Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
There’s almost a 20-year difference between them — the Russian teenager dumped in an orphanage because she and her father publicly criticized the war on Ukraine, and the Wall Street Journal reporter held in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison.
Twenty years is also roughly the time it’s taken Russian President Vladimir Putin and his fellow chekists to turn the clock back to an era in which accredited Western journalists are arrested on bogus espionage charges, and children can be deemed enemies of the state and separated from their families.
The detention of 13-year-old Masha Moskalyov, the imprisonment of her father Alexey, and the arrest of 32-year-old Evan Gershkovich are all of a piece. They are all victims of Russia’s return to the dark past — and they’re unlikely to be the last.
Today’s echoes of Soviet times are haunting, and with his resurrection of the police state, Putin has demonstrated that while history may never exactly repeat itself, it can come awfully close.
The ideology now may not be underpinned by Bolshevism — it’s instead been replaced with grudge-filled ideas about imperial revanchism, ultra-nationalism and quirky religious traditionalism — in every other regard, however, the Russia Putin has built is a state in thrall to the security men whose sole job is to protect the regime.
That was Russia’s destiny the moment Putin took power. Even before his first election, when he was still acting head of state, Putin briskly filled the ranks of the presidential administration with former hard-line KGB officers, mainly from his hometown of St. Petersburg. The appointments even included an officer who opened the last file on a dissident in the waning days of the Soviet Union, but was ordered to stop by then President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Among his first acts as former President Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Putin signed decrees expanding the power and reach of the security agencies, and he has only strengthened them since, making them more aggressive and more answerable to him.
Putin himself once quipped in a speech that the group of undercover spies dispatched to infiltrate the post-Soviet government is “successfully fulfilling its task.” And while Putin and his chekists pressed on, incrementally capturing Russia’s politics, government and economy, for too long the West ignored the warnings from his opponents like Vladimir Kara-Murza. A politician and human rights activist currently languishing in jail, Kara-Murza is facing a possible 24-year sentence on a trumped-up charge of high treason.
Today, we are seeing the chekists at the height of their power, using the full KGB playbook to intimidate, imprison, silence and repress — including the cynical exploitation of children to exert pressure on those who oppose the Kremlin or protest.
Take Masha, for example. Her father Alexey first attracted the authorities’ attention early last year, after her school reported her to police for an anti-war drawing she painted in art class. Alexey was also fined for an anti-war social media post of his own, but then, months later, their home was raided, and he was once again charged for more online posts criticizing Russia’s war on Ukraine and sentenced to two years.
Subsequently, authorities took Masha and put her in a children’s home. A relative is now trying to secure guardianship for ger, but the signs are not promising.
It was common practice in the Communist era to haul off the children of dissident parents and others deemed enemies of the people, and to then deposit them in overcrowded state-run orphanages. The number ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 children each year during the 1930s, and starvation, malnutrition, abuse and negligence were routine — as later documented in Deborah Hoffman’s book “The Littlest Enemies.” The philosophy was the apple never falls far from the tree.
That same philosophy has now been embraced by Putin chekists, and it was being used against opponents on the left and right even before Ukraine’s invasion. In February 2011, welfare agencies tried to take the two small children of Evgenia Chirikova — the leader of an environmental movement to protect Khimki Forest. They claimed she was neglectful based on bogus statements from neighbors, saying the “children are always hungry, they are given no food, and they are dirty.” An active campaign in support of Chirikova finally persuaded the authorities to stop.
In 2019, it was then Dmitry Pashkov and Olga Prokazova’s turn. Having attended a protest march with their one-year-old, Moscow prosecutors said the parents had put the baby’s life at risk. It led to the opening of criminal investigations against the parents, with an eye toward stripping them of their parental rights both for the baby and a second child, aged seven.
Such threats of placing kids in state orphanages have sparked sharp public anger in the past, but since the war on Ukraine, Russians are mostly silent. According to OVD-Info, an independent human rights group, since February last year, nearly 20,000 anti-war protesters have been arrested, but most were in the early weeks and months of the war. And anti-war demonstrations have now fallen off.
At this point, more than half of the demonstrations have just been single person protests — brave souls deciding silence is complicity. “Do dictators and dictatorships breed slave populations or do slave populations breed dictators?” queries Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin. No one seems to know the answer to that question.