The authorities in Russia say corruption there is so rife, it threatens the country's very stability. But critics say the problem has reached a critical level precisely because it starts at the very top of the political system. In the last of a three-part series, RFE/RL's Gregory Feifer reports on allegations that corruption is central to how Russia is ruled.* Correction appended
In a small courtroom in northeast Moscow, a judge reads instructions to a witness preparing to take the stand. The youthful, dark-haired man on trial sits in a cage of thick, bulletproof glass, scribbling in a notebook as the judge speeds through the formalities.
The defendant, Dmitry Dovgy, is a former top investigator arrested on charges of accepting a $1 million bribe in return for dropping a probe into a businessman accused of embezzlement.
The courtroom is almost empty of observers, but this is no ordinary corruption case. It provides a rare glimpse into a behind-the-scenes turf battle between powerful political clans that control wide swaths of the Russian state.
Dovgy says he's innocent. He was fired last year from the Investigative Committee, a powerful agency set up in 2007 by then-President Vladimir Putin, many say to spy on the rival Federal Security Service, or FSB.
Dovgy says the corruption charges against him are punishment for a newspaper interview he gave after his firing, in which he claimed he was ordered to open investigations into innocent people.
In a narrow hallway outside the courtroom, Dovgy's lawyer Yury Bagrayev says the interview was a protest.
"If he hadn't started raising a fuss," he says, "if he didn’t file a suit to try to clear his name and show he was being fired illegally -- more than that, if he hadn’t given that interview -- he wouldn’t be sitting in prison."
One of Dovgy's investigations was into the deputy head of Russia's drug control agency. General Aleksandr Bulbov wasn't just any bureaucrat, but the right-hand man of a former KGB officer, a close ally of Putin believed to lead one of the Kremlin's main political clans.
Bulbov's supporters say he was arrested in 2007 because he oversaw the wiretapping of several high-profile criminal investigations involving FSB officers, and became victim of a struggle between his boss and rivals inside the Kremlin.
Soon after Bulbov's arrest, two officers from his drug control agency died mysteriously from radiation poisoning. Bulbov's boss, Victor Cherkesov, published an open letter saying infighting among the various groups now threatened to tear the country apart. "There can be no winners in this war," he wrote.
But corruption experts say far from being a simple whistleblower, fired investigator Dmitry Dovgy was very much a part of the system he criticized. Former senior investigator Vladimir Volkov says he's certain Dovgy wasn't qualified for his job.
"He didn’t have the right to have any kind of position in the [Investigative Committee], but was appointed anyway,” he says. “I can only believe he got his job for a bribe."
Volkov says he suspects Dovgy was sacked for seeking bribes too aggressively, in order to return the large amount of money he must have paid for his position.
Volkov says Dovgy's trial exposes the true nature of anticorruption drives in Russia: they're not about cleaning up abuses of office, he says, as much as getting rid of rivals and critics. ‘Feudal System’
Kirill Kabanov, a former security service officer who now heads the nongovernmental National Anticorruption Committee, says corruption is central to how the Russian political system works. He compares it to feudalism.
"It's a system of vassals, headed by a group of high-ranking 'untouchables,'" he says. "Each group has its own network, a criminal system in which loyalty is bought."
Experts say the competing groups are all loyal to Putin. He became prime minster after stepping down from the presidency last year, but is believed to retain power, partly by balancing the interests of the various clans.
Former FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin says Putin's regime is corrupt for placing loyalty and the interests of the political clans above all else.
"Under Putin, the law became secondary," he says. "More than that, those laws that got in the way were changed through clearly reactionary legislation."
Russia has become a dangerous place for Trepashkin and other critics of the authorities. He says the FSB organized death squads to target critics and rivals, allegations that first came to public attention in a notorious news conference in 1998. Trepashkin took part, as did another former FSB officer and Kremlin critic, Aleksandr Litvinenko. Litvinenko died of a mysterious case of radiation poisoning in London three years ago.
As he lay dying in the hospital, Litvinenko blamed Putin for ordering his poisoning. So it may come as a surprise to hear that Trepashkin believes the 1998 news conference criticizing the FSB was the idea of none other than Putin himself. Putin was deputy chief of staff for then-President Boris Yeltsin, and Trepashkin says the future president was eager to discredit the FSB leadership.
"It turns out that with that news conference, Putin opened the way to become FSB director," he says. "After that, he went into a top position in government. Then he was groomed for the presidency."
Trepashkin says after helping publicize criminal activity in the FSB to secure his position as the service's director, Putin reversed himself by starting to crack down on the agency's critics.
So Trepashkin, now a lawyer, was almost setting himself up for confrontation with the authorities by investigating a series of apartment building explosions in 1999. They served as a pretext for launching a popular second war in Chechnya that catapulted Putin into the presidency.
Trepashkin believes the bombings were staged by the FSB, but says he was arrested on false charges of illegal possession of firearms before he was able to complete his investigation.
He says the judges who convicted him are "bandits." "Despite the indisputably illegal charges against me," he says, "they still let them go ahead. Only because, as I was told, the order came from up high."
Trepashkin spent four years in jail, partly in Siberia.
He says after Putin came to power, the state began seizing private companies, among them Yukos, the former No. 1 oil firm. Its head, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, is now serving an eight-year prison sentence. The president put the state's new assets in the hands of cronies he'd appointed to top positions in government. The "theft," Trepashkin says, was sold to the public as a battle against corrupt and greedy business oligarchs.
Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada polling agency, says that kind of corruption at the top of the political system has become a model for the rest of society.
"The population believes the higher the authorities, the greater the number and value of corrupt deals," he says. "As the saying goes, fish rot from the head."
Last July, former investigator Dmitry Dovgy was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in jail. Aleksandr Bulbov, the general he says was falsely accused, was released on bail earlier this month. He still faces trial.* The original version of this story erroneously suggested that Vladimir Putin was deputy head of the FSB in 1998. In fact, he was deputy chief of staff at the time for then-President Boris Yeltsin.