This Europe: Stalin's dreaded 'block councils' return, but this time by popular demand

Any citizen summoned to his local "block council" in Soviet times had good reason to be terrified. The ruling Communist Party's watchdogs of community morals and order had the power to inflict serious penalties, public humiliation or even arrest.

Hated by all, the councils were junked when the USSR collapsed. But now Moscow's city authorities have decided to reinvent them, along with the dreaded networks of paid informers with speed-dial links to the local police.

A bill being rushed through the Moscow Duma, or city legislature, expects to install a Soviet-style system of grassroots supervision and control in all of Moscow's 600 districts by next month.

"We face new and ruthless enemies, and that's why police need to have eyes and ears everywhere," says Colonel Anatoly Shlyikov, a veteran Moscow police commander and an author of the new law. "People want to be protected, and they are ready to take a hand in defending their neighbourhoods."

In Colonel Shlyikov's Taganka district of Moscow, a suicide squad of Chechen rebels slipped past police last October and seized a theatre with 900 hostages, leading to the costliest security fiasco in recent Russian history.

When the revived block councils are not scanning the streets for terrorists they will handle more mundane problems, such as collecting rent from delinquent tenants, punishing cheating shopkeepers, keeping tabs on vagrants and suspicious outsiders, settling quarrels between neighbours, and enforcing sanitation standards, he says.

Each block council - representing about 10,000 inhabitants - will have a full-time apparatchik who is meant to work closely with local police, security forces, emergency services and druzhiniki (volunteer anti-crime street patrols).

Some fear that the system will just hand power to petty tyrants, rumour-mongers and community control-freaks.

"Russians don't trust their police, for very good reasons," says Sergei Grigoryants, chair of Glasnost, an independent human rights watchdog. "These block councils are likely to become a mechanism of co-operation between corrupt cops and petty criminals to jointly extort and slander citizens.

"They were an avenue for power abuse in Soviet times, and are likely to be so again."

In the worst years, under the dictator Joseph Stalin, people were encouraged to submit anonymous denunciations of neighbours suspected of anti-state opinions, which often led to the victim's arrest, and imprisonment or execution. But devastating apartment bombs in 1999, blamed on Chechen rebels, led to a public clamour for more security in Russian cities.

"Public safety must be constructed by the society itself," says Oleg Bocharov, a member of the Moscow Duma's law and order commission. "The past 15 years have seen the destruction of order and moral standards in our communities, and people have had enough."