The state is one of nothing other than arbitrariness. After the lawlessness of the mid-1990s in Russia, many hoped that competition between various groups of the elite would force them to create a system of laws and rules to protect them (and everyone else) from arbitrariness. But it didn’t turn out that way: one of the groups—the one furthest from both honest business and from society—won the battle and made arbitrariness the guarantee of its position.
The powerful, monolithic, and robust state that Putin has been building since he came to power in 2000 is now devouring itself from within, demonstratively and ruthlessly locking up governors, ministers, and senators as though there were no Putin system or Putin appointees. The president, having focused too much of his attention on geopolitics, has opened the floodgates for the de-Putinization of the power vertical, creating a situation in which virtually no one except the head of state remains protected by the system’s legitimacy.
In Russia’s prisons, elite inmates obtain special conditions both through monetary payments and rendering services—guaranteeing order, cutting deals with the administration, and even paying for improvements in the facilities. For its part, the Russian prison system is more concerned with keeping this corruption out of the public eye than actually preventing it.
A crackdown on online “extremism” has drawn rare resistance from both the Russian public and the political elite, forcing the Kremlin to support changes to the country’s main anti-extremism law.
While the world watches the hunger strike of Oleg Sentsov, who is becoming Russia’s best-known political prisoner, most penitentiary protests have nothing to do with politics. Rather, they are about improving conditions in prisons and human dignity. Their occurrence and their tendency to be covered up testify to the lack of true accountability in the Russian prison system.
Recent months have seen extremism cases in Russia multiply, a disturbing development in which some see echoes of the Great Terror. However, while the authorities’ campaign against so-called extremists is not a deliberate policy of the Kremlin, which intended for the laws on extremism to serve as precision instruments, it represents a system breakdown. Russia’s law enforcement agencies are applying the law in their own interest, and the consequences are dire. Now, ordinary citizens, who face the same reprisals as opposition activists, as do their children, will leave their comfort zones.
As the world debates the danger of manipulating public opinion through fake news, Ukraine has created a false narrative of global significance. Blurring the borders of truth is unlikely to help Ukraine in the long run. But the country’s desire for a spectacular victory over its enemy outweighed other concerns.
The banning of Telegram, one of the most popular messaging apps in Russia, is a serious blow to the public loyalty of ordinary people to the authorities. Ways of getting around the ban are being widely discussed in non-politicized chat groups, and even representatives of the powers that be are expressing discontent, both privately and in public. The move to block the secure messaging service has shown that people are prepared to ignore the ban and enter a gray area—and it’s the authorities themselves who have goaded people into this.
The Russian court system paralyzed itself a long time ago. It doesn’t need outside experience; it doesn’t need experienced lawyers. It needs efficient personnel who know how to follow orders. The average judge renders a not-guilty verdict once every seven years. Judges understand that such a verdict will always be repealed and the repeal of a sentence is a stain on a judge’s record that could lead to penalties and even dismissal.
The story of the arrest of Oleg Korshunov, deputy director of Russia’s prison system, looks at first glance like a victory in an anti-corruption campaign. But the truth is much more complex. Korshunov merely operated too blatantly, his detention is unlikely to change much, and he may eventually get free on parole.