Demystifying Russia has been a geopolitical parlor game for more than a century. Veteran Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan have tried to make sense of one strand in their country’s complex history, the role of Russians who were either sensible or cunning enough to leave at crucial moments, mainly for a West from which Russian mentalities have often been estranged.
The book’s central argument is that none of this new. Rather than a byproduct of aberrant Putinism, Russia is merely living up to historical traditions tracing back to czarism. Painfully aware of their own operations abroad, the communist ideologues who seized power in 1917 remained sensitive to “Russia abroad,” the millions of their countrymen who fled to new lives in other lands.
Monitoring and infiltrating emigre networks became an imperative that soon yielded to a pattern of targeted assassinations, spy recruitment and questionable commercial dealings. Vladimir Putin’s concept of the “russky mir” or “Russian World” uniting all Russian “compatriots” (“emigre” has too pejorative a connotation as it implies reluctance) in a global realm that belongs to him is only its latest manifestation.
The authors could have taken an even broader view. Russia’s porous borders are among its most defining geographic characteristics. The flat Eurasian steppe has served from times immemorial as a route for invasion and conduit for expansion — a medium that both bestowed immense insecurity and allowed for terrifying overcompensation.
Fleeing the realm is a phenomenon as old as the Russian state itself and is deeply inscribed in its history, from medieval defections to imperial intrigues at the highest levels of power.
Chronicling, for example, Ivan the Terrible’s 16th-century correspondence with his disgraced courtier Prince Andrei Kurbsky would have reinforced the authors’ continuity argument, as would the special ops that lured Peter the Great’s wayward son and heir Alexis back into his father’s malevolent control.
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan could have noted that the best institutional history of the Bolshevik Party’s early years is in archives of the czarist secret police, which penetrated it so thoroughly that police documentation exceeded the party’s own in precision.
Taking up the story in early Soviet times omits too much backstory, and what the authors have done recites a great deal of familiar history. The abductions of two successive heads of the ineffectual Russian Military Union shattered the main organization of White Russian officers who rattled their sabers from France after having lost a civil war, but this is hardly original material.
The dissident Soviet leader Lev Trotsky’s demise in Mexico in the early stages of World War II at the dastardly, ice pick-wielding hands of an NKVD assassin is also far from new ground. We hear little about the persecution of secret police defectors, many of whom were tracked down and killed, or of operations against more rank-and-file emigres.
Of greater interest is the recently verified, and successful, espionage activity carried out to secure military and, especially, nuclear secrets from the United States during and after the war and the development in the 1950s of lethal poisons that still remain in use.
Subtler shades emerged after World War II among the existing emigre communities. Disinformation campaigns meant to ostracize or discredit dissenters while touting the purported achievements of the Soviet Union usually fell flat, though the authors do not appear to be either aware of or interested in why Western publics would see through such efforts so easily, or why Russian public diplomacy continues to be so irritatingly heavy-handed.
“Soft” power is a vital part of Vladimir Putin’s toolkit, yet the authors instead focus on a sensational grab bag of news that cries out from the headlines of the day. Surely the fate of the twice-poisoned survivor Vladimir Kara-Murza and the innocent bystanders in the Skirpal assassination attempt in the United Kingdom deserve attention, but the authors do not tell the full story.
In the moments that count, Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan sweep over the complexities of emigre politics — broadbrushing, for example, the descendants of the White Russians in a crude collective caricature as credulous nostalgists for an imperial legacy infused with the legacy of the KGB from which their ancestors fled in horror amid unimaginable loss.
Some of the book’s later conclusions are too speculative to sustain its gravitas. Ironically, the authors float a conspiracy theory that the union of the domestic Russian Orthodox Church with its parallel emigre organization may have been a financial quid pro quo cum Kremlin power grab.
They would have done better to focus on the better-documented role of so-called “cultural” programs sponsored by the Russian government, which have fallen under intense and often justified suspicion for masking intelligence operations. Does Russia use some of the same methods as its Soviet (and imperial) predecessors? Undoubtedly. But the authors could have explored this continuity with greater nuance.
• Paul du Quenoy is president and publisher of Academica Press and senior fellow of Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
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THE COMPATRIOTS: THE BRUTAL AND CHAOTIC HISTORY OF RUSSIA’S EXILES, EMIGRES, AND AGENTS ABROAD
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
PublicAffairs, $30, 384 pages