Besides the Olympic headlines, in the last two weeks the Russian media has presented a remarkable variety of comments and reflections on an event that shocked the country 50 years ago. On February 14, 1956, the 20th Communist Party Congress opened in Moscow. It proceeded routinely until the last day, February 25, when Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech,” describing the scale of internal repressions in the country from the mid-1930s until Stalin’s death on March 6, 1953.
The astounded delegates had then to inform all party members in strict confidentiality that the “Great Leader” was in fact a bloody tyrant. The Soviet leadership was deeply split about this speech, which was not written prior to the start of the congress. Khrushchev insisted that his decision was partly driven by the struggle for power and partly by the desire to escape from the fear that had dominated their lives for so many years (Argumenty i fakty, February 15; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 17; Grani.ru, February 22).
There were several events around this anniversary, including a conference at the Gorbachev Foundation, but Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to ignore it. He covered a great many topics at his extended press conference on January 31, found time to congratulate every Russian Olympic champion, issued special decrees to commemorate composer Dmitry Shostakovich and scholar Dmitry Likhachev, but did not say a word about that remarkable watershed, much the same way that he never mentions the coup of August 1991.
There is certainly more to this silence than just the political gut feeling to avoid issues that remain divisive and might damage his popularity in some marginal groups. The main guideline of the “de-Stalinization” campaign launched by the 20th Congress was against the super-concentration of power in one pair of hands — and that is exactly what Putin has been doing since arriving at the Kremlin. A carefully orchestrated PR campaign has sought to prove that this style of governance suits Russia the best, so now 57% of Russians are sure that the country needs a determined leader who could rule with a “firm hand” (Newsru.com, February 25). This opinion ties logically with others: 47% of respondents have a generally positive view of Stalin and 21% perceive him as a “wise statesman” (Vedomosti, February 14).
The main target of Khrushchev’s emotional condemnation was the KGB, which had been the main instrument of repression. Putin, in recent weeks, has been busy strengthening the role of the FSB, the direct and proud successor of the all-penetrating structure created by Felix Dzerzhinsky and empowered by Lavrenty Beria. The shadows of these “founding fathers” were probably present at the annual meeting of the FSB top echelon where Putin expressed his full satisfaction with their work, praising particularly the success in countering espionage (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 8). He was far more generous with praise to his former colleagues than to the system of law enforcement that, according to his address to the session of the General Prosecution Collegium, was unable to check the “alarming trends” in crime growth (Vremya novostei, February 6). Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, nevertheless, apparently feels quite safe in his job, as he proved his loyalty beyond a doubt by making the criminal case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his colleagues.
These declarations and evaluations were followed by a potentially very significant presidential decree, “On Measures in Countering Terrorism,” since the main initiative among these measures was the creation of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee under the chairmanship of FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev (Lenta.ru, February 17). This Committee will include representatives of all military and paramilitary structures, from the General Staff to the Ministry of Emergencies, and will be served by the Federal Operational Headquarters with a staff of 300 officers that would constitute a separate unit in the FSB structures. The State Duma, always very attentive to signals from the Kremlin, has urgently approved legislation that provides a formal mandate for the new bodies (Lenta.ru, February 22). It is quite obvious that terrorism has not suddenly acquired new scale or urgency that would require large-scale counter-measures. The newly created Committee might in fact have very little to do with the threat of terrorism but quite a lot to do with the struggle for influence and power between the key “power structures.” The FSB has accepted the main responsibility for fighting terrorism (which it carefully denied during the crises in Beslan and Nalchik) and thus secured for itself the dominant position vis-à-vis the Ministry of Interior and every other state authority (Kommersant, February 17).
This certainly does not mean that the Kremlin clock is turned back to Stalin’s times. Putin’s regime remains essentially “bloodless” and cannot reproduce the fear of repressions; the FSB is not disciplined by any ideology and its main driving force is greed, which makes a big difference. The stylistic resemblance, nevertheless, is unmistakable — and it probably explains why the Russian political establishment was so upset by the resolution on the “Need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian Communist regimes” adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Expert, 12 February).
Putin’s courtiers fancy themselves as heirs of the Generalissimos, but at the same time they want to be accepted as equal members in “elite clubs” like the G-8. The influx of “petrorubles” has made them arrogantly self-confident but money can buy them only time – and probably not that much of it. They are busy exploiting their special gift – to turn every real proposition into a fake: Quasi-authoritarianism and pseudo-democracy, phony elections and PR exercises instead of “national projects.” That is why reflections on the revelations at the 20th Congress are so disturbing for them: At the most inappropriate moment somebody might suddenly stand up and establish for fact that their emperor is wearing no clothes.