A manager at work—we were doing some idiotic back and forth trash talk—shushed me in public. Teasing him, I had said that the island of Malta had been first settled by English retards. He was Maltese. These days, no one likes to hear the word ‘retard’. It was lame, I know, but I retorted with a shout, “Shut up, this ain’t Russia.” And standing directly behind me was a Russian emigrant, new to the country, who took offense at my reckless cliché. However, whether naive or not, he knew exactly to what I referred, that by worldwide reputation alone, even from the old USSR days, you couldn’t anymore voice your opinion in Russia than get a fresh loaf of bread from a government grocery store. I immediately apologized for my deleterious remark and offered my hand. Which he took. He seemed placated, if not bemused; no, I’m not saying he was an idiot, but the truth is, in Russia today, it is as dangerous to speak your mind as it was back in the USSR, maybe even more so, certainly more tricky.

Where did he get the idea that I was misrepresenting the reputation of Russia’s culture? Freedom of the press, the right to assembly, the liberty to political free speech and individual property rights are all gone. And my very own angry Russian emigrant was too dumb or illiterate to know it, or he had unfounded and inexcusable nationalistic pride in his unsuccessful society. Nationalism does that. It makes you think in racist requisites: Russian better than Georgian, straight better than gay, male better than female, Christian better than Muslim. This is what you are morally permitted to say about your genetic heritage, “I am proud that I am Somali, Syrian or whoever. We’re the best people in the world.” Sure, and everybody has the greatest doctor. What is unacceptable to say as a person from a failed country, is, “We’re the best nation in the world.” That’s like a Moslem or a Christian saying they’re the only true religion. And BTW, Americans should stop saying it as well. Like England, France, Ghana, Costa Rica, or Japan, they can say something like, “We are one of the greatest nations in the world and have proof with verifiable statistical facts; the bonafides like the highest GDP per capita, the highest life expectancy, the most political freedom, and so forth.” And they could even further explain why, but stop bragging that you’re the best; it’s annoying. Any nation who has to keep saying that they’re the best are not the best. American politicians actually mean, “We are the sole super-power and run an empire. And you don’t. So shut up.”

Well, anyway, as regards Russia, it is not like those rights were ever there—Western liberties I mean—not for the Autocrats’, Marxists’ nor Reformists’. Russia has never known any real freedom or democracy. Indeed, it may well be the least democratic place in the world. Not the ghost of freedom exists today. As I will explain in the plainest language, Russia is little more than a mafia state with  the homophobic Putin as the not so likeable Tony Soprano, ruling like both the Tsar and a don, and you’re not getting any special favors on the wedding day of his daughters; in fact, he’s divorced and you’re not invited. To quote Y N Harari, "Humans vote with their feet. In my travels around the world I have met numerous people in many countries who wish to immigrate to the United States, Canada, or Australia. I have met a few who want to move to China or Japan. But I have yet to meet a single person who dreams of immigrating to Russia."

Although not book reviews, this article is chiefly concerned with six excellent and diverse books as sources: Darkness at Dawn, D Satter, The Putin Mystique, A Arutunyan, Strongman, A Roxburgh, The Man Without a Face, M Geesen, The New Nobility, A Soldatov and Putin’s Kleptocracy, K Dawisha. These works, and others, are all in general accord: the Putin regime runs a criminal state.

 One of the first jobs of thugs is to convince people that they aren’t bandits, that they’re marketers and their civil concerns are for the people—and that they’re like regular folks, only with more testosterone. It’s what philosophers say of the ethical disingenuous: “The appearance of morality is the price paid by hypocrites to look good to the ones they can fool.” So, one of the first jobs of the gangster class is to corrupt the police while appearing to the public to root out corruption from this very source. You do this by destroying the whistle-blowers. In the old gulag system, you jailed the dissidents, (i.e., the moral leaders of the country), now in present day Russia you get the free marketers for tax evasion, throw them in prison and steal their property; it’s win, win, win! Anybody who reports it, (journalists, accountants or lawyers), are going to prison for not having the paper work done for the paperclips they claimed on their tax forms.

The World Bank publishes an annual survey in which it ranks 183 countries of the world according to ‘ease of doing business’. In 2011 Russia came in at 123 – far behind other post-Soviet states such as Georgia (at 19) and Kyrgyzstan (at 44). In terms of ‘dealing with construction permits’ Russia sits in 182nd place, ahead only of Eritrea. IKEA’s Russia manager, Lennart Dahlgren, came to Moscow in 1998 and stayed for eight years, battling with the authorities to open the first IKEA stores and ‘Mega malls’. He has since written his memoirs, Despite Absurdity. He wanted to arrange a meeting for IKEA’s owner – one of the wealthiest people in the world, and a man with great enthusiasm for doing business in Russia – with Putin. At first they palmed him off with meetings with a deputy prime minister. Then Dahlgren had an opportunity to discuss the proposal with someone from Putin’s entourage, who told him they didn’t think IKEA would really want to have a meeting with Putin. Dahlgren writes: ‘I don’t know whether they meant it seriously or as a joke, but they said: “IKEA is penny-pinching, and the going rate for a meeting with Putin is 5 to 10 million dollars, which you will never pay.” (Quoted from, Strongman); see also the  Corruption Index, where it scores 117 tied with Tanzania, or Transparency International, (2022, Rank: 136/180, Score 28/100), where it is tied with Sierra Leone.

Today the lack of reliable contract law, unenforced and without an independent judiciary, has left Russia a complete gangster nation, and not like those American rappers sing about, but one that tens of millions of suffering Russians have to live with day in and out. (For this part see Putin’s Kleptocracy)

The Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, FSB—Federal Security Service—had grown out of the KGB, Yeltsin had  broken the KGB up and pit tax, communicate and security divisions against each other to help dismantle it, or at least in part to lessen its totalitarian power, but  after consolidating his control, Putin has reunited them  into the general security framework under the FSB or other agencies with no independence but to the executive. (For this part, see, Darkness at Dawn and The New Nobility).

Perhaps the most obvious and reactionary of all of Putin’s draconian measures, has been shutting down any and all independent news organizations. If this proved to be ineffective to shut up journalists, internal detractors or opposition politicians, he has had his critics imprisoned or permanently silenced. They don’t really even much hide it. He is personally, but indirectly linked to the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Sergei Yushenkov, Anatoly Sobchak and Alexander Litvinenko. See, List of Journalists killed/murdered in Russia. Under Putin’s rule there have been 30 to 35 (apparent) politically motivated murders of journalists. (For this part of the story see, The Man Without a Face).

Now as for the supreme leader with insatiable greed: “That is the biggest question. In a classical, absolutist monarchy, their chief patron would have been the sovereign, their king and country – which would have been the same thing. But Putin’s Russia, which has many of the trappings of an absolutist monarchy, refuses to see itself as such. The scholar Lilia Shevtsova has underlined the contradictions that this presents: Putin has preserved personified and undivided power, she writes. However, describing Yeltsin’s rule as ‘elected monarchy’ she applies the same metaphor to Putin’s rule, ‘accenting the contradictions between personified power and the elective method of legitimizing it.’ A maddening dissonance ensues: Putin had a theoretical option of ‘building a responsible system of governance based not [my italics] on the irrational and mystic power embodied in the leader but on the rule of law.’ But he either could not, or would not do so. Those words were written in 2004; by 2013 that dissonance has only grown, amid contradictory laws that fail to work and Putin’s constant calls to fight corruption. Why, despite yearly orders from Putin – his personal orders, harsh, determined and ominous – does corruption only grow?” (Quoted from, The Putin Mystique).

Now, I am more than happy to answer this question for everyone. It isn’t just Putin’s hidden assets, no, not the 40 to 70 billion dollars, or more, making him one of the richest people in the world, which it is claimed he has amassed through old-fashioned brass-knuckled theft. It’s something that is hard for the North American or Western European democrat to really understand. It’s the tragic fault in the Russians themselves. To them, liberty is license, a free market is usually dangerous/entirely unfeasible, the press are myth makers/even outright liberal liars, and having sacrosanct private property rights are downright impossible in a country like Russia. Justice is with the Tsar, the motherland, the state itself: uberman, Uncle Joe or Putin, the Boss. For example, here’s some sense of how long in modern history there has been little perceived freedom: “…When it comes to this, [all men are created equal, except negroes,] I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” - Abraham Lincoln. 1855. (Quote taken from, The Putin Mystique).

So you see, they’ve been without freedom for some time, and in fact, the society itself does not give it the same value as in the West. Yes Marxist terrorists hijacked a thriving modern industrialized state, but the Tsarist regime was as ridiculous on its face with serfdom as the communist one was with their countrywide gulag slave system. People went marching to their sentences at the direction of a monarch’s clerk or a Bolshevik’s commissar like the Jews at the direction of a Nazi official. What’s to say to this? Idea and Culture are intimately connected and some cultures are impeded compared to the top democracies, and many failed states call themselves democracies, but of course, this is pure piffle. Yes, you nationalists from failed or failing countries, like my very own angry Russian emigrant, it has got nothing to do with blood! It is brains alone that count; it’s how one organizes society, the proper protection of human rights, an independent judicial branch of government, the separation of powers, free elections and all those splendid creations of the democracies throughout history, despite its many intellectual enemies like Putin, the KGB and the Marxists, (of course, the Religionists are right up there at the top as bitter foes to liberty as well).

In the decade of Putin, the FSB has portrayed themselves in propaganda films like The Special Department as they wanted themselves to be seen, (see, The New Nobility), just as the NSA does in America. Behind the FSB’s rapid growth of power with the ascension of Putin, they have been just as ineffective at fighting terrorism as the CIA. And in regards to upholding an independent judiciary, curbing the mafia-state rising right underneath their feet or bringing real culprits to justice, they have utterly failed, as the KGB did before them. They are lap dogs, a whitewash to Putin’s tarnished throne. They have become another arm of the bandit state, but don’t say, “Poor pitiful Russia!” Nobody is free without effort. The Russian masses' romantic attraction to the state is deplorable and always has been. The people have quietly marched to their passing in absolutely  frightening  numbers, either with demise by alcoholism or death by authoritarianism. Shame on the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Nationalists and the Russian Communists, all preaching against democracy like an Iranian Ayatollah. The Great Satan be damned! There is a person for this epithet and his name is Vladimir Putinand never forget that germ of truth from that old Russian gem, “Half the population is behind bars and the other half are guarding them.” 

ENDNOTE:

From, Winter Is Coming, G Kasparov, (a Russian chess grandmaster, former World Chess Champion, writer, and political activist, whom many consider to be the greatest chess player of all time): "I had also expanded my human rights work in an effort to create an international coalition of dissidents and activists. In 2012 I succeeded one of my heroes, Vaclav Havel, as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) in New York. Thor Halvorssen, its tireless founder and director, has put together a remarkable series of global events and campaigns with an emphasis on uniting freedom fighters around the world. HRF’s annual Oslo Freedom Forum is the epitome of these efforts to bring human rights activists and dissidents together to share information and strategies. I understood that I could not lead in Russia from outside of Russia and I’ve had to accept that. I’m still involved in the opposition and in some ways I’m busier than ever working for our cause. To those who have accused me of abandoning Russia, or of giving up, I say that Russia remains my country regardless of where I live or the papers I carry. I will not subject myself to the whims of the thugs and crooks who rule it for the time being. Russia is not Putin. I refuse to be an easy target or to be caged and limited to being little more than a figure of sympathy. It has been painful not to see my eldest son, Vadim, and my mother in Moscow very often, but Klara Kasparova gave me both her name and her fighting spirit, and so I will persist."
For a riveting personal account of the murder of the whistle-blower, Sergei Magnitsky, see: Red Notice, B Browder.
For more recent events, see; Eight Dead Russians.
For an excellent  and concise online guide to help you in the world of the ever bloating state and the diminishing right to privacy, see: Online Privacy Guide for Journalists and here as well.
To understand the abject failure of the US government's intelligence services, see: CIA and Gladwell's Talking to Strangers.
To see the growing strenght of tyranny  in our time, see: Russian censorship law bans proxies and VPNs.
For an excellent contextual analysis of Putin by the world-outstanding historian on Stalin, Stephen Kotkin (in an Youtube interveiw with Lex Fridman) see here. For a further analysis of Russian's invasion of the Ukraine by Kotkin (Youtube interveiw by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute), see here.