The Fund for Public Opinion, the polling firm employed by the Kremlin, concluded in a survey that "Russians regard the police as a ruthless corporation focused on its own interests, which cares nothing about the people."
In a focus group conducted by the fund in the city of Voronezh last year, participants saw an unbreakable nexus between security agencies and personal profiteering.
In this file photo, workers search the crash site of one of the planes downed in late August by Chechen bombers, who bribed their way onto the flights.
(Misha Japaridze -- AP)
"To my mind, there is a coalescence of police and corruption in our country," one participant said.
"People say, 'He who doesn't want to work becomes a policeman,' " added another.
"Today," the first responded, "they are nothing but legalized criminals."
Corruption has been pervasive in Russian life since the time of the czars and persists today. The traffic police, still known by their Soviet-era initials as GAI, remain infamous for stopping drivers and finding a small infraction or discrepancy, real or invented, on a document in order to extract bribes of 100 rubles, or about $3. Some drivers in Moscow get hit up several times in a single week and shrug it off as if it were a road toll.
Police have also been known to plant drugs on random people in the streets, particularly those who look as if they come from Chechnya or other places in the Caucasus; many men from the region sew up their pockets so that drugs cannot be stuffed inside.
Two young men were stopped by four police officers last winter in the city of Kazan and had drugs planted on them, according to the Human Rights Center in Kazan, a group that defends Russians against police abuses. The officers, according to the center, demanded 100,000 rubles, or more than $3,400, to let the two go, then sent one of the men off to get the money while holding the other hostage.
The man instead called the human rights center, which contacted the police internal affairs division and set up a sting in which the officers were arrested as soon as the man turned over 100,000 rubles in marked bills. "This kind of activity is pretty common around Russia," said Dmitri Kolbasin of the center. "This is an acute problem."
As last month's airplane bombings showed, airports are a regular source of illegal double-dealing by authorities.
A businesswoman calling herself Margarita recalled how she was pulled aside by security officers at an airport as she prepared to board a flight abroad with her 17-year-old granddaughter. The security agents insisted she did not have the right stamp on a document and demanded $300 to let them board. After reluctantly paying, Margarita and the girl were whisked through security and passport control without being stopped.
"It's disgusting," said Margarita, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used. "The thing is that in Russia, we face such experiences every step we take."
Working the System
The two women who set out to destroy the planes evidently knew how to work the system. According to the account given by Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, the women were stopped by airport police who considered them suspicious and turned them over to a captain in charge of anti-terrorism operations.
Ustinov said the police captain was supposed to "examine their belongings and check these people for their potential role in terrorist attacks" but instead "let them go without any check." Ustinov did not offer any explanation for the captain's actions.
The women then found a black-market ticket seller, who charged them 5,000 rubles, or about $171, to help them get onto two separate flights, Ustinov said. The black-market dealer obtained a ticket for one of the women to Volgograd. The other woman already had a ticket for the next day to Sochi, so a ticket agent exchanged that along with 1,000 rubles two minutes before passenger registration for the flight ended, Ustinov said.
Both the dealer and the Sibir airline agent who allegedly took the money have been arrested. Ustinov offered no further details about how the women smuggled explosives aboard. Based on passports they used, they have been identified as two Chechen women, Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Aminat Nagayeva, but some Russian news reports have suggested those passports were fakes.
The circumstances stirred no great outrage after Ustinov's revelations. Nikita Petrov, a historian for the human rights group Memorial, who specializes in the history of the Soviet special services, said police corruption is so widely accepted that Russians no longer consider the consequences.
"People don't think that the state is disintegrating when police take bribes. They don't understand how this destroys the idea of rule of law and civil society," he said. "We understand that there are laws and there is life and that it is easier to pay a bribe than deal with the bureaucracy."
Satarov, the former Yeltsin aide, said corruption could not be reined in under Russia's current political system, in which Putin has systematically eliminated most political opposition. "Only with real political competition, freedom of speech and real transparency of the authorities -- only under these conditions where there is political and public control over bureaucracy is it possible to combat," he said. "It's hopeless under the current political conditions."