One must be careful with historical analogies. They are never exact, and can mislead as well as inform. Nevertheless, reading this Washington Post article on the pervasive and growing influence of the FSB in Russia immediately brought to mind a historical antecedent–the Oprichnina (and Oprichniki) of Ivan IV (you know, the Terrible one). There are enough parallels to make the example an illuminating one.
The history of the Oprichnina is shrouded in mystery. According to Richard Pipes, after its abolition in 1572 it was forbidden even to mention the word again, and very little documentary evidence from the period survives. Its basic contours are known, however. The Oprichnina was Ivan’s personal domain, a state within a state that seized control of the most valuable properties in Russia. These properties were managed by the brutal oprichniki, the Tsar’s personal security force. Support of the oprichniki consumed substantial sums of wealth. The oprichniki carried brooms on their saddles, and deemed it their duty to “sweep out” treason against the Tsar. According to Pipes, they were allowed to “abuse or kill” those under their control with impunity. The boyars (noblemen), who Ivan considered a threat, were singled out for special attention by these thugs.
Reading the WaPo article, and other recent news from Russia, it is not a stretch to view the FSB as the modern equivalent of the oprichniki, with a writ to kill traitors; Russian natural resources (oil, gas, minerals) as the valuable property ceded to the Oprichnina; and the oligarchs as the latter-day boyars. As yet there have been no pogroms (as in Novgorod in 1569–although residents of Grozny may disagree), but the neo-oprichniki have pillaged the properties of those deemed to be enemies of the state, using taxes, extortion, and abrogation of contracts rather than fire and sword.
There is one bright spot in the Oprichnina story. (“Bright spot” is often a very relative term in history.) The Oprichnina was an abject failure. A rule of thugs run riot devastated the Russian economy. The oprichniki were too busy pursuing vendettas and enjoying their ill-gotten gains to defend the realm against a Tatar incursion. After a mere 7 years, the Oprichnina was dissolved, and consigned to the 16th century equivalent of the memory hole. But as Pipes says, by this time, “the job was done.” Opposition to the autocracy had been fatally weakened.
It would be unwise to expect that the rule of the FSB will lead to such a sudden and spectacular economic collpase. However, people whose comparative advantage is espionage and extortion are not well suited to building productive enterprises and institutions. The rule of the FSB will not build a wealthy Russia–though many in the FSB will become wealthy.
The WaPo article evokes other interesting historical comparisons. In particular, historically most dictatorial and autocratic states have had multiple security organs, each of which spends disproportionate time and effort watching after the others. Dictators and autocrats usually don’t want any single entity to become dominant, lest it threaten their rule. In essence, dictators exploit the prisoners’ dilemma to keep the security forces in control–if any one tries to take power, it is the dominant strategy of the others to oppose it. Russia and Putin are therefore adopting a non-traditional strategy when they allow the FSB to expand to assume the responsibilities heretofore exercised by other state organs. This is a very dangerous game, and anyone in power in Russia must rest very uneasily knowing that there is a security monoculture that has few scruples about wielding its powers. Perhaps the Kremlin is trying to play off factions within the FSB against one another, but this is probably a less reliable approach than pitting formally separate forces like scorpions in a bottle.