Last December Aleksandr Nikitin thought he had won a landmark legal victory over Russia's secret police. In 1995 the FSB, a successor agency of the feared KGB, charged Nikitin with treason for allegedly leaking classified information about the Russian Navy's negligent handling of nuclear waste. Nikitin, a naval officer turned environmentalist, served 11 months in jail. After a four-year legal battle he was finally acquitted--and the presiding judge slammed the FSB, calling its methods "unconstitutional." Human-rights activists cheered; Boris Yeltsin had tried to dismember the old KGB and had enshrined civil rights in a liberal Constitution--and now it seemed the security police were finally being forced to obey it. So why was Nikitin in court again last week, defending himself against the FSB's appeal of the December decision?
The FSB is back. From the Kremlin to the streets, the old secret police have over the past six months regained much of their influence and the power they lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB man who has made law and order a priority, has promoted dozens of former and serving FSB officers to key positions in the Kremlin and the administration. In an echo of the bad old days, the security services harass "hooligans," recruit activists to spy on their friends and silence government critics. And the public, weary of the scandals and corruption of the Yeltsin years, doesn't seem to mind.
FSB men are in powerful posts throughout the government. In a recent administrative reshuffle designed to bypass Russia's often rebellious regional governors, Putin named seven "supergovernors"--four of whom have KGB or police backgrounds. The Security Council, a shadowy body made up of senior Kremlin officials, the supergovernors and the ministers of Defense, Interior and State Security, is headed by Sergei Ivanov; he was a KGB buddy of Putin's from his days in St. Petersburg. A law passed in June gives the council sweeping new powers, including making it supreme executive authority in the event of a state of emergency. "People like [FSB head Nikolai] Patrushev and [Interior Minister Vladimir] Rushailo have the president's ear now," says a former senior Kremlin official.
Journalists, among others, are feeling the heat. Last week Irina Grebneva, the editor of a newspaper in Vladivostok, was released after spending a week in jail for "petty hooliganism." Her crime: publishing the transcript of an expletive-filled conversation. Authorities said the conversation--in which the local governor and his deputy allegedly discuss ways to fix an election--violated laws prohibiting publication of foul language. Grebneva's supporters say the case against her was harassment. In June Kalashnikov-toting FSB agents raided the headquarters of Media-Most, Russia's only independent media company, after its flagship television channel supported Putin's political opponents and criticized the war in Chechnya. (Media-Most also publishes the newsmagazine Itogi in association with NEWSWEEK.) Earlier this year the FSB ordered scandalmongering Moscow-based journalist Aleksandr Khinshtein to take psychiatric tests as a possible prelude to being committed to a mental institution--a chilling throwback to the days when dissidents were forcibly institutionalized. Khinshtein went into hiding until the FSB canceled his arrest warrant.
Political activists are targeted, too. Dmitry Barkovsky, 22, a fourth-year engineering student at St. Petersburg's Baltic University, was summoned by the university's resident FSB officers after he took time off to campaign for the liberal Yabloko party. "They questioned me on the structure of Yabloko, and the personal lives of several party members," says Barkovsky, a straight-A student. "They said that if I refused to cooperate they would expel me from university and send me to Chechnya." Barkovsky agreed to work as a secret informer for the FSB, but then recanted and went public with his experience. A week later he was expelled from school.
Barkovsky won't get much public sympathy. The attitude of most Russians toward the "special services" has changed dramatically since the night of Aug. 22, 1991, when jubilant crowds gathered in Moscow's Lyubyanka Square to pull down a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the hated Soviet secret police. "People now look to the special services as their saviors. They're fed up with all the corruption and theft of the motherland's resources--they want order," says former KGB major Valery Velichko, who now heads the KGB Veterans Club and a private security firm. "A renaissance of the special services is the same as a renaissance of the Russian government." Velichko seems to speak for the majority. A recent poll showed that 61 percent of Russians want Dzerzhinsky's statue reinstated. A motion to do just that was debated last month in Parliament. It lost--but supporters are confident they will eventually carry the day.