The September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs features an article, "Russia’s New Nobility", written by Andrei Soldatovand Irina Borogan, the prominent Russian investigative journalists and editors of the Agentura.ru. The topic of the article — which is said to be an adaptation from a book just published by the same authors — is a history of the FSB(Federal Security Service) and its role in contemporary Russia.
Given the permanently growing list of books I promised myself to read, I won’t get to Soldatov’s and Borogan’s any time soon. And this is too bad, because as it happens to many "adaptations", too many corners are usually cut, and the "adaptation" presents more bold claims than the facts aimed at boosting these claims.
For example, I’d like to see some proof of the authors’ claim that President Boris Yeltsin "aimed to weaken the monolithic Soviet KGB by splitting it up into smaller independent agencies." According to Soldatov and Borogan, "[h]e was afraid that…hard-liners in the secret services might try to stage a coup similar to the failed attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991." Is it true? In my understanding, a fan of all things American — and having just introduced the American concept of strong presidential power in the 1993 Constitution –Yeltsin then decided to import the structure of the U.S. intelligence community (composed of 16 pieces) as well. I can’t imagine that as shrewd an apparatchik as he was, Yeltsin really hoped to "weaken" the KGB by taking away from it the border patrol service or the division of cryptography. Besides, Yeltsin knew, first hand, that the August 1991 coup was "interdepartmental", meaning that Russian hard-liners could successfully operate across bureaucratic lines.
I’d also appreciate if Soldatov and Borogan could attach some names and, ideally, exact quotes to their claim that at the FSB headquarters, "those who killed Polish officers [at Katyn in 1940] are still praised as war heroes..." And (my favorite) that FSB officers regard themselves as "the saviors" of the nation. (By the way, what is wrong with that? What is inappropriate about someone considering himself a savior of his country?)
But those are obviously secondary things. The major claim that the article is making (its "сверхзадача" as the great Stanislavsky would have put it) is this:"…after a few years of Putin’s reign, the FSB had evolved into something more powerful and more frightening than the Soviet KGB — it had become an agency whose scope…extended well beyond the bounds of its predecessor."
Soldatov and Borogan support this claim with a number of arguments. First, they point to the fact that after going through difficult times at the end of the 90s (i.e. mass exodus of experienced officers into business), the FSB has had a solid recovery during years of Putin‘s presidency. So? Many different things in Russia have experienced spectacular revival under Putin. The very state that almost collapsed under the reign of his predecessor began functioning again — by paying salaries, pensions, and, yes, by funding its secret services. Unless Soldatov and Borogan provide evidence that the FSB had enjoyed "preferential" treatment at the expense of other state structures, their argument doesn’t hold any water.
Second, Soldatov and Borogan argue that the old KGB was restrained by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, whereas the FSB "is impenetrable to outsiders" and thus has no control over it. (The authors seem to be particularly fond of the Communist Party’s control over the KGB; they repeatedly come back to this point. "Each division, department, and office of the KGB had a party branch, a peephole through which the state could monitor its agents.") The magic power of peepholes notwithstanding, anyone even remotely familiar with how government works knows that state agencies are controlled through budget process, and that the real "weight" of each state agency is defined, first and foremost, by its ability to secure funding. Unless Soldatov and Borogan prove that the FSB Director, Alexander Bortnikov, has the ultimate, veto-proof, say in defining the agency’s budget, all talks about an uncontrollable FSB sound hollow to me.
And yet, somewhat even surprisingly, the authors saved their weakest arguments for their boldest claim: that the FSB became "more powerful and more frightening than the Soviet KGB." Soldatov and Borogan are young people (born in 1975 and 1974, respectively), and didn’t have many opportunities to deal with the KGB firsthand. But as investigative journalists, they could have done their homework better. Have they ever heard about dissidents sent by the KGB — for years! — to prison on trumped up charges or to psychiatric clinics without a court decision? Have they ever met with people whose professional careers and often whole lives were ruined by distributing or even reading samizdat? Have they ever come across of the inconspicuous term "Первый Отдел" (The First Department) referring to secret boutiques existing in any meaningful organization whose function was to monitor the political views of the employees and keep track of the "not-to-be-trusted"?
And what do Soldatov and Borogan lay on the table to prove that the FSB has become even "more frightening" than the KGB? Not much: a couple of harassed bloggers and an alleged mole in Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front. (The latter is a shame, I agree: I wouldn’t waste a single FSB officer to monitor Kasparov’s balagan).
Now, let me make it very clear: one blogger harassed by the FSB is one blogger too many. But when writing about serious things, one must have a sense of measure and proportions and not allow personal feelings (both Soldatov and Borogan apparently had brushes of their own with the FSB) and political sympathies to bend the truth.
There is one thing though that the authors got completely right:
"To date, Russia’s security services have failed to find an effective way to deal with terrorism…"
I’d only add that Russian security services are hardly exceptional here and that secret services all over the world are struggling to adjust to new threats to the national security of their countries. Soldatov and Borogan will certainly benefit from reading the Washington Post‘s "Top Secret America" series (I wrote about it here) describing how facing the increasing threat of foreign and home-grown terrorism, American secret services have responded as every mature bureaucratic structure would: by asking for more people and more money. And being unsure of where the next terrorist attack may come from, they "extended well beyond the bounds", too. Otherwise, it’s difficult to understand why, according to recent reports, the FBI spied on such "terrorism-neutral" groups as PETA and Greenpeace.
If Soldatov and Borogan have creative ideas on how the FSB could improve the efficiency of its anti-terrorist activities, I’ll be first in line to listen.