Putin picks the man to build Russia’s high-tech police state

Russia’s new prime minister is the ideal man to replicate China’s high-tech police state to keep Vladimir Putin in power for life.

In purging his government, President Vladimir Putin has promoted Mikhail Mishustin as chief of government. Widely portrayed as a hockey fan and pianist and composer, Mishustin served for a decade as head of the Federal Tax Service. He is a strong proponent of digitizing the government and embracing artificial intelligence as a government tool.

Mishustin’s appointment is not as simple as the head of Russia’s IRS  becoming prime minister. The Federal Tax Service is the new name of what had been the Fifth Chief Directorate of the Soviet KGB – the political police arm responsible for ideological enforcement and repression of dissidents.

Born in 1966, Mishustin is too young to have played a significant role, if any, as a KGB dissident-hunter. Mishustin is a computer engineer ideally suited to digitize Russia’s police state for Putin along the lines of Xi Jinping’s technodictatorship in China.

Having headed the Federal Tax Service from 2010 to 2020, Mishustin sat atop a bureaucratic empire designed for enforcing political control and domestic spying. His linear predecessor, Mikhail Yefomivich Fradkov, went on to become Putin’s prime minister from 2004-2007, and then to become chief of Russia’s External Intelligence Agency (SVR), the un-reformed successor to the old KGB First Chief Directorate.

We see the start of an apparent KGB pattern in the tax collector-prime minister roles. Given Putin’s apparent goal of running Russia for the rest of his life, Mishustin is the ideal figure to build a computerized political police system.

Origins of Mishustin’s tax agency

The Federal Tax Service was formally created in 2003 from a reorganization of the Federal Tax Police, which then-president Boris Yeltsin had repurposed from what had been the Fifth Chief Directorate of the KGB.

The Fifth Chief Directorate was a creation of KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov, who combined surviving Stalin-era secret police units into a single, more effective, dissident-hunting apparatus.

It was never purged after the 1991 putsch against Gorbachev or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, its structures and personnel remained in place, post-Soviet legislation in 1992 enshrined its powers of political repression, the institution was reassigned as a tax collection agency.

The economic and political control elements of the former KGB became a protection racket for unprecedented corruption and the foundation of the gangster-state that begat Vladimir Putin.

Victor Yasmann of Radio Liberty noted in 2000, just after Putin took power from Boris Yeltsin, that Putin’s largely fictitious biography could have masked his work as a Fifth Chief Directorate officer doing line work in East Germany, but that has not been proven. It is worth considering in retrospect given Putin’s new elevation of the old Fifth.

Old Soviet dissident-hunting system

Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, paradoxically denounced the survival of the KGB repressive apparatus and relied on it to stay in power. “The system of political investigation has been mothballed and could easily be re-created,” Yeltsin warned in late 1993.

The Fifth Chief Directorate, briefly reconstituted as Directorate Z, included the following KGB units:

  • 9th Department of KGB Second Chief Directorate, for monitoring and hunting dissident students;
  • 10th Department of KGB Second Chief Directorate, to monitor and repress intellectuals, or intelligentsia, including scientists;
  • 12th Department, to run wiretaps and electronic monitoring of people through bugs and telephones;
  • Jewish Department, for hunting down and repressing religious Jews and fighting “Zionism”;
  • 5th Direction, for monitoring and repressing non-Jewish religious believers, especially Christians;
  • 6th Direction, to counter unauthorized nationalism;
  • 7th Direction, to handle Soviet citizens with foreign relatives, and foreigners with Soviet relatives;
  • 8th Direction, to repress, manipulate, and co-opt Russian expatriate organizations;
  • 9th Direction, to detect and repress publication of homemade “samizdat” literature, register typewriters and maintain samples of type from individual typewriters, and control photocopiers;
  • KGB units for media censorship and cooptation of journalists.

An able computer engineer like Mishustin who ran the old Fifth Chief Directorate for a decade is the ideal person to build a high-tech police state to keep Putin in power for life.

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See Dr. Waller’s 1994 book, Secret Empire: The KGB in Russia Today, on the KGB’s metamorphosis during and after the Soviet collapse and its prediction that the old secret police would rise again to control Russia’s political system.

About J Michael Waller

J Michael Waller is a Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy. He was a founding editorial board member of NATO’s Defence Strategic Communications journal, and for 13 years held the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair as a professor at the Institute of World Politics. He holds a PhD in international security affairs from Boston University. Click here for full bio.