Thursday, November 7, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Another Three Disturbing Developments in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 7 – Disturbing developments are coming at such a rapid pace in Russia today that this writer at least longs for the time when they were recorded in brief paragraphs in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Daily Report and its successor, RFE/RL’s Newsline so that over time there broader pattern could become clear.

            But three events over the last several days – yet another power grab by the FSB, Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that smart cameras will be able to identify illegal immigrants, and the growth in the number of Russians arming themselves not for sport but for self-defense – taken together point to a very dystopian future and need to be recorded.

            First, as “Vzglyad” reported yesterday, the FSB wants Russian laws to be changed so that it will be able to get involved not just in crimes such as terrorism where it bears responsibility already “but also in other cases” as well, a legal papering of what the security service is already doing (

                Such a move would be fully consistent with the direction that the Russian security agencies have been moving under Vladimir Putin, but as Aleksandr Soldatov, the country’s most distinguished independent expert on them, pointed out in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” yesterday, this trend carries with it enormous risks to basic freedoms (

            Some commentators may welcome this effort to “legalize” what the FSB is doing, forgetting that while a state of laws is preferable to a state of chaos in most cases, a state with badly written laws can make the situation even worse, undermining public confidence in law as such and thus creating the basis for even more arbitrary authoritarianism.

            Second, on Tuesday, President Putin proposed using smart cameras to assist the Federal Migration Service to identify migrants and keep track of where they are in the Russian Federation. He made this comment while meeting with the officials of a company that is developing smart cameras to identify faces for banks and parking areas (

            Used as the company described them, such cameras can in fact be a powerful tool, but by talking about them this week, after the xenophobic outbursts during the Russian March, Putin sent a truly Orwellian message: such cameras, he appeared to be suggesting, could track immigrants, thereby implying that such people are always identifiable.

            That idea, given the physiognomic diversity within the Russian nation itself, gives aid and comfort to those nationalist extremists who believe that they can always tell who is an immigrant and who is not and appears to give a kind of official blessing to those who are prepared on such false assumptions.

            At the very least, Putin’s discussion of such things this week adds fuel to the fire that is spreading across the Russian Federation.

            And third, a new Russian group, “Right to Arms,” held its second organizational meeting and reported that Russian citizens now legally own 8,000,000 guns – it did not say how many may have them illegally but that number is certainly sizeable and larger – and are increasingly using them not for sport but for self-defense (

            In Soviet times, Russians could own guns only as part of hunting and target practice associations, but now, this new group says, fewer people want to shoot animals and instead want guns to protect themselves from others who have them.  The group has as its “modest goal” the restoration of right of Russians to own weapons just as Americans do.

                At its meeting earlier this month, the group demonstrated its clout by attracting numerous members of the Federation Council and the Duma, Russian veterans and gun activists from several post-Soviet countries, and from the West, including the United States. (For a full discussion of the meeting and its goals, see the group’s website

                One can certainly understand the desire of some Russians to have the capacity to defend themselves, especially given that the authorities often lack the ability or the will to do so, but the promotion of gun ownership for that purpose in Russia today threatens to create a new “arms race” that no one except those who want violence or totalitarianism will be able to win.

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