In October 1998, a court in St. Petersburg began hearings in a case against Alexander Nikitin, a retired Russian naval officer who alerted the world to the environmental dangers of a decaying nuclear submarine fleet in Russia’s far north. For partnering with a Norwegian environmental group on a report on nuclear safety, Nikitin was charged with “revealing state secrets.” He became the first person in post-Soviet Russia to be designated by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
Leading the charge against Nikitin was the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Russia’s main domestic successor to the KGB, and its newly appointed director — a fellow Petersburger by the name of Vladimir Putin. “The former KGB is calling the shots in this case,” Irwin Cotler, a well-known human rights lawyer from Canada who took up Nikitin’s defense, said at the time. “If that is indeed what is happening, then Russians have a lot to worry about.”
Perhaps even Cotler himself did not realize how prophetic his words would prove to be. Nikitin’s story, at least, had a happy ending: after an arduous judicial process, he was acquitted of all charges. This was still Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, where parliament was a place for discussion, where the media could criticize the government, and where the courts could rule on the law, not a phone call. The verdict in Nikitin’s case was passed on Dec. 29, 1999. Two days later, Putin, the man who had directed the charges against Nikitin, became the acting president of Russia.
Of all the ways that Putin’s rule has transformed the country, perhaps the most troubling is its state-driven paranoia. It was also the most pervasive characteristic of the organization where Putin had spent his formative years, the KGB. In Putin’s Russia, opposing the government is equated with betraying the country — just what Nikitin was accused of when he published his report. In his own words, Putin views political opponents as “national traitors” who “scavenge at foreign embassies.” Their goal, in his worldview (or, at least, in the depiction of his propaganda) is not to improve life in the country, but to advance the interests of their foreign puppeteers.
Last month, the chief of Russia’s armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, took the accusation a step further, asserting that the U.S. Department of Defense had launched a new strategy code-named “Trojan Horse,” which relies on “using the protest potential of the ‘fifth column’ in order to destabilize” the country from within (“fifth column” being a term from the Spanish Civil War describing saboteurs and hostile agents inside one’s territory). Gerasimov went on to say that the United States is using “color revolutions” and “soft power” to topple governments it dislikes.
The general was only echoing his commander in chief. Speaking at the FSB’s annual board meeting, Putin declared that foreign intelligence agencies are ramping up activities “on the Russian front” and claimed that, in 2018 alone, his former colleagues exposed nearly 600 foreign intelligence officers and their agents inside the country. The Kremlin leader urged his security services to be even more active, including by “increasing the security of national informational resources.”
This work has already begun. Earlier this year, Russia’s rubber-stamp legislature took up a bill that would disconnect the Russian Internet from the Web. The measure, proposed by KGB officer-turned-legislator Andrei Lugovoi — who is wanted by British police over the 2006 fatal radioactive poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London — would make Russia’s online space autonomous from global networks, as has been done in China. The difference is that the Chinese Communist Party has been constructing that country’s “Great Firewall” for years, since the beginnings of the Internet. It is highly doubtful a similar action could be taken in a country where the online space has been largely unfettered, and where 75 percent of the adult population use the Internet on a regular basis. A prominent Russian journalist has compared these attempts to “cutting electricity off all over the country . . . it is simply impossible.” Last month, thousands of Russians rallied in downtown Moscow, in what became one of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent years, to denounce Kremlin attempts to “isolate Russia” and to demand online freedom.
Meanwhile, a new Russian law that took effect at the end of March imposes substantial fines and administrative jail terms on anyone expressing “patent disrespect” for the government. The law has already been used in Yaroslavl, where officials demanded that local media outlets remove reports of obscene anti-Putin graffiti. The measure follows in the worst traditions of Russian state control over speech, from the Statute of Censorship under Nicholas I to the Communist-era prohibition on “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”
"This is not the first time Russian authorities are trying to ‘make the people love the Motherland,’ as usual confusing the Motherland with themselves,” said Lev Schlosberg, one of Russia’s few regional opposition lawmakers, as he introduced a symbolic bill that would penalize officials for disrespecting the rights and freedoms of citizens. “All previous attempts have ended . . . in the collapse of states that tried to force people to love them. . . . Where is the Russian Empire? Where is the Soviet Union? [Like the Bourbon dynasty in France], Russian authorities have understood nothing and learned nothing.”