A set of laws are moving through the Russian legislature that have commentators talking about a “return to 1937” (and Stalin’s purges), of their being the most repressive ones seen in Russia to date. However, their real significance is rather as the next act in what I have called Putin’s “theatre of tyranny”, as a substitute for the real thing – and what they say about the very absence of a clear Kremlin policy and the way different agencies and interests are trying to fill this vacuum to their own advantage.
The measures themselves, proposed by United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, are billed as being to fight terrorism and extremism, and include measures expanding the state’s right to eavesdrop on communications and wider culpability for failing to report an impending crime. No one could describe them as enlightened, and it is striking that some elements, such as depriving convicted terrorists of their citizenship, have already been taken out of the package. However, they are also not so far removed from Western legislation such as the US Patriot Act, and to a large extent are codifying and reflecting existing practice. The brutal truth is, after all, that the Russian state can use its existing powers to repress those it wishes to persecute without needing anything new on the statute books. Rather, this ought to be considered symbolic in two important ways.
First of all, the Kremlin has adopted a thoroughly post-modern kind of authoritarianism, relying not so much on mass repression as a relative handful of well-publicized spectacles of brutish state persecution. There is still considerable freedom of speech and opinion in academe, even in the non-TV media. The Federal Security Service (FSB) is hardly the KGB of old, let alone Stalin’s multi-acronymed political police. There is still space, albeit limited and shrinking, for independent NGOs and citizen initiatives. Indeed, the “Yarovaya Law” has sparked vigorous debate, including outspoken criticisms from telecommunications operators resisting onerous data storage requirements.
However, where Putinism has been perniciously effective is in effect in implanting a little censor, a micro-Putin, in everyone’s head. In later Soviet times, the Party line was clearly articulated and enforced, with the net result that everyone knew pretty much just how far they safely could go. Today, the lines are unclear, mobile, and open to interpretation and manipulation. What was safe yesterday might not be tomorrow, and what some people can get away with saying might not be for others, who have more powerful enemies, or who just happen to express themselves at the wrong time.
So everyone is wary all the time, and by presenting itself as being more ruthless, more ubiquitous, and more paranoid than it really is, the Kremlin helps reinforce this defensive caution amongst most Russians.
The result is a form of pathological self-censorship in not just what people say, but what they do. Measures like the introduction of these new laws, whether or not they are even passed, let alone used, are powerful set-pieces in reinforcing this theatre of tyranny, and the more liberals fret about them, the better the Kremlin likes it.
The marketplace of (authoritarian) ideas
The flip-side of self-censorship is self-activation. It is not just that ordinary Russians ought to feel nervous and restricted, they should also feel encouraged to act in “patriotic” ways in the hope that this will curry favour higher up the food chain. This helps explain many of the seemingly random acts of petty repression, such as the unaccountably hard line taken on visa restrictions in Nizhny Novgorod, as well as conceivably not so petty ones, such as the Chechen murder of Boris Nemtsov. These were not so much dictated by the Kremlin as inspired by it, local and individual interests trying to predict what might please a mercurial leadership that refuses to spell out its intent in the kind of clear diktats, plans and quotas any good Soviet tyrant would provide.
One reason for this is that the Kremlin no more appears to have a “repression strategy” than it has an economic or geopolitical one. Rather, it has a general sense of the desired end-point – a happy, supportive, loyal population, and an efficient and loyal elite that steals only as much as it is allowed – and a determination to create options and assets which might conceivably be useful in achieving them, from the National Guard to compliant TV channels.
In the absence of any such strategy, it falls to individuals, agencies and factions to try and float ideas in the hope that the Kremlin will allow them to run or even adopt them for its own. In this way, policy can be made to serve their own interests and also diverted in the ways they would like.
Yarovaya, for example, is generally accepted as one of the parliamentarians to whom the FSB turns when it wants a bill tabled or a public statement. The passage of these laws would substantially strengthen its position in several ways. It would regain initiative lost of late to the National Guard and the Investigatory Committee, two relatively recent additions to the security realm. It would expand the FSB’s political policing powers in political control but also, through its wider access to intercepted communications, provide new, monetizable opportunities for corporate raiding and blackmail. Finally, the laws embody an approach to political control resting on the “theatre of tyranny” – the FSB’s particular strength – rather than the more physical for embodied by the National Guard.
In short, if and when the Kremlin decides on a genuinely repressive strategy, this will be manifest in night-time arrests and secret trials, not public debates and legal enactments. For the moment, we see an approach characterized by “repressive PR” and shaped as much as anything else by the very absence of a clear line – and agencies’ attempts to exploit this – which is surely to be preferred.