A New History of Soviet Intelligence

A vantage point into the story of the present

Mikhail Gorbachev defied every expectation at home and abroad by permitting the Berlin Wall to be breached in November 1989. He had finally allowed the imbalance of military power in Europe, which had stood provocatively and overwhelmingly to Soviet advantage since 1945, to be broken unopposed. Behind all this lay a basic truth: Moscow had effectively already given up the ideological struggle. The Russia reborn in 1992 had to confront the unexpected need to substitute at short notice raw patriotism for a long-outmoded belief in a global ideal, all in the face of falling living standards and full conscious­ness­­—not least via MTV, now beamed freely into city apartments—of what the West could offer in return for betrayal.

Recommended viewing: In Jonathan Haslam’s first public lecture at the Institute, he discussed post-Soviet Russia and the challenges encountered after a great power loses its empire, exploring how Putin’s leadership and influence has impacted international affairs. Watch the video lecture at www.ias.edu/ideas/2015/haslam-putin-video.

The negative impact on intelligence assets and their recruitment was severe, given how heavily Moscow depended upon human resources once attracted by and tied to the Soviet model. Only with the emergence of their own man, former Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin, as president in 2000 could the “organs” hope to regain lost ground. He rose to power as a result of the chaotic conditions prevailing in Yeltsin’s Russia, the state in retreat, criminality rife, and widespread corruption associated with the liberation of the state’s assets to the market. Putin’s message in 1999 was twofold: reestablishment of order and restoration of the Soviet Union, not as a Communist entity but as an imperial stronghold. Inevitably, practices rapidly reverted to those of an era we had all thought dead and buried.

How much was all this an essentially Russian phenomenon rather than the temporary aberration produced by the Communist order? The saying goes that when the tide goes out, you can see who is swimming naked. Once the Soviet régime collapsed, we could begin to separate out what was essentially Russian (that which remained) and that which was peculiarly Communist (which is largely in the process of falling away despite the nostalgia it evokes). Ugly practices, such as assassination, reemerged within a decade after Soviet rule had ended for good. The role of the GRU special forces in the takeover of the Crimea in the spring of 2014 and in the undeclared war to take over the Eastern Ukraine is an ugly reminder of times past, the aktivka against Poland in the 1920s.

Such phenomena cannot be viewed as accidental. Their occurrence suggests that rather than being a complete displacement of and substitution for traditional ways and means, the Soviet model was in some fundamental way their continuation, albeit in revised form. Is one to forget that assassination was an instrument much favored by the Narodniki, the forerunners of the left Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks? Were they so different from the Rote Armee Fraktion and the Brigate Rosse, who found favor in Moscow? As distance grew from the time of the old autocracy, it became easier to imagine that the horrors that emerged under Stalin were unprecedented rather than a reversion to earlier times, the ruthless systematization and application of older practices under new guises.

After the final collapse of Soviet power, a golden opportunity arose to break completely with the past. To reduce the disproportionate reach of the security services within Russian politics, President Boris Yeltsin splintered the KGB into three: the FSB (domestic intelligence), the SVR (foreign service), and the FAPSI (communications intelligence). Necessary cuts in government expenditures in order to substitute a welfare state for the warfare state and a market for the Five-Year Plan reduced the relentless growth of the fighting services. These changes in priorities failed, however, to make a lasting impact on attitudes. Although redundancies followed, and the private sector soon absorbed many of the more entrepreneurial and technologically sophisticated, by the mid-1990s cutbacks were being reversed.

Moreover, although the goal of communism disappeared, methods tried and tested from the more distant past reasserted themselves with the wars against Islamic-led separatism to the south and the postimperial resentment at U.S. supremacy. It is no coincidence that Putin’s emergence and speedy ascendance, culminating in his electoral victory in March 2000, coincide with both. By 2003, the siloviki (“men of power”), who were figures from the security services, held all the reins. They had come from out of the shadows for everyone to see, a caste that owed its very existence and identity to the history of the Cheka. It is striking, however, that the dominant element has been counterintelligence, represented in the FSB, rather than foreign intelligence represented in the SVR. Counterintelligence was, after all, where Putin served. The FSB, some claim, has become a law unto itself.

One symptom of this reversion to the past was the reappearance of the expression Eto ne telefonnyi razgovor (“This is not a telephone conversation”), meaning “We can speak openly.” Those in the business of intercepting communications and who were destined to become unemployed in the early 1990s soon found themselves back at work. And instead of interception being run as a monopoly by the twelfth department of the KGB, any number of agencies have been conducting their own operations. The official number of intercepts, for example, doubled between 2007 and 2011. But it is doubtful whether this tells the whole story. Another symptom, of a more sinister nature, was the shattering news of the ex-FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination.

Instead of the Soviet Union’s collapse leading directly to the dismantling of the security organs, a decade later they had taken over the Russian Federation. It did not take long after Putin’s electoral triumph for the Jewish oligarchs (who had acquired much of the Soviet Union’s capital portfolio and were now seeking leverage for political purposes) to be driven out of Russia. The sole dogged figure of resistance, the ruthless Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was brutally given to understand that he was digging himself ever deeper into a hole of his own making by continuing to oppose the inevitable. Simultaneously, every vital post in the public and private sectors of the economy was appropriated by either a former gebist, a close relative of the same, or an asset of the security organs.

The Russian sociologist Ol’ga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the study of the elite at the Institute of Sociology (Russian Academy of Sciences), in her earlier guise as critic, pointed to the formation of a new elite and the incorporation of the state by the security services. Nikolai Patrushev, who succeeded Putin as director of the FSB, described them as Russia’s “new nobility.” Former general of the KGB Alexei Kondaurov boasted, “There is nobody today who can say no to the FSB.” He added: “Communist ideology has gone, but the methods and psychology of its secret police have remained.”

For a while it looked as though the GRU was heading for dismemberment under Putin as a force that no longer served a useful purpose. Yet the operations launched against the Crimea, with “little green men,” and against the rest of the Eastern Ukraine propelled the GRU back into life. Until 2014, its role as policeman of the “near abroad” (former Soviet republics) looked redundant. All of a sudden the GRU has found a new role in what might be described as “implausibly deniable” aktivka, operations not unlike those conducted against Poland by the Fourth in the 1920s: sufficient to keep the wound bleeding but insufficient, thus far, to warrant massive retaliation.

These forms of covert operations were heralded by the new chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, in January 2013. The business-speak within the army today is “outsourcing,” which has been coined as a new Russian word. Now it has acquired a new meaning altogether. Moscow “outsources” its war fighting. Considered “an intellectual,” in the words of the editor of Natsional’naya oborona, Gerasimov assured those assembled at the Academy of Military Sciences that force continued to play an important role in resolving disputes between countries and that “hot points” existed close to Russian frontiers. Referring to the spring revolutions in various states, he went on to point out that even a country in good condition could fall victim to foreign intervention and descend into chaos. A broad range of nonmilitary measures could be used in support of popular protest, plus the use of “covert military means.’’

We began with the emergence of the Cheka out of the dust of Russia’s ancient régime. We end with Russia incorporated by the diehards of the Cheka. Even the GRU has rediscovered a role hitherto lost in the mists of the past. The history of the Soviet intelligence services thus becomes not just an end in itself but also a vantage point into the story of the present, a state within a state retreating into the past with the destruction of pluralism and the recentralization of power then exerting itself to determine the future through a process of stealthy expansion into the former territories of the Soviet Union.

This article is an excerpt of Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) by Jonathan Haslam, George F. Kennan Professor in the School of Historical Studies. Haslam is a leading scholar on the history of thought in international relations and the Soviet Union whose work builds a bridge between historical studies and the understanding of contemporary phenomena through critical examinations of the role of ideology.