30 July: Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony at a Russian chapel in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. (c) Darko Vojinovic / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.I joke. Kind of. I actually think I’m much less of a conspiracy theorist than many professional Russia-watchers, especially those focusing on security-related issues, for whom this is certainly a busy time.
On 19 July, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the Moscow division of the Investigative Committee and arrested three of its senior officers over suitcase-loads of bribe money. On 25 July, the US Democratic National Committee brought Kremlin politics into the US elections after alleging that Russian intelligence are behind the hack and subsequent leak of embarrassing emails. Then, on 28 July, the Kremlin reshuffled a series of administrative positions that usually no one cares about (the governor of Yaroslavl oblast? Really?), which is now being taken as an omen of major changes ahead for Russia.
This is all perfect raw material for conspiracy theory — arcane and airily authoritative claims about what’s going on within the inner sancta of the security agencies and the Kremlin, dire warnings about a dramatic development just over the horizon and the elevation of Viktor Zolotov, the new National Guard commander, to boogieman of the hour.
The FSB’s raid on the Moscow Investigative Committee is a perfect example. I should lay my cards on the table first: I see it not as some deep struggle between the siloviki, the security apparatus elite, so much as a genuine — if sharply limited — campaign against corruption and ineffectiveness within the Russian state, which I have characterised as “steal a bit less, do your job a bit better.” This is, of course, a dull slogan and, I recognise, a dull explanation. Far better, surely, for this to be a fight over control of the FSB following the rise of Zolotov, a bid to topple Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, a struggle to control lucrative illegal income streams, the start of a new “clan wars”.
Of course, there is a troublesome and troubling truth behind all this: we don’t really know what’s going on.
Precisely because the inner workings of the Putin regime are so opaque, especially when issues of personal gain and private rivalry are played out through the medium of state action, it is very hard to get solid intelligence on what is happening. Winston Churchill supposedly described Soviet politics as watching bulldogs fighting under a carpet — only when the bones appear do we know who has won. Arguably there is still an element of that in Russia today.
We rely on snippets of information that could mean much or little, and which we tend to interpret in such a way that fits our assumptions and expectations. One analyst’s “cleansing” is another’s “crackdown.”
We rely on sources who in fact may well know no more than us. I am struck by how compartmentalised life is even within the “relevant organs,” the delightful Soviet euphemism for the security apparatus that never quite left us. But there is a natural human desire to affect to be in the know, not to pass up an opportunity to appear important and interesting, and so we hear water-cooler gossip retailed as authoritative inside insight.
The Zolotovs and Bastrykins, the FSB and the FSO, the dawn raid and the unexpected demotion all inevitably become part of our siloviki soap opera
We rely on our own gut sense of “kak eto bylo,” how things were, and thus how they probably are and will be, and put together these bits and pieces in a pleasing pattern. The result is often little more than a Rorschach inkblot test, telling us more about ourselves than anything else.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that all this reporting and analysis is so much rumor and wishful thinking. If anything, I am often amazed how much good insight there is about the shadow government structures within Russian print and online media. This is, incidentally, a great rebuttal to those who, eyes fixed solely on the compliant TV channels, airily assert that Russians are willfully ignorant, living in a total propaganda state.
Furthermore, sometimes insiders do know what is going on and are willing to share. At the very least, one can pick up a decent idea of how structures and institutions work, all the better to parse the meager clues which might come to our attention.
All the same, the Zolotovs and Bastrykins, the FSB and the FSO, the dawn raid and the unexpected demotion all inevitably become part of our siloviki soap opera. We love the exciting and the dramatic, the sense that we are witness to deep struggles and grand designs, the conceit that we see what others have not. Remember the “coup” against Putin when he disappeared from view for a few days in March 2015? The authoritative “warnings” about an imminent Russian offensive in Ukraine that appear to come every other week? Or the Russian football hooligans whom unnamed British government sources apparently believed were “hybrid warriors”?
The truth is often disappointingly prosaic in comparison.
How often have we seen, for example, headlines proclaiming a “dramatic shake-up of Russia’s security agencies” because of a dozen or so promotions and retirements posted on the Kremlin website?
Such is the nature of the Russian system, that senior hirings and firings are handled by presidential decree, even if Putin is unlikely to know many of the individuals concerned, or care, and they tend to be handled in batches. So we have excited accounts of “purges” when actually it’s a routine round-up of promotions and transfers, and we’re talking about the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service for the Republic of Bashkortostan or the police chief of Vladimir oblast. To be sure, there may be some significance buried within the minutiae (in that specific example, from December, I think it was getting the public order forces into better shape), but precisely it was the nuance that was important.
OK, so all of us who try and peek beneath the infamous carpet must accept that we sometimes get things wrong, and acknowledge our biases and those of our habitual sources. But why does this matter?
Sometimes an arrest is just an arrest, a retirement is just a retirement and there are no bulldogs fighting under the carpet
It matters, because as I say, Putin’s Russia is an opaque realm of conspiratorial machinations, personalised politics and vicious turf wars. Of course, often what we see really is what we get, but especially as we get closer to the workings of the inner Kremlin circle, where money, power and — that most precious of all currencies — the ear of the president warps the natural laws of the system in all kinds of questionable ways, then increasingly it’s not. These assets have a weight, a gravity of their own and gravity warps light.
So then, we can’t simply trust our eyes. We have to rely on Kremlinology 2.0, on recondite sources, arcane minutiae and gut assumptions to try and understand and explain how this works and where it is going. At the same time, though, we have to balance this with a degree of humility and common sense.
Sometimes an arrest is just an arrest, a retirement is just a retirement and there are no bulldogs fighting under the carpet.
Want to know more? Why not read about Putin and Trump's bad bromance, or how we got to the era of clickbait conspiracy.