THE POLITICAL SECURITY POLICE IN A NEW RUSSIAN SOCIETY: ESSENTIAL CHANGES UNDER THE IMPACT OF BIG PROPERTY AND CORRUPTION
By Vladimir Shlapentokh
For many Russians and foreigners alike, Russia’s KGB was the major symbol of totalitarianism, so it is not surprising that the 1991 destruction of the monument devoted to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet political police, truly signaled the end of the communist regime to Russians and to the rest of the world.
The status of the KGB in Soviet society and in the aftermath of its collapse
The status of the KGB in post-Stalin Soviet society was quite ambivalent. On the one side, it was hated by most of the intelligentsia. On the other hand, the prestige of the KGB as an organization, which defended the country against its external and internal enemies, was quite high among ordinary people. At the same time, there was a general consensus in society (even among dissidents) that the KGB was the least corrupt institution.
It can be said that all Soviet leaders were satisfied with the Soviet political system (Gorbachev was the fatal exception for the USSR), even while all of them, including Stalin, wanted a more efficient economic system. Indeed, from the late 20s until as late as 1985, the KGB made a crucial contribution to maintaining the totalitarian order in society, and to extirpating any serious resistance at the outset. Perestroika was not stimulated by public disturbances in any way. The dissident movement had practically been eliminated by 1985. There were no serious strikes or protest meetings in the country, nor any serious nationalistic movements in the Soviet republics.
The KGB and the GRU (the intelligence service of the army) were also successful in the international arena. The agency’s international network of direct agents and “agents of influence” spanned the world. While a performance comparison between Soviet and Western espionage remains debatable, Soviet intelligence’s ability to plant spies around the globe is an admitted fact among virtually all of the experts. It would also be difficult to overestimate KGB achievements in the realm of technological espionage.
The painful period of transition
The 1990s were quite a painful period for the people of the KGB, who went from being the most feared and prestigious government officials to being almost despised throughout the country. It seemed that the fate of KGB officials would be the same as that of the army officers in 1958, when Khrushchev decided to reduce the army, creating a climate in which former officers, without any skills for civic life, were lucky to find any job. However, the fate of the entire KGB community, which included many agencies, would prove to be very different.
First, the new Yeltsin-led leadership began working almost immediately on perpetuating its power by non-democratic means. It used old KGB techniques and coercive methods against its political opponents. Second, the emergence of a feudal society with weak central administration and the presence of big business created a new demand for people with experience in the KGB who could protect the security and wealth of the new feudal actors.
The selection of Putin as the president and its impact on the role of the FSB
The differences between the FSB and the KGB continued to diminish after Yeltsin’s resignation. The seemingly casual event wherein Yeltsin chose a KGB agent as his heir caused an enormous effect on the role of the FSB in society. Former KGB fellows have since permeated all echelons of power; and the spread of the political police among the commanding structures of society has never been as high in Russian history as under Putin. We can say that never in Soviet history, even in the darkest years of terror, were there as many former KGB people at the highest levels of bureaucracy as there have come to be under Putin. Despite this, it would be ludicrous to take the conspiracy theories suggesting that the country is now controlled by “the FSB corporation”—which allegedly appointed Putin, directs his behavior, and can replace him at any moment should he fail to obey it—seriously. (The same is true about the KGB and its predecessors, who were never autonomous political actors in Soviet history). What is more, despite the presence of the political police in every corner of Russian society, the influence of the FSB on the behavior of the population, in its ability to fight foreign agents, and in its intelligence services in foreign countries, is much weaker than that of the KGB on the eve of the collapse of theSoviet Union.
What changed the nature of The Russian political police: in the service of corporations
The main reason for this is the impact of big money on FSB activity. While the possibility of enriching themselves—the chance to own big property inRussiaor abroad—radically changed the mentality of all the people in the political police, first and foremost it changed that of the senior staff.
Almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet system, the emergence of corporations created a new demand for security experts. Indeed, big property was born inRussiawhen society entered a period of intensive feudalization, such that the state was unable to protect either the physical safety of the rich or their property. KGB people, both those who were leaving the institution and those who decided to stay in it, immediately jumped on this opportunity.
People who worked for the KGB could offer not only their security expertise to big business (this would not have been sufficient , as the private security agencies could also have recruited former policemen and army officers), but something unique and more interesting: access to information that was damaging to rivals, and about the governmental headquarters where magnates were fighting for privileges from the state. Big money transformed the FSB into an institution of a new type, one which was deeply engaged in business and corruption—an unprecedented development in any era of Russian history.
Not only does the FSB serve big corporations in various capacities, big business also does useful work for the FSB, both as the source of a generous personal income for its officers and generals, and as an instrument which can fulfill the functions that were performed in the past by the KGB or related organizations.
The involvement of KGB officers in criminal actions was simply unheard of in Soviet times. But the situation has changed radically in post-Soviet times. Several officers of the FSB, not to mention officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, have turned out to be deeply involved in the activities of the mafia structures.
The change of mentality
The change in the mentality of the security police has had an immense impact on the FSB as a “corporation,” making it much weaker than the KGB. Probably the most important consequence of the emergence of big property inRussiahas been its impact on the values orientation of most of the people in the political police.
The lack of a strong official ideology diminished the perceived legitimacy with which the political police had once been esteemed, in the period following the formation of theSoviet Union. This development deeply undermined the motivational structure of the KGB agents. The generals and officers were unable to understand the meaning of “the national interests” being mentioned by the new leaders of the state and the political police. Putin attempted to create a new ideology for the FSB and for the whole country, almost solely from the idea of patriotism based on the existence of “national interests.” The patriot card was particularly important for substantiating the special role played by the political police in saving the country from chaos and disintegration. Past Soviet leaders had never attributed such a crucial role to the KGB and its predecessors. Nikolay Patrushev, the head of the FSB, named his colleagues the “new nobility.” Another leading FSB general, Victor Cherkasov, did not mince words in 2007, when he declared that only the Chekist people had saved the country from “falling to the abyss” by using “the KGB hook” from which the whole country hung. He had developed the same ideas earlier—that the political police were the saviors ofRussia. He tried to console his colleagues with the belief that KGB people always remained faithful to their institution, and, therefore, that there were no “former” KGB officers in society. Putin, while refusing to use rude chauvinism as the basis of his ideology, and being aware of the limited potential of the Orthodox religion in the minds of the Russians and the FSB people, has focused, not without success, on anti-Americanism as the main pillar of his propaganda.
Cohesiveness and loyalty are a thing of the past
As a result, whereas the KGB was a cohesive organization of loyal members throughout Soviet times, the FSB is now an institution with loose member loyalty. Since 1991, officers have been quitting their “sacred” place of work in droves, even if this process has decelerated a bit over time. Many of them have even left the motherland to work abroad. In 2010, when describing this process, FSB general Viktor Cherkesov recognized that “only a part of the community survived,” while the majority had left, stating that some simply quit, some betrayed it and some turned out to be criminals. Cherkesov described how the fight in the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s raged not between some high officials but between different clans of the Chekists, particularly between those who worked directly in the FSB, and those who worked in the Federal Drug Control Agency and Custom Service; a fight in which dozens of officers participated.
The cohesiveness of the FSB also turned into a myth because of the climate defined by the slogan “enrichissez vous” (enrich yourself), which created a culture of envy inside the organization. In the past, the salaries and perks of KGB generals were simply not debatable among the rank-and-file. Now, the revenues of FSB dignitaries, which are often semi-legally or illegally earned, and their ties to big business are the sources of envy for less successful officers.
The cult of enrichment and the tolerance of corruption has undermined the morals of the FSB both directly and through the obliteration of the KGB ideology—a version of the nomenclature ideology, which they espoused.
With the new ideological and moral atmosphere, the FSB became a victim of the de-professionalization that has encompassed all sectors of Russian life. As with many others, those in the FSB understood that in a new society it was neither their professional skills nor their devotion to the interests of the country which would lead to a stable career and material benefits, but rather it was their connections and ability to use various corruption schemes. The obvious deterioration of the network of informers—the KGB’s crucial instrument for all its activities—is a very important development, as it would be for any special service: the ideological stimuli, together with fear, which were so important to recruiting informers during Soviet times, don’t work as well now as they had in the past. This offers a partial explanation for the numerous failures of the FSB in the fight against terrorism and major crimes. The times in which the KGB could easily recruit almost anybody in the country as a secret informer are long gone.
Importance for the Putin regime
Still, despite its weaknesses in comparison to the KGB, the FSB remains one of the pillars of the regime, along with the special units of the army, and “OMON” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The recent dramatic rise in the salaries of FSB and army officers, whose earnings now surpass the average salary in Russia by 3-4 times (generals are even higher), shows the level of concern the regime has about retaining the loyalty of the “silovikov” (the Russian term for the agencies that dispose of military personnel). It is hardly likely that the FSB will be more enthusiastic in its defense of the regime in the face of a big political crisis than the KGB was in 1991. But still, the future of Putin’s authoritarian regime depends extensively on the FSB, even if it looks inefficient at present.