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Monday, October 22, 2007

Russian Corruption: Pervasive and Demonic

Once again, we see proof that Russia is getting the worst of all possible worlds. It has elected a proud KGB spy as its leader, yet it does not receive the "law and order" one would expect from such a decision. To the contrary, it maintains one of the world's highest murder rates and a barbaric level of corruption, as the New York Times reports in the following story. And meanwhile, Russia is losing all its civil rights and liberties exactly as one would expect in such a case. We also see the childish, barbarically ignorant view that the West cannot defend itself from brilliant Russian minds. They thought the same in the USSR. Now, the USSR is no more.

PERHAPS the most famous con artist of the Soviet era was a fast-talking, eye-winking, nimble-fingered, double-dealing journeyman named Ostap Bender. He was fictional, the antihero of a satirical novel about a quest for lost jewels called “The 12 Chairs,” but his casual disdain for the law reflected a widely held cynicism here. “This misdeed, though it does come under the penal code, is as innocent as a children’s game,” Bender says of a scheme to use a purloined document to steal another man’s identity. Were Bender to ply his trade these days, he would undoubtedly be sitting in front of a computer, spewing out e-mails that slyly ask for credit card information or hawk sexual aids and other flimflam. Russia has become a leading source of Internet ills, home to legions of high-tech rogues who operate with seeming impunity from the anonymous living rooms of Novosibirsk or the shadowy cybercafes of St. Petersburg.

The hackers go by names like ZOMBiE and the Hell Knights Crew, and they inhabit such a robust netherworld that Internet-security firms in places like Silicon Valley have had to acquire an expertise in Russian hacking culture half a world away. The security firms have not received much assistance from the Russian government, which seems to show little interest in a crackdown, as if officials privately take some pleasure in knowing that their compatriots are tormenting millions of people in the West. In fact, Russian hackers became something akin to national heroes last spring when a wave of Internet attacks was launched from Russia against Web sites in Estonia, the former Soviet republic. The incidents began after the Estonians angered the Kremlin by moving a Soviet-era war monument.

The motive for most wrongdoing, though, tends to be greed. In 2005, Russians broke into the State of Rhode Island Web site and then brazenly proclaimed that they had swiped credit card information from 53,000 transactions. Officials acknowledged the theft, though they said the scope was smaller.

The perpetrators in these affairs are rarely if ever caught, but it is not hard to deduce their backgrounds. Russia has long had a strong system of math and science education, and until the relatively recent upturn in the economy, the multitudes of whiz kids who graduated from its schools often had poor job prospects. At the same time, they were entering a society that for decades had built up a deep skepticism about the virtues of following the rules. Under Communism, the thicket of strictures that governed almost every aspect of life was considered so inane that only fools were thought to abide by them. “The law in Soviet times had a different function,” said Georgy Satarov, president of the Indem Foundation, an independent watchdog group in Moscow. “The law was not oriented toward protecting the interests of citizens. It’s the party that protects the citizens, and that’s all.”

One result was that corruption was rampant in Soviet times, and has endured, if not gotten worse. Russia ranked 143 out of 180 countries and territories — on a level with Gambia, Togo and Indonesia — in a recent survey of government corruption conducted by Transparency International, a nonprofit group. (The higher the number, the more corrupt.)

The ethos has often been that if provincial governors and traffic cops and everyone else have their hands out, why should I play it straight? This penchant has not stayed rooted to Russian soil. In the United States, a center for health care fraud is Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Russian immigrants. In other words, the neighborhood has a number of people who grew up in a society where everyone finagled to get by, and few saw anything wrong with putting one over on a callous government.

“This is a country where everybody used to moonlight,” said Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American author. “It’s a country where there was never enough money, the money that the government paid was kind of a token, and you had to make your way by hook or by crook. There was always a great entrepreneurial spirit in Russia, but it has always been directed at things that not only help people, but also hurt people.”

Of course, Russia is not the only generator of Internet havoc. For similar historical and social reasons, such problems have cropped up across the sphere of Soviet influence, from the Czech Republic to Ukraine to Kazakhstan. Internet security experts say that only the United States and China rival Russia in hacker activity. But Russia has only 28 million Internet users, according to rough estimates, compared with 210 million in the United States and 150 million in China, meaning that Russia has a higher percentage of scammers. VeriSign, the Internet services company, considers Russian hackers to be the worst, in part because they tend to have ties to organized crime outfits that embezzle money with stolen bank and credit card information.

While the West has complained about Russian laws and enforcement, some Russian officials take issue with the criticism. Aleksei Likhachev, a member of Parliament, acknowledged that there had been fewer criminal cases in Russia than elsewhere, but said officials were still learning how to conduct such inquiries. “It is just that this work is much younger and much less developed in Russia,” he said. Still, executives at technology companies in Russia said the Kremlin under President Vladimir V. Putin has demonstrated that when it wants action, it gets it. “The problem is that you have got a very educated mass of a population, but you have got completely ignorant, stupid lawmakers,” said Anton Nossik, a senior executive in Moscow at the company that oversees Livejournal.ru, the Russian version of the blogging and discussion portal. “Law enforcement has no incentive and no motivation to prosecute,” he said. “They say, ‘We are not receiving complaints,’ or ‘The complaints that we are seeing are not well formed.’ They find pretexts not to prosecute.” Russian Livejournal blogs are regularly hijacked, typically by people who have stolen passwords.

Even so, there remains a sense here that Russian hackers afflict the West far more than Russia, so why bother with them. On a Livejournal Russian forum last week, The New York Times asked participants why Russians have a reputation for Internet crime. “I don’t see in this a big tragedy,” said a respondent who used the name Lightwatch. “Western countries played not the smallest role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But the Russians have a very amusing feature — they are able to get up from their knees, under any conditions or under any circumstances.”

As for the West? “You are getting what you deserve.”

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