Arrest of Astronomers Show Russian Growing Paranoia

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Arrest of Astronomers Show Russian Growing Paranoia

Many projects conducted seemingly for the good of the people in Russia are giant corruption schemes. Take the corrupt monopoly over burial services in Moscow, which nearly cost the journalist Ivan Golunov his freedom back in 2019. If you’ve ever had to plan a funeral in Moscow—as I have, once—you know exactly how the monopoly, ostensibly created to “clean up the market” and “help the bereaved,” is a cash cow for shady officials.

For those familiar with lavishly funded projects such as this one, it is clear that it’s yet another financial opportunity for Russia’s spectacularly corrupt elite to utilize a chunk of the state budget.

Corruption in public services in Russia takes many forms, but what all experts can agree on is that it’s extremely high.

Many projects conducted seemingly for the good of the people in Russia are giant corruption schemes. Take the corrupt monopoly over burial services in Moscow, which nearly cost the journalist Ivan Golunov his freedom back in 2019. If you’ve ever had to plan a funeral in Moscow—as I have, once—you know exactly how the monopoly, ostensibly created to “clean up the market” and “help the bereaved,” is a cash cow for shady officials.

Story Highlights

  • For those familiar with lavishly funded projects such as this one, it is clear that it’s yet another financial opportunity for Russia’s spectacularly corrupt elite to utilize a chunk of the state budget.

  • The Russian government recently announced an ambitious project: convincing half a million emigrants to return to Russia by 2030.

Yet the new repatriation scheme in particular is more depressing than it initially seems, even by Russian standards.

In spite of the Kremlin’s lofty pronouncements that Russia has triumphantly “gotten off its knees” due to Putinism, brain drain continues—and has picked up speed again. In fact, the number of scientists who have left Russia has risen fivefold since 2012.

The Russian Academy of Sciences explains this as a funding problem. And while it does have a point—if scientists can get paid much better abroad, why wouldn’t they leave—there is another problem lurking under the surface, one of fear. The pervasive paranoia of the Russian state means that anyone in sensitive sectors is in real danger of being accused of espionage—even if it’s just by an ambitious underling who wants their job. Speak to anyone working in the Russian space industry or adjacent industries such as defense, and you learn that stories of witch hunts for “traitors” and “foreign agents” are just the tip of the iceberg.

Since Russia was rocked by unprecedented protests against election fraud in 2011-2012, the Kremlin has been on a steady collision course with the very idea of freedom of speech, assembly, and freedom in general. Repressions, previously more random, have taken on distinct and troubling patterns—including the adoption of more and more draconian legislation. Today, the mere act of speaking to an employee working in Russia’s space sector can land that employee on a list of foreign agents, as per the updated rules issued by the Russian security services.

Russia’s laws on so-called foreign agents are deliberately broad and specifically designed in such a way so any undesirable can be targeted. Much like the way that treason laws are enforced, they are unlikely to ensure Russian national security and increase competitiveness. Why? The Russian space sector is notoriously corrupt, even by Russia’s abysmal standards. And in spite of a proud Soviet legacy that involved putting the first man in space—not to mention the first woman—corruption has stymied Russian talent and has negatively affected performance. The genuinely scary debacle of the Nauka module is just one recent example.

One of the most insidious ways that corruption affects Russian space and defense programs is how unqualified yet well-connected people are given projects to run. Journalists are loath to write about this phenomenon, knowing that they might get frozen out from their usual beat, but if you do enough reporting in this sphere, the stories really do add up over the years. I briefly worked for a space journal founded by a former Russian defense official in London, back in 2015, when witch hunts against so-called foreign agents had not yet reached fever pitch. In those days, I frequently spoke with Russian scientists who grumbled about nepotism—and then asked me to keep it off the record.

A famous, ongoing case involves Ivan Safronov, a former advisor to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. More recently, Alexander Kuranov, a prominent hypersonic rocket specialist, was snatched up by the security services and charged with treason. Kuranov is in his 70s, and his colleagues privately remark that charges against him are even more absurd and Kafkaesque than charges against Safronov. None of that matters, of course. What matters is the atmosphere of paranoia that allows stealing to continue while everyone dutifully keeps their mouths shut. This creates a dilemma: Space and defense programs are a major source of prestige for the Kremlin. Yet allowing the elite to steal—to the point of Russia achieving the dubious honor of being the world’s most unequal major economy in 2019—is an important cornerstone of Putinism. Thus, failures must be explained away by pinning the blame on scientists and experts who consort with “evil foreigners” and are otherwise letting the country down.