No one familiar with the security system of the old USSR expected the KGB to dry up and blow away when communism collapsed in 1991. Further, many of us doubted whatever government replaced the Soviet state would make any changes of substance in its intelligence agencies.
Skepticism is proving well-founded. Indeed, the newly constituted security services are more shadowy and powerful than was the KGB at its prime. The Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB) has flourished under former KGB officer Vladimir Putin - first as president, now prime minister - and the government is top-heavy with his onetime intelligence colleagues.
The main change concerns control. As the brave Russian journalists Adrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write, “The Soviet KGB was all-powerful, but it was also under the control of the political structure. The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department and division.” By contrast, the FSB “is free of party control and parliamentary oversight.” FSB officers consider themselves “as heirs not only to the KGB, but also to the secret police that the [czars] employed to battle political terrorism.”
High FSB officers work hand in glove with the mega-rich oligarchs that seized control of key portions of the Soviet economy, including oil and other mineral enterprises and the media. Indeed, an FSB officer serves as deputy director general of the state-owned Russian Television and Radio Co., which owns several radio and TV stations, including the Second Channel, considered the country’s main official station. He orders news staff how to cover situations with the potential to embarrass the Putin regime.
Perks are many and valuable. High FSB officers are given, gratis, stated-owned land along the “gold coast” of the Rublyovo outside Moscow, which abounds with mammoth, columned brick-and-stone mansions.
Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan first covered the FSB and other security agencies as reporters for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta; they now maintain the online news site Agentura.ru/English. Suffice to say that they are not popular with the subjects of their reporting.
Because of technology, the Russian security agencies are able to exert closer surveillance and tighter control of people considered to be foes of the Putin government. A “blacklist” of activists - especially people involved in the human rights movement - is maintained in a central computer. If a listed person buys a train ticket, for instance, he or she can count on being questioned at each stop along the way. Hundreds of thousands of officers can receive alert via dispatches to computer-linked “stations” about the size of a cell phone.
But the FSB is not nearly as effective when operating against Chechen separatists who fight superior Russian military forces with terror directed against civilians. The first major attacks were bombings of two apartment buildings in September 1999 in which 212 people died and 445 were injured. As the authors write, “The bombings were a critical turning point in Putin’s rise to power - his resolute response to the events, his deployment of troops, and his crude vow to ‘wipe out’ the Chechens ‘in the outhouse’ made him extremely popular.” The authors dismiss as “highly dubious” claims by former KGB officers that Mr. Putin orchestrated the bombings for political reasons.
But for all the tough talk, Mr. Putin’s FSB was unable to prevent several operations in which Chechens seized hostages. In 2002, a large group of Chechens stormed into a Moscow theater and held an audience of 920 people, threatening to kill them all with bombs unless Mr. Putin ended the war against their republic. In the end, prior to storming the building, security forces pumped in large amounts fentanyl, a powerful anesthetic gas , which they assumed would put the terrorists to sleep. The gas killed 130 hostages.
An even more horrific episode happened in 2004 when more than 1,100 people, including about 770 children, were taken hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. A clumsy assault killed 334 hostages, including 186 children. “It was a disaster,” the authors comment.
A former FSB director boasts that his officers are “our new nobility.” Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan assert that reality is far more complex. “The security services have been given a high pedestal in Russia, but faced with the challenges of terrorism and corruption, they have become something very different from either the Soviet secret services or the intelligence community in Western countries. In some ways, the FSB most closely resembles the ruthless Mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world, devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted. … Russia is still a long way from true democracy.”
Joseph C. Goulden has completed an update of his “Dictionary of Espionage: SpySpeak Into English,” to be published by Dover Books in the fall.