Circling the Lion's Den

The FSB's Provincial Empire

Reform of State Security Directorates in Russian Regions Urged

Andrei Soldatov

As Chekist Day (December 20) approached, the traditional annual reports of regional FSB directorates started pouring in: The reports were diverse, but they displayed the already customary degree of absurdity. In Novosibirsk Oblast, for example, "more than 100 foreigners were discovered to be personnel or spies of the special services of foreign states," in Volgograd Oblast the "interest of foreign special services in matters of a sociopolitical nature in the oblast" was ascertained, and the fight against terrorism was a "priority" in the activities of the Irkutsk FSB Directorate.

The FSB's provincial empire rarely gets its share of publicity: only at the time of local corruption scandals or just before 20 December, and it therefore seems inconsequential in contrast to the Moscow generals. In fact, however, the personnel serving in the regions are the heart and soul of the FSB, and this might be the special service's biggest problem.

The Federal Security Service consists of two unequal parts -- the headquarters of the FSB, which has never had a staff of more than a few thousand personnel (figures ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 have been cited in various presidential edicts), and the FSB directorates in regions and components of the Russian Federation, including the separate system of counterintelligence directorates in the troops.

The personnel of these FSB directorates make up the hundreds of thousands of people serving in state security agencies today.

While the headquarters of the special service was being shaken up by reform in the 1990s, the structure and even the staff roster of the regional directorates have remained largely unchanged since the middle of the last century. At that time the existence of a separate state security directorate in each region was justified by the objective set for the OGPU/NKVD: total control of the population by means of repression. This called for the requisite resources on the local level, and the objective was the same everywhere, so all of the state security directorates had virtually the same structure.

The system stayed the same in the days of the KGB, and the flexibility of structures in different regions was highly conditional: All of the directorates were divided into three categories. The Moscow Directorate, for example, fell into the first category, and the KGB Directorate in Blagoveshchensk fell into the second. The only difference was in the size of the personnel staff: Directorates of the first category had 1.5 times as many personnel. The structure of the KGB directorate remained the same, however, and the division into separate categories still exists.

As a result, the regional directorates of the FSB are almost identical. Anti-terrorist services in the North Caucasus differ little from the same subdivisions in Siberia, and the counterintelligence line is present even in the most remote corner of the taiga. One of the consequences of this system is the absurd situation in which Moscow is simultaneously overseen by three FSB entities: FSB headquarters, the Federal Security Service Directorate for Moscow and the Oblast, and the Federal Security Service Directorate for Moscow Military District.

Today this system is being supported and reproduced. The most surprising thing is that it seems to be reproducing by inertia, without any political intent. It is obvious, after all, that the FSB directorates are not pursuing the same goals that were set for them in the Stalin years, and they also are not the regime's main pillar of support anymore.

This applies to the relatively quiet regions, where the MVD Centers "E" (counter extremism) and the special-purpose police detachments can handle everything, and to the North Caucasus, where the battles with armed insurgents have been fought mainly by the Internal Troops since 2004. The other functions of the FSB directorates (with the exception of counterintelligence and the recruitment of foreigners) are also performed by local internal affairs administrations, prosecutor's offices, investigative committees, etc.

Furthermore, in addition to being almost totally ineffective, these fossilized provincial state security agencies are constantly poisoning the special service from within. It is no secret that a system of personnel rotation exists in the FSB: Colonels and generals are moved from one regional directorate to another and eventually are offered positions on the central staff at FSB headquarters.

As a result of this policy, the officers promoted to the top positions in key services may come from regions where there is nothing comparable to the influx of foreigners in the capital. The upshot is the perpetuation of an almost Soviet level of suspicion.

By the same token, generals who are supposed to fight terrorism in the North Caucasus come there from regions a thousand kilometers away. The chief of the Counterterrorism Service in 2003-2006, for example, was Aleksandr Bragin, who had previously served only in Mordvinia and Chelyabinsk, and the staff of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee was headed from 2006 to August 2008 by Nikolay Bulavin, who had never served anywhere but Nizhniy Novgorod prior to that.

Something else we should not forget is that the central staff is small, but there are many who want to serve in Moscow. It is therefore understandable that each officer working in a counterintelligence division in any corner of our huge Russia dreams of catching his own spy, with all of the ensuing consequences. The Moscow FSB personnel moaned about the provincial style of the St. Petersburg Chekists, of course, but this was far from the worst possible scenario.

In addition, the provincial generals bring the provincial mentality with them. Whereas the Chekists in Moscow were able to have at least a temporary flirtation with human rights advocates, the personnel of the regional FSB directorates steadfastly honor the traditions of their predecessors. A deluxe edition of a book published in Tver in 2008 on the local state security directorate did not say a word about the execution of 6,000 Polish prisoners-of-war by Kalinin's Chekists in spring 1940, for example, but it did portray the man who headed that special operation, State Security Major Tokarev, as a war hero who fought against enemy agents on the home front. Regional Chekists have a special relationship with the public and the press: The obedient provincial newspapers have accustomed them to a total lack of responsibility.

When all of these generals move into Lubyanka offices, they start pressuring their superiors with the hope of influencing the policy of the special service, and even its ideology, and the restoration of the Dzerzhinskiy monument (this mantra is constantly repeated in interviews with high-ranking Chekists in the regions) is the least offensive idea they express.

Obviously, the complete elimination of the territorial agencies of the Federal Security Service probably would be impossible: The country is large and it is surrounded by enemies, or by competitors, as President Medvedev referred to them in his holiday message on Chekist Day. An attempt could be made, however, at least to move from the oblasts to the level of the federal districts. This was attempted in the beginning of the 2000s, but it culminated at that time in the creation of the completely pointless councils of the heads of FSB agencies in each federal district.

Unless the situation changes, personnel in Novosibirsk will continue to expose a hundred imaginary spies each year, and personnel in Irkutsk will continue to intensify the fight against terrorism, because the standard KGB report forms do not require the publication of the names of the discovered spies or the details of criminal proceedings.

Published by Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal in Russian 20.12.2009

Translation published 25.12.2009