The “shchina” is one of those splendid and distinctive features of Russian history and language: it literally just turns a name or word into a generic thing, but in effect, it tends to mean the “bad time” associated with someone or something. In the twentieth century, it essentially has connotations of purge and repression: the 1937-8 Yezhovshchina when Yezhov’s NKVD swept through the CPSU, butchering and banishing to the Gulags, the 1946-52 Zhdanovshchina that forced Soviet culture in a Manichean mould; dedovshchina, “grandfatherism,” the seniority-based culture of bullying that still afflicts the armed forces; and so on.
A little tongue-in-cheek, as I certainly don’t anticipate any mass purges or convoys of hapless prisoners heading off for forced labor projects (Skolkolag, anyone?), but I did find myself wondering how long before we start to think of the potential for a bastryshchina?
Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigations Committee (SK) is undeniably one of Putin’s men. He was a law school classmate of his at Leningrad State University back in the early 1970s. Since then, he has risen steadily and acquired a reputation as a sharp operator. Here’s his career courtesy of the Moscow Times:
Alexander Bastrykin (Александр Иванович Бастрыкин) was born on Aug. 27, 1953, in Pskov.
Education: Law, Leningrad State University, 1975 (He was a classmate of Vladimir Putin’s.) Ph.D., law, 1987.
1983: Secretary of the Leningrad Region Komsomol
1985: Senior lecturer in the Leningrad State University law department
1988: Director of the Investigative Officers’ Training Institute within the Office of the Public Prosecutor of the Soviet Union
1992: Rector of the St. Petersburg Law Institute
2001: Head of the Justice Ministry’s department for the Northwest Federal District
2006: Head of the Interior Ministry’s department for the Central Federal District
2007: First deputy prosecutor general
2007: Head of the newly formed Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office
2009: Injured by a bomb while investigating a terrorist attack on the Nevsky Express train
January 2011-present: Head of the Investigative Committee, now independent from the Prosecutor General’s Office
What this shows is that he has been associated with the prosecutorial and police functions for pretty much his whole career. What this doesn’t show is that he is also a client of scary silovik par excellence Igor Sechin, the Darth Vader to Putin’s Emperor (and I don’t see any eleventh-hour “Alexei Navalny: I am your father” redemptions in Sechin’s future), who has also used his position to prosecute the vicious inter-agency and inter-clan struggles which flare up within the silovik elite in times of uncertainty and transition (and also eliminate potential threats such as his former subordinate Dmitry Dovgy). In 2006-7, for example, he played a key role in the Tri kita (“Three Whales”) scandal at first the MVD’s Central Federal District and then the General Procurator’s Office (GPRF), a scandal that was as much as anything else about such internal conflicts. The SK was then created within the Genprokuratura, but was always semi-detached, with Bastrykin not really accepting or showing any real subordination to Procurator-General Yuri Chaika. This is hardly surprising, given that from an early date it was clear that the SK was envisaged as an even more overtly politicized agency (as Ethan Holland and Mary Burger pointed out in 2008, and in 2010 this political role and Bastrykin’s effective autonomy was recognized and codified when Medvedev removed it from the Genprok‘s domain and subordinated it directly to the presidency (something I covered for RFE/RL here).
I think that there is a considerable meeting of minds between Bastrykin and Medvedev in that they are both legalists, seeing Russia’s future as a law-based state (Putin, by contrast, seems to see the law as something to use when convenient, ignore at will when not). However, not only does that not trump Bastrykin’s more general and stronger practical and patronage ties to Putin, legalism does not necessarily mean democratic or warm and fluffy. Bastrykin was a tough prosecutor who brings a similar take-no-prisoners sensibility to his position at the SK. He also has that lingering Chekist yearning for super-agencies of policing and control, having expressed expressing the hope that one day “all law-enforcement agency investigation bodies empowered to conduct preliminary investigations [would be] united in a single committee.”
He is coming closer to getting his desire. The SK already has a Main Military Investigation Directorate, which operates independent from and parallel with the Main Military Procuracy in investigating serious crimes within the ranks. Now, it is setting up a new directorate to investigate crimes by police and prosecutors. This is understandable on one level, not least as the MVD’s own internal affairs division (GUSB) has not exactly proven that effective of late.
And yet what this does mean is that the SK is now a privileged agency under a client of the president’s, responsible only to the presidency, with a phenomenally wide-ranging mandate to investigate and prosecute crimes throughout not just society as a whole but also — especially, I’d be inclined to say — within the security agencies, agencies which have a considerable immunity from the regular investigations of the MVD and GPRF. The possible exception might be that other bulwark of Putin’s personal power base, the FSB, and I noted with interest that even though the SK is a substantial body with a network of regional offices, the FSB will be providing agents to handle the investigative legwork in investigations of the police. The FSB, needless to say, has long been locked in a behind-the-scenes struggle to dominate the MVD, and this may help give them the edge.
Periods of transition tend to see silovik rivalries flare up, as figures struggle for survival or advancement, old feuds get prosecuted and groups maneuver for turf and resources. As Putin prepares to (re)ascend to the presidency in a time of unprecedented political challenge, I suspect he is looking to reassert his control over the security apparatus. He is, after all, a man who tends to fall back on what he knows and trusts when under pressure. The SK in its current form would seem to be an ideal control structure, the answer to the age-old question quis custodiet ipsos custodes, who watches the watchers. Even the FSB, after all, is likely to come under the scrutiny of this “Kremlin watchdog.”
This may prove to be asserted and consolidated with a purge of sorts, at least on a small scale. We may see some senior figures go in the new government (Nurgaliev’s future at the MVD is still in question, for example), but the SK could also be used to dig out some of the most egregiously dirty, unreliable, unpopular or simply out-of-favor further down the silovik hierarchy or, especially, in the regions, which will prove a crucial locus of power politics in the future. A judicious little bastryshchina might be seen in the new president’s circle as a handy way to cultivate the appearance of fighting corruption and abuse, while also reminding the elite that the boss is back.
(A closing historical note: let’s not push the analogy too far, not least because Putin is no Uncle Joe, but it is worth noting that at the time of his death, Stalin was likely preparing for a new round of purges, including of his own political police, precisely to remind them who was boss, at a time when the Great and the Bad within his administrations were locked in their own power struggles.)