The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
Misha Glenny on a brave book that lays bare the political dominance of Russia’s secret service
by Misha Glenny
The Russian President, Dimitry Medvedev, has recently had one of his periodic spurts of positivist thinking. His two watchwords, “modernisation” and “democracy”, have been echoing across the local and international media as he seeks to ward off persistent accusations that Russia has returned to its bad old ways. “I know the shortcomings of our system better, perhaps, than anyone,” Medvedev told an international forum, the Valdai Club, at the beginning of September. “But I categorically disagree with those who say that there is no democracy in Russia; that authoritarian traditions still rule.”
Stirring stuff, but before the president throws his cap in the air and an emptied vodka glass into the fireplace, he may like to flick through the pages of The New Nobility, which charts the brief decline followed by the resolute resurrection of the KGB as a primary political force in the country. Or rather, he may not like it. Because every page in this book gainsays his claim in the most forceful fashion imaginable that democracy is now decisive in defining Russia’s political direction.
The authors describe how the KGB (or FSB as its primary reincarnation is known) suffered an acute trauma in consequence of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990 and the failed coup of August 1991 designed by hardliners in the KGB and the military. Dazed and disoriented by the brave new world of capitalism, a majority of generals and other senior ranks scuttled the Lubyanka, the KGB’s sepulchral HQ in central Moscow, and placed themselves at the service of the new moneyed class, the oligarchs and their imitators. There are apocryphal stories of how the skeletal remnants of this previously terrifying security service were compelled to sell off the Lubyanka’s lightbulbs and toilet paper supply to ward off extinction.
The moment that symbolised the organisation’s breathtakingly swift collapse occurred just after the 1991 coup fizzled out, when protesters hauled down the statue of Feliz Dzerzhinsky that dominated Lubyanka Square. Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the Cheka, the first post-revolutionary secret police, which was largely modelled on the Ochrana, its tsarist predecessor.
In one of countless fascinating details, Soldatov and Borogan describe how, in the wake of this event, a group of officers snuck out of the Lubyanka and unscrewed the plaque commemorating Yuri Andropov, ex-head of the KGB and briefly, in the early 1980s, general secretary of the Communist party – that is, the most powerful man in the Soviet Union. It turns out that today members of the FSB still revere Andropov as the man who could have steered the Soviet Union out of the torpor of its later years and into a dynamic future without having to experience the chaos of the 90s and gangster capitalism. Andropov, they are convinced, would have followed a Chinese model: economic transformation while retaining complete political control.
As the oligarchs started ruthlessly hoovering up the wealth of Russia’s rich natural resources, they also succeeded in exerting almost total control over President Boris Yeltsin, then sinking into the final stages of alcoholism and heart disease. Under this influence, the KGB was broken up and restructured, partly in the genuine hope that the security force would never again enjoy its lost influence but partly to ensure that the new, even smaller and less representative oligarchic elite were unthreatened. It was the oligarchs who promoted a little-known apparatchik from St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, into the centre of the Kremlin’s power on the assumption that this former KGB officer would be as malleable as his predecessor. Soldatov and Borogan demonstrate just how misguided this was.
Once elected president, Putin set about quashing the political dominance of the oligarchs. They were given a choice: buckle under, go to Siberia or leave Russia. With purpose and determination, he then embarked upon the restoration of order. His old pals from the KGB (especially those from his home base) were given the keys to the Kremlin and just about every other important building in Moscow.