The restoration of the KGB


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 sneaked 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.

Soldatov and Borogan give the creepy details as to how the wild political freedoms that accompanied gangster capitalism were systematically eroded by the Kremlin's new masters.

They chipped away at charismatic individuals, at alternative centres of power in Russia's vast regions, at environmental groups and human rights organisations, at foreigners and, as the authors know only too well, at the recently won media freedoms.

The New Nobility is not a work of Kremlinology. It is the product of two profoundly courageous Russian journalists who are meticulous about their reporting.

They only publish information that they can properly document.

They cultivate contacts inside the security services where they can; they will talk their way through to the front line of dramatic events such as the Nord-Ost siege, when Chechen terrorists took hostage an entire theatre audience.

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