Skip to main content

It should have been impossible to go back.The image of what happened on Aug. 22, 1991, is frozen in the minds of most Russians. Anyone who was there describes it as beautiful -- tens of thousands of people dancing in front of the KGB building they had all feared for so long, cheering as cranes pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the man who had created the murderous secret service in the days after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The feeling of hope that came with it is also still remembered. For any Russian who saw it, the toppling of "Iron Felix" meant the era of state-sanctioned fear was over. Something else -- liberal democracy, everyone presumed at the time -- was supposed to take its place.

But 13 years later, Iron Felix is back and democracy in Russia is in dire trouble, some say dead. Mr. Dzerzhinsky has not yet been returned to his old plinth on Lubyanka Square, although that has been suggested by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. But his likeness now stands amid the birch trees in a new, man-made park in this grimy Moscow suburb named for one of history's great killers.

Story continues below advertisement

Few seem to mind.

"It's a nice monument. I like it. They made a mistake in Moscow when they pulled that statue down," says 76-year-old Zinaida Oreshkova, sitting on a bench near the three-metre-high bronze monument put up on Sept. 11.

Ms. Oreshkova associates Mr. Dzerzhinsky's name with a time when Russia was a great power and life was predictable. "It was a time of stability and order. We lived better before perestroika," she says.

And she's not alone. Numerous bunches of red, yellow and violet flowers have been laid at the statue's feet, apparently that very morning. Of the dozen or so people who stroll through the park on Dzerzhinsky Street on a Friday afternoon, not one admits to being bothered by Iron Felix's return.

Three teenaged girls say they have heard about Mr. Dzerzhinsky in school, but mostly about the good he did. "I know about the repressions, but I've also heard positive things. He restored schools," 15-year-old Olga Gryaznova says, giggling with her friends. "I like him as a historical personality."

President Vladimir Putin might have been hailed as a democrat and a reformer when he was elected four years ago, but under his reign it has become fashionable once again to lionize men such as Mr. Dzerzhinksy. What happened on Sept. 11 in Dzerzhinsky was comparable to a town in Germany erecting a monument to Heinrich Himmler.

Critics say that while the world's attention was diverted elsewhere, the KGB has carried out a coup in the Kremlin. Not only is the President a former agent, so are nearly all of his top advisers, more than a dozen deputy ministers and regional governors, as well as Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, the man most often mentioned as Mr. Putin's successor.

Story continues below advertisement

And the ruling junta is once more making threatening rumbles -- Mr. Putin, who has quintupled military spending since he took over from Boris Yeltsin, said this week that Russia would soon have new nuclear missiles "which other nuclear powers do not and will not possess."

"This country changed the day that Boris Yeltsin chose a KGB colonel as his nominee for president," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few independent deputies remaining in the State Duma, the lower house of the federal Parliament. "Russia is now a virtual democracy, becoming more and more authoritarian. Nobody knows how far it can go."

Mr. Dzerzhinsky wasn't the first secret-services icon to have his reputation and monument restored.

In 1999, while Mr. Putin was the head of the KGB's successor organization, the FSB -- and just weeks before he was named prime minister en route to the presidency -- he reinstated something else the crowds had torn down in 1991: a plaque on the side of the agency's headquarters commemorating Yuri Andropov, another KGB veteran who rose to the top as Soviet leader from 1982 to 1984.

Mr. Putin's most hysterical critics liken the President to Joseph Stalin, a killer of millions, but Mr. Andropov, famous as the "Butcher of Budapest" for calling in the Red Army to crush the Hungarian revolt when he was Soviet ambassador in 1956, has long been one of his heroes.

Other Putin watchers insist, with somewhat more evidence, that he wants to return Russia to the status it had under Mr. Andropov -- before glasnost and perestroika unleashed the forces that broke the Soviet Union apart.

Story continues below advertisement

Now, as the President gathers more and more power to himself, restores the stained glory of the country's secret services and squeezes dissent, it is clear that Andropovism once more prevails in Moscow.

Like his hero, Mr. Putin places a high premium on domestic stability, even as he prides himself on being a reformer. Both men also had their dirty wars -- Mr. Andropov in Afghanistan, Mr. Putin in Chechnya.

But the most striking parallels between the two men are in how they managed political opposition.

Mr. Andropov, while head of the KGB under Leonid Brezhnev, pushed hard to have author Alexander Solzhenitsyn expelled and physicist Andrei Sakharov exiled internally for criticizing the Communist regime.

Mr. Putin borrowed heavily from the model as he drove the political opponents of his age, meddlesome media moguls Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, into fleeing the country, and sent others, notably tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to prison.

While Mr. Andropov spent only 15 months as general secretary of the Soviet Union before his death in 1984, the results of 4½ years of his policies, as carried out by Mr. Putin, are now clear. The feisty free press and occasionally rebellious Parliament he inherited from Mr. Yeltsin are gone. One-party rule has effectively returned. All in exchange for the stability that Mr. Andropov so craved.

"What we have now is a semi-authoritarian regime that intends to emerge as fully authoritarian," says Yevgeny Kiselyev, editor-in-chief of the Moscow News, a liberal weekly newspaper. "It's a regime of control freaks."

But, in many ways, it's what the Russian people want.

Yuri Levada, the country's most respected pollster, says the "disappointing" data he has collected show that 13 years after the Soviet Union fell apart, the mindset of ordinary Russians has become more, not less, Soviet. About 65 per cent look fondly on the Soviet system that existed before Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika -- a 15-per-cent rise over a decade ago.

Asked to rank what is important to them, social guarantees that the Soviet state once provided, free education, medical help and old-age insurance, are valued by 74 per cent of Russians. That's three times the number who named freedom of speech and more than five times the number who want to see their right to freely travel abroad protected. "People like order and strong power, but not individualism, freedom and democracy," Mr. Levada says.

Which is why there was a limited public outcry as Mr. Putin again moved to tighten the screws in the wake of September's school hostage-taking in Beslan, the pollster says.

The President, saying he needed to "ensure the unity of state power" after the attack by militants affiliated with the Chechen separatist movement left more than 350 people dead, announced that he would take away Russian citizens' hard-won individual rights and concentrate more power and control in the Kremlin.

He said he would cancel regional elections and in the future would appoint the country's 89 governors (the rough equivalent of Canada's provincial premiers) himself. He also cancelled direct elections to the State Duma.

Paraphrasing Stalin's words after the Germans invaded in 1941, Mr. Putin said Beslan had happened because Russia was weak -- "and the weak get beaten."

Mr. Levada says his polls show that the moves weren't popular, but the public nonetheless responded with a sigh and a shrug. "Not all the people agree with Putin, but we see no resistance. . . . The people see his autocratic habits as normal for Russia."

Yuri Andropov wouldn't have tolerated dissent, and the functionaries of Vladimir Putin's Russia weren't about to either.

A celebration of what would have been Mr. Andropov's 90th birthday in the Karelian town of Petrozavudsk, where he had once been a Communist Youth leader, were well under way last June when a group of youths began laying flowers at the base of a new bust of the former Soviet ruler.

The gesture seemed appropriate for the occasion, but what was written on the bouquets was deemed not. "From victims of the KGB and FSB," read the message on one. A second said, "From victims of the Afghan War," while a third read, "From grateful Hungarians."

Police moved in to arrest the protesters, to the applause of local governor Sergei Katanandov. "The people of the USSR and Russia link Andropov's name to a very important time in their lives, when law and order were restored, efforts were made to bring discipline at work and measures were taken to fight corruption," he said. "You know, these are very topical issues right now."

After the chaos of the Yeltsin years -- a time of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations -- open dissent is once again a rare sight in Russia. Regular Thursday-night protests on Moscow's Pushkin Square against the bloody, five-year-old war on Chechnya are tiny. On one night this month, just 21 people turned out.

But Svetlana Rud, a 57-year-old woman bundled up in a winter coat and hat against the early-November cold, takes a longer view of history.

"There were just eight people standing on Red Square protesting against the events in Prague," the retired oil-field engineer says, referring to a brief protest by dissidents against the use of Soviet tanks to crush the Prague Spring uprising in 1968. "This time, there are 21 of us."

In Mr. Andropov's time, Ms. Rud and her companions might have been labelled insane and sent to asylums, a favourite tactic during his 15 years at the head of the KGB. Under the spymaster's spiritual heir, people like her are tolerated, but dismissed as dangerously unpatriotic.

In the wake of the Beslan attack, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, said Russia needed to defend itself against unnamed foreign enemies who aspired "to destroy Russia and to populate its vast expanses with numerous ineffective quasi-states."

Mr. Surkov had a warning to the regime's internal critics too. He charged that Russia's liberals represent a "fifth column" that threatens the survival of the nation. "They have the same sponsors of foreign origin and the same hatred for Putin's Russia, as they put it, but, in fact, for Russia per se," he said.

The few that do make a point of gathering on Pushkin Square to protest each week are a motley lot --pensioners mostly, with a few young professionals thrown into the mix. Several are long-time veterans of the struggle for democracy in Russia; people who stood alongside Mr. Yeltsin outside Russia's White House as he stared down a coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners in 1991, and who joined the mass demonstrations that forced a negotiated end to the first Chechen war in 1996.

This time, though, the crowds aren't with them. Though the protests have been going on every week since shortly after Mr. Putin ordered troops into the breakaway Muslim region in 1999 while he was Mr. Yeltsin's prime minister, the gatherings have been uniformly small, rarely much larger than this one.

Honks of support from passing cars are rare. Most who stop to read the demonstrators' anti-war placards respond with derision rather than sympathy. "Who pays you to stand here?" a passersby snorts.

Dima, a 15-year-old boy walking by the protest with his mother and brother, seems genuinely confused. "We cannot give up Chechnya -- it's Russian territory," he says pleadingly to two middle-aged men holding a sign reading, "War in Chechnya is a crime against the people."

When the protesters try to explain why they think that the endless carnage in the Chechnya war is poisoning Russian society, Dima responds by shouting: "They are terrorists there. We are fighting terrorism."

Despite the hostile reception, protester Valentina Vasilyevskaya says she doesn't believe that most ordinary Russians support the war, in which thousands of federal soldiers, Chechen fighters and ordinary civilians have been killed. But in Mr. Putin's Russia, they are once more afraid to speak out against the government.

"Fear is back," the 59-year-old retired secretary says. "We live in the same conditions now that we had in the Soviet Union, when people were of the opinion that there's no use protesting because nothing can be changed. People are tired now. Dictatorship is advancing."

For many, the real signal that the new Kremlin is a lot like the old Kremlin came last October with the arrest of billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The tycoon is charged with massive tax evasion and fraud -- claims that could be made against almost anyone who did well in Russia's lawless business world of the 1990s. Many believe that his real crimes were political: He used his wealth to support opposition parties and once went so far as to criticize Mr. Putin's government openly during a televised meeting between the President and the country's leading industrialists.

Within months of that encounter, Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested, his plane surrounded by armed FSB agents while it refuelled on a Siberian airstrip.

A year later, the daily spectacle of the fallen oligarch and his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, sitting in a steel cage while prosecutors ponderously read out the charges against them serves as a constant reminder to Mr. Putin's potential opponents that the Kremlin is not lightly crossed. Contributions to the political opposition from big business has almost dried up.

Even some of the President's closest confidants wonder if the regime has gone too far.

Andrei Illarionov, Mr. Putin's outspoken and controversial economics adviser and one of the few in the President's inner circle who is not a veteran of the security services, told the respected Kommersant newspaper that he was worried that Mr. Khodorkovsky's case, combined with the crushing of the free press, has created "an atmosphere of fear . . . that wasn't here only a few years ago. . . .

"A country paralyzed by fear is doomed," he added.

Russia's slide is part of an authoritarian creep across the vast territory that was once the Soviet Union. With the clear exception of the three Baltic states -- and the troubled Caucasus country of Georgia, which experienced a peaceful, popular revolution last year -- the republics of the old "Evil Empire" have seen little of the freedom and democracy that spread across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The other 11 successor states are all uniformly blighted by press restrictions and farcical elections. Seven have had the same president for a decade or more. And, by and large, all of them still take their cue from the Kremlin.

For Alexander Yakovlev, the man who 20 years ago designed the catchword concepts of glasnost and perestroika and persuaded his friend Mikhail Gorbachev to carry them out, it is personally "painful" to watch as Russia and the former Soviet Union stagger backward.

This February, he made the loudest statement he could think of. When millions of Russians went to the polls and swept Mr. Putin into office for a second two-year term, the man many consider the grandfather of Russian democracy skipped out to Prague.

The 80-year-old hadn't missed a chance to vote since the collapse of the Soviet Union, elated at the freedom that he had played a hand in bringing about. But this time he was too disturbed by the way the campaign had been conducted, particularly at how the state-controlled media had slavishly promoted Mr. Putin while ignoring or ridiculing the five other candidates.

"It was useless to vote. It was known beforehand who would win," Mr. Yakovlev said in an interview at his Moscow office, where he quietly plugs away at the job he has taken on in his twilight years -- rehabilitating the victims of repressions in the 1930s by Joseph Stalin's secret police one by one. "This was not an election. This is what we had for 70 years before."

To Mr. Yakovlev, a key member of Mr. Gorbachev's Politburo and later an adviser to Mr. Yeltsin during the hopeful early years of Russia's democratic experiment, one of the most dubious symbols of that decline has been the rapid rise of United Russia, a political movement with no ideology beyond blind support for the President.

After elections last December that were slammed by international observers as "free, but not fair," United Russia, which was created only three years ago, now has a two-thirds majority in the Duma -- enough to rewrite the country's constitution, which currently restricts presidents to two terms in office, to allow Mr. Putin to extend his reign. It's something that Mr. Yakovlev and other critics are increasingly convinced that the 52-year-old President wants to do.

But the party is far more than a parliamentary vehicle for the Kremlin. Membership in United Russia is seen by career-minded politicians as crucial to survival. In the wake of Mr. Putin's post-Beslan reforms, at least 30 regional governors flocked to join, hoping that genuflection before the President's total authority might protect them from being dumped from their jobs -- now that he, and not the electorate, holds that power.

Though no such threat yet exists to members of the appointed upper chamber of Parliament, the Federation Council, they also are signing up. There was a mass registration of 23 previously independent members in a single day last week.

Mr. Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador to Canada in the early 1980s, feels that he has seen this all before. "United Russia is absolutely the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Part Two -- right to its foundations. They have a monopoly on parliamentary power and there is no opposition."

But he doesn't blame only Mr. Putin and his allies for the direction in which Russia is headed. The social chaos and economic uncertainty of the Yeltsin years was such that many Russians associate such concepts as "democracy" and "freedom" with instability, poverty and helplessness in the face of state-sponsored kleptocracy.

Mr. Yakovlev worries that the Russian liberals' failures will haunt them for a long time to come. "We must confess that what is now going on is not the fault of those who are doing it. It's us who are guilty. We made some very serious errors."

Perhaps it should be no surprise that it came to this. Mr. Putin, always described by everyone from his grade-school teachers to his judo instructor as a diligent student, is believed to have joined Mr. Andropov's KGB at the tender age of 15, although in his memoirs he says he didn't enlist until he was 23.

He graduated from the KGB's Andropov Red Banner Institute before being sent to his first foreign posting, in Dresden, East Germany. The institute was a place where students and instructors worshipped Mr. Andropov, then the spy agency's director, and that sense of reverence has stuck with Mr. Putin. He praised Mr. Andropov as "honest and upright" in public comments and laid flowers at his grave.

During the summer, Nikolai Patrushev, the FSB director appointed by Mr. Putin, published a long article in the state-run Rossiskaya Gazeta newspaper lauding Mr. Andropov as a guardian of national security. "Time cannot erase the memory of those who served their country in good faith and Yuri Andropov was one of them," he wrote.

The question of where Mr. Putin takes his country now seems to depend largely on the President's interpretation of what kind of system Mr. Andropov was trying to build before he died at the age of 69.

Back to 1984? Most Russians dismiss that out of hand.

Sitting in the trendy Zen Café in economically thriving downtown Moscow, Vladimir Ryzhkov says anyone who grew up in the Soviet era knows that it would be impossible to rebuild the old empire completely.

"I'm sitting here drinking an espresso," the 38-year-old Duma deputy says. "I never had an espresso in Soviet times. They were something I read about in Hemingway novels."

People step on the head of a statue of Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, in 1991 after it was toppled in front of the KGB headquarters in Moscow. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP files The statue of Russian secret services founder Felix Dzerzhinsky now stands in an out-of-the way Moscow park. The mayor wants it restored to its former spot downtown. Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

He says Soviet totalitarianism robbed ordinary people of their private lives, and came with rules about what you could read and whom you could talk to. Contact with the outside world was strictly controlled. Ordinary people lived in fear of being informed on by their neighbours.

None of this can be said about today's Russia, where people with the means can and do travel the world with impunity, having become some of world's more prolific spenders. Though the television airwaves are tightly controlled, Internet cafés around the country are jammed with young people surfing and reading without restriction.

Not that Mr. Ryzhkov -- seen by some as a potential leader if Russia's fractured democrats can ever put their egos aside and work together -- is a fan of Mr. Putin. He just sees the President as being a more pragmatic type of autocrat than Russia has seen in the past.

Mr. Putin and his siloviki (men of power) know better than their Soviet predecessors what they can and can't get away with, he says. They understand very well that the people won't accept any more intrusions on their private lives.

So what does lie ahead?

"Russia will become like Latin America, where you can have your Carnival and your football and the latest Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, where you can have everything but politics and big business. Those belong to a very small elite," Mr. Ryzhkov says.

A worst-case scenario, he says, would see Russia develop along the lines of neighbouring Belarus -- a xenophobic hermit kingdom, though, in Russia's case, one with oil and nuclear weapons.

Another popular theory is that the Kremlin will use the Khodorkovsky affair as cover to seize his company, Yukos, so that it can be combined with the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, into a market-moving energy firm large enough to rival Saudi Arabia's Aramco. This raises the possibility of Mr. Putin's re-establishing Russia as a global force, combining his country's military might with the economic clout of the Saudi sheiks.

Either development should greatly worry the West, though the country's beleaguered liberals say there's little that the outside world can do to stop whatever comes next.

"People understand now that we have no democracy, that we have a corrupted state -- but it's a state that lets people have a private life, to run businesses, to read books and to use the Internet," Mr. Ryzhkov said. "It's still authoritarianism, but it's much more stable than the Soviet model. It can last even longer."

The second instalment in Curtain Calls, Mark MacKinnon's three-part farewell to the former Soviet Union, will appear in the news section on Monday. Mr. MacKinnon's next posting is to the Middle East.

Report an error
About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨