarist police was that it organized assassination attempts and political murders. This was inconsistent with the morals of the tsarist police.
  • By 1993, Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin declared the security service “unreformable,” yet later he began to restore it. In 1995, the FSB was created and December 20 became an official day commemorating its employees. A rehabilitation and heroization of Chekism followed, its tempo gaining speed in the past 20 years.
  • Meanwhile, Vereschagin stresses that the ongoing debate on who was most responsible for the terror inflicted by the Soviet state—the Communist party or the security service—has no meaning. Both are integral to the violence committed by Bolshevism.
  • The myth that the security service overruled the party was a marked attempt by Nikita Khrushchev to portray the party as a victim and sanctify it. In reality, the party initiated and strictly controlled the tool of repression. It used an imitation of the law to deceive and disorientate, ultimately manifested in the KGB, which was secretly controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
  • With the FSB, the status has not changed. Though the president’s role is constitutionally limited to ensuring the coordination of the FSB in its interactions with other government bodies, Putin “directs” the FSB and appoints its director in actuality. This is different from the U.S. or even Ukraine.
  • The author concludes that Russia inherited the deceptive Soviet system of double subordination of state security agencies whose real superiors are in the Kremlin. However, there is hope that with generational change, the FSB will cease to be Chekist and transform into a normal special service unit of a normal state.

Ведомости, Юбилей ВЧК: сто лет с властью, Александр Верещагин, 15 декабря 2017 г.


  1. Carnegie.ru: What Does Ulyukayev’s Verdict Mean? 

  • Political commentator Konstantin Gaaze explains why Ulyukayev was found guilty and convicted, despite the fact that the verdict is both unprofitable for Putin and extremely dangerous for the entire Russian elite.
  • Ulyukayev officially received an eight-year sentence last week, which could be reduced  due to health concerns. But regardless of the time served, Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, can now uncork his champagne.
  • To examine the case, it’s necessary to look to Sechin, the “facilitator” of the 2016 Bashneft privatization deal and the 2012 deal to take over TNK-BP and swap shares between Rosneft and BP.
  • In light of the Ulyukayev verdict, Sechin’s intentions are more important than Putin’s. After Ulyukayev objected to the Bashneft deal, Sechin was displeased. The court believes that Ulyukayev asked Sechin for a bribe, hinting that he could prevent the sale of Rosneft shares in the future, but there is no evidence supporting this.
  • Sechin framing Ulyukayev also assured that the Bashneft transaction would be executed and proves to the Kremlin who holds the reins.
  • The investigation could not prove—nor did it try to prove—that Ulyukayev extorted money from Sechin for facilitating a deal on Rosneft. Sechin simply removed an inconvenient figure, realizing that the “liberals” in government would surrender to him.
  • In the future, even if Medvedev remains prime minister, no one will interfere with the "all-powerful" Sechin, who incarcerated a former federal minister with himself as the only witness (without even turning up in court).
  • But Sechin primarily poses a threat to Putin. Removing Sechin would signal that Putin is ready to give up his “left-hand man,” or that Sechin is no longer necessary. This would be a classic exit strategy, indicating that Putin is thinking about Russia’s future after 2024.
  • But these are not among Putin’s considerations. Sechin has a letter in his pocket signed by the president that states that everything he does—even if it is a crime—is for the benefit of the state. Any doubt in this would destroy the whole system of governance, which cannot be dismantled before Putin’s reign ends.

Carnegie.ru, Что означает приговор Улюкаеву, Константин Гаазе, 15 декабря 2017 г.


  1. Republic: Ulyukayev as a Modern-Day Bukharin 

  • Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov discusses what the ex-economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev’s case says about the future political system and the future of Igor Sechin.
  • Patukhov posits that historical periods in Russia are marked by their noteworthy judicial cases: The Great Terror—from the Industrial Party Trial to the Kirov assassination show trials, finally culminated in the “doctors’ plot.”
  • Likewise, the Putin era is the road from the Yukos and Magnitsky cases to the gubernatorial trials, and most recently Ulyukayev’s case—the finale in the evolution of the post-communist repressive system.
  • Pastukhov outlines 10 less central theses about the political process that may define Putin’s new presidential term:
    • 1) Putin determined Ulyukayev's fate with a single phrase at his press conference—just as with Stalin, there will never be any significant court cases decided without Putin’s approval.
    • 2) With virtually no evidence to prove Ulyukayev’s charge (Sechin is the only witness), Putin’s personal conviction of a person’s guilt or innocence is the main and only evidence in any case.
    • 3) Rumors of Sechin’s “political death” have been greatly exaggerated—like no other, he has convinced Putin that his personal enemies are guilty. This makes him the most dangerous opponent for everyone in Putin’s circle.
    • 4) The case has not revealed clear political motives on any side, which could hurt Sechin in the long run, as it may unveil a hidden agenda.
    • 5) Rather than about privatizing Rosneft, Ulyukayev was implicated more as a random victim of the long-standing fight between the Sechin and Medvedev rival clans.
    • 6) The outcome was orchestrated by Putin to show that the authorities are willing to fight corruption and any opposition on the eve of the election campaign, and that no one has immunity.
    • 7) The case signals that loyalty has ceased to be a safeguard from repression—terror applies to everyone.
    • 8) The case debunks the myth that the Russian judicial system is “white and fluffy” for everyone but political opponents. However, it is more public than previous political cases, portraying Russian officials as “extras” at the beck and call of the Kremlin, which, paradoxically, works against the system.  
    • 9) Ulyukayev has emerged as someone who at the very least evokes compassion. Bukharin, who was also made responsible for all the crimes of the Soviet regime, and eventually executed during the Great Terror, is now remembered as a symbol of injustice.
    • 10) Sechin invokes fear and hatred, and will have to continue to play against everyone. Putin is the only one Sechin has left on his side, but, Pastukhov concludes, all of Russian history tells us that the fate of “favorites” is deplorable.

Republic, Улюкаев как Бухарин нашего времени, Владимир Пастухов, 15 декабря 2017 г.


  1. New Times: Duma Decides to Brand Bloggers

  • Following the attack on the media, Russia’s State Duma has begun to label blogs as foreign agents. Journalist Elena Teslova surveys various actors on how they perceive the law will affect bloggers.
  • RadioFree Europe/Radio Liberty and other American outlets have already registered as foreign agents. Aside from reporting on their activities to the Russian government and labelling their materials with “foreign agent,” any violations by these outlets must be remedied within 15 days, after which their sites will be blocked.
  • Now the question is, how will bloggers be affected? According to the vice speaker of the Duma, if they represent the media and are financed from abroad, the law applies to them. But RT’s Margarita Simonyan said that it only applies to bloggers working for foreign state departments. Deputy Andrei Klimov later noted that the law will concern owners of websites primarily.
  • Others, like Maxim Shevchenko of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, view the bill ill-considered, particularly because many thousands of bloggers receive money for their views, many millions of which come from abroad.
  • Teslova also discusses how the law will affect the work of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny whose online resources have been banned in Russia.
  • Editor-in-Chief of Open Russia’s website Veronika Kutsyllo did not rule out that the bill was directed at Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The bill may affect his ability to broadcast information via his personal blog.
  • Khodorkovsky spokesman Maxim Dbar denied that it would affect Khodorkovsky, a Russian citizen who does not get money from foreign organizations. This is true, of course, only if the law is upheld as it is written.
  • Anton Gorelkin of the Duma’s Committee for Information Policy said that the law in no way limits the rights of mass media and citizens to receive information—media outlets are subject to certain obligations, but not restrictions.
  • Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund does not receive funding from abroad—only from Russian citizens—so it should not be implicated. But spokesperson Lyubov Sobol condemned the law as a violation of freedom of speech—state control over any NGO or media organization contradicts the constitution.

New Times, Депутаты решили заклеймить блогеров, Елена Теслова, 20 декабря 2017 г.


  1. RBС: Demonstration of Power: Why Russia Does Not Understand the IOC’s Logic

  • Vitaly Gorokhov of the East-West Institute writes on different perspectives spurred by the IOC’s ban on the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) from the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Games.
  • Gorokhov mentions two consensuses in the field of social science apropos doping. The first is that the fight against doping is an endless game of cat and mouse; ongoing technological progress on both sides ensures that there will be no way for either to ever claim ultimate victory.
  • The goal of doping is athletic, benefiting not only the athlete, but the circle of people around the athlete: trainers, doctors, officials, sponsors, and politicians, the latter seeking athletic success to preserve political status. Ultimately, those who have the authority to stop doping benefit from its use.
  • Doping threatens the athletes more than anyone else involved. Their trainers are at worst dismissed, but in general slapped on the wrist for negligence, but the system remains untouched.
  • The second is the understanding that modern sport is a product of globalization involving three non-state groups: transnational business, international media, and international athletic organizations. Their shared goal is athletic superiority and reputation as leaders of the international sport community.
  • The punishment of the ROC was not simply sanctions on individual athletes and high-ranking officials, but an indictment of Russia as a state.
  • The IOC’s decision has had an impact on the U.S. perspective as well—it is a lesson for Donald Trump on Russia.
  • Today, the IOC and FIFA are perhaps the only multinational organizations whose member states are considered equals, regardless of political or economic prowess. For this reason, Gorokhov believes they will preserve their influence over member states, which will continue to follow the rules established by these organizations.
  • The author concludes that while it is unfortunate that the object of the power demonstration had to be Russia, at least the Kremlin turned to athletes and fans, instead of succumbing to quasi-patriotic hysteria. Russian athletes will be in Pyeongchang and that means there is someone for Russians to support. 

РБК, Демонстрация силы: почему в России не понимают логику МОК, Виталий Горохов, 18 декабря 2017 г.