Olga Kryshtanovskaya is a sociologist who dances with wolves. For more than a decade she's been Russia's premier expert on the political, business, and security elites.
But even Ms. Kryshtanovskaya says she's alarmed by her own recent findings. Since Vladimir Putin came to power four years ago, she's been tracking a dramatic influx into government of siloviki - people from the military, the former Soviet KGB, and other security services - bringing with them statist ideology, authoritarian methods, and a drill-sergeant's contempt for civilian sensibilities.
"Whereas in the past people from security backgrounds generally did jobs connected with state security functions," Kryshtanovskaya says, "you now find them holding high office in just about every ministry and government agency."
While many experts are concerned at the Putin-era invasion of siloviki into the corridors of power, Kryshtanovskaya has generated hard data. By her tally, about 60 percent of the inner circle around Mr. Putin, himself a former KGB officer, are ex-military and security people. About a third of government functionaries are siloviki, as are 70 percent of the staffs working for the Kremlin's seven regional emissaries.
Moreover, Kryshtanovskaya says that security men are deliberately "parachuted" into high government posts in a manner that resembles the Stalinist system of assigning commissars, or party watchdogs, to keep tabs on professional managers whose political loyalties may be suspect. For instance, Justice Minister Yury Chaika has four deputies who are siloviki, Trade and Economic Development Minister German Greff has three, and Communications Minister Leonid Raimon has three. "Even the minister of press, Mikhail Lesin, has an FSB general as his deputy," she says. "Just about every cabinet minister has at least one."
This is not the first time Kryshtanovskaya, who founded the Elite Studies Unit at Russia's Institute of Sociology in 1991, has sounded the alarm about dangerous shifts at the summit of Russian society. A decade ago her data warned that former communist functionaries had moved into business, banking, and politics - a trend that she said could inhibit the growth of institutions of democracy and market economics. Now, she says, the flow of siloviki into government portends "the emergence of tough, authoritarian politics."
The policeman's hand is already being felt in the tightening grip on the media, the massive deployment of "administrative resources" to back pro-Kremlin parties in elections, and the recent arrest of "disloyal" oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Also, Russia's Education Ministry recently banned a previously approved history textbook because the latest update included an exercise asking students to debate whether Putin had established an authoritarian regime in Russia. In a meeting with historians, Putin defended the order, saying: "Textbooks ... must not provide grounds for new political infighting. They should provide historical facts and [inculcate] a sense of pride among the youth in their history and country."
Another indirect sign of the siloviki's rising influence is a campaign by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzkhov to evict hundreds of residents from two downtown areas to provide housing and office space for the FSB, the successor to the KGB. A Moscow government official, who asked not to be named, says the current, mainly elderly, tenants will be involuntarily relocated to the suburbs, and about 20 percent of the redeveloped properties - choice locations near FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square - turned over to the security agency.
"The influx of siloviki into government has already had a negative impact on democracy," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the Institute for USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "These are people who feel that democratic rules and transparency interfere with their mission to restore order. They believe the country needs stability, which to them means fewer elections, less interference into state affairs from parliament and the media, and an end to divisive debates in society."
The siloviki share more than a background in security work. "They bring a mafia-like approach to government," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "They will deal only with their own kin in other branches of government. They have a sense of being selected; they are absolutely certain of their right to be in power.
They also have a common ideology, which some experts describe as statism. "When these guys speak of strengthening the state, they mean absolute loyalty of those below to their superiors," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center, a think tank in Moscow. "They think individual interests are much less important than state interests."
Experts divide over whether the siloviki's rise was planned or incidental. Some say the age-old buddy system of Russian bureaucracy was the main engine. "Putin didn't have a wide circle of associates to draw on when he came to power, so he brought a couple of dozen of his old KGB colleagues into the Kremlin," says Kremeniuk. "They brought their friends, and they brought their friends, and so on."
Others argue that state institutions are simply responding to public demands for national renewal following years of social breakdown, lawlessness, and economic decline under former President Boris Yeltsin. "Putin's coming to power and his popularity can be explained by the fact that the population wants order," says Mikhail Lyubimov, a former KGB spy and author of popular espionage novels. The KGB and other security agencies are widely regarded as more disciplined, responsible, and less corrupt than other social groups.
This month's parliamentary elections, which returned a massive majority for pro-Kremlin and nationalist parties, are widely read by experts as an endorsement of Putin's course.
Where the trend leads is an open question, one that worries Kryshtanovskaya. "I am sure that Putin believes he can control the uses of authority, and slam on the brakes anytime he wants," she says. "But I fear the tendency to authoritarianism is a slippery slope, and once we are moving it will be impossible to stop."