There is no such thing as an ex-KGB man.
~ Vladimir Putin
Chekism is the dominant political ideology in Russia today.
It derives its name from the Cheka, which was the first incarnation of what was later known as the KGB. The Cheka were formed immediately after Russia's Communist revolution in 1917 to act as the "sword and the shield" of the Communist state. The Cheka were a secret police organization whose role was to seek out supposed enemies of Communism and kill them. Individual rights had no meaning in these early years and there were no fair trials, simply summary executions of anyone with a suspect class background or who was accused of working against Communism. Western police exist primarily to protect citizens from one another; Chekists existed to protect the state from its citizens.
The Cheka went through a series of re-organizations and discharged this brutal role until in 1954, with Stalin finally dead, it was re-organized as the KGB - the Committee for State Security. During the early years it ran the gulags and crushed dissent, and was instrumental in the Stalinist purges. With Stalin gone it softened somewhat but continued to be responsible for monitoring every institution in Soviet society to make sure they followed the Party line and that no dissent emerged. It was still the sword and the shield of the state, which was valued far above any individual.
Most of the people in the Kremlin's cockpit at the moment spent decades in the KGB, many of them in Leningrad with Vladimir Putin. Together with former top officials from the "power ministries" - the Defence ministry, the Interior ministry, and the military itself - this group call themselves the siloviki, which derives from the Russian word for power. These people, who rule Russia today, trace their roots and their ideology all the way back to the brutality of the Cheka under Stalin.
This is not to say that they are Communists. They are not driven by any economic ideology, but see economics as just another means of exercising power; this means they tend towards state control of strategic sectors of the economy, such as energy. They are driven first and foremost by their belief in the need for a strong Russian state and willingness to sacrifice individual rights and democracy to achieve this goal. The cult of the Chekist derives from the fact that he will do anything and trample anyone in the service of the state; thus the most brutal excesses committed out of Communist zeal during the Stalin period can be redefined as a means of extending the power of the state. Forced collectivization of agriculture and the massacre of the kulaks were simply means towards this end.
The siloviki have found a particular solution to the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, which has experienced economic and social disintegration on a titantic scale. (It is no coincidence that their leader does not drink). Their solution is for the state to take control of society and economics steadily, placing it in the safe hands of the siloviki and their technocratic allies - of whom Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president and former chief of state energy giant Gazprom, is the foremost. Democracy, local autonomy and civil society are seen as engines of chaos; Putin has said he does not want democracy because it brings disintegration. Their view of freedom is one in which a powerful state is needed to protect the people and be their highest expression. It is a conceit that Russian rulers have sought for ever, no doubt rooted in the country's vast size and the difficulty of controlling it.
One of the fascinating things about the siloviki is not just how they are a class, but how this class is defined in almost racial terms. During the Stalinist period, whether one was classed as a proletarian or a bourgeois was not just a matter of economic position but also one's family history. Just like Hitler's elite had to prove they had no Jewish ancestry, Party members had to prove they had no bourgeois background; a member found to have had a rich grandfather might find himself in the gulag even if he had lived his entire life in abject poverty. The same is true of the siloviki. A good heritage is the key to advancement and proof that one is sufficiently imbued with the Chekist culture and ideology.
Abroad, they seek a re-assertion of Russian greatness. Faced with the historic loss of the Soviet empire - much of which was the Russian Empire not long before - they do not want to be seen as the generation who let it slip away. They want to extend their influence over the former Soviet bloc and absorb the newly-independent states into their own; they look down on many of the ethnic groups on their borders as barbarians unfit to rule themselves. They need the strong, guiding hand of the Chekist to take care of them, even if this hand usually ends up curled into a fist. The increasing assertiveness of Russia abroad - from the cutting off of energy supplies as a form of political pressure to the invasion of Georgia - is a sign that this group feels increasingly arrogant about its ability to act. As such actions represent the power of their own ministries - the secret police, the army, the state energy companies - a good measure of pride is involved, too.
The siloviki respect power and toughness above all else. Chekism is an ideology of manliness and self-sacrifice. But this image is increasingly at odds with the incredible riches that they have accrued in the course of intimidating and co-opting the business elite; see the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky for more detail. But because they are the state, their control of business can be justified as the state's control of business and hence another control mechanism on society. It seems awfully convenient that all of the goals that the siloviki seek are served by their own accumulation of power and wealth, but Chekism remains an ideology of wary service to the Russian state which the siloviki say they did not ask to be called upon to render. The chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union made it necessary, they say.
With the popularity of the Kremlin and its institutions - especially Vladimir Putin - continuing to ride high, it looks like Chekism is here to stay. Their consolidation of power at home enables them - and in some way requires them, for they need to show results to a people hungry for Russia to reassert itself - to be adventurous abroad, as we have seen these last weeks. The rest of us need to get ready to deal with the consequences.