In a sunny garden outside the Kremlin, not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, workers quietly hammered into place 10 squat black letters to commemorate one of the bloodiest battles of World War II: Stalingrad.
Until Friday, the memorial bore the name the city has had since 1961 -- Volgograd -- reflecting modern Russia's reluctance to honor a Soviet dictator famed and feared for a legacy of repression. President Vladimir V. Putin had long resisted pleas by war veterans to correct the historical record, saying it "could trigger suspicion that we are returning to the times of Stalinism."
Then, without fanfare, the 10 new letters appeared on the wall, and below them, a bright wreath of autumn flowers. Coming just days after Putin announced one of the most sweeping consolidations of presidential power since the fall of communism, the move evoked far more than the memory of war.
"It is symbolic -- another step toward the restoration of the Soviet Union," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a former Soviet dissident and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization.
As a chilly early autumn takes hold in Russia, there is a palpable sense of unease.
On the streets, people live in dread of the next terrorist attack, and in law enforcement circles, authorities flinch from the demonstrated inability of Russia's famed security services to protect the population. In the last few weeks, more than 400 people have been killed in bloodshed that has included a suicide bombing near a subway station, nearly simultaneous airline bombings and a hostage siege at a provincial school.
Opponents worry that Putin's response has had almost nothing to do with terrorism, and everything to do with expanding the already formidable power of the government.
Putin responded to the school tragedy by saying that the nation was "weak -- and the weak get beaten," and by taking steps "to ensure the unity of state power." On Sept. 13, he announced a plan to eliminate the general election of regional governors and of independent seats in parliament, essentially removing the last real checks on his personal dominion over the largest nation on Earth.
As a result of these measures and others put into place over the last four years, the Kremlin now controls an absolute majority in parliament, all major television stations, the Russian gas giant Gazprom (which reportedly is positioning itself to acquire the private oil company Yukos), the country's corrupt judicial system and a massive state security apparatus.
"Putin is now past the point where his regime can be removed peacefully by democratic means. There is no way for democratic transition," said Vladimir Kara-Murza of the pro-democracy Committee 2008 organization. "There's no independent media, there's no parliament to speak of, there are no real parliamentary elections and now with the decision about the regional governors, there are no elections at all."
In an office at the parliament building Friday, one official broke from Russian into English and lowered his voice to barely a whisper, nodding his head toward the wall, as if it might be listening.
"Democracy is finished in this country," he said. "It is over. It ended on the 13th of September."
Asked whether his caution and pessimism were not extreme, he shook his head firmly. "Many have already been given very severe and hard instructions," he said. "Not to comment. Not to criticize. And real threats. All of us are in a state of shock. We are in the middle of 1937."
Notes of concern have been raised by Putin's onetime mentor, the reclusive Boris N. Yeltsin, and by former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, both cautioning about the need to preserve democratic freedoms.
"The general impression is that everything will now rest on the president's shoulders. First of all, this is too great a burden for even the most superhuman politician," Gorbachev told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It is vital for the people themselves to participate in, oversee and receive information about the activities of the authorities. If their intention is to solve everything without the involvement of the people -- that is a delusion."
Analysts said the move to appoint regional governors, with ratification by local legislatures, reflects concern over the growing militancy of some of Russia's far-flung regions. Oil-rich areas have grumbled loudly in the last year over Kremlin moves to substantially increase Moscow's share of oil profits; in July, 10 governors in the Russian Far East signed an unprecedented letter of opposition to Putin's plan to replace relatively generous Soviet-era in-kind benefits with meager cash payments.
In the wake of the president's Sept. 13 announcement, the Russian information agency, RIA Novosti, convened a panel of political analysts to help make Putin's case. They depicted Russia as a nation at war with terrorists, most linked to the southern republic of Chechnya, where Russia has battled with separatist rebels for most of the last 10 years.
"The main goal of the terrorists is to rock the state structure and to destabilize. So the retaliation must be to prevent them from doing this by ... strengthening the backbone and vertebrae of power," said Sergei Markov, a prominent political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin.
That the Russian leader has no intention of softening his often-quoted determination to "wipe out" separatist Chechen rebels "in the outhouse" was reaffirmed Friday.
"We must under no circumstances give in to the idea that by making concessions to criminals, we can gain anything, or hope that they will leave us in peace -- this will not happen," Putin declared.
Not long after his remarks, a regional amnesty commission recommended a pardon for a Russian officer, Col. Yuri Budanov, convicted in 2003 of kidnapping and murdering a Chechen woman -- a case widely seen as a referendum on Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. Budanov, whose case must now be reviewed by Putin, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"It is all the more symbolic that Budanov is pardoned now, immediately after Beslan," said Anna Politkovskaya, who covers Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta. "It is like telling those who may be concerned, 'Watch out, guys like Budanov are out, and they're rolling their sleeves up.' "
Putin has announced plans for stepped-up anti-terrorism efforts in the North Caucasus, but there has been almost universal agreement that law enforcement will remain an ineffective opponent as long as corruption remains endemic.
Suicide bombers who boarded the two airliners that exploded Aug. 24, killing all 90 aboard, were detained by airport police but allowed to board the planes after paying bribes -- one of as little as $34 -- to an airline employee, prosecutors said Thursday.
"The reason we are seeing this kind of terrorism on such a large scale is very simple: We created conditions for the security services and the law enforcement bodies in which they simply cannot be effective in performing their functions," said lawmaker Gennady Gudkov, a former officer of the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB.
A widespread exodus of experienced officers during the 1990s, when salaries and prestige in the law enforcement structures plunged, left Russian law enforcement with inexperienced officers and few or no intelligence networks, Gudkov said.
"After the professionals quit the system, the people who came to replace them had an intellect and world outlook that did not allow them to perform these duties. These people were coming into the service with one idea -- that they could be making money [by taking bribes]," he said. "Please answer this question: Can a system like this effectively counter terrorism, when a terrorist can travel quite freely on Russian roads simply by bribing a traffic policeman?"
A senior Interior Ministry officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the terrorist attacks have left the upper ranks of Russian law enforcement "literally paralyzed and in panic."
Backing Gudkov's assertions, the officer said his agency was left with no network of informants or on-the-ground intelligence assets when experienced officers left during the 1990s, and the shortfall still has not been resolved, leaving the police now "in an information vacuum."
"There is no intelligence information at all, and even if there was, the people at the service would not know how to go about analyzing it," he said. "So what you can expect from the 'stepped-up security' promised by Putin will be essentially more mopping-up raids at markets, dormitories and the places where we always check.... And all these security measures will not have any real effect."
Putin himself has managed over the years to avoid blame for even the government's most unpopular policies -- but that may not be the case for much longer. A poll by the Public Opinion Foundation in August found that the president's support for the first time slipped below the 50% mark, and that he would attract only 49% of the vote if new elections were held now.
Chess champion Garry Kasparov, now heading Committee 2008, told Echo of Moscow radio that the public has become disillusioned with the idea that a strong state can cure all the nation's ills. "It's power that has dragged us into this horror, and power that dragged us into this war, and all along this power had nothing but promises, preening with its own force....
"But this power is bankrupted now. And it's not just bankruptcy -- we can say that this power has become a threat to everyone in this country.... And in order to move forward, we must at least begin to diagnose our own illness."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times