Recently, in separate incidents over the course of a single week, three Russian citizens died while in police custody. Two were brutally beaten to death by cops, the third even more savagely tortured to death by being denied medical treatment for a critical illness while behind bars.
First, attorney Sergei Magnitsky perished while waiting to go on trial for alleged white-collar crimes -- charges he says were politically motivated after he launched a crusade against official corruption. His firm believes that the police denied him medical treatment to pressure him into giving false testimony about his employer, who was leading the crusade. Then a trio of cops in Moscow beat a man to death in the course of an arrest. Two days later, this time in St. Petersburg, a second man met the same fate. What is perhaps most disturbing about these events, however, is not the killings themselves. Russia has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for years, and its police force is infamous for being more dangerous to citizens than its criminals. Russian ruler Vladimir Putin's administration has been characterized from the beginning by a seemingly endless string of politically motivated murders.
No, what is truly unsettling is the Kremlin's reaction. It seemed to panic.
At first, the Kremlin's jailers emphatically denied any wrongdoing in the Magnitsky scandal. Then, just two days later, its Interior Ministry admitted grievous fault. And when challenged by students over the incidents of police brutality, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev seemed to come unglued. He declared: "May a citizen hit back at a policeman who has attacked him? Yes, he may -- if he is not a criminal, if he is walking along quietly and breaking no rules. We are all equal, and a citizen is doubly equal."
When the Kremlin's own ministry of secret police is openly acknowledging the need for citizens to rise up against police brutality, implying that the government cannot stop it, and admitting to acts of negligence that amount to homicide, you know that something is very, very wrong in the secret corridors of the Kremlin.
Russia's figurehead "president" Dmitry Medvedev has also gotten in on the act. He has issued a number of public statements which can be seen as criticism of the pace of reform under Putin, including a long essay lambasting the country's corruption and economic backwardness. Though Medvedev has no real power to implement his rhetoric, the mere fact that the government appears divided is highly unusual in Putin's Russia. In the wake of massive electoral fraud in Putin's favor in the last parliamentary poll, recalcitrant members even staged a brief walkout protest in a body that is nothing more than a rubber stamp for Putin's policies. Other prominent Russians have begun speaking out as well. Two leading economists at Russia's New Economic School, one of the most prestigious private institutions in the country, published an acidic attack on the government's conduct regarding Magnitsky in the Vedemosti newspaper, Russia's version of the Wall Street Journal. They wrote in ominous tones that "law enforcement officials in Russia employ essentially the same methods as the notorious NKVD did in 1937. Up until last week, we knew that torture was frequently used in the country's detention centers, but we convinced ourselves that it did not concern us personally. Now, if we are honest with ourselves and our children, we must acknowledge that this problem concerns everyone."
Of course, 1937 was the time of Stalin. Are things really that bad in Putin's Russia these days?
In fact, for three reasons, they may be worse.
First, Stalin's Russia wasn't ruled by the KGB. In Stalin's time, the KGB was merely an instrument of Stalin's power. Today, Russia is ruled by a proud KGB spy whose only life experience is the tactical use of dishonesty and terror. The KGB, in other words, is power now. Neither that spy, Vladimir Putin, nor his vast clan of KGB cohorts have the slightest idea how to govern a modern, complicated nation tied to the global economy -- other than by using brute force and blunt trauma.
Second, Stalin's Russia was far more resilient than the Russia of Vladimir Putin, which is a mere shadow of the USSR. Putin's Russia doesn't rank in the top 130 nations of the world for adult lifespan, and as a result of decades of Soviet terror, it has seen a massive exodus of its best and brightest to both the cemetery and the borders. And finally, Stalin's Russia was never characterized by this kind of public chaos and panic at the highest levels of government. It's clear that despite his "strong man" tactics, Putin does not really have control over his country and maintains his grip through apathy and ignorance in the general population. Stalin's Russia managed to scrape and claw its way through World War II; Putin can't even subdue tiny Chechnya and its Islamic insurgency. Violence against the state occurs in Ingushetia and Dagestan on a daily basis. Simply put, there is no reason why Putin's Russia cannot disintegrate the same way Gorbachev's USSR did. Those who looked the other way while Putin liquidated his political rivals in the hope that he would keep order must now see how horribly wrong they were to do that. Putin has failed to pacify the Caucasus region, has seen the same sort of economic debacle experienced by Boris Yeltsin, and has turned the clock back on the basic development of democratic politics that might have brought Russia long-term stability.
As these chickens come home to roost, Putin knows only one response: to cut their heads off. That tactic did not work for Stalin, and indeed, it arguably weakened the USSR to the point of collapse. The world should expect history to repeat itself if Russia cannot learn from that legacy.