But that series of raids was just the opening act. On Nov. 6, Putin shocked the nation by firing Serdyukov "in order to allow for an objective investigation into all matters." Never before had one of the supposed untouchables from Putin's inner circle been so publicly humiliated. It suddenly dawned on Russian officialdom that this was more than just a cosmetic shake-up. High-profile cases followed: officials from the Ministry of Regional Development now stand accused of looting millions of dollars from the coffers of this year's APEC summit in Vladivostok. In another, officials in the space industry allegedly stole more than $200 million from the state fund to build Russia's satellite navigation system, which has recently experienced several technological disasters.
In the past month, dozens of searches have been carried out; several officials are already in jail, including a deputy minister. Officials at every level are starting to get panicky, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a former lawmaker who studies the country's elites at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "This is a rupture in their agreement with the leader of the country," says Kryshtanovskaya. "Among Russian officials, there is a tacit contract of loyalty in exchange for guarantees of protection."
This silent arrangement was not invented under Putin, she adds, but is a hallmark of Russian statehood going back to the tsars. At the end of the 18th century, the Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin was famously asked to describe, in just a couple words, what is going on in the Motherland. One word was all he needed: voruyut, which means "thieving."At the time, many bureaucrats were only paid a nominal salary; it was assumed they would earn the rest in bribes. The tsar looked the other way.
For the most part, this system held under the Soviet Union, and the only major effort to dislodge it helped precipitate the empire's collapse. In the late 1980s, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the so-called Cotton Case, which exposed a syndicate of senior Communist Party officials who had pilfered millions of dollars from the state. Two of them were executed and dozens jailed; but rather than restore faith in the Soviet system, the scandal helped expose to the public just how rotten it truly was.
The raids now filling the nightly news look a lot like the now-grainy images from the Cotton Case. Stacks of confiscated cash, gold, and jewelry were first shown to the Soviet media during a news conference in Moscow in April 1988. Millions of Soviets watched from their communal apartments, having stood in line all day at empty grocery stores, and the shock did irreparable damage to public confidence.
"What's going on now has brought back a lot of memories [of the cotton scandal], and they are now very afraid of repeating that story," says Nikolai Zlobin, another member of the Valdai Club and director of Russian and Asian programs at the World Security Institute in Washington. "More and more often I'm hearing from the top that we can't allow this kind of mistake, where one investigation leads to a systematic collapse of the country."