The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan (PublicAffairs 301pp £18.99)
This important monograph, written by a brave and talented team, is a history of the KGB (now called the FSB) over the last fifteen years. It covers, if not always explicitly, the full range of the organisation's interests: strengthening the state and weakening society; gradually infiltrating independent groups that might otherwise become unduly influential at some time in the future; creating the impression that Russia is actively opposed by a variety of aggressive, inimical forces (while simultaneously claiming that the Cold War is over); encouraging anti-Western attitudes (not least towards Estonia and Latvia); restarting the war against Chechnya; grabbing parts of Georgia (rather reminiscent of the annexation of part of Finland after the Winter War of 1939-40); controlling almost all the media, especially television (which is used as the main means of brainwashing the population), while allowing a few small critical voices to let off steam as in the post-Stalin Soviet period; arresting a few scientists and killing a few journalists from time to time to maintain an atmosphere of healthy anxiety among the intellectuals; purporting to struggle against various manifestations of vaguely defined extremism (thereby trying to give the impression that it professes a middle-of-the-road political outlook); using all manner of devices in an attempt to improve its own image, sometimes with the assistance of 'useful idiots' abroad; covering up its abysmal failures such as the theatre siege in 2002 and the massacre of schoolchildren and others in 2004; and resuming 'active measures' (influencing the governments) in foreign countries such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Austria and Britain, as in Stalinist times. In other words, the book is not only about the FSB but also, and inevitably, about contemporary Russia and the prospects for the Russian state and Russian society.
The authors provide us with a great deal of detailed information about the FSB and its institutional mindset. Of exceptional importance is Appendix 1, which details the structure of this vast organisation. How vast it is remains one of the major state secrets - a sure sign that Russia is still a closed rather than an open society. Judging from the various 'services', 'directorates', 'departments' and 'centres' in Moscow and all over the country, there must be no fewer than 600,000 FSB officers in today's Russia. The FSB propaganda claims it is merely 200,000. But in addition, as the authors point out, there are innumerable 'former' KGB and FSB officers, members of the 'active reserve' or 'apparatus of attached officers', who now occupy important positions in every sphere of Russian life. In other words, the FSB is now more powerful and proportionally even larger than the KGB was in Soviet times, given the smaller population (about 142 million) of the contemporary Russian Federation. And of course in the past the KGB, however brutal and dangerous, was under the firm and effective control of the Communist Party. Now that the latter has almost vanished from the scene, there is no higher power that can maintain a firm grip on the FSB, which has thereby become the main 'state-bearing' force. The FSB, with its sinister past, huge resources and aggressive inclinations, should be taken very seriously by Western politicians and statesmen.
Boris Yeltsin made a catastrophic mistake in 1999 when he, in effect, appointed a dyed-in-the-wool KGB officer as the next president of Russia. Yeltsin thought that Vladimir Putin's basic instincts could be kept under control, repeating the error of those Communist Party barons in the 1920s who backed Stalin, thinking that he was a small and insignificant member of the leadership and a good compromise choice for the top job. Moving so gradually and inconspicuously that hardly anyone noticed, Putin turned the Duma (parliament) into a rubber stamp. Many of the other freedoms of the 1990s were drastically cut back. Even the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the brutal poisoning of the human-rights activist Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the assassination in Qatar of the former president of Chechyna, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, were not wake-up calls for most people. Now 'former' intelligence officers can be found everywhere: in the prime minister's office, among the deputy prime ministers, in the Presidential Administration, the armed forces, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the major branches of industry, the railways, banks and the Academy of Sciences. The production of strategic metals - such as nickel, palladium and polonium - is also in the hands of the FSB. Relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the FSB are even closer than they were prior to 1991, now that official state atheism has been discarded.
Of course, as the authors seem to imply, the FSB is lacking in creative ideas about how to create a better future for the Russian people. The stress is placed on maintaining the status quo, on stability rather than sustainability, as though the supplies of gas and oil will never run dry. One of the main myths revolves around the dogmatic and unimaginative Yuri Andropov, still seen by some today as a sort of role model, despite the fact that he placed the world on the verge of a nuclear holocaust in the autumn of 1983. Another unimaginative person is Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB from 1999 until 2008. In 2000 he fatuously referred to FSB officers as 'our new "nobility"'. But most members of the old Russian nobility were by nature and tradition humane, well-educated, fluent in foreign languages and genuinely cultured. Compared with them, the new 'noblemen' are a bunch of uncivilised commoners.
Some readers of this volume may query a few of the sources used by the authors. It should be realised that most of the archives of the KGB and FSB remain completely closed and will not be declassified for many years to come. With very few exceptions, only Russians living in Russia really know and understand the truth about the past and present of their country, because they have experienced it in their own skin.
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Oleg Gordievsky spent eleven years as a British secret agent inside the KGB. He was exposed in 1985 and placed under house arrest in Moscow, facing an imminent death sentence. However, with the assistance of British Intelligence, he escaped and was brought to London. He survives, somewhere in England, to tell the tale, and has written four books, three of them in partnership with Christopher Andrew.