Snowden has taken sanctuary in Russia, a country that, when it was under communist control, epitomized the idea of a surveillance state, complete with a secret police force — the KGB — that worked assiduously to monitor and control the population. Today Russia is a quasi-democracy that has retained some features of its communist past. Over the past decade or so, under the tutelage of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, it has been sliding ever deeper back into authoritarianism.
That authoritarianism is maintained in part by a domestic surveillance system. Two intrepid Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, explain in the fall 2013 issue of World Policy Journal how it works. They show that the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organization to the KGB, has invested in technology that allows it to monitor telephone and Internet communications and to collect and store not just metadata — information about call destinations and durations — but also the content of communications. The Russian state uses that technology to engage in essentially unchecked surveillance of telephone calls, e-mail traffic, blogs, online bulletin boards and Web sites. Soldatov and Borogan conclude that over the past two years “the Kremlin has transformed Russia into a surveillance state — at a level that would have made the Soviet KGB . . . envious.”
Extensive domestic surveillance is far from the only threat to liberty in Russia. The democracy watchdog organization Freedom House reports that freedom of the press is under serious threat there.