F.S.B.

The September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs features an article, "Russia's New Nobility", written by Andrei Soldatov and 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.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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18 Responses to F.S.B.

  1. Good work! I like how you keep putting things in perspective when many others no longer have the energy to do so.
    BTW, “the permanently growing list of books I promised myself to read” – the fancy word for this is “anti-library”.😉

  2. Alex says:

    I am not sure that these guys & their publication deserved your attention, but I trust you had your reasons🙂
    As a minor point, I somewhat disagree that it is a good thing to believe that one IS [already] a “savior of the nation”. But to aspire to become one might not be too bad a goal (although, not without the risk to actually do something opposite…)
    The main purpose of the First Department (“Первого Отдела”) was maintaining physical & information security, including preventative counter-espionage measures. True, some heads of the “departments” – mostly at the places where there was nothing to guard – had overdone (or even misinterpreted) their official duties.

  3. From Alex:
    “I am not sure that these guys & their publication deserved your attention, but I trust you had your reasons :)”
    ****
    I trust Eugene.
    The above excerpted concerns the existing status quo. Some arguably so-so sources get top billing over others.
    Replying to the former serves to give them further notoriety. On the other hand, letting them go unopposed as they march on in high profile circles is problematical as well.
    For qualitative purposes, it’s best to challenge the arguably so-so high profile sources and to promote the on target options that the establishment choose to mute.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Anatoly!
    I enjoy reading your blog exactly for your ability to “put things in perspective.”
    “Anti-library” sounds terrific, if somewhat unsettling. My only excuse is that some books in my “anti-library” are English versions of the books that I read before in Russian. I’m proud that Nabokov’s “Lolita” in English has recently joined her twin in Russian in my LIBRARY.
    Best,
    Eugene

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Alex and Mike,
    Alex, I don’t care much about the publicity of their book (although its presentation in DC was announced by the JRL), but the Foreign Affair is a serious, semi-academic, publication (to which I subscribe). The desire to respond was simply stronger than me:)
    As far as “the savior of the nation” is concerned, sure, this isn’t something that I’d like counterintelligence officers be especially focused on. And yet, although aspiring to be “the savior” might not be good in terms of their sanity, it definitely doesn’t make them the KGB monsters.
    I used to work at the Institute of Nuclear Physics where the First Department was apparently involved in the activities you describe. But I also had an encounter with this structure in my first year at the University when I was told that my attempts to date a Romanian girl was very bad idea. I got the message immediately; explaining the situation to the girl turned to be more difficult:)
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  6. Alex says:

    Eugene, with the Romanian girl, your present wife might have better standing to judge the quality of the 1st Dept. work🙂
    Mike – I agree entirely. But from Eugene’s serve I read two or three publications in The New Times and elsewhere related to this book, including excerpts. The material, researched sources & the author’s analytical skills did not strike me as being worthy of time I spent on them.

  7. Alex says:

    Eugene, with the Romanian girl, your present wife might have better standing to judge the quality of the 1st Dept. work🙂
    Mike – I agree entirely. But from Eugene’s serve I read two or three publications in The New Times and elsewhere related to this book, including excerpts. The material, researched sources & the author’s analytical skills did not strike me as being worthy of time I spent on them.

  8. Understood Alex.
    However, the reality is such that they can be considered as acceptable among some establishment elitny.
    This matter highlights the problematical aspect of that same establishment judging what is and isn’t the best available material on a given subject.
    Yeah, I know **** and ^^^^ among others:
    There he goes again that…..

  9. According to the hyperlinked bio of Soldatov, he doesn’t buy into the Russian government bombing the Moscow apartment buildings. If true, then good for him.
    There’re more plausible conspiracy theories than that one.

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Alex,
    Sure, I encourage my wife to read my blog, but not to the extent of following comments:)
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  11. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    I have nothing against Soldatov and Borogan, especially on the personal level. They are decent journalists, and their Agentura site isn’t bad, either.
    In any case, I completely welcome their attempt to write the history of the FSB — as I will welcome any of their future attempts to cover FSB activities.
    What I have problem with is them trying to present everything related to FSB in mandatory negative tone. For example, they are unhappy with growing (unofficial!)contacts between the FSB and the Orthodox Church. OK, what is wrong with that? About 80% of Russians now call themselves Orthodox Christian. Must FSB officers be exceptions? Do we require FBI officers NOT to attend church?
    And then, of course, their major claim that the FSB is more powerful and frightening than the KGB. Intellectually, this is totally indefensible position. And the goal of promoting this idea is clearly commercial. Everyone in the West loves to hate the KGB because it’s SO-O-O spooky. Now, unless you say that the FSB is even spoooookier, who’s going to read — and publish! — your book?
    The only question that I have is whether Soldatov and Borogan came to this idea by themselves of it was bound on them by their editors/publishers.
    Best,
    Eugene

  12. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    I have nothing against Soldatov and Borogan, especially on the personal level. They are decent journalists, and their Agentura site isn’t bad, either.
    In any case, I completely welcome their attempt to write the history of the FSB — as I will welcome any of their future attempts to cover FSB activities.
    What I have problem with is them trying to present everything related to FSB in mandatory negative tone. For example, they are unhappy with growing (unofficial!)contacts between the FSB and the Orthodox Church. OK, what is wrong with that? About 80% of Russians now call themselves Orthodox Christian. Must FSB officers be exceptions? Do we require FBI officers NOT to attend church?
    And then, of course, their major claim that the FSB is more powerful and frightening than the KGB. Intellectually, this is totally indefensible position. And the goal of promoting this idea is clearly commercial. Everyone in the West loves to hate the KGB because it’s SO-O-O spooky. Now, unless you say that the FSB is even spoooookier, who’s going to read — and publish! — your book?
    The only question that I have is whether Soldatov and Borogan came to this idea by themselves of it was bound on them by their editors/publishers.
    Best,
    Eugene

  13. Eugene, you bring to mind a recent article at a neolib Sorosian leaning venue which went against their standard slant of selecting articles.
    That article’s title was in thr duh category of the FSB not being the KGB.
    For some, the selection of such an article is quite provocative.
    Salut!
    Mike

  14. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    Perhaps Soldatov and Borogan meant something different by “new nobility”. It is about the influence of the loose coalition of former and active security officers called “siloviki” in Russia’s governmental affairs as well as big business. Their influence is not institutionalized, but in economic terms siloviki may be more powerful than KGB ever was. And unlike KGB, siloviki do not need to serve any particular party or ideology when the busines sis good.
    All the best,
    Leo

  15. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Leo,
    As you can see, I didn’t question this “new nobility” line. Nor, do I question the fact that people with the security backround are now more powerful in Russia than “simple” KGB folks ever were because of the added value of huge fortunes.
    I criticized Soldatov and Borogan for saying that:
    1. The FSB got some “preferences” from Putin
    2. The FSB isn’t under any control from the state
    3. The KGB is more powerful and frightening than KGB.
    Do you agree/disagree with any of the three?
    Best Regards,
    Eugene

  16. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    To answer your questions:
    1. I don’t have the figures to prove or disprove your statement, I don’t think they have ever been made public. I do remember, though, that Putin once issued a decree raising FSB officers’ salary by a quarter. Since the FSB took on new functions, I would assume that their budget increased as well.
    2. They are not under control of the legislative branch, although they should be. It is also doubtful that Medvedev the President exercises much real power over the FSB.
    3. The FSB is powerful in a way which is different from KGB. The real and imaginary challenges to Russia and its ruling class no longer come from the decadent West outside and its fifth column inside. But in dealing with terrorists the FSB has sweeping powers. So, I don’t think FSB vs KGB is a valid comparison.
    Best wishes,
    Leo

  17. Eugene says:

    Leo,
    1. I don’t have the numbers, either. But I know that the real income of Russians has at least doubled under Putin. No question, the FSB budget has increased. However, unless you prove that the FSB budget has increased whereas the one for, say, social spending has decreased, I’m not getting your point.
    2. Russian legislature doesn’t control much in general, and the FSB is hardly an exception. I stick to my guns: “control”, “real power” means money in contemporary states. So my question is: who is defining the FSB budget? If you prove that it’s FSB itself, you have a point.
    3. “The FSB is powerful in a way which is different from KGB.” Beautifully said! And if Soldatov and Borogan tried to grasp this complexity, I’d be the first to applaud them. But they chose to tell us “strashilki” to boost sales of their book. Becasue KGB and Putin still sell books in the way FSB and Bortnikov can’t.
    Best,
    Eugene

  18. Eugene says:

    Leo,
    1. I don’t have the numbers, either. But I know that the real income of Russians has at least doubled under Putin. No question, the FSB budget has increased. However, unless you prove that the FSB budget has increased whereas the one for, say, social spending has decreased, I’m not getting your point.
    2. Russian legislature doesn’t control much in general, and the FSB is hardly an exception. I stick to my guns: “control”, “real power” means money in contemporary states. So my question is: who is defining the FSB budget? If you prove that it’s FSB itself, you have a point.
    3. “The FSB is powerful in a way which is different from KGB.” Beautifully said! And if Soldatov and Borogan tried to grasp this complexity, I’d be the first to applaud them. But they chose to tell us “strashilki” to boost sales of their book. Becasue KGB and Putin still sell books in the way FSB and Bortnikov can’t.
    Best,
    Eugene

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