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Putin's Stalin-era surveillance tactics


As the war in Ukraine rages on, there's been a lot of attention paid to how it's transformed life in that country, and rightfully so. The war has had a devastating effect on Ukraine and its people. But a new piece in Foreign Affairs shows that the war is affecting Russians in a very particular way - through the increased surveillance and tracking of dissent, especially as it relates to the war. And it argues that Russia's intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, is central to this effort and that it's employing scary tactics that date back to the repressive Stalin era.

To learn more, we've called Andrei Soldatov. He's a Russian investigative journalist who co-wrote the piece with his colleague, Irina Borogan. Andrei, thanks for joining us.

ANDREI SOLDATOV: Well, thank you for having me.

CORLEY: Andrei, I want to talk about your piece, which centers on the FSB, a Russian intelligence agency. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? What exactly is this agency, and what are its duties?

SOLDATOV: Well, the FSB has been for years the major domestic counter-terrorism, counterintelligence agency. And Vladimir Putin himself, before he became president, he was director of the FSB. And it was long assumed that the FSB is his main task force to fix his political problems in the country and abroad.

CORLEY: You argue in the piece that the agency has been morphing. And you say that it's become just a far more expansive arm of an increasingly ruthless state, and, as you mentioned, sweeping into just about everything - domestic society, foreign affairs, the military - that the FSB is not like its predecessor, the late Soviet KGB, but something much scarier, like the secret police used by Joseph Stalin, which was called the NKVD. Talk a little bit more about that and why they seem so frightening.

SOLDATOV: Well, I think because the war is not going the way Vladimir Putin wanted it to go, and now there is an understanding in Moscow that it's going to be a really long war. And for a really big, long war, you need (inaudible). You need a completely mobilized, terrified society. And it's not enough anymore just to attack political troublemakers like activists and journalists. You need to attack almost everybody. And we have some stories about doctors being targeted by the FSB for prescribing Western medicine instead of domestic things. And it's such a terrifying new picture. And it looks like everybody now feels that you cannot be safe anymore.

CORLEY: So you're saying that there is evidence that the FSB seems to be heading in the direction of Stalin's secret police?

SOLDATOV: I would say so. For instance, just look at how - what changed with the political exiles. Before the war and right after the war started, the strategy of the Kremlin and of the FSB was to push people out of the country. But that changed now. We see the FSB approaching the families of those people who had already left while asking them not really politely to talk to their relatives and to convince them to get back. We also see several investigations against people who - and journalists and activists - who fled the country some months ago, even years ago. And the only purpose of these investigations is to keep tabs on them and to target their families back in Moscow.

CORLEY: Mmm hmm. Well, this is a personal experience for you as well. The FSB initiated an investigation against you for spreading fake news - that's what they called it - about the war in Ukraine. Your bank accounts in Russia have been frozen, as I understand. The Russian government has issued warrants for your arrest. We're speaking to you where you're based now, out of London. And you write about some pretty terrifying tactics that the FSB uses to keep track of dissent. First, just let me ask you, how are you doing?

SOLDATOV: Well, I hope that I'm fine. And I just believe when the war started, what we need to do and what we have been always doing - investigate the role of the FSB and all that horrible thing, the war, how it started and how it's going. But now it looks like that the FSB is getting more and more important in Russian society. And we need, of course, also to learn some lessons from our past. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin always was - has been trying to find some inspiration in Soviet past. Back then it was about the KGB. Unfortunately, now it's about something in more distant past and which means actually Stalin's times.

CORLEY: So you have reported and are tracking what seems like an extremely dire situation in Russia itself, where the FSB is really clamping down on dissent. So what needs to happen now? What do you think can happen now?

SOLDATOV: Well, I think what is crucial, absolutely crucial is to keep this connection between the Russian journalist in exile and the Russian audience. This is probably the very first time in our history when you have so many Russians relying on information and reporting done by Russian journalists in exile. And - well, I did a book about Russian political emigres just before the war started. And I started with this problem for years. And what we have now is absolutely unprecedented. If you are in Russia and you want to understand what is going on, you need to listen and watch what our Russian journalists abroad are doing. And we need to keep this connection alive. That, I think, is the most important thing.

CORLEY: That's investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov. His co-authored piece, "Putin's New Police State," is in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Thank you so much, Andrei, for sharing your reporting with us.

SOLDATOV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.