Russia: Why The Chekist Mind-Set Matters
By Robert Coalson
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
October 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- No one knows how many people were working for or with the KGB when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That information was never revealed in a country where even rudimentary lustration never got off the ground.
Journalist Yevgenia Albats, in her 1992 book "A State Within A State," estimates that 720,000 people actively worked for the agency (across the entire Soviet Union) and some 2.9 million "cooperated" with it. To a large and, perhaps ultimately, unknowable extent, many of these people now rule Russia and seem well on the way to building an undemocratic system of political and economic control that can last into the foreseeable future.
Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya estimates that 26 percent of Russia's senior political and commercial leadership are siloviki, the term for people who emerged from the state security organs or the military. If one tries to account for everyone connected with the security organs in one way or another, Kryshtanovskaya's estimate rises to 78 percent of the elite.
The Rise Of The Chekisty
At the top of this vast pyramid of power stand those -- like President Vladimir Putin -- who were formed and socialized with the KGB during the 1970s, when Yury Andropov was reinvigorating the agency and instilling a new sense of mission and pride following the gradual and partial exposure in the 1950s and 1960s of the crimes committed by the secret police under Lenin and Stalin.
Although it would be an exaggeration to speak of this group in terms of conspiracy, it definitely forms a network or community of like-minded professionals, a largely mutually supporting community sharing common values, a common worldview, and common approaches to problem solving. Albats, writing in "Novoye vremya" this month, described this group as "a union of people bound by a common past, a common education, and even a common language of gestures...."
It is important to distinguish ordinary siloviki, a broad term that encompasses a wide range of views along the nationalist-patriotic-militarist spectrum, from the chekisty, the KGB products who are directing Russia's political and economic development and who see themselves as the nearly messianic saviors of Russia from a raft of internal and external enemies.
The term "chekist" comes from the Russian abbreviation ChK, or Extraordinary Commission, which was the original secret police organization set up under Lenin by the sadistic Feliks Dzerzhinsky, and an abbreviation that was echoed by the August 1991 KGB-led coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, which called itself the State Committee for the Emergency Situation (GKChP). In a 1967 speech, Andropov praised Dzerzhinsky as "a man infinitely devoted to the revolution and ruthless toward its enemies." Dzerzhinsky himself wrote in 1919 that "I know that for many there is no name more terrifying than mine."
Enemies All Around
Ignoring the ChK's dark history of political oppression and domestic terror, modern-day chekisty are proud to wear this badge. As Federal Antinarcotics Committee Chairman Viktor Cherkesov, a leading member of Putin's inner circle who made his reputation fighting political dissent as the head of the KGB's Leningrad Directorate, wrote in "Komsomolskaya pravda" in 2004: "I remain faithful to the main thing -- to the sense of my work as a chekist. To the sense of my chekist fate. I did not reject this faith during the peak of the democratic attacks in the early 1990s, as everyone knows. I will not reject it now." Duma Deputy Anatoly Yermolin, a longtime KGB hand and a graduate of the KGB's Andropov Academy who now serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL on October 10: "I like the word [chekist]. I got used to it during long years of service in chekist units."
The chekist mind-set has a number of important facets that are influencing the way this network is guiding Russia's development. First and foremost, stemming from the origins of the ChK and having received reinforcement during the long years of the Cold War, is a fundamentally martial orientation. "Our profession, of course, is a military one," Cherkesov wrote in his 2004 article. This mentality colors the chekists' perceptions of everything from developments on the world stage to domestic political disputes, sometimes even giving chekist actions and statements a tinge of paranoia. "The collapse of the chekist community -- the system of ensuring national security -- is necessary only to the enemies of that security," Cherkesov wrote. He goes on to cite the need for "cleansing...the antistate and antisociety viruses that have infected our society." In 1994, KGB Major General Boris Solomatin wrote in "Trud" that "through the efforts of some journalists and politicians, state-security officers are being made outcasts in their own state."
Among the many "enemies" the chekist feels threatened by, pride of place has always been given to the United States, which was routinely called "the main enemy" by the KGB. Many chekisty believe the United States is determined at the least to subordinate Russia, if not to see the country broken up into insignificant entities. The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was the most direct sustained conflict between the CIA and KGB, and the sting of the KGB's "defeat" and the sometimes sophomoric crowing of the United States about that outcome can hardly have been forgotten by Andropov's successors. Some of the most powerful chekisty in Putin's inner circle, including deputy presidential-administration head Viktor Ivanov and Federal State Reserves Agency head Aleksandr Grigoryev, served in Afghanistan.
By Any Means Necessary
The martial mind-set of the chekisty gives their thinking a distinctly teleological flavor; that is, the ends justify the means. Feeling surrounded by enemies, certain that only they understand what is needed to save the country, and operating with impunity, the only limits to chekisty action are those of their own imaginations and consciences -- and there is considerable evidence that their consciences are no limit at all.
In her book, journalist Albats describes how a KGB general threatened her for serving as a member of the State Commission to Investigate the Activities of the KGB during the (August 1991) Coup. The general needn't have bothered, since that commission was headed by silovik General Sergei Stepashin and its work led to nothing.
Members of an independent commission set up in 2002 by longtime dissident and rights activist Sergei Kovalyov to investigate the possible involvement of the Federal Security Service (FSB; one of the KGB's main successor organizations) in a series of 1999 apartment-building bombings were not so lucky: Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was shot dead in Moscow in April 2003; Duma Deputy and investigative reporter Yury Shchekochikhin died of suspected thalium poisoning in July 2003; former KGB investigator Mikhail Trepashkin, who served as the commission's investigator, was arrested in October 2003 and sentenced to four years in prison in a closed trial; and the commission's key witness, former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, died of radiation poisoning in London in November 2006. The Russian secret services' involvement in the February 2004 assassination in Doha of former acting Chechen President Zelmikhan Yandarbiyev was established by a Qatari court.
A State Within A State
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the country passed through the traumas of the 1990s, the KGB and the chekist community were able to maintain relative cohesion because of two key factors: secrecy and information. Their ability to resist lustration, to have the instigators of the 1991 coup attempt exonerated and even honored, and ultimately to place one of their own in the presidency -- all of which seemed virtually impossible in 1992 and 1993 -- must have proven the crucial importance of maintaining and monopolizing these assets.
As a result, chekist systems -- political, administrative, or commercial -- must be closed and opaque. Within Putin's administration, we see the complete elimination of normal checks and balances, only partially replaced by internal checks of dubious and unconfirmable reliability. Speaking of possible illegalities within the security services, Cherkesov wrote that "people must know that, in addition to the prosecutor's investigation, their fate will always be protected by the involvement of the agency itself, by the strength of our fraternity of service." The chekist community develops its own methods of disciplining individual members without endangering the hidden fraternity itself.
The KGB always worked as a state within a state, and that capacity served it well during the crises of the 1990s and to the present day. The Putin administration works in the same way that the KGB did, salting organizations throughout society with representatives of the chekisty, who can be counted on to facilitate the chekist agenda when necessary. This phenomenon regularly rears its head with regard to prosecutors and judges, but shadows of it emerge occasionally in the work of journalists, regulators, politicians, businesspeople, and others. "There is no area of our lives -- from religion to sports -- where the [KGB] doesn't pursue some interest of its own," KGB defector Oleg Kalugin said in the early 1990s. And those ends are pursued through pressure, manipulation, sabotage, and subterfuge instead of by means of the rule of law or institutionalized procedures that might produce unwelcome results or restrictive precedents.
A 1993 Moscow conference on "The KGB: Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow" adopted a resolution stating: "We believe that the development of a democratic process in the country is impossible while state security services continue to perform functions of state management." This statement has been borne out by events of the last 15 years. At the same time, the international community has found Russia to be an increasingly unreliable player whose words and actions often seem fundamentally out of sync. The rise of the silovik in Russia would be an alarming enough phenomenon both within Russia and abroad; the rise of the chekist is an order of magnitude more worrisome.