- Reading RussiaThe Siloviki in Charge
Who are the holders of political power in Russia today, and what is the relationship between them and the rest of Russia's people? The answer to the first question boils down to the siloviki (sometimes called "securocrats" by political scientists). These are the people who work for, or who used to work for, the silovye ministerstva—literally "the ministries of force"—charged with wielding coercion and violence in the name of the state. All told, there are 22 such agencies in today's Russia. The best known is the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet-era KGB secret-police and spy agency. Other coercive agencies are associated with the Interior Ministry, various branches of the military, the state prosecutor's office, the intelligence services, and so on. Whatever their specific institutional affiliation, all siloviki have in common a special type of training that sets them apart from civilians. This training provides the skills, motivation, and mental attitude needed to use force against other people.
The distinguishing feature of enforcement in today's Russia is that it does not necessarily mean enforcement of law. It means enforcement of power and force, regardless of law and quite often against law.
The personnel of each of these enforcement agencies, whether still in active service or retired, form unified groups—often informal but real and potent nonetheless—that can be called brotherhoods or corporations. There is a hierarchy as well as a high level of in-group allegiance in them. Most current and former members of the enforcement agencies form the siloviki caste as a distinctive part of society.
At the peak of this caste are current and former secret-police operatives. [End Page 69] First among equals are the FSB agents, followed by agents of the KGB-spinoff Federal Protective Service (FSO) and the Prosecutor General's Office. Although members of military intelligence (GRU) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) play a role in the caste, they occupy a somewhat lower position in the power hierarchy. It is hard to find anyone among major political decision makers in Russia today with a background in the Interior Ministry or the Ministry of Defense (apart from the GRU): The positions of these ministries and their personnel are clearly subordinate. The real power belongs instead to the operatives and veterans of the secret-police, political-intelligence, and internal law-enforcement bodies. This is important because the professional training, ethical principles, interests, and assumptions (regarding friends, colleagues, and allies, as well as foes) of this key subset of the siloviki must form a major object of study for those who wish to understand Russian politics today.
The members of "Siloviki Incorporated" (SI) share a strong sense of allegiance to the group; an attitude of relative flexibility regarding short- and medium-term goals; and rather strict codes of conduct and honor, including the ideas of "always taking care of one's own" and not violating the custom of omertà (silence). As one might expect in a group with roots in the secret-police and intelligence services, members place great emphasis on obeying superiors, showing strong loyalty to one another, and preserving strict discipline. There are both formal and informal means of enforcing these norms. Those who violate the code are subject to the harshest forms of punishment, including death.
Those who belong to SI see themselves as an elite. Their training instills in them a feeling of being superior to the rest of populace, of being the rightful "bosses" of everyone else. For those who remain on active duty, their perquisites of office include two items that confer real power in today's Russia: the right to carry and use weapons, and an FSB credential (known as a vezdehod) that acts as a carte blanche giving its owner the right to enter any place, office, building, or territory whatsoever, public or private.
As in any corporate entity, members have both individual and group interests that do not necessarily coincide. For example, when it comes to who owns the assets that SI has seized—one case involved the expropriation of the Sibneft oil company in 2005...