Letter From the Editors

An enduring image of the Soviet Union is that of a group of wizened apparatchiks huddled atop Lenin’s Tomb to observe a military parade on Red Square. Now, in the 21st century, as we enter the age of experience, it would be nice to see younger, more agile leaders climbing the ranks in the post-Soviet space. This seems unlikely to happen, however, given the current mentality in this part of the world.

Take, for example, the draft amendments that Belarus’s Constitutional Commission recently submitted to Lukashenko for approval. These include increasing the age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 40, and increasing the residency requirement from 10 years to 20 years. While some of the proposed amendments are intended to mollify the West (creating the institution of human rights commissioner, limiting presidential terms), raising age and residency requirements seems like a good way to keep the people in Lukashenko’s inner circle in power for longer.

In similar fashion, Putin has submitted a bill to the Duma that, as Aleksandr Golts puts it, “will, through its inevitable adoption, allow the president to extend the service of marshals and Army and Navy generals for an indeterminate period of time once they reach 70.” In an amazing coincidence, 70 is the average age of the siloviki that form the solid core of Putin’s own inner circle. In Golts’s analysis, this shows that Putin is planning “to go into the 2024 presidential election surrounded by personally loyal military commanders and intelligence directors.” But there’s more to this than personal loyalty: These officers studied at Soviet military academies, where loyalty to top political leaders was part and parcel of the job, whereas younger officers were trained during a time when the military was beginning to distrust politicians.

Age also figures in Ivan Safronov’s prison letter, which The New Times recently reprinted in full. Readers may recall that Safronov, a former correspondent for both Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested on treason charges in July 2020. His letter describes in chilling detail how people can come to be accused and convicted of treason and espionage in today’s Russia. Once a case is opened, the person under investigation has little opportunity to defend themselves or retain competent legal counsel. Detainees are often given the opportunity to sign a pretrial agreement (under which they would admit to the charges and implicate others in the alleged crime) and then left alone for some time to think the offer over. As Safronov explains, “Isolation from the outside world breaks a person and messes with his mind.” In this state, people can even start to believe they really are spies. A person in their 30s might consider fighting the charges because they are hardy enough to risk a prison term, but this predicament is particularly difficult for people over 60, who are more susceptible to influence and don’t feel they are strong enough to survive a sentence.

On the topic of espionage, Vedomosti reports that the FSB is making it easier to charge people with this crime by adding unclassified military information to the list of data that cannot be shared with foreign nationals. This means, for example, that anyone who shares information even about troop morale is at risk of being declared a “foreign agent,” because this information could somehow harm Russia if it fell into the hands of a government abroad.

But will this investigative tactic actually help catch more spies? As Safronov ominously concludes his letter: “It takes a lot of effort and a lot of luck to catch a professional illegal agent who has undergone special training, etc. Alas, this cannot be relied on. So this is why there are more and more espionage cases in Russia: It’s easier to take in your own people so that others will be afraid.”

And this is precisely why age matters. Without a cohort of nimble young leaders, Russia will keep resorting to old and stale Soviet tactics.