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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Are the People We Really Need Now?

I recently noticed a social phenomenon going on that hadn’t attracted my attention before. It started when I was informed that a police investigator named Alexei Astafyev from the Moscow region town of Reutov had put in for early retirement. Or, to be more precise, he was "encouraged" to apply for early retirement.

This story began in January. Readers may remember this story, which made almost all the national papers. What happened was ordinary enough. A group of drunken teenagers tried to snatch the purse of a woman standing on a train platform in the town of Reutov. The woman screamed. The police rushed to the scene and arrested the kids. In the morning, they appeared before Inspector Astafyev. Well, so what? Not a pretty story, but not a national scandal either, right?

Later that day, Astafyev’s phone rang. The FSB security service was calling. Big brother, it seems, was interested in reading the file on the case.

"What are you talking about?" Astafyev asked incredulously. "What is there to read? What can this group of drunken hooligans possibly have to do with state security? I still haven’t figured out which of them will be charged."

"We are interested in one of them," came the reply. "The son of Valeria Filina. She is the host of a show on NTV." FSB Major Andrei Ganenko pronounced the last sentence ominously, as if the conclusion to be drawn were obvious.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Astafyev responded.

"NTV and the FSB currently have rather tense relations," the major explained candidly.

So how did I get involved? Soon after Astafyev telephoned me at my office at the State Duma. I invited him to come and talk. He told me the whole story, including the telephone conversation. He also told me about the phone calls that followed. "We want this boy charged." "Keep his mother worrying." He told me that Ganenko showed up at the boy’s mother’s apartment and scared her to death. (Filina, together with the famous children’s writer Eduard Uspensky, hosts a program called "Ships Have Been Sailing Into Our Harbor.")

Astafyev refused to hand over the file for this routine case to the FSB. "Write me an official request and send it to my commander," he told them. The request came immediately. On letterhead, with an official number and date.

"The director of the management section of the FSB, Colonel I. A. Dyupai, requests that you present all investigation materials to S. A. Ganenko (Jan. 31, 2000; No. 140/UBG 3-06)."

When Astafyev showed me this document, I was a little confused. I’d never heard of Dyupai and I had no idea what the "management section" was. Maybe it was some local FSB office? Or maybe on the Moscow-district level?

A little investigation revealed that, no, this was the national FSB. Colonel Dyupai works in the former fifth section, now in charge of "defending constitutional order," but formerly tasked with the fight against dissidents.

"I felt the cold breath of those days," Astafyev said, describing his feeling as he read the document. "It was just like a return to 15 years ago …".

At that time, in the early spring, I had no idea that Astafyev was soon to be driven out of the poor and undermanned police force of Reutov for no other reason than because he came to my office at the Duma and told me this story.

But that is exactly what happened. I am to blame. This honest soul believed that I would be able to defend him. But I couldn’t. Now the investigator is unemployed.

I did some more investigation. It turns out that the Interior Ministry currently has about 14,000 requests for early retirement in its files. They showed them to me. I flipped through them. You can see at first glance that by far not the worst officers in Russia’s law enforcement agencies are asking to get out.

Now Astafyev’s retirement is not a catastrophe on the national level (although those 14,000 forms probably are). But, as I said at the beginning of this essay, there is a national phenomenon at work here.

I started asking myself, what kind of people are essential now in order for Russia to develop a human and humane society? I don’t just mean for it to flourish economically, but for people to live with the belief that the system works, that they will be protected, that someone is taking their needs and interests into account. What kind of people do we need so that we can create a state in which people feel — in their very genes— safe?

I confess that I spent a long time thinking about this question. After all, it is related to the question that the whole country and the world has been asking for more than a year now: "Who is this Vladimir Putin who came out of nowhere and became president of this huge, great country like some cartoon hero in a child’s video game?"

After all, I like the things he says and the way that he says them. Well, most of the things that he says. But who is he? You could say that he is Russia’s Olympic champion, but we just don’t know yet what sport he plays.

At least, that’s the way I used to think. I figured that I’d eventually figure out what game he is playing. Gradually, though, I came to understand that this is the wrong question, the wrong way of looking at it. The Astafyev story convinced me that the most important thing is something completely different. It is most important to look at who he has playing on his team.

Who does he think he needs today? What kind of people, with what kinds of views are granted direct access to the president? And what kind of people are not?

For instance, we can say people like Astafyev are not needed. But people like Kremlin Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin, who is currently the subject of three criminal probes, are needed. Let them in.

People like Press Minister Mikhail Lesin are needed. His soiled reputation for some reason is not seen to tarnish the president. Let him in.

And what about Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who has turned his office into a laughingstock? I guess Putin needs him, too.

And no one seems to be paying any attention to the public scandals around the financial machinations of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. I guess that is no problem either.

Corruption within the Interior Ministry? No problem. Putin needs these people. How about the FSB? We need them, too.

Should I go on? It turns out that the president needs the very people that the rest of the country most needs to get rid of. We all trusted him to make the right choices. But he hasn’t.

I feel sorry for Astafyev. And for the rest of us.

Yury Shchekochikhin is a deputy in the State Duma and deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, for which he wrote this essay.