Denis Sokolov: Police Feudalism in Russia

medievalA scene from a protest against the government’s raising the pension age, September 9, 2018, Saint Petersburg. Photo by Anton Vaganov. Courtesy of Reuters and Republic

Police Feudalism
Denis Sokolov
Republic
July 15, 2019

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, former head of Ingushetia, was “upmoted” to the Defense Ministry, but Russia’s police machine has continued to persecute protesters in Ingushetia. On July 12, Rashid Maysigov, a correspondent with the website Fortanga, was arrested. When police searched his house, they found, allegedly, the now-obligatory “package containing a white substance” and—apparently, to make the image of Maysigov as a troublemaker complete—leaflets calling for Ingushetia’s annexation by Georgia lying on a coffee table. In the wee hours of July 13, Zarifa Sautiyeva, deputy director of the Memorial for the Victims of Repressions in Nazran, was arrested. Sautiyeva has risen to prominence as one of the female leaders at the protest rallies in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, in 2018–2019. Sautiyeva was charged with complicity in violence against the authorities. This is the first case when a woman has been sent to the remand prison in Nalchik, in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, as part of the continuing investigation of the Ingushetian protests. On July 14, Russia’s federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked Fortanga, the main source of news about the protests.

zarifa sautiyevaZarifa Sautiyeva. Courtesy of Caucasian Knot

What’s Good for Jupiter
There is one thing the arrests of Ingush and Circassian activists, the searches in the homes of people who protested construction of a church in a Yekaterinburg park, the fines meted out to people who marched in solidarity with Ivan Golunov on June 12, the New Greatness case, the arrests for “extremist” posts on the VK social network, and the harsh arrests of protesters outside the Moscow City Elections Committee on Sunday have in common.

None of them have anything to do with keeping the peace and administering justice. They are rituals meant to mark the territory of a class. Equipped with firearms and badges, Russia’s new service aristocracy enthusiastically shows unarmed civilians without badges their place.  The statistics for “ritual” criminal charges—drugs charges, “extremism” charges, and weapons possession charges—speak for themselves. The willingness of law enforcement officers to beat up arrestees harks back to hazing in army barracks and the prison practice of “registering” new inmates by ritually humiliating them.

Russia’s political elite—the siloviki, the officials who control financial flows, organized criminals, and insider businessmen—live by other rules. They are governed by other articles in the Russian criminal code and have other means of resolving conflicts. The fight against corruption and economic crimes is the political weapon that has replaced elections up and down Putin’s “power vertical.” The number of criminal cases against high-ranking officials and officers of the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and the GRU has risen exponentially.

Particularly touching are several cases that are interrelated, according to reporters who covered them. The first case involves the arrests of FSB Colonel Kirill Cherkalin and two of his accomplices on April 25, 2019. They were charged with fraud, i.e., they forced a businessman to hand over a share, worth 490 million rubles [approx. $7.8 million], in a company. Cherkalin was also charged with taking an $820,000 bribe for “protection.” The second case is the flight abroad of Valery Miroshnikov, deputy head of the Deposit Insurance Agency (ASV). Allegedly, he and Cherkalin had cooked up a scheme for making money from the restructuring of banks. Finally, there is the arrest of an entire gang of FSB special forces officers and K Directorate officers: they robbed a bank while on duty, so to speak. Several officers from Alpha, the FSB’s special forces unit, decided not to return from an assignment in the North Caucasus, going to ground instead.

Now that is the sporting life, the life of a medieval knight. A jail sentence for posting the “wrong” thing on social media or attending a peaceable protest rally cannot compare. What is good for Jupiter is bad for the bull. The new division of Russia into quasi-medieval estates is borne out by the fact that, unlike their victims, police officers get suspended sentences for cooking up “drugs” cases, not actual prison time.

The number of businessmen who have been “skimmed” by being charged with economic crimes has skyrocketed. In a report entitled “The Fortress Subsides,” Kirill Rogov recently cited data on the sharp increase in the number of economic crimes investigated by the FSB. We do not need statistics, however, to understand the implications of the attack on Sergei Petrov, the arrest of Michael Calvey, and similar cases.

The Siloviki Revolution
What we are talking about is not the ruling regime’s collapse but its logical evolution, the emergence of a new Russian state. The runaway growth of cases in which criminal prosecution has been used to combat competitors and extract feudal rent from various social groups, including grassroots activists, businessmen, and other siloviki and officials, could point to a qualitative transformation of the social order in Russia. Eliminating competitors for fiefs can, however, be regarded as a form of political competition, while squeezing rents from vanquished regions and sectors is something akin to the victor tasting the fruits of victory. This is borne out by Vladimir Vasilyev’s administration of Dagestan, where the new order entailed a complete purge of the regional bureaucracy and an invasion of officials from more advanced Tatarstan. In other regions, on the contrary, the siloviki revolution has come off more quietly.

The actions of the special services in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and other regions of Russia enables us to make certain generalizations about the new political reality.

First, Russian law enforcement’s apparatus of violence has gradually turned into a ritual apparatus of violence. Planting drugs, “extremist” pamphlets, ammunition or (when a system insider has been targeted for arrest) marked bills on victims has nothing to do with real criminal investigations. They are parts of the arrest ritual, informal parts of the processual code. All that remains is for the State Duma to draft the relevant amendments and vote them into law. Aside from the main program, the arrest ritual contains supplementary messages for the civilian populace: “We will arrest your women,” “We will beat your children and send them to jail,” “All resistance to the punitive machine will be punished disproportionately,” “When a regional head is dismissed or a journalist is released, it does not mean protesters have won,” and so on.

Second, in recent years, the Russian state has been reduced to a police apparatus of violence. All other branches of government are its appendages and palace retinue. At the same time, the state has devised a completely modern media policy. Field officers arrest the regime’s undesirables, and the press services of the security forces voice the “official position” while anonymous Telegram channels, social media forums, and dubious websites leak the “real” reasons for the arrests to the hoi polloi.

For example, the Circassian activist Martin Kochesoko was arrested for possession of marijuana. The police who detained him rubbed his hands in the weed just in case, while the Telegram channels that get their information from law enforcement authorities told readers about Kochesoko’s links with foreign foundations and his dangerous love for federalism.

Third, the police machine is hierarchical, and it is organized on the principle of feudal vassalage. Each police unit has its own turf, its own sectors, its own fief, whether it is a bank, an oil company, the Deposit Insurance Agency, the war in Donbas or the Chinese markets in Moscow. This fief should automatically become a hereditary or corporate fiefdom. Ingush law enforcement officers cannot operate in Moscow or neighboring republics without getting special permission. Zarifa Sautieyva was arrested only when she showed up in her home region. Moscow avoids meddling in the affairs of vassals for no good reason. Ramzan Kadyrov wants jurisdiction over all Chechens, including Chechens in exile, and he gets it.

Fourth, Moscow can recall regional governors and replace one viceroy with another, but the Kremlin has no intention of stopping the punitive machine because there is nothing else left of the state. The inert, corrupt, and hierarchical police machine has become the caste of security forces (siloviki), a parody of medieval knights. Initially, it saw itself as owning all of Russia; later, it has divided the country into fiefdoms according to unwritten rules. It is not only the Kremlin that wants it this way. Russia’s punitive machine has an “on” switch, but no “off” switch. The only recent exception to this rule is the Ivan Golunov case. This case had many idiosyncrasies, however. His supporters were able to free the arrest reporter partly by following the special rules for the regime’s insiders.

Finally, police feudalism and the Russian state are the same things. When protesters appeal to the Russian constitution and the rule of law, the state regards this as an attack on its sovereignty. The constitution, the courts, and the laws belong to the state. The state or, rather, its beneficiaries will do as they like with these privatized institutions. This machine can be employed for private commercial ends or political goals, but it is forbidden to change the regime and disband the service aristocracy.

Feudal Zombies
If these generalizations are valid, we must thoroughly reexamine the strategies of ethnic and grassroots movements. It is naive and pointless to seek justice from the Leviathan.

Ethnic movements can never find support in the current system because a police state is unable to negotiate. It simply does not have the option of negotiating with unarmed people who are not endowed with the proper authority in the shape of badges. Therefore, the most reasonable demand made by the Ingush activists so far is the demand to release political prisoners. They must be freed from the punitive system’s jurisdiction.

We can say the same thing about grassroots movements, authentic local government, and democratic elections. They are possible only in the absence of police feudalism. Tackling Russia’s new service aristocracy is a separate, thorny issue that neither Putin nor the person who succeeds him can solve even if they wanted to solve it. The system is not amenable to reform. It can only shrink, gradually devouring itself.

Police feudalism is so obsolete, however, it is hard to imagine it will be able to maintain itself for long. We need to think about how to organize public life without these time travelers from the past; we must know what to do when this army of skeletons vanishes into thin air. As soon as we have a notion of what institutions and public organizations are needed, how much it would cost to build them, and who would be ready to invest in new political projects, this will happen spontaneously and inevitably.

Translated by Thomas Campbell

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