The name has changed and the empire is smaller than it used to be, but there’s less and less these days to distinguish the Russian Federation from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Saturday’s brutal beating of crusading journalist Oleg Kashin appears to be the latest example of the resurgent Russian police state flexing its muscles to stamp out dissent; especially when it comes to journalists who refuse to follow the party line. A horrific video shows Kashin being repeatedly beaten by two men who appear to be wielding pipes or some other blunt instruments. Kashin, a journalist for Kommersant, a Russian political and business newspaper, suffered multiple injuries and is currently in an induced coma as doctors try to save his life. Most significantly, the journalist who has written so much to anger and embarrass the government had all of his fingers broken. As messages go, it does not get much clearer that. None of Kashin’s possessions were stolen by his assailants, which further validates suspicions of governmental orchestration.
The Russian authorities have naturally expressed their outrage over this vicious crime and have vowed to find and punish the perpetrators. In a just world, that kind of investigation would start at the top, with detectives questioning Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. Eight journalists have been killed in Russia this year alone, and only one of those murders resulted in an arrest. “Russia’s courts and the police do not have enough strength – or enough interest – to protect journalists,” said Mikhail Kotov, editor of the Russian Gazeta online newspaper. With parliamentary elections scheduled to occur within the next eighteen months, efforts to suppress freedom of the press in Russia will surely get worse. The Russian edition of Newsweek, which has provided a strong voice of opposition in the country, appears ready to close its doors along with other media outlets that don’t play by Putin’s rules.
The West’s Cold War dream of a liberated, democratic Russia – a vision that appeared to be tantalizingly close to reality when the USSR dissolved nineteen years ago – now seems as distant and as unachievable as ever. As President, Putin was the most popular leader of any nation in the world, with approval ratings among Russians topping out over eighty per cent at times. The economic downturn means the Medvedev isn’t quite as popular as his mentor, but there’s very little to suggest that the majority of the Russian populace would want to change the way the country is run. Putin is widely seen as having restored Russian pride, and he was fortunate to be at the helm when the nation’s experiments with capitalism began to bear economic fruit. He’s a hero among much of the populace, and that counts for a lot more than the fate of one courageous journalist who sought to tell the truth.
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.