State Security, Post-Soviet Style

Closing down independent political life, branding critics as ‘extremists.’

In Soviet days, every corner of the KGB was under the tight control of the Communist Party. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the FSB—the KGB’s main successor—is largely unsupervised by anyone. Mr. Putin, briefly the FSB’s boss in the late 1990s, gave the secret-police agency free rein after taking over as Russia’s president from the ailing Boris Yeltsin in 2000. The FSB’s license has continued under the Putin-steered presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. The agency’s autonomy has been a catastrophe for Russia and should be a source of grave concern for the West.

Mr. Yeltsin encouraged competition between Russia’s spooks, but—as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan make clear in “The New Nobility,” a disturbing portrait of the agency—Mr. Putin has given the FSB (from its Russian acronym Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or Federal Security Service) a near monopoly. Originally just a domestic security service, it has become a sprawling empire, with capabilities ranging from electronic intelligence-gathering to control of Russia’s borders and operations beyond them. “According to even cautious estimates, FSB personnel total more than 200,000,” the authors write. The FSB’s instincts are xenophobic and authoritarian, its practices predatory and incompetent.

Critics of Russia see the FSB as the epitome of the country’s lawlessness and corruption. But those inside the agency see themselves as the ultimate guardians of Russia’s national security, thoroughly deserving of the rich rewards they reap. Nikolai Patrushev, who succeeded Mr. Putin as the agency’s director in 2000 and who is now secretary of Russia’s Security Council, calls his FSB colleagues a “new nobility.” Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan see a different parallel: They liken the FSB to the ruthless Mukhabarat, or religious police, found in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries: impenetrable, corrupt and ruthless.

Few people are better placed than Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan to write with authority on this subject. They run the website Agentura.Ru, a magpie’s nest of news and analysis that presents a well-informed view of the inner workings of this secret state. Given the fates that have befallen other investigative journalists in Russia in recent years, some might fear for the authors’ safety. But the publication of the “The New Nobility” in English is welcome; it should be essential reading for those who hold naïve hopes about Russia’s development or who pooh-pooh the fears of its neighbors.

The book provides a detailed history of the FSB’s ascendancy over the past decade. It describes how Mr. Putin turned to the agency to consolidate his power. (The authors do not share the notion, held by some Russia-watchers, that it was the FSB—in those days a demoralized and chaotic outfit—that actually put Mr. Putin into the top job.) We’re told that Mr. Putin gave the agency a seat at Russia’s “head table,” but “trough,” rather than table, might be more accurate.

The authors recount how the Russian government has made outright land grants in much sought-after areas to high-ranking FSB officials, who then build gaudy mansions down the road from their oligarch neighbors. “Whether in the form of valuable land, luxury cars, or merit awards, the perks afforded FSB employees (especially those in particularly good standing) offer significant means of personal advancement. Russia’s new security services are more than simply servants of the state—they are landed property owners and powerful players.”

Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan also present a chilling account of how the FSB, along with the prosecutor’s office and the interior ministry, has closed down independent political life in Russia, intimidating bloggers and trade unionists, infiltrating and disrupting opposition parties, and tarring all critics of the regime as “extremists.”

The authors give skimpy treatment to the FSB’s downgraded but still important rivals within the Russian bureaucracy: the GRU military-intelligence service and the SVR, which retains the main responsibility for foreign espionage (including the maintenance of an extensive network of “sleeper” agents, such as those unmasked in the U.S. over the summer). “The New Nobility” is unbeatable for its depiction of today’s FSB, but the book might have paid more attention to the long-term debilitating effects of the agency’s corruption and nepotism: Those may contain the seeds of the FSB’s ultimate destruction.

Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan rightly highlight the grim results of FSB power in Russia. Its counterterrorism efforts have been a fiasco. Russia faces a terrorist threat from alienated and brutalized Muslims in the North Caucasus that is far worse than it was in the Yeltsin years.

Greed, rather than selfless patriotism, has been the hallmark of Mr. Patrushev’s “new nobility.” The FSB may indeed be in some respects as dreadful as the indolent, spendthrift and brutal Russian aristocracy toppled in the Bolshevik revolution. But that is presumably not the parallel that the grand-duke of spookdom had in mind.

Mr. Lucas is the international editor of the Economist and the author of “The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West.”


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