Vladimir Putin may have only returned to the Presidency in May of this year, but it has not taken him long to re-establish his domineering grip over political life. A former agent of the KGB, the notorious spy agency active during the Cold War, he rose to power a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union—a political collapse he openly laments. While Putin’s Russia, with its oligarchs and gaudy materialism, may look little like the days of the U.S.S.R., there has been a perceptible shift to a more repressive, closed nation under Putin’s watch—even as Moscow’s geopolitical heft grows on the world stage. In place of the communist KGB is the FSB. It may not carry the same shadowy stigma as its predecessor, but, like Putin, is hardly immune to the habits of the past.
TIME’s Moscow correspondent Simon Shuster, who was born in Russia and has reported from there for the past six years, focused on the increasingly ominous nature of Putin’s regime in his recent magazine story. TIME spoke with Shuster to get the story behind the story.
The FSB have been dubbed the not-so-secret service, could you tell us more about the culture of that organization compared to the KGB?
It’s always important when comparing the KGB and the present day security service, the FSB, to remember the following: In the days of Stalin the KGB was responsible for mass-murders, Gulag prison camps and sent hundreds of thousands if not millions of Russians to their deaths. We are no longer living under Stalin’s regime by any means. But I think it is fair to compare the present day security services to the late Soviet period. The similarities lie in the way the FSB defines its enemies and goes after them. The tactics they’ve also recently engaged in have changed, at least in the sense that they are not trying to be subtle about what they’re doing.
The FSB have been targeting and intimidating western diplomats, which some have suggested is a way to ‘short-tour’ them. What do you think they are trying to achieve with this?
There is a general ideological turn away from cooperation with the west, focusing instead on Asia, and the near abroad, which is the former Soviet Union. I think the idea of shutting Russia off from foreign influence is at the core of this new law that was in fact enacted on November 14, the law on treason, where the legal definition of state secrets and of treason has changed. It’s hard to put it in a nutshell, but it’s made it a lot scarier for Russians to interact with foreigners of any kind.
What were your impressions of Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition?
I think what he lacks perhaps in charisma he makes up for in organizing abilities. He is very good at what he calls poking them [the government] with a sharp stick, by which he means exposing specific details and evidence of corruption.
Did you encounter any problems when reporting on this story?
Foreign journalists in Moscow usually live under the assumption that everything is tapped: phones, apartments, offices. There must be some poor bored-to-death officers of the FSB assigned to making sure we don’t get up to any espionage or serious trouble. In recent months, it is hard to put your finger on it, but there has been a change in the atmosphere in Moscow. Journalists often complain about finding things moved around in their apartments, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether that’s paranoia or reality. But some friends and I have decided to pitch in for a bug detector to check our apartments. I’ll let you know what we find.
What kinds of things are people doing to work around the surveillance?
When Navalny found the camera in his office, he called in a private security company to do a full sweep. But they said hey, if you want to fight this, you have to allow us to take apart your phone, your cell phone, your air conditioner and so on. He realized it would be stupid to have to go through this every month to check for bugs. So he’s learned to live with it. I ask activists this question all the time, and of course they are not going to tell you how they deal with surveillance, because it would reveal their secrets. But they do have a habit of removing the battery from their mobile phone when they meet at cafes or around kitchen tables; they believe that it prevents the FSB from using their phone to spy on them. It’s almost compulsive. Likewise, they don’t like to discuss things over the phone, they often prefer to meet in a public place and walk around.
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Generally their aim is to conduct their activism and opposition work in a way that not only avoids breaking the law, but uses the law to fight back against the government. By being as open as possible they try to show how the government is violating its own laws by conducting this kind of surveillance.
How has the surveillance culture impacted the average Russian?
For the story I interviewed a retired officer of the FSB. We talked a lot about surveillance. He said the guys who are being watched are involved in politics, while 99% of the Russian population couldn’t care less about politics. So it doesn’t affect them. Also, it’s important to remember that the average Russian still remembers the experience of the Soviet Union, so they tend to take surveillance of dissidents as a given. If you ask average folks if they are outraged by it, they look at you as if you are a fool.
Does the opposition take a similar view to the government on the U.S.-Russia relationship?
The opposition is a very diverse group of people, running the gamut from hardcore nationalists to anarchists and every kind of liberal in between. Just about the only thing that unites them is their desire to bring an end to Putin’s government. Among them you can find pretty strong anti-Americanism. For instance, many of them remember the NATO bombings of Serbia and Kosovo as hurting their Slavic brothers. Some rank and file opposition activists were coming of age politically then, and that shaped their perception of U.S. foreign policy. So you can’t say that the mood among the opposition is to embrace the U.S. or become a member of the E.U.
What are your own links to Russia?
I have been writing for TIME for two years now, but I have been working as a reporter in Moscow for six years. I was born in Moscow and we emigrated when I was seven, just as the Soviet Union collapsed. I grew up in San Francisco, but moved back to Moscow to report from here because of my language skills. Sometimes in conversations with my parents back home, I tell them the kinds of stories I am working on and they tell me to get the hell out there. Bear in mind their perception of Russia is still shaped by their memories of the Soviet regime, so they have a hard time believing anything has changed. They tried so hard to get me out that it’s often hard for them to understand why I’ve gone back and started poking the government with a stick, as Navalny would say.
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