Russia's corruption problem

Interview with Russian journalist Masha Gessen about the role the endemic corruption within Russia's political and security establishment played in the recent airport bombing that killed at least 35 people.

Q&A with Russian journalist Masha Gessen

One of the words often used in association with Russia these days is "corruption." According to Transparency International, an international organization that measures relative corruption around the globe, Russia is in 154th place out of 176 countries. (Canada is sixth).

Victims of a bomb explosion are seen at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in this still image taken from mobile phone footage, Jan. 24, 2011. A suicide bomber killed at least 36 people and injured another 180 at Domodedovo, Russia's biggest airport. ((Djem79/Reuters TV))
Many observers believe it's one of the key reasons that attacks like the one on Jan. 24 at the Domodedovo Airport aren't prevented by its security services.

The other word associated with Russia and its people throughout history is "patience." Russians have always tended to put up with a lot of misery without much resistance. Sometimes, it's stoicism; at other times, helplessness; and at still others, apathy.

The explosion at Domodedovo is one in a long series of terrorist incidents that have occurred in Russia in the past 15 years. Is Russia's reaction to such attacks likely to change this time?

Masha Gessen listens to a question from CBC producer Alex Shprintsen in April, 2006 for the documentary Russia's Reel Resurrection, about Russian media and their impact on politics. Gessen argues that corruption in Russia "plays into the hands of terrorists." ((CBC))
To answer this and other questions, CBC News contacted Masha Gessen in Moscow, a prominent Russian journalist and author. She is the deputy editor of Snob, a social and political magazine. Gessen also lived for many years in the United States.

She spoke with CBC's Alex Shprintsen, who has produced more than 15 documentaries about Russia and the former Soviet Union.

CBC NEWS: Let me just begin by asking you, whenever we encounter various analyses of these all-too-frequent incidents, a number of factors are usually given as explanation, and I'm wondering, in your mind, what's the most important one?

MASHA GESSEN: A joke has been making the rounds on blogs and in kitchens in Moscow, which is, "Putin, why did you do it? I would’ve voted for you anyway."

It’s a pretty amazing and shocking thing that it’s such shorthand for the most common understanding of why these bombings happened, that the basic impetus comes from the secret services of the state and the basic purpose is to create an atmosphere of fear in which [Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin is most likely to be re-elected.

We constantly hear about corruption in all areas of life in Russia. How does it play into this?

It plays into it every step of the way. There’s purposeful complexity, and then, there’s complexity by omission.

It seems from every account that I’ve seen that at the Domodedovo airport, the police were too busy demanding bribes from anybody who looked like they might have problems with their documents, rather than trying to perform security checks.

Russian Interior Ministry officers carry two boys after they were released from the school seized by Chechen rebels in the town of Beslan in the Russian province of North Ossetia near Chechnya, Sept. 3, 2004. Soldiers later stormed the school, leading to the deaths of 334 hostages, half of them children. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
So, that’s an obvious way in which corruption turns into negligence and plays into the hands of terrorists. 

It’s too early to know about the details of this one, but the investigation of the hostage taking at the school in Beslan in 2004 [in which 334 people died] found that the terrorists had travelled across — if this were America, you’d call it state lines — armed with cars full of explosives and passed freely through checkpoints because they were bribing their way through.

The same thing happened in 2003 when nearly 1,000 people were taken hostage at a theatre in central Moscow. The terrorists had actually travelled all the way from Chechnya by several mini-vans — again packed with arms and explosives, again bribing their way through checkpoints.

Just before becoming president in 2000, in the wake of a series of major explosions at apartment buildings in Moscow, Putin promised to take care of terrorists by wiping them out in outhouses if necessary.

Rescuers and firefighters work at the site of a massive explosion that destroyed a nine-storey apartment building in the southeastern part of Moscow on Sept. 9, 1999. The Russian government blamed Chechen rebels for this and three other bombings at apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. Others said the government orchestrated the bombings as a pretext for reigniting the war in Chechnya. ((Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press))
And now, he has vowed retribution again. Yet according to official statistics provided by the FSB (security service) and the Interior Ministry, there were 135 terrorism incidents in Russia when Putin became president in 2000 and 786 last year.  What do you make of that?

Well, somehow Putin won the election campaign, and he has been running that election campaign for more than 10 years now, arguing, 'We’re surrounded by enemies; there are enemies within. I’m the only one who can save you from great danger.' It is amazing that it works, but it works.

And the terrorist attacks escalate every time he is running for election. The next national election is in 2012. We’re very much in the build-up to it, and the ratcheting up of fear, the crackdown that will certainly follow, is all part of this election campaign.

Just before the 2008 presidential election, I was with a camera at one of the typically small demonstrations by dissidents. What struck me was the incredible proportion of the police relative to the demonstrators, probably something like 15 to one.

There were maybe 100 demonstrators, many of them middle-aged or quite elderly people. Why such force? Why would such state resources be used against such a seemingly small threat?

I really don’t have an explanation. It’s absurd, and it’d be ridiculous to try to make sense of it if it weren’t absurd. There’s no way to make sense of it.

Putting aside corruption, what’s the level of competence and professionalism among the various agents of these special forces that are supposed to prevent incidents like this one?

Members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) work outside Moscow's Domodedovo airport Jan. 24, 2011. Russian leader Vladimir Putin was the FSB's director in 1998-99. ((Denis Sinyakov/Reuters))

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Russians have absolutely no faith in the police or any other state security forces. The police are generally seen as a threat or a nuisance. So are the secret forces, and the whole state apparatus is, again, a corruption machine and nothing else.

I was reading various Russian blogs and comments after the tragedy. And what struck me was the very strong reaction against taxi drivers  —  who were allegedly profiting from the situation at the airport  —  and much less disgust with the authorities who were supposed to protect the people, which is something surprising for a Westerner to see. How do you explain that?

Oh, that’s actually a simple question! People have really written off the police a long time ago. They do not expect them to be, again, anything but a nuisance. Taxi drivers are people like us. When they stop acting human, it’s news. It’s something to discuss.

One day after the bombing a police officer checks the hand luggage of a woman as people wait in a line to pass through a metal detector at Moscow's Domodedovo airport January 25, 2011. ((Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters))
When the police don’t act human, that’s not news; that’s the norm. And when the police don’t do their job, that’s certainly nothing surprising.

I often try to engage my Russian friends in discussions about democracy and things of that sort, but their response is usually something along the lines of, "Oh, this is politics, and it has nothing to do with everyday life."

I’m sure it also has a lot to do with the way political discourse and public space in general have been systematically suppressed and destroyed over the last 10 years. When you think about it, it’s a country that had public discussion for a dozen years [from Glasnost in the late 1980s to Putin's election in 2000]. And hasn’t had it in ten years.

Why are the Russian people putting up with this?

Partly because some of them don’t know that it could be different. And partly because in the absence of any sort of political discussion, in the absence of any sort of public space, in the absence of political mechanisms, there’s no way to change it.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a religious service at a Moscow church on Wednesday, the official day of mourning for the victims of Monday's bomb attack. Putin promised "inevitable vengeance" for the attack. ((Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters))

Russians are known for their patience. In your mind, what would it take for them to stop putting up with this?

I actually think that a breaking point could actually come at any time. In some ways, it’s actually probably nearer than we think. I can feel it in the air; I can feel that patience is sort of running out. People are extremely displeased and uneasy with the way things are, and this is a marked change in the way things have been over most of the last 10 years.

Books in English by Masha Gessen

  • Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. 2009. (Book review by John Allen Paulos in The New York Review of Books.)
  • Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene. 2008.
  • Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace. 2004.
  • Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia after Communism. 1997.
  • Half a Revolution: Contemporary Fiction by Russian Women. (editor) 1995.
  • The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men in the Russian Republic. 1993.

But again, in a country where there’s no political discussion; there’s no public space; the media has been systematically silenced; it’s very hard to gauge the level of that discomfort and to predict when the breaking point will come. It’s probably close, and there’s no way to tell what might actually trigger some series of public unrest.

If it does happen — this breaking point that you're talking about — how do you think it will manifest itself? What could the political result be? What are we going to see?

I doubt that it will be pretty.


Meaning, it’s a huge country with social connections and information connections that are in dire disrepair. With a completely dysfunctional police force, with no sense of community at any level. And a fairly dismal sense of social or political culture.

And, would I be at all surprised if we saw a wave of pogroms in the next few months? Not at all, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I’m not saying that that’s definitely what will happen, but I’m saying we have all the prerequisites for that.


Alex Shprintsen is an award-winning documentary producer who has worked with CBC News for more than 25 years.