February 13, 2013: Russia recently held some public celebrations of Soviet era prison camps, popularly known as the Gulag (the Russian acronym for the prison camp system or "The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies"). The government made much of how the prison camps inspired inmates to be more patriotic, taught them how to cooperate with each other, and respect war veterans. This last element comes from the fact that about ten percent of the prisoners were veterans of World War II, rounded up right after the fighting ended and shipped out because some KGB officer thought they might be subversive or, as was often the case, because some KGB crew had a quota to fill and grabbed whoever was handy. The new government propaganda stressed how the camps taught inmates to overcome obstacles and be better people. The government also portrayed the prison guards and officials as heroes. Left out of all this was the reason why the Gulag was shut down in the 1960s (first the national network of camps and then those that served local needs). In the three decades of its existence the Gulag was feared and hated by most Russians. Now there is concern that the government might revive the Gulag, to instill more patriotic attitudes and such.
The purpose of the original Gulag was to get real or suspected troublemakers (and threats to Soviet rule) off the streets. The first of these slave labor camps appeared in 1930, and they were not shut down until 1960. Some five million people were sent to the Gulag and over 20 percent died there. Many of those who survived were disabled for life or died young from abuse in the camps.
This celebration of the Gulag is part of more than a decade effort by former KGB officer and currently Russian president Vladimir Putin to turn Russia back into a police state very similar to the Soviet Union. This involves eliminating local government (appointing rather than electing provincial governors), nationalizing most of the mass media, and enacting laws that once more make it a crime to criticize the state. Putin is one of many former Soviet officials who feel that Russia still needs some of that old police state magic in order to thrive.
As part of this effort the Cold War era KGB has been revived. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the new Russian government broke up the KGB. Now that action is being reversed and the secret police are being given more and more of its old powers, and personnel, back. Before the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the KGB was the most powerful organization in the country. It was a law unto itself, as long as it stuck to its main task: keeping the Communist Party in charge of the country. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB lost most of its power but did not disappear. It was split into many separate organizations, with the main ones being the FSB (a counterintelligence organization with police powers) and the SVR (conducted overseas espionage). But since the late 1990s, the FSB has been regaining a lot of its Cold War powers and people. It again controls the border police and several specialist technical organizations. While this pleases the law and order crowd, it disturbs Russians who remember when the KGB was the principal organization keeping the communist dictatorship in power. The new powers give the FSB more authority to do whatever they want, just like in their good old days (when the communists were in charge). The FSB is believed to directly control over 100,000 personnel and have authority over many more in other government departments (like the national police force).
The KGB acquired most of its power just before World War II, after dictator Joseph Stalin had killed most of the army leadership, to prevent what he believed was the possibility of a military takeover. The KGB was to be a powerful state secret police, a sort of FBI, CIA, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, and more rolled into one organization. The KGB was everywhere, as it sought to keep its communist masters in charge. For example, the KGB had a network of informants in the military and among civilians as well.
When Stalin died (of natural causes) in 1953, and Nikita Khrushchev (and some close Communist Party associates) took over, one of the first things they did was execute the head of the KGB, an old Stalin crony, named Beria, who had been responsible for large scale massacres within the KGB and Communist Party during Stalin's reign. Less bloody-minded KGB officers were promoted to head the organization. Until the very end of the Soviet Union, the KGB remained at the top of the social, political, economic, and legal pecking order. In the late 1980s, reformers like Gorbachev rose to power via the assistance of senior KGB officials who saw a need for reform. The KGB were aware that their tsarist predecessors survived the 1917 Revolution. They were a relatively small group compared to the military and the Communist party and they were prepared to survive the next "revolution." This the KGB did, and now they are being rewarded for their loyalty and effectiveness (in dealing with terrorism, corruption, capitalism, and criminal gangs) by having many of their old powers restored.
While the FSB has regained control of the border police, this force is but a shadow of its former, Soviet, self. Back then, the Soviet Union maintained 200,000 KGB border troops. This "army" had armored units, naval ships, and combat aircraft. These forces served the same function as the United States Coast Guard and Border Patrol. But in America these forces amount to fewer than half as many personnel. The KGB border forces had much more power than their American counterparts. The 25,000 sailors in the "Maritime Border Guards" (MBG) answered to no one but the head of the KGB. To put it more clearly, a lieutenant commanding an MBG patrol boat could order any Russian warship to halt and then arrest its captain. In fact, this was one of the principal functions of the MBG, to prevent mutiny or defection by ships and sailors of the Soviet Navy and merchant fleet. Smuggling was a minor problem, as Russian currency was useless outside the country and there were few items Russia produced that were good, and small, enough to be profitably smuggled. Moreover, much of Russia's coastline is in arctic waters and most of the remainder was adjacent to other communist nations. What kept the MBG busy was insuring that Russian citizens didn't flee the country. Such flight was a criminal offense and Gulag (and later prisons) were full of Russians who attempted it and got caught by the MBG.
The FSB still relies on conscripts for many low level security jobs. But, as in the Soviet period, getting drafted into the FSB is an attractive proposition for many young Russian men. Doing well in this job (guarding nuclear weapons or other important national assets) marks you as someone worthy of other jobs within the security services. What bothers many Russians is the ultimate purpose of the FSB. The KGB was known as the main protector of the Communist Party. The FSB is seen as the supporter of wealthy criminals who used their KGB connections and powers after the Soviet Union collapsed to grab ownership of many state owned assets. The current Russian government is acting more and more like the autocratic rulers Russia has suffered under for centuries. The FSB seems to act more like the palace guard, than public servants. The guards want more power and are likely to get it, although there might be some strong resistance to reviving the Gulag.