World | December 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm

A Government of Spies

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How Russia’s political culture has failed to escape from the KGB

The FBI’s break-up of a Russian spy ring in June has placed Russia’s intelligence services under renewed scrutiny. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, for his part, makes no secret of his KGB past. And there are undoubtedly important continuities between the KGB and its successor agency, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Most importantly, the FSB’s influence in the corridors of power is symptomatic of a “culture of impunity” that pervades Russian politics and society.

In With The Old

1991 saw the downfall of the Soviet Union, but not its infamous spy network. Putin’s ascent to the presidency in 2000 was accompanied by the appointment of dozens of individuals with ties to the former KGB and other intelligence agencies. Today these are Putin’s siloviki, or “people of force,” a group which includes First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a former colonel general in Russia’s post-KGB foreign intelligence service. As Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, summed it up in 2007, “The predominance of the intelligence services and mentality is a core feature of Putin’s Russia.”

KGB Inc.

The siloviki have become a political and economic elite in the new Russia. The emergence of capitalism in the early 1990s created new avenues for former intelligence officers to translate their power into economic gain. Former KGB official Vladimir Yakunin is now president of the state-run Russian Railways and a member of Putin’s inner circle. And Putin’s former KGB colleague in East Germany, Sergey Chemezov, heads Rosoboronexport, the state arms trading agency. These men are but two examples of what has been called “KGB Inc.”

The continued presence of the siloviki does not mean, however, that the intelligence services are still occupied with Soviet-era concerns. Timothy Colton, director of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told the HPR that the FSB still reflects a “set of institutions that come out of Russia’s history… that are identified with maintaining the integrity and strength of the state.” While this shows some continuity, there are important differences between the FSB and KGB. As Andrei Soldatov, co-author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, told the HPR, terrorism has been a “huge challenge of the 1990s and 2000s,” one the KGB did not face to the same degree in the 1980s. Post-communist Russia has a different set of concerns.

There has been much speculation about President Dmitry Medvedev’s desire to reform this system, but little progress. Liberals had rejoiced at the election of Medvedev, a lawyer with no KGB or FSB background who pledged to reform the judiciary and confront the “legal nihilism” of Russia’s underdeveloped rule of law. Two and a half years later, the opacity of the state apparatus makes it difficult to assess the sincerity of his rhetoric.

Culture of Impunity

The problems with the FSB are emblematic of widespread corruption in the Russian government. Last November, millions of YouTube viewers watched former policeman Alexei Dymovsky ask, “How can police officers take bribes? Do you understand where our society is heading?” in what amounted to a cyber-assault on pervasive police corruption.

Clifford Levy, Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, recently launched a video series entitled “Above the Law,” exploring the widespread abuses of power in the Russian government. Levy told the HPR that a “culture of impunity” is “woven throughout the fabric of life” in Russia. In May, the Times reported that a Russian journalist who had called for the resignation of some local government officials had his car blown up and was beaten to the point of brain damage.

Russia has no doubt changed since the fall of communism, but its intelligence service is still a subset of Russia’s “deep state.” Insofar as the agency functions with little oversight, it is among the most powerful manifestations of the “culture of impunity” that reigns in the country as a whole.  Looking ahead to the 2012 Russian presidential elections, change within the FSB and in the role of the siloviki seems unlikely without an underlying change in the political culture. As Soldatov asked, “How can you modernize a country if you do not modernize a political system?”

Jessica Stein ’13 is a Contributing Writer.

Photo Credit: Flickr (Kristian F)

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