MOSCOW — Over the past month, a surreal new element has come to dominate Russia's nightly news. At times it feels like some sort of hybrid reality show, as if the Kremlin's propaganda men have started splicing episodes of MTV Cribs with episodes of COPS. The entrancing new genre was born from the purge that President Vladimir Putin launched in October -- the first anti-corruption campaign he has ever attempted -- and it has made for excellent television.
Viewers have been treated to commando raids on posh apartments, seized boxes of diamonds and gold, stacks of bribe money being fed by police into counting machines that look about ready to burst. Perhaps most satisfying of all, for the millions of workaday Russians watching at home, has been the sight of once-mighty bureaucrats groveling for sympathy, clemency, or bail. That schadenfreude is part of the point. Purges are meant to be popular.
But six weeks into this one, its initiator has found himself in the bind of his career. By allowing state TV to cover all the gory details of the bureaucratic bloodletting, Putin's government seems to have only reminded Russians just how shameless and pervasive corruption has become. In one case, police claim to have found an obscure military bureaucrat, Alexander Yelkin, in possession of around $9 million in cash and four Breguet watches. Had he not been arrested on Nov. 16, he was reportedlyplanning to celebrate his birthday the following night with a private concert by Jennifer Lopez. Judging by the latest polls, such tales of profligacy have begun to reflect badly on the entire government -- Putin included. But satisfying the public's piqued desire for justice is hardly an option at this point. Bureaucrats at every level are already spooked by the spate of arrests, and if the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed becomes threatened, they could start to turn on Putin. And that raises the risk of a palace coup.
"He has to strike a very delicate balance," says Alexander Rahr, a member of the Valdai Club, a forum of Russia experts that meets with Putin once a year. "He is too dependent on the boyars [feudal lords] to go chopping off their heads, but that is what the people are now demanding."
Putin announced the new anti-corruption campaign at the most recent Valdai Club meeting on Oct. 25. At the time, no one took it very seriously. Over the past decade, corruption in Russia has grown to the levels of a third-world kleptocracy , and hardly a month goes by without some senior official promising a crackdown. But this time it seems Putin was serious, or at least more serious than usual.
The day of the Valdai Club meeting, police had raided a handful of homes and offices linked to Defense Ministry officials accused of stealing about $100 million in state assets. When the cops arrived at the apartment of Evgenia Vasilieva, the comely young director of the ministry's property department, they were surprised to find Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov there. (One of the more entertaining sidebars of the scandal has involved the harem of beautiful women Serdyukov had placed in positions of extraordinary power. The Russian press has dubbed them "the Amazons," and before resigning last month, one of them, a 31-year-old aspiring poet named Marina Chubkina was in charge of maintaining some of Russia's chemical and nuclear weapons facilities.) During the raid on Vasilieva's apartment, police found several valuable paintings by the 19th-century masters Ilya Repin and Ivan Shishkin that belonged to the ministry's museum. Now under house arrest pending investigation for large-scale fraud, Vasilieva, 31, denies any wrongdoing. The museum has gotten its paintings back.