MOSCOW — Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, is preventing millions of Russians from going abroad. Its own officers have been told “nevyezdnye” (no foreign travel), and earlier this year it announced stricter border controls for those who want to leave the country, citing the “changed geopolitical situation.”
Several million Russians currently are banned, specifically, from travel to the United States, and more than two million cannot leave the country at all. The number of Russian citizens on so-called “stop lists” and state employees obliged to stay put after signing secrecy agreements ia growing rapidly.
So is concern among Russian elite that a new Iron Curtain, reminiscent of travel restrictions during Soviet times, has begun to descend.
Gennady Gudkov, a former officer with the Soviet KGB, predecessor of Russia’s FSB, blames a combination of wildly overblown security concerns and worries about the massive, ongoing brain drain. That the Kremlin would ban travel for millions of personnel from the army, the police, and anyone who might have access to secret information “is a sign of increasingly extreme paranoia,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast on Monday.
“I realize that a huge number of countries want to recruit Russian specialists today, but I am sure that nobody wants to recruit some little police sergeant or some worker, like one of my relatives, who is working at an aviation enterprise producing small insignificant parts. He recently was banned from traveling.”
Gudkov spent his youth behind the post-war Iron Curtain, which Communist leaders created to block citizens of Soviet republics and the USSR’s satellite states from any direct contact with the West. Mikhail Gorbachev destroyed the Iron Curtain, Gudkov noted, “to change the nature of international relations, to end the ideological confrontation, and particularly to end the arms race.” But three decades later the Kremlin is reconstructing this new version of the Iron Curtain while its agents working all over Europe speak about ideological confrontations with the West.
In 1987 the KGB assigned the then 31-year-old sergeant-major Gudkov to collect intelligence in the United States. Gudkov spent more than two months in Washington D.C., New York, Florida and other American states collecting information about American engineering and cultural progress.
“I performed so well, that they even offered me [a promotion] when I got back to Moscow,” Gudkov said. “But by then, I already felt uncertain about the regime, the corrupt party that dragged my country down the hill.”
In April, the FSB presented to President Vladimir Putin new regulations, describing threats for Russia’s national interests, sovereignty, natural resources. Since the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine in 2014, authorities have banned more than three million state employees from traveling to the United States and other NATO countries.
“Considering how quickly technologies develop these days, I see no practical sense in these bans, other than to teach the personnel how to love their motherland,” corporate lawyer Fedor Petrov told The Daily Beast with a note of irony. “In the civilized world the practice is for a court to decide who to ban from traveling, but in Russia, our courts just rubber-stamp decisions that make no sense.”
In 2016, senior personnel of the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry, FSB, Foreign Intelligence (SVR), the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and the Federal Penitentiary service received a list of 13 countries still considered friendly and safe enough for traveling.
“It seems the authorities realized that too many of the Kremlin’s critics leave the country, and that the brain drain is shameful, so they deliberately make travel more complicated,” says Valery Nechay, a St. Petersburg university professor and editor at Echo of Moscow.
In 2018, FSB officers could travel to Central Asian countries, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two largely unrecognized, breakaway territories of Georgia; as well as to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Vietnam, Cuba and China.
“Most of the state personnel have voluntarily agreed to limit travel after ministries gave orders to restrict travel in order to avoid provocations against our state employees,” Yuri Krupnov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, told The Daily Beast.
Today it would be hard to calculate the percentage of Russian state employees who have agreed to deprive themselves of the right to travel abroad, whether out of patriotic feelings or in exchange for a stable job and salary.
In May more Russians than ever, up to 2,300,000 people, ended up on “stop lists” because of their allegedly unpaid financial debts to the state, usually in the form of bank credits.
“I sympathize with people banned from traveling and wish them to get rid of their debts sooner,” says Mikhail Galustov, the Moscow-based journalist. “It’s not that I’ve ever been too keen on taking bank credits in Russia but now, considering a possibility of getting on the travel ban list, I think I should better stay away from any credits.”
More than 70 percent of Russians don’t have a travel document to go abroad. But the elite do travel, their opinion matters, and they have gotten used to using service centers that negotiate the red tape in order to provide them with visas and other travel documents.
So, last week, when Russian parliament members Oleg Morozov and Konstantin Kosachev proposed amendments to the federal law to restrict and possibly shut down those centers, social networks exploded.
Russians often say that politics have been long dead here, that there is no democracy, but one thing is still alive: the authorities react quickly to negative public opinion.
Eventually, the State Duma backed away from the proposed bill, at least for the time being. Closing all the visa centers would have affected the elite and created an even bigger public protest.
Opposition groups, both liberal and communist, have been staging angry rallies for the last month. “On all the TV screens we hear that Europe is rotting, that America is shit,” one protester shouted into a microphone in Murmansk, “but our authorities sent their children there, build palaces, and spend their vacations in the West!”
Back in 1987, his first trip to the U.S. made a strong impression on the KGB officer Gudkov. “When I returned from America, I told a small circle of my KGB colleagues, prosecutors, senior Communist Party members that our country was falling behind the U.S by at least 100 years. All the examples I listed are relevant today,” Gudkov said. “But there is a major difference between the USSR leaders and the Kremlin’s top officials now, including Putin and Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov, whose families are abroad: most of the modern Russian elite keep only a few clothes and passports here. They are ready to take off. They fear that the West will keep them locked out — the West’s Iron Curtain would be the most effective tool against Putin’s kleptocracy.”