Vladimir Putin's strongarm tactics are turning back Russia's clock to a time of corruption, intimidation and violence against dissenters, as seen in a new documentary.
Every Wednesday night, in a smoky basement restaurant in Moscow, some 20 well-dressed and, in some cases, extremely beautiful, women, meet for dinner. They have one thing in common. Their husbands are in jail. Many are serving long terms in degrading conditions. The grief on the faces of these wives, as they meet together for mutual support at the Rosso&Bianco wine bar, is distressing to see. All insist that their spouses are innocent. Each of the wives has a painful story to tell, and many have lost everything: their homes, businesses and family life.
Take Tatiana, an elegant blond woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a mauve shawl and a herringbone suit. She is visibly in shock, because it is only 24 hours since a Moscow court sent her husband, Vladimir, to jail for 13 years. He has been found guilty of raping their seven-year-old daughter. Tatiana knows the story cannot be true – medical tests showed the girl was physically unharmed.
Several times the police told the couple that if they paid a substantial bribe – about $10,000 – charges would be dropped. But they pressed on, confident the allegations were absurd. Their faith in Russian justice was misplaced. Vladimir is now on hunger strike and Tatiana, sipping listlessly at her glass of wine, broken and bewildered.
Twenty-first-century Russia may look like a liberal democracy, with elections, law courts and parliament. In truth there are two parallel states. One is for show. The other is almost completely corrupt, with part of it run by a clique of secret servicemen who owe their allegiance ultimately to the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the small group of former KGB thugs who surround him. Stay in with them, and you stay safe. Fail to pay your dues, and you risk personal destruction.
Consider the case of Vladimir Osechkin, one of the few men at the Wednesday night dinner. He had recently been released from prison. Four years ago he lived in a $1 million flat in central Moscow and owned a string of successful car dealerships. At 26 he was one of the entrepreneurial successes of modern Russia. Then a single event changed his life. A blue Porsche Cayenne was stolen from his Moscow showroom. Osechkin reported the theft to the police, who demanded he pay them cash to retrieve the car. Appalled, Osechkin reported the bribery request to the state prosecutor.
He was arrested, thrown into prison and charged with fraud. The police raided his office, and told him, 'Pay us $150,000 and give us your Mercedes and you will leave this office a free man. Otherwise you will go to jail for a long time.'
'I lost everything,' Osechkin says. 'I lost my car, they took my apartment.' His wife has left him. He spent three years in a tiny cell with four beds, lived in by 10 people. There were frequent fights, and he lost seven teeth during his time inside, and had problems with his eyes.
So, given his time again, would he still report the police to the state prosecutor?
Osechkin immediately answers, 'Yes. I do not want to do any business any more. I want to fight for justice.' While in jail, he says, he helped three of his fellow prisoners launch challenges against charges laid against them.
He and Tatiana, in their different ways, are fighting the routine corruption of the Russian police and courts. But some of those round the table at the Rosso&Bianco wine bar were up against something even more sinister – the so-called siloviki, the strongmen who control modern Russia, with a career background in the intelligence or security services; men whose ultimate loyalty is to Putin, himself a former director of the FSB, the new name for the notorious Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, where so many of the siloviki received their training.
Many are past masters at exploiting the criminal justice system to enrich themselves and destroy their enemies. They are said to be the ultimate rulers of Russia. By 2007, according to one study, two thirds of Putin's core team were siloviki. They drive the black Mercedes or BMWs equipped with sirens and flashing lights that cut through
the Moscow traffic, and live in the expensive houses of the former KGB.
It is easy for the FSB to arrange for opponents to be jailed on trumped-up charges (as they used to say in the KGB, 'Show me the man and we'll find you the crime'.) In some cases this is because they pose a political threat to the regime, in other cases simply because the men who run today's Russia want a slice of the companies they work for.
Take the example of Olga Romanova, a financial journalist who is the inspiration behind the Wednesday-night dinners. Until four years ago Olga's husband, Alexei, ran a profitable construction business, while the couple lived a comfortable, bourgeois life with a fine Moscow townhouse.
Then disaster struck. Olga wrote an article criticising a close ally of Putin. Not long after, so she tells us over cups of tea in her central Moscow flat, a member of Putin's inner circle made a menacing call to Alexei's business associate (who had close links to Putin). The business associate told Alexei he had to choose – either to leave Olga, whom he had 'allowed to write about Putin', or to stop doing business with him.
But Alexei refused. Within weeks the prosecutor general started an investigation into him. He was arrested, charged and sent to jail for eight years for the theft of shares – a crime Olga says he did not commit. He has already been inside for three years – half their married life – and Olga was fighting what seemed to be a forlorn attempt to get the Russian Supreme Court to overturn his conviction. She has been forced to sell their house and move into a flat.
Olga says the charges against her husband had been brought by the K Department inside the FSB, which pursues economic crimes against the state. The K Department – based in the Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters – has been responsible for a number of infamous investigations, including the arrest of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management (an asset management company) who died in custody two years ago. According to human rights activists, Magnitsky was tortured and beaten before he was killed.
Another victim is Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB man who now owns the London Evening Standard and the Independent. Several months ago K Department masterminded a raid on his National Reserve Corporation Bank, apparently searching for evidence of fraud (though the circumstances are still mysterious, and Lebedev is now suing the FSB for damage to his reputation). Some 100 men in balaclavas, wielding machine guns, invaded the building demanding documents. When we pressed Lebedev to say that Putin should be held responsible, he repeatedly refused to do so, simply saying that he had been the victim of 'rogue' FSB officers. But many insist that the FSB is ultimately accountable to Putin.
This mysterious parallel state operates at every level of Russian life, as we discovered when we filmed with the mass youth movement known as Nashi ('our people'), another organisation that gives its undivided loyalty to Putin and sometimes operates above the law. It has its headquarters in a £20 million townhouse in central Moscow, which is ultimately state-funded, though some of the donors are unknown. It is decorated with murals of Putin and quotes from his speeches – reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda.
Nashi, like the FSB, has a special connection to the state security apparatus. It has more than 100,000 members throughout Russia, having been set up six years ago by Putin's current minister of youth as a direct response to the wave of revolutions in neighbouring ex-soviet countries, such as the orange revolution in Ukraine and the rose revolution in Georgia. Putin was concerned that these so-called 'colour revolutions' would spread inside Russia itself. He sees Nashi as a counterforce against democratic youth movements and, by extension, western influence. So far Nashi, which is licensed to play a strong-arm role for the state, has proved extremely successful.
Shortly after our arrival we joined Nashi members at an anti-American demonstration outside the US embassy. Their actions were illegal – for instance, they painted slogans on the pavement – and yet the notoriously brutal police scarcely intervened. When they tried to do so they were instantly surrounded, filmed and forced to show their documents by members of Nashi. It was clear that Nashi, with its powerful political protection, was really in charge.
Other tasks performed by Nashi include the baiting and harassment of politicians. Some of its members are explicitly racist, with some of their hatred for the United States driven by the colour of President Obama's skin. At one of their private meetings we heard a young member declare, 'Kill all niggers. What's that in English?'
There is also circumstantial evidence that some members of Nashi have carried out favours for the pro-Kremlin oligarchs who finance them. One damp afternoon we accompanied them on one of their 'actions' – a confrontation with a group of men they said were illegally running car businesses on designated park land. They told us that they were acting in the interests of the environment, but a different story soon emerged.
The men they were targeting were, for the most part, veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 30 years earlier. On their return from the war they had built small garages on the edge of the park. The Nashi students walked confidently through the garages, demanding documents from the owners and insisting they had the power of arrest. It was chilling to watch them threatening to destroy the livelihoods of these men.
All the garage owners told us the same story. There had been a change of management at the park authority. A few weeks earlier they had been approached and asked to pay a rent of 1,000 roubles (about £20) a month – a lot of money to them. When they refused, Nashi members turned up, clearly acting on behalf of the park authority.
On the way back to Moscow in the bus the Nashi members sang songs celebrating the manliness and power of Putin. They adore the man. Even the men say they think he is sexy. The women are crazy for him. Oksana Mitropanova, a 21-year-old blonde, told us artlessly, 'I worship Putin. He is a wonderful man, a splendid man, the most worthy politician. I am a fanatic! When he is behind the wheel Russia will be strong. Forward Russia!'
Victoria Mozheinika, a tall, glamorous 21-year-old Nashi member, echoes Mitropanova's sentiments. 'He knows Russia's problems and how to solve them. You can't be afraid with him in charge.'
These young people worship at what is effectively a Putin cult. Putin may be turning into one of those archetypal figures that occur throughout Russian history, from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great and Stalin: a strongman with mystical powers, attracting uncritical devotion from his followers. For young women such as Victoria, joining Nashi was one way of expressing their adoration.
And Putin laps up this adulation. During the summer he pays flying visits to the government-funded summer camps arranged for Nashi members. Their numbers and their loyalty are a core part of his political power.
The head of Nashi is Masha Kislitsnya, who carries the title of commissar – resonant of the Soviet era. At 28 she is a little older than the other members, who are mainly students. She is paid as a full-time organiser and reports to Vasily Yakemenko, Putin's youth minister, who founded Nashi some six years ago. Kislitsnya has been hand-picked for fast-track advancement. Powerful, self-confident and intolerant of opposition voices, it is likely she has a big future in Putin's Russia.
Kislitsnya tells us how it was her experience growing up as a young girl, the daughter of a struggling single mother (she will not talk about her father) in the 1990s, that has formed the basis for her admiration for Putin. With the government in collapse following the fall of communism, she recalls that her family lived in poverty, with the shops often empty of goods. It was only with the arrival of Putin as president 12 years ago that the economy started to recover, while Russia started to regain its confidence on the international stage.
But with this new self-confidence comes a rejection of the liberalism and democracy that seemed to flourish in the years immediately following the collapse of Soviet Russia. Industries have been drawn back under state control, the process greatly eased by Putin's grip on the courts and the police. Public protest has been suppressed. The free press has been largely, though not entirely, silenced.
We went to meet Oleg Kashin, one of the few remaining journalists who still tries to expose state-sponsored corruption. Just under a year ago he was brutally beaten after writing an article criticising a business project of one of Putin's close allies. He was in a coma for three days with two broken legs and a broken jaw after being attacked late at night by two assailants wielding iron bars. Apart from his scars and a missing left finger (it was hacked off as he raised his hands to protect himself), Kashin seems fine today.
His attackers have never been identified but Kashin believes that 'Nashi members were most likely behind the attack on me.' One of his articles was critical of a project that they supported. Nashi denies all involvement, with Kislitsnya dismissing the suggestion as 'just accusations'. But Nashi relished Kashin's predicament, with its Kremlin backer Vasily Yakemenko writing a sinister blog that gloatingly compared the journalist to a 'lizard', whose limbs grow back after being removed.
Putin's announcement that he will run for president next year has caused deep alarm among Russia's neighbours, who fear him for the same reason his supporters admire him: his menacing unpredictability. He plays up this characteristic. For a recent meeting with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, knowing she had a phobia of dogs, he arrived with a dangerous-looking Alsatian.
With opposition non-existent it now looks likely that Putin will serve two full six-year terms, keeping him in power till 2024 and making him the longest-lasting and most powerful Russian leader since Stalin. Many liberal Russians react to this prospect with horror. They fear that Putin will drag Russia back into a new dark age in which freedom will be extinguished and the rule of law destroyed.
But all is not yet lost. Shortly before we left Moscow there was some wonderful news for the Wednesday-night supper club. Olga Romanova was suddenly called to the Supreme Court. Her husband's case had been reviewed, and the judges had found that the evidence against him had been falsified by his FSB tormentors. Alexei is now out of jail and he and Olga can open a new chapter of their lives. The flame of freedom still flickers, however weakly, in Putin's Russia.
'Unreported World: Vlad's Army' is on Channel 4 on Friday November 4, 7.30pm