Stalin on their minds: rumors of repression in the Russian elite continue to circulate
When Vladimir Putin met by video with the permanent members of the Security Council on May 13, five of the thirteen squares on his monitor were empty: among these were the squares reserved for Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Patrushev and Lavrov were not present at this meeting of the most influential body in Russian politics, despite the fact that the topics under discussion—the course of the "special military operation" in Ukraine and the new threats facing Russia due to the possible entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO—directly concern their portfolios. No special mention was made of Patrushev and Lavrov’s absence, but it looked strange and led to rumors that these members of the president's inner circle could somehow have fallen into disgrace.
This is not the first time we have seen a wave of speculation of this kind. Almost from the moment the war began, the Russian establishment has been preoccupied with rumors of purges supposedly aimed at major government officials and officers in the security services and military. True, there has not been a single confirmed arrest of any major figure. But this does not prevent members of the elite from spreading rumors that the Kremlin is finding new culprits for the failures in Ukraine.
It seems likely that, assuming there really were purges at high levels of the government, we would not find out about them until the end of the war, because learning about arrests among the leaders of the army or security agencies would be demoralizing for the public. Such news would contradict Putin's assurances that the military operation is going "exactly according to plan" and would serve as proof that there had been mistakes in planning and conducting the "special military operation." Still, rumors about repression and purges make up an important part of the emotional background of the Russian elite and help keep the establishment united, preventing it from making anti-war comments and showing signs of defeatism.
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Where has the commander of the Black Sea Fleet gone?
On Friday, May 13, the Russian Black Sea Fleet celebrated its 239th anniversary. However, the fleet’s commander, Admiral Igor Osipov, was not present at the celebration in Sevastopol. Nor was Osipov at the Victory Day parade on May 9th. Judging by news reports, he has been seen in public for several weeks—at a minimum not since the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.
Ukrainian outlets, citing intelligence sources, have reported that Osipov was removed from his post and arrested after the loss of the Moskva on April 14. As early as April 21, the Ukrainian edition of Defense Express, citing its sources, wrote that there was also supposedly an investigation into First Deputy Fleet Commander Sergei Pinchuk, and that Vice Admiral Arkady Romanov had been appointed acting commander. Shortly before the start of the war, Osipov personally checked the readiness of the Moskva and other ships in the fleet, so it’s fair to assume that he really bears personal responsibility for any possible violations or embezzlement that might have made the ship defenseless against Ukrainian missiles.
There’s another explanation, however: Osipov could have been on the Moskva at the time it was hit and been killed or injured or gone missing. On the other hand, there has been no official announcement that this is the case, and official telegrams were sent to Osipov on the Day of the Black Sea Fleet—in particular, the head of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, has spoken about this.
The Telegram channel “VChK-OGPU,” which is likely associated with one of the groups of Russian security officials, reported, citing sources in the security agencies, that Osipov was under investigation. As a result the governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozzhaev, was forced on April 13 to refute rumors that the naval chief had died or been arrested: “Our commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Igor Vladimirovich Osipov, is now at his combat post, and of course he doesn’t have time for social networks and congratulatory messages, but I’m sure he and our sailors feel our support,” Razvozzhaev said, explaining the admiral’s absence.
The disappearance of Vladislav Surkov
Another member of the Russian elite who has mysteriously gone missing is former presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, at one time one of the most influential Russian officials. Before his resignation in 2020, he worked on Ukrainian affairs for several years and was supposed to ensure the growth of pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. After the February 24 blitzkrieg failed, it became obvious that Moscow had greatly overestimated in this regard.
In April 2019, a wave of rumors swept through Russian Telegram channels that Surkov was under house arrest. Former Duma MP Ilya Ponomarev was the source of these rumors. “There is an investigation underway into embezzlement in the Donbass starting in 2014,” Ponomarev claimed on social media.
“We don’t know anything about that,” Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov replied when asked whether Surkov was really under house arrest. There was no outright denial that this was the case. Instead, Surkov's acquaintances spread cryptic messages through social media. For example, Kremlin pool journalist Andrey Kolesnikov published a poem on Facebook with the preamble "XXX Received from Nathan." (Surkov’s nom de plume is Nathan Dubovitsky, whose writings have appeared in Kolesnikov's magazine Russian Pioneer).
I stand proudly in the bottom of a pit / Like on top of a mountain / Like at the climax of a play / Like on the game’s title screen,
wrote Surkov-Dubovitsky. The poem ended with the lines:
For my life to be useful / To both demons and angels / I'm sinking into the minus / Like Magellan in the ocean.
Another one of Surkov’s acquaintances, Ksenia Sobchak, addressed the rumors directly on her Telegram channel: “Vladislav Surkov has not been arrested and is not sitting at home under the watchful eye of some Comrade Major.” However, since that time, Surkov hasn’t appeared in public once; nor has he made any statement, recorded a video, or even taken a photo that would prove that he is free and able to communicate with the world.
Shoigu’s disappearance… and subsequent return
Nevertheless, most of the rumors surrounded the weeks-long disappearance of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who disappeared from the public eye shortly after the failure of the blitzkrieg. He was seen on March 12, but afterwards did not appear in public for several weeks. State media reported that he was participating in meetings conducted by Putin, but many journalists suspected that footage of Shoigu was being inserted into video recordings of old meetings.
Journalists, experts, and politicians wondered if this was a sign that he had fallen into disgrace, or perhaps even been arrested, or whether Shoigu was experiencing health problems. Finally, at the end of March, the Minister of Defense appeared on TV screens during a routine Defense Ministry meeting. He also attended a session of the Duma and even appeared at the funeral of politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, demonstrating to all concerned that he was alive and well.
The fact that Shoigu has not fallen into disgrace became clear after his meeting with Putin, and especially after the Victory Day parade, where he walked along Red Square next to the president, showing that their working and personal relationship is as functional as before.
True, Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, was not present at the parade, and in four of Russia’s five military districts the parades were overseen not by district commanders but by their seconds-in-command. But, rather than purges in the Russian army, this testifies to the fact that military leaders are in Ukraine or somewhere close to it, directly overseeing military operations.
Purges in the FSB’s Fifth Service
Another important story concerns purges in the FSB’s Fifth Service, the division responsible for counterintelligence in former Soviet territories, including Ukraine. Andrei Soldatov, a journalist specializing in the security agencies, along with Christo Grozev of Bellingcat, reported in early April that some employees of this FSB unit, which was responsible for Ukraine-related work, had been fired, and that others had have been arrested. According to their reporting, among those arrested was the head of the Fifth Service, General Sergei Beseda. The reason for the arrest was supposedly the fact that Putin was poorly informed about what was happening in Ukraine, which led to the failure of the first stage of the war. Soldatov wrote that Beseda was being held in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center.
But on April 30, RTVi, the television channel associated among Russian media observers with Putin's friend Sergei Chemezov, reported that Beseda had attended the funeral of a veteran of the intelligence agencies. This might have been intended to refute the rumors about Beseda's arrest, but the channel did not publish photos or videos of Beseda. Soldatov suggested that Beseda could have been conveyed to the funeral specifically in order to dampen talk about conflicts among the security forces.
The history of the Soviet special services shows that there were situations when prisoners would be removed from jail in order to be shown in public to refute rumors that they had been arrested. In 1949, for example, the Jewish activist Itzik Fefer, who had previously worked with the NKVD, was pulled out of the Lubyanka prison and brought to a hotel to meet with American singer Paul Robeson, who had insisted on meeting with Fefer. Fefer signaled to the singer with gestures that the room had been bugged and made it clear that he was in custody.
An atmosphere of fear
Most likely, it is memories of the Stalin period that make the Russian elite so nervous and preoccupied with rumors about possible purges and repressions. In the late 1930s, Stalin, supposedly fearing a plot against him, oversaw brutal purges of the USSR’s military leadership; many commanders and even some marshals were executed. The Soviet secret police also lived through more than one wave of purges, so the Russian security forces know that being a member of the state security agencies does not at all guarantee immunity, and that the machine of repression can turn around in a moment and crush those who just the day before were pulling its levers.
This fear helps Putin prevent the elite from splitting off or disobeying orders. A source familiar with the situation in army circles says that even among the military higher-ups, many did not agree with the war, but no one resigned because they feared brutal reprisals, “all the way up to being shot.” (It is worth recalling that the Russian Criminal Code does not permit any such punishment.) There are similar sentiments among regional officials. As one of my interlocutors says, the five heads of regions who retired not long ago are considered by the others to be lucky: it is thought that leaving of one's own free is difficult today and could be considered weakness, an expression of protest, or even a betrayal.
Frightening rumors spread easily in Russia because the Russian government is so informationally closed off, and because there is a lack of legal ways to verify this or that information. By effectively banning independent media after the start of the war, the Kremlin sealed off the last remaining gaps in the wall between the Russian government and society. But those in the government themselves often are not able to obtain reliable information and have to make do with rumors about their own colleagues, fueling their own paranoia. Ordinary Russians, like any other group of spectators watching political theater, love hearing about the fall of the powerful—so they are fascinated by this kind of gossip.
Translated by Daniel Bush