Propaganda, KGB style
In handling public opinion, the Russian secret services restored some methods formerly used by the KGB: the emphasis on propaganda efforts was focused on cinema and TV, a competition for the best literary and artistic works about state security operatives was reestablished, and the FSB returned to methods of dealing with foreign journalists, using the threat of withholding visas and access to the country as leverage in an effort to influence their coverage.
In 1968 Kim Philby, a senior MI6 officer who for decades betrayed British agents and secrets to Moscow and who eventually fled to Russia from Beirut in January 1963, published a memoirs called “My Silent War”. Quite remarkably, the book was published not in the Soviet Union, but in Britain, and not in Russian but in English.
In the same year the Soviet spy thriller 'The Dead Season' ('Mertvy sezon') came out. It was the first Soviet spy film set after World War II and in which the story was not about foreign spies captured on Russian soil by the KGB, but about a heroic Soviet intelligence officer captured in the West. The autobiography and the film were both orchestrated by the KGB. It was the Soviet response to a series of spy scandals in the United Kingdom connected with Soviet intelligence.
By this time British press had uncovered that at least four members of the British establishment (known as the Cambridge spies) were working for Moscow: Donald MacLean, a highly placed Foreign Office diplomat, Guy Burgess, a former MI5 officer, Anthony Blunt, and MI5 officer and later Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, and Kim Philby. All four had been friends since their time at Cambridge (University) in the 1930s, and three of them were safely transferred to the Soviet Union.
By mid-1960s the second ring of spies inside British intelligence was uncovered: George Blake, an MI6 officer, was exposed in 1961 by a Polish defector and sentenced to 14 years in jail. Five years later he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison and appeared in Moscow.
But British nationals were not the only ones spying for Moscow in Britain. The KGB intelligence officer Konon Molody, disguised as Canadian businessman Gordon Lonsdale, was arrested in London in January 1961 by Special Branch officers. He was sent to prison (in fact he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs where he met Blake) and was exchanged in 1964 for the British spy Greville Wynne who had been arrested in the Soviet Union.
By 1968 these spy scandals were more than a diplomatic scandal; they had become a source of keenly felt public embarrassment in Britain. Before 1967 it was generally thought that Philby was only a low-ranking Foreign Office diplomat and unimportant spy for the Russians who had fled to Moscow. Only when The Sunday Times started their own investigation, was it revealed that Philby was a senior MI6 officer, in charge of the Soviet counter-espionage section, and that he had not been acting alone but was a member of a spy ring that included Burgess and MacLean.
The appearance of Philby's memoirs the following year was a conscious PR effort by Soviet intelligence aimed at influencing the British and American public (notably, the first Russian edition of “My Silent War” appeared only in 1982).
This task was facilitated by the fact that British intelligence was as passive in dealing with public opinion, as the Soviet intelligence was active. In the case of Philby, MI6 and MI5 limited their actions to defensive measures: when the scandal was exposed, the Sunday Times editor and other editors on Fleet Street were sent a warning not to discuss the past or present activities of the British intelligence services. The British Government and Parliament supported the secret services in their efforts to suppress any scandal, in striking contrast to the way it would have been handled in America, where there was a tendency towards sensational Congressional investigations, widely known as McCarthyism.
The British policy to admitting as little as possible about the nature of Soviet penetration was based on a fear of damaging the highly valued relationship with American intelligence. According to the British historian Richard J. Aldrich, “The reaction of Washington was always in London's mind when dealing with these issues”.
By presenting Philby as a high-ranking spy who passed top level British secrets to the enemy, the KGB hoped it would undermine Anglo-American intelligence cooperation.
So the legend was deliberately created. As Aldrich admitted “Philby's legendary status owed much to the publication of his lugubrious memoirs in 1968, which crafted the picture of the master spy who had now departed to Moscow to enjoy living out his final years in the higher echelons of an elite service. But nothing could have been further from the truth”.
The film “the Dead Season” served another purpose. Its director Savva Kulish was openly given advisers from the KGB. The film was preceded by a 10-minute speech by a real Soviet intelligence officer - Rudolf Abel (Vilyam Fisher) - who was arrested in the USA by the FBI in 1957 and in 1962 was exchanged for the U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers. The KGB intelligence officer’s speech was intended to make the film more “documentary”. The “Dead Season” presented the KGB version of Konon Molody’s exposure in London, his imprisonment and safe return to the Motherland.
In the Dead Season, KGB intelligence officers were depicted in a manner reminiscent of the famous British spy movie the Ipcress File (1965): they were the heroes who bravely penetrated the German army’s highest echelons during World War II and who kept fighting against inhuman Fascist scientists who not only escaped punishment but were hired by the Western intelligence after the war. The main character, inspired by Konan Molody, was a Soviet intelligence officer who was sent to the West to unmask a German scientist who was developing a new type of weapon, even more terrible than the atom bomb.
The “Dead Season” was extremely successful: more than 100 million people watched this film during its first nine months.
The success of both operations inspired Andropov to establish regular KGB PR activity. In November 1969 Andropov ordered the creation of the first institutional body in Soviet state security to take charge of media policy - “the bureau of relations with publishers and other media”.
According to Oleg Nechiporenko, then an officer in the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence), the main task of the bureau was not to answer to journalist requests, but to work with them: “The press bureau carried out much more diverse tasks than communications with the media. In particular, it worked with the creative people, wishing to create product — film or the book — on a subject of secret services. Authors sent their works (stories, scripts, etc.) or asked the bureau to help with documents [...] in their works they mostly created a positive image of the secret services”(Soobshenie 2005 ¹4 “Oleg Nechiporenko: Bitva s golovoi kak glavny front”).
Andropov also established a special competition for the best literary works and films about the Committee of State Security (KGB). According to Carol and John Garrard, the authors of “Inside the Soviet Writers Union”, the majority of such prizes were awarded to feature films about “the activities of Western spies and agents, foiled by KGB heroes – rather like Soviet James Bond movies” (John & Carol GARRARD Inside the Soviet Writers' Union New Ed edition (1990).
KGB generals have followed this line for years. Films were supposed to present the KGB's version of real events. One of the last Soviet examples was the 1984 feature film “TASS Is Authorized to Declare...” based on the real story of the Soviet diplomat Alexander Ogorodnik who was recruited by the CIA. According to the KGB version, despite the fact that he poisoned himself when arrested in 1974, the operation had led to the exposure of a CIA spy ring in Moscow.
Dealing with foreign journalists was different. Their Moscow bureaus were infiltrated with listening devices and the Moscow department of the KGB was tasked with recruiting journalists. But the main approach was quite simple: the Soviet Union was a country with very limited access to many areas. So access and any subsequent journalistic scoop depended on the relationship between the journalist and his “handler” from the state security apparatus.
Sergey Pismensky, in the early 2000s the deputy head of the FSB section in charge of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Section M), and in 1980s the KGB “handler” for the German media, told Irina Borogan that it was rather simple to persuade journalists to be loyal: the very first critical report would ruin any hopes for future scoops, trips to distant regions like Siberia or interviews with high-ranking officials.
The FSB approach
In dealing with public opinion, the FSB turned to many methods previously used by the KGB. An emphasis was put on cinema and television.
In 2001, a series, The Special Department, appeared on television. In it, FSB agents in St. Petersburg prevented the theft and smuggling of valuable Russian artworks. The main hero of the show is a descendent of the city’s old intelligentsia who served in special forces in Afghanistan and has returned to protect the artifacts of Russian museums like the Hermitage. Secret Watch, a television series about the FSB Surveillance Service, began airing in the fall of 2005. The show, which featured secret agents following people and tracking down terrorists, was also produced with the support of the FSB. In 2007 Russian TV broadcast Special Group, a 16-part television movie about the Moscow FSB’s heroic acts, such as preventing a terrorist plot and investigating financial transactions. Once again, the FSB was behind the production.
In December 2004, the FSB’s biggest blockbuster premiered — the $7 million Lichnyy Nomer (or Dogtag, but titled Countdown in English).1 The movie, a fictionalized account of two actual terrorist attacks (the 1999 Moscow apartment building bombings and the 2002 Dubrovka Theater siege), was intended to shed favorable light on the FSB.
The portrayal of the bombings in Moscow were left largely unaltered, but in the case of the Nord-Ost hostage crisis, the film’s producers replaced the actual theater with a circus. The protagonist was an FSB officer who was captured in Chechnya and forced to admit he had taken part in the bombings. (This was a fictionalized version of a real and controversial story of the military intelligence officer Alexei Galtin, who was captured by Chechens and had made a similar statement on video. Galtin was later to escape and to disavow his claims as made under torture.)
In the film, an oligarch named Pokrovsky, living in exile in the West, defied the Russian president and colluded with Arab terrorists and Chechens on a hostage-taking plan targeting the Moscow circus. Pokrovsky’s details bore a striking resemblance to those of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who fled to London in 2001. But the hostage taking is only the first stage of a much bigger terrorist attack—the planned bombing of the G8 summit in Rome. The main character, an FSB officer, saves the day by rescuing the hostages and defeating the terrorists. The producers of the film made no secret of the fact that they were advised by Vladimir Anisimov, who was then deputy director of the FSB, or that the project was filmed with the service’s support.
In February 2006, the FSB reestablished a competition that had existed under Andropov, for the best literary and artistic works about state security operatives.5 Oleg Matveyev, the officer of the FSB Center for Public Communications, acknowledged that the service was openly returning to KGB traditions. He told the newspaper Kommersant, “This is returning to past experience. From 1978 to 1988 there was a KGB award for art. It was also awarded to those who created a positive image of KGB employees. . . . Nowadays, whether in the cinema, in TV serials, or in detective series, it’s common for special services to be shown in a negative light, so we have decided to revive this competition, to reward those who do not discredit employees of the secret services, and to create a positive image of the defenders.” The first year, the award went to Lichnyy Nomer.
Following the success of Lichnyy Nomer, the FSB turned to Russian state TV. Documentaries were considered the best propaganda vehicle, because they are cheaper, can be produced more quickly, and can be presented as an independent journalistic investigation, thereby relieving the FSB of connections. Best of all, they guarantee direct access to millions of viewers. In January 2006, the documentary titled Shpioni (The Spies), devoted to British spy activity in Russia, offered the FSB a boost.
The film’s director, journalist Arkady Mamontov, showed a video taken by an FSB surveillance team of a British embassy official walking on an unnamed Moscow Street. The FSB claimed in the film that the British diplomat, identified as Marc Doe, was trying to retrieve data from a spy communications device disguised as a rock, later widely known as the “spy rock.”
An X-ray of the rock shown in the film, displaying four big batteries and a radio transmitter tightly packed together, was offered as proof of Doe’s involvement in espionage. Then Mamontov’s documentary investigated Doe’s ties with Russian nongovernmental organizations: The names of the most respectable Russian NGOs were shown in the list of the organizations financially supported by the British government, and Doe was called the handler of the NGOs.
The documentary, which aired two weeks after Putin signed legislation toughening the rules for nongovernmental organizations, was used to show that the largest such organizations working in Russia are in touch with British intelligence. The FSB’s Center for Public Communications gladly displayed an example of such a spy rock to journalists. Sergei Ignatchenko, the spokesman for the FSB, said, “According to our experts, this device cost millions of pounds. It’s a miracle of technology.” The FSB claimed that one Russian was suspected of espionage for England, but it turned out that no foreign spies had been detained. The FSB said that the Russian was arrested, but no trial followed.
What is more, the FSB did not even seize the spy rock as proof of espionage. (According to Ignatchenko, the rock presented at the press conference was later found in a different part of Moscow.)
In the end, four members of the British embassy staff were accused of taking part in a spy ring, but they were not expelled from Russia, which is highly unusual for true espionage cases.
While Shpioni was seen by many as transparent propaganda, it nonetheless intimidated nongovernmental organizations, which feared they could be accused of harboring spies.
Shpioni set the tone for subsequent documentaries. In one called Plan Kavkaz (Caucasus Plan), shown in April 2008, a journalist claimed to have found evidence of the CIA’s backing for the first Chechen war.
Under Putin, the FSB returned to police state methods to deal with foreign journalists, using the threat of withholding visas and access to the country as leverage in an effort to influence their coverage.
In May 2002 Nikolai Volobuev, then the chief of the FSB’s counterintelligence department, said thirty-one foreign journalists had had their press passes revoked because they were “conducting illegal journalist activity,” and eighteen among them were refused entry to Russia and had their visas blocked for five years.27 Since then this method has become common practice. According to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which is based in Moscow, more than forty journalists were refused entry to Russia between 2000 and 2007.