Circling the Lion's Den

The New Nobility: Reviews

  • 2.10.2011 The Sunday Telegraph reviews the paperback of the book
  • 21.09.2011 Mark Galeotti reviews the book in Slavic Review (Number 3, Fall 2011)
  • 09.07.2011 The New Nobility reviewed by Hayden Peake, the Curator of the Historical Intelligence Book Collection at the CIA, in the Studies in Intelligence Vol. 55, No. 2 (Extracts, June 2011).
  • 10.05.2011 The book reviewed in Sueddeutsche Zeitung "Unter Moskau, zwölf Stockwerke tief"
  • 01.05.2011 The New Nobility reviewed in Commentary Magazine "The Real Russian Superpower"
  • 31.03.2011 Library & Archival Security (Routlege) reviewed "The New Nobility" in the Issue I, 2011
  • 22.03.2011 The book reviewed in The Washington Times 'Heirs to the KGB and czars’ police'
  • 28.12.2010 Victor Madeira reviews the book in the RUSI journal (Volume 155, Issue 6)
  • 21.12.2010 The New York Review of Books reviewed The New Nobility 'The Concealed Battle to Run Russia'
  • 15.12.2010 Financial World (UK) reviewed the book
  • 9.12.2010 The New Statesman reviews the New Nobility "After the Party"
  • 1.12.2010 The New Nobility reviewed in Literary Review "Spooked out"
  • 1.12.2010 The book reviewed in PSAN (Post-Soviet Armies Newsletter)
  • 12.11.2010 The Moscow Times 'Tracing the Rise of 'The New Nobility''
  • 30.10.2010 The Irish Times 'How Putin and the New Nobility took control of Russia'
  • 22.10.2010 L'Occidentale 'In Russia fra il nuovo FSB e il vecchio KGB c'è l'imbarazzo della scelta'
  • 18.10.2010 The Financial Times 'Secret agents more doltish than tough'
  • 3.10.2010 The Guardian 'Freedom is not the only book in town'
  • 25.09.2010 The Guardian 'Spooks at the helm'
  • 19.09.2010 The Sunday Times 'Two investigative journalists expose how the heirs to the KGB are running the nation’s politics and businesses with an iron fist'
  • 17.09.2010 The Wall Street Journal 'State Security, Post-Soviet Style'
  • 16.09.2010 Foreign Policy 'New books: nukes, Russia and the secrets of 1989'
  • 14.09.2010 Basil & Spice FirstLook: The New Nobility By Irina Borogan And Andrei Soldatov'
  • 13.09.2010 Who really wields power in Russia | David Hearst | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
  • 13.09.2010 FAS Secrecy News 'The New Nobility: Russia’s Security State'
  • 14.06.2010 Kirkus Reviews reviewed the book

Katie Owen The Sunday Telegraph (October 2, 2011)

Pick of the Paperbacks: October 2

The New Nobility | Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan | Public Affairs, £10.99

An authoritative and brave investigation into nefarious dealings by the Russian security service the FSB, which replaced the KGB and on which Vladimir Putin relies.

Mark Galeotti, Slavic Review (Fall 2011)

No one studying the murky machinations of the modern Russian security apparatus can be unaware of Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two journalists who—even in an in- creasingly media-hostile environment—have probably done more than anyone else to shed some light on this secret world. Their Web site agentura.ru remains an indispensable source, a lucky-dip trove of authoritative reports, fascinating anecdotes, and second-hand snippets about agencies that, for all that they now boast their own Web sites and official spokespeople, reflexively peddle misinformation and innuendo. Originally, a number of Russian newspapers gladly ran their exposes, but when Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency, the Kremlin’s hand again began to close around the media and one by one they decided Soldatov and Borogan’s writings were not worth the risk: the last, Novaia gazeta, finally dropped them in 2008.

Russia’s loss may be our gain, though. This allowed, indeed forced, them instead to turn to writing this book, exploring how the “new nobility” of the Federal􏰀naia sluzhba bezopasnosti (FSB, Federal Security Service)—the term is from a speech by erstwhile FSB director Nikolai Patrushev—“have become something very different from either the Soviet secret services or the intelligence community in Western countries,” an elite-within-an- elite “answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted and unop- posed to employing brutal methods” (5). For journalists still living and working in Russia, this is strong stuff, not least as Anna Politkovskaia’s fate proved that there is no such thing as a liberal journalist too well known and well respected to need fear retribution.

For readers in the west, this may not be either an especially new or shocking perspec- tive, but this is still a fascinating book in its details. The authors have an excellent feel for the mindset of the new Chekists, not least their provinciality (after all, the best and the brightest fled to the lucrative private sector in the 1990s). Their exposure of Moscow’s underground realm of tunnels and bunkers in chapter 10 is fascinating, as is their take on cases such as the persecution of Igor􏰀 Sutiagin and the murder of Zelimkhan Iandarbiev. At other times, though, they are less compelling. Too often, they rely either on potentially questionable sources, rumor (referenced to conversations with unnamed insiders—while I do not question the authors, every researcher knows to treat individual and unverifiable sources with caution), or even footnotes citing their own works. Their discussion of the FSB’s bloody campaigns in the North Caucasus suffer from a fundamental misunderstand- ing of the evolving nature of the insurgency, and the fact that the new powerhouses of terrorism are not Chechen, but Ingush, Dagestani, and so forth. Yet to dwell too much on factual slips not only feels mean-spirited given the risks the authors take and the amount of genuinely new and provably accurate information they bring to the table, it is also to mis- take the real purpose of this book. This is less a dispassionate analysis and more a credo.

The authors are passionate about their theme: that this “suspicious, inward-looking and clannish” (242) agency represents an obstacle to the creation of any meaningfully democratic, law-governed state in Russia. This passion may sometimes blind them, leading to a tendency to see the worst in almost every situation (although they do deserve credit for not accepting the more extreme views that the FSB was directly behind the 1999 apart- ment bombings). After all, not every FSB officer is a corrupt and cynical authoritarian, and not everything the FSB does is illegitimate, unnecessary, and illegal. At a time when so many Russian journalists have bent to the prevailing political winds, however, that same passion has driven them to explore and expose a secretive agency that defies oversight and continues to play a crucial political role, and we must be grateful to them for doing so.

Hayden Peake, The Studies in Intelligence Vol. 55, No. 2 (Extracts, June 2011).

In the foreword to this book, British investigative journalist Nick Fielding warns that the Russian intelligence services “have little tolerance for criticism... since 2000 seventeen journalists have been murdered.” That same year Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan created Agentura.ru (in Russian and English), “a journalism-based website for monitoring the Russian services.” Though they have been careful to base their often critical articles on open sources and have been interrogated more than once by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the principal successor to the KGB, so far they have managed to survive. The New No- bility summarizes their work to date, with emphasis on the sudden breakup of the KGB, the struggle for power among the surviving ele- ments, and the ascendancy of the FSB. It was Nikolai Patrushev, the successor to Vladimir Putin as FSB director in 1999, who called the FSB the “new nobility” with the mission of “stability and order.” The authors take care to point out that the FSB should not be “mistaken for a revival of the Soviet KGB,” though some jour- nalists have made this error. With all its power, the KGB was subordinate to the Communist Party; the FSB is free of party and parliamentary control, reporting only to the president or prime minister.

After the chaos of the Yeltsin era, the FSB moved rapidly to consolidate its power. The authors tell how it worked to “ferret out foreign spies,” to bring human rights organizations under control, and to deal with the oligarchs (giving them the choice of leaving the country or going to a jail in Siberia). A program to plant informants in “liberal organizations” was also es- tablished. New counterintelligence regulations were created that allowed access to private cor- respondence and communications through wire- tapping. Restrictions on surveillance were removed and the right to search all premises was granted. As incentive, FSB officers were given special benefits, including new brick dachas on land confiscated from the oligarchs.

There are several chapters on the FSB response to terrorism, the one area in which the organization has not been very successful. It was while the authors were preparing articles critical of Russian counterterrorism operations that they were summoned to the notorious Lefortovo prison; they don’t provide any details of the ensuing interrogation. They do assert that FSB assassination teams have been sent abroad to deal with Chechen terrorists. And while they note the stories that claim the FSB poisoned Alexander Litvinenko using polonium-210 in London, they conclude that “there is no information about whether his death was ordered by the Russian leadership” or by mercenaries.

The final chapters deal with two interesting issues. The first looks at rumors that the FSB would absorb the foreign intelligence missions of the SVR (foreign intelligence service) and the GRU (military intelligence service). That hasn’t happened yet, and for the time being Russia has three foreign intelligence services, with the FSB empowered to deal with the former Soviet re- publics. The second issue concerns the FSB program for cyberwarfare that uses its own cadre of experts and from time to time employs indepen- dent hackers.

The New Nobility presents a persuasive, well-documented view of the FSB that only dedicated, risk-taking Russians could provide.

Peter Savodnik, Commentary magazine, May 2011

The Real Russian Superpower

President Obama’s entire policy vis-à-vis the withering behemoth known as Russia might be reduced to: yes, we know the forces of reaction and chauvinism control the Kremlin, but we’re going to work with them whenever our interests overlap—on, say, slashing nuclear stockpiles, curbing tuberculosis, or exporting Twitter to deepest Siberia. The official organ of cooperation is called the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, but the policy is more commonly called “the reset,” as in a resetting of relations following the Dark Age that supposedly was the George W. Bush administration. To hear it from the current White House, the reset amounts to a latter-day détente. Only through the interplay of carrots and sticks (but mostly carrots) can Washington achieve a meaningful, working relationship with Moscow.

This would not be a bad way to approach the Putin-Medvedev regime were it not for one problem: there is no cohesive entity called “Moscow.” The notion of “Moscow”—the geopolitical “Moscow” that is meant to encapsulate the whole of the Russian state—no longer exists. It hasn’t since at least 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and even before that it was never a unified, self-contained organism so much as a tableau of warring ministries whose job was not to govern but to steal. To the extent that actual administration took place, it was often accidental.

The first faction among factions, the all-important substrate that has held together the Russian governmental complex and its many subsidiaries and client-despots, has always been the secret police. The bezopasni organi, or security organs, have been called many things—the tsarist Okhrana, the Bolshevik Cheka, Stalin’s NKVD, and the KGB—but their mission has always been, more or less, the same: to maintain the status quo. In this way, the secret police have provided for Russia what an independent judiciary and free elections have provided for the United States—stability.

American presidents who grasp the underlying chaos and thuggishness of Russian politics tend to fare better than those who do not (case in point: Jimmy Carter); the latter group often finds itself mystified by a Russian vlast, or power, that refuses to play by rules that it deems alien and illegitimate. Alas, Carter is not alone. In the post–Cold War era, the United States has struggled to reconcile the collapse of Communism with the persistent misbehavior of a post-Communist Russian state. This is why Washington has had so much trouble creating a post–Soviet Russia in its own image. It may also explain why the words “Bill Clinton,” “George W. Bush,” and “Barack Obama” do not appear even once inThe New Nobility, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s compelling and thoroughly reported book on the KGB’s successor organization, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. An America that does not understand the psychology and configuration of Russian power is an America that is naive, pious, and self-marginalizing. It is a country that can be omitted.

The defining feature of the FSB, Soldatov and Borogan argue, is its unaccountability. In Soviet times, the KGB was ubiquitous. It collected foreign intelligence, guarded borders, protected Kremlin leaders, quashed dissent, and monitored every major institution in the Soviet Union, including the armed services, factories, churches, collective farms, universities, hospitals, orchestras, and professional societies. But the KGB was not omnipotent. That’s because the Communist Party controlled it. When that control ended, toward the very end of the Soviet period, so too did the party and the regime. No party controls the FSB, because there is none.

In the past several years, Putin has attempted to reassemble the old political structures—first, by propping up the ideologically vapid United Russia, which doesn’t believe in anything except Vladimir Putin; and second, by creating a faux-opposition party called Just Russia, which stands in opposition to United Russia by standing up for Vladimir Putin. But neither United Russia nor Just Russia, nor a combination uber-party overflowing with indistinguishable rubber-stampers, is equipped to keep tabs on the so-called state within the state. It’s worth bearing in mind that the KGB was created in 1954 by the party to do the party’s bidding. The FSB, by contrast, was not created by anyone. It descended from the KGB’s counterespionage and counterintelligence division. Under Boris Yeltsin, the FSB was one of a handful of intelligence services—weakened, demoralized, rudderless. Under Putin, the FSB has been reorganized into the country’s central intelligence-gathering agency. It spies, imprisons, interrogates, infiltrates reform movements, and ferrets out enemies of the state, including anyone the Kremlin dubs “extremist.”

An appendix at the back of The New Nobility notes that, among other developments, in June 2003 the FSB launched its foreign-intelligence operations. In March 2006, the FSB, as stipulated by the Law on Counteraction of Terrorism, was made the state’s chief counter-terrorism agency; and in July of that year, the FSB was authorized to kill people in foreign countries. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006, in London, appears to fall under this rubric. Although no one has publicly confirmed that the FSB was responsible, the Kremlin’s refusal to extradite the leading suspect, Alexander Lugovoi, and Lugovoi’s subsequent state-orchestrated election to the Duma (giving him legal immunity) appear to implicate the secret police. That Litvinenko once served in the KGB and FSB, and that he publicly accused the FSB of plotting to assassinate oligarch Boris Berezovsky, underscores the FSB’s apparent complicity. Amazingly, this is a species of secret police that even Russia has never known. It is a sprawling and subterranean machine that is not an instrument of a party or a monarch but an end unto itself, inward-looking, secretive, and untethered from any controlling authority.

With this in mind, the tragedies at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater in 2002 and the elementary school at Beslan in the North Caucasus in 2004 should come as no surprise, write Soldatov and Borogan, both Russian journalists who have reported for a slew of Moscow papers and, most recently, launched the investigative website, Argentura.ru. In both cases Chechen terrorists were behind the attacks, and in both cases the FSB greatly compounded the loss of life by bungling the operation—in part, one suspects, because the agency fears no one, does not value individual life, and doesn’t actually care very much about preempting terrorists. What matters is power and holding on to it. If a few Russians die while that is taking place, well, their deaths will not be in vain; they will be lamented, and their honor and courage will be remembered and celebrated by the narod, the people, and, of course, by the organs, who will stoke the fear and anger of tens of millions of fellow Russians who will demand that the state do something to stop these “black asses” from the Caucasus.

The authors’ minute-by-minute account of the Dubrovka attack and the security services’ handling of that attack, which they witnessed from a nearby apartment building, illustrates the surreality of a police force doing its job without knowing how or why it should be doing it. At 7:06 a.m. on October 26, shortly after the FSB secretly funneled fentanyl, a narcotic analgesic 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, into the theater and then stormed the building, the authors report: “Bodies are still being carried out. . . . [T]o the left of the main entrance the rescuers continue placing bodies; there are dozens, and the number of corpses increases rapidly. A few minutes later they occupy the whole area; all the steps on the left are covered with multicolor sweaters worn by the hostages.” At 8:00 Soldatov and Borogan overhear another journalist shout, “‘Look! They’re putting dead bodies on the buses—they are falling down from their seats!’” Forty-five minutes later, they report that “black body bags [are] being loaded onto a bus. A bus comes up, and the corpses are put on board.” More than two hours later, at 11:00 a.m., “the dead are still being carried out. . . . Even when we leave the apartment, some corpses still remain on the steps of the main entrance.”

At least 130 hostages died. Just five of those deaths were attributed to the terrorists. When Russian journalists tried to unearth a few facts about the attack, they were publicly chided by Putin. An FSB major known only as Vladimir told Soldatov, then reporting for the weekly newspaper Versiya, to give up plans for a lengthy piece on the Dubrovka attack, also known as Nord-Ost, after the musical that was being staged at the theater at the time of the hostage-taking. “Vladimir asked for a meeting and chose to meet at the entrance of the Moscow Zoo,” Soldatov and Borogan report. “‘Look, Andrei, you know we are all in big trouble,’ Vladimir said. ‘I was told to tell you they are ready to finish the investigation, but we have to make a deal. Forget about Nord-Ost.’”

For those who remain convinced that the waters began to recede on January 20, 2009, they ought to consider that, in the two years since the Obama administration “reset” relations with the Kremlin, zero progress appears to have been made in curbing Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and that this is the only yardstick with which to measure the effectiveness of the president’s Russia policy. Russia, after all, has relatively little to offer the United States. It is underdeveloped and backward-looking, and it is hemorrhaging 750,000 human beings every year. It has oil and gas, but America buys most of its oil and gas elsewhere. And it has a huge army, but as the 2008 war in Georgia made amply clear, that army is a rusting adumbration of its former self. One of the few things Russia has that is of great value to Washington was bequeathed to it by the Soviet Union: good relations with the world’s bottom-feeders, including the dictators and theocrats who rule Iran. The whole point of the reset was to foster goodwill in Moscow so that Washington could then lean on Moscow to lean on Tehran. Yes, Russia backed last year’s UN sanctions against the mullahs, but there are few indications that those sanctions have slowed Iran’s uranium-enrichment program.

The failure to rein in Iran may have to do with Iran’s intransigence, or it may have to do with Russia’s unwillingness to do much about that. So far, the FSB has sent worrisome signals. In August 2009, Soldatov and Borogan recall, the agency apparently tried to embarrass U.S. diplomat Kyle Hatcher into resigning his Moscow post by leaking a doctored video that purported to show him with a prostitute. The embassy, to its credit, stood by Hatcher. If years from now Iran is still nuclear-free, one imagines the president’s supporters will credit his wisdom and tough-mindedness. The likelier explanation will involve military force and sabotage, some combination of U.S. air strikes and Israeli computer viruses.

Alas, much of the confusion surrounding all the above could have been avoided had senior administration officials read The New Nobility, which powerfully illustrates the nature of the regime with which they are trying to reset relations. It’s not that the Obama White House is being “soft” on the Russians. It’s that the administration doesn’t appear to get how the security organs work. (Happily, many in the State Department do. WikiLeaks shows that plenty of U.S. Embassy officials, whose job includes implementing the reset, appreciate the essence of Putinism.) The security organs understand force more than anything else. They cannot be won over or cajoled; they must be pushed into a corner and made to heel. Like the muzhik who presides over his village or the collective-farm director in charge of wheat production, the “KGBnik,” to use a Russian term, is essentially a well-dressed peasant—educated, sophisticated, and close to the earth.

Soldatov and Borogan have done a great service. Their book is not well written. It lacks color and personality. But this is hardly important. What matters is that they’ve documented, with facts and quotes, the Putin-Medvedev record. It should also be noted that Soldatov and Borogan wrote their book in English, which is to say they are speaking to a Western, and especially an American, audience. That audience would be wise to listen carefully. The authors’ courage also cannot be overstated. It is often said that Russia is a dangerous place for journalists. This is inaccurate. It is a dangerous place for Russian journalists. Of course, foreign reporters have had their run-ins, but it is the Russians who get killed. One hopes The New Nobility will provide Soldatov and Borogan with a little cover.

About the Author

Peter Savodnik, a frequent contributor, is the author of a book about Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union that Basic Books will publish in 2011.

Joseph C. Goulden, The Washington Times, March 22, 2011

Heirs to the KGB and czars’ police

No one familiar with the security system of the old USSR expected the KGB to dry up and blow away when communism collapsed in 1991. Further, many of us doubted whatever government replaced the Soviet state would make any changes of substance in its intelligence agencies.

Skepticism is proving well-founded. Indeed, the newly constituted security services are more shadowy and powerful than was the KGB at its prime. The Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB) has flourished under former KGB officer Vladimir Putin - first as president, now prime minister - and the government is top-heavy with his onetime intelligence colleagues.

The main change concerns control. As the brave Russian journalists Adrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write, "The Soviet KGB was all-powerful, but it was also under the control of the political structure. The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department and division." By contrast, the FSB "is free of party control and parliamentary oversight." FSB officers consider themselves "as heirs not only to the KGB, but also to the secret police that the [czars] employed to battle political terrorism."

High FSB officers work hand in glove with the mega-rich oligarchs that seized control of key portions of the Soviet economy, including oil and other mineral enterprises and the media. Indeed, an FSB officer serves as deputy director general of the state-owned Russian Television and Radio Co., which owns several radio and TV stations, including the Second Channel, considered the country's main official station. He orders news staff how to cover situations with the potential to embarrass the Putin regime.

Perks are many and valuable. High FSB officers are given, gratis, stated-owned land along the "gold coast" of the Rublyovo outside Moscow, which abounds with mammoth, columned brick-and-stone mansions.

Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan first covered the FSB and other security agencies as reporters for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta; they now maintain the online news site Agentura.ru/English. Suffice to say that they are not popular with the subjects of their reporting.

Because of technology, the Russian security agencies are able to exert closer surveillance and tighter control of people considered to be foes of the Putin government. A "blacklist" of activists - especially people involved in the human rights movement - is maintained in a central computer. If a listed person buys a train ticket, for instance, he or she can count on being questioned at each stop along the way. Hundreds of thousands of officers can receive alert via dispatches to computer-linked "stations" about the size of a cell phone.

But the FSB is not nearly as effective when operating against Chechen separatists who fight superior Russian military forces with terror directed against civilians. The first major attacks were bombings of two apartment buildings in September 1999 in which 212 people died and 445 were injured. As the authors write, "The bombings were a critical turning point in Putin's rise to power - his resolute response to the events, his deployment of troops, and his crude vow to 'wipe out' the Chechens 'in the outhouse' made him extremely popular." The authors dismiss as "highly dubious" claims by former KGB officers that Mr. Putin orchestrated the bombings for political reasons.

But for all the tough talk, Mr. Putin's FSB was unable to prevent several operations in which Chechens seized hostages. In 2002, a large group of Chechens stormed into a Moscow theater and held an audience of 920 people, threatening to kill them all with bombs unless Mr. Putin ended the war against their republic. In the end, prior to storming the building, security forces pumped in large amounts fentanyl, a powerful anesthetic gas , which they assumed would put the terrorists to sleep. The gas killed 130 hostages.

An even more horrific episode happened in 2004 when more than 1,100 people, including about 770 children, were taken hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. A clumsy assault killed 334 hostages, including 186 children. "It was a disaster," the authors comment.

A former FSB director boasts that his officers are "our new nobility." Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan assert that reality is far more complex. "The security services have been given a high pedestal in Russia, but faced with the challenges of terrorism and corruption, they have become something very different from either the Soviet secret services or the intelligence community in Western countries. In some ways, the FSB most closely resembles the ruthless Mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world, devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted. ... Russia is still a long way from true democracy."

Joseph C. Goulden has completed an update of his "Dictionary of Espionage: SpySpeak Into English," to be published by Dover Books in the fall.

Victor Madeira, The RUSI Journal, December 2010

On 9 October 2007, the Russian daily Kommersant carried a remarkable open letter. Written by the then-director of the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), the piece was called ‘We Can’t Let Warriors Turn into Traders’. In it, Viktor Cherkesov argued that greed and inter-service feuds threatened what had saved Russia after 1991: the Soviet-era cohesion of the security organs. His conclusion? ‘In this war there can be no winners.’ How right he was. A close friend of Vladimir Putin and, like him, a former KGB officer, Cherkesov was the man to whom Putin turned in 2007 when doubts arose about the loyalties of the Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSKN was asked to secretly probe allegations of corruption within the FSB leadership. Like others mentioned in this sobering volume, Cherkesov took on the main successor to the KGB – and lost (he was sacked in 2008).

Due to his position, he might have reasonably expected a degree of official protection. On the other hand, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, like other journalists in Russia covering security and economic affairs, have no such illusions. In The New Nobility, Soldatov and Borogan – co-founders of the influential website Agentura.ru – have a compelling book that draws on years of their pioneering reporting on Russia’s special services.

At a recent promotional event, a member of the audience asked the authors what had changed to enable such a comeback by the security state. After a moment’s thought, Soldatov replied: ‘Hope’. The 1998 Russian financial crisis, he said, was the turning point. Still reeling from a traumatic triple transition in 1991 (dictatorship to democracy; empire to nation-state; centralised economy to free-market), Russia and its citizens struggled after the 1998 crash. Almost overnight, the country faced bankruptcy; inflation soared and living standards plummeted, again dashing popular hopes for stability and prosperity. ‘Legal nihilism’, as President Dmitry Medvedev has called it, worsened. Among disillusioned younger generations, apathy and historical amnesia set in. As an ailing President Boris Yeltsin elevated Putin to ever-higher political office, culminating in 1999 with the presidency itself, the KGB/ FSB – a self-styled ‘new nobility’ – again tightened its grip on the country.

Warriors everywhere profit from being traders; after all, corporate boardrooms and trading floors have long been the world’s true battlefields. What the authors suggest, however, is that a narrowing focus on economic and financial intelligence by Russian intelligence services reflects factional self-interest as much as it does actual national priorities. Corruption and incompetence within these organs, Soldatov and Borogan add, are punished only if they threaten the stability of state structures.

Without parliamentary oversight, the FSB continues to expand its reach (including overseas) and is increasingly beyond even the Kremlin’s control, we are told. The organs’ mindset and that of the state they protect is one of having interests that are above the law. The New Nobility paints a picture of a ‘suspicious, inward looking, and clannish’ FSB, largely provincial and xenophobic. Yet, we have been here before. In Britannia and the Bear: British Responses to Soviet Subversion, 1917–1931 (forthcoming), this reviewer highlights a strikingly similar situation during the ‘first’ Cold War. Early Bolshevik Russia, like that of early post-Soviet years, was chaotic. On both occasions, there was unease about Western intentions. In both instances, though ambivalent about their security

apparatus, many Russians regarded it and the military as arguably the only institutions that could protect the motherland from foreign meddling. Both times, secret policemen had, within a decade, a stranglehold on a debilitated nation. The difference is that until 1991, the organs served Party and state; today, the organs are the state. Unsurprisingly, traditions going back to the early days of the Soviet and Tsarist political police endure. A recent example is the issuing of black uniforms to state security services – the same colour as that favoured by Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichnina and some Menshevik units during the Russian Civil War.

The New Nobility transforms our understanding of the nexus between business, politics and intelligence in modern Russia; no surprise, given the authors’ backgrounds. When Soldatov and Borogan began writing on these subjects in the mid-1990s, he covered the business/technology beat, and she law enforcement and economic crime. This is a masterly book, in particular shining when dealing with the FSB’s growth and Russian responses to the ongoing Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus.

Considering the authors’ much- deserved reputation for meticulous analysis, the one perplexing aspect of this work is the apparent discrepancy between the Alexander Litvinenko and Alisher Usmanov cases. Russia has rejected British requests for extradition of a suspect in the Litvinenko case on two important grounds. One is that London’s evidence is unconvincing. In all fairness, even Soldatov and Borogan say that they have seen no conclusive proof, either on why the dissident FSB officer (and naturalised Briton) was killed, or on who may have ordered his poisoning with Polonium-210 in 2006. Moscow’s other reason for blocking extradition is that it would violate Russia’s constitution. Articles 61 and 63 together assert that no citizen shall be extradited to another country; Article 62 affords the same protection to dual nationals. Yet the authors also give a well-documented account of Usmanov, a Russian-Uzbek dual citizen, abducted and extradited in 2005 to Uzbekistan in a joint operation involving the FSB. Russia’s reasoning for the second point of rejection in the Litvinenko case seems therefore incongruous, at least to those of us with no legal training. Though the Usmanov affair appears to have set a precedent, Soldatov and Borogan neither draw parallels with the Litvinenko file, nor examine what implications the Usmanov affair might have on the latter.

History cautions us about the corrupting influences of unchecked power. As described in The New Nobility, the excesses of Russian officialdom today may rival the Romanovs’ a century ago. The ‘new nobility’, if it indeed wants to protect the national interest, should be mindful of the tragic fate that befell the aristocracy in 1917 for resisting popular calls for meaningful reform. Russia cannot again afford such upheaval. True progress is what the country needs most; its security and prosperity – not to mention our own – depend on it. ■

Dr Victor Madeira is an adviser on global and security affairs.

Amy Knight, The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2010

The Concealed Battle to Run Russia

Despite their professed mutual respect, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, apparently cannot agree on one question—which of them will be running for the Russian presidency in March 2012. Over a year ago Putin told foreign journalists that he and Medvedev would at some point “sit down and come to an agreement” about who would be the presidential nominee of United Russia, the overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin party, in the next election. (He repeated the same promise in a recent interview with Larry King on CNN.) But that moment has yet to come, and in the meantime, both men are provoking speculation about their possible candidacies.

Putin’s publicity stunts last summer—including a 1,300-mile drive across Siberia in a Russian Lada (which reportedly broke down twice)—suggested that he was already campaigning. And at the Valdai group, an international forum, in September, he made a pointed remark about FDR’s four terms as US president having been legal under the American Constitution. For his part, Medvedev has said more than once that he did not rule out the possibility of a second term (which, beginning in 2012, will be six years instead of four). His press secretary, Natalya Timakova, was more emphatic, saying in September that Medvedev could not complete his program of “modernizing” Russia in just one term. In an October interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Igor Yurgens, a top presidential adviser, went so far as to insist that Putin should take himself out of the running to make way for Medvedev to carry out his programs. Yurgens acknowledged that Putin deserved “honor and praise” for stabilizing the country when he served as president in 2000–2008, but went on to point out that “if stabilization goes on forever, it leads to stagnation.” Medvedev himself warned in a video blog on November 24 that Russia was showing signs of “deadly” political stagnation because of the overwhelming dominance of one party.

As it has in earlier contests over leadership, the country’s all-powerful Federal Security Service (FSB) is bound to have a crucial part in deciding who will be the next president. (This agency made the original arrests in the Khodorkovsky case, discussed below, which has great significance for the presidential succession.) This is why The New Nobility, which explains how the FSB has evolved over the past decade into an organization with enormous political and economic influence, is such an important and timely book. The authors, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who wrote the book in English, are a husband-and-wife team in their mid-thirties, with a well-established reputation as Russian investigative journalists, specializing in security and intelligence, a dangerous subject in Russia. (They told me when I met them in Moscow in 2008 that they had been summoned to the FSBon more than one occasion and threatened with reprisals because of their reporting.) They also have a website, www.agentura.ru, which they founded in 2000, to report on and analyze these issues on a regular basis. Using anonymous sources from within the security services and the Kremlin, along with on-the-spot reporting, Soldatov and Borogan have uncovered new and significant information on the FSB and its relations with the Russian leadership. /the whole review/

James Elwes, Financial World, December 15, 2010

The New Nobility

The two authors, both former Novaya Gazeta employees, are investigative journalists specialising in the Russian security services. There are few subjects more dangerous. Reporters on that particular beat have a nasty habit of getting shot, Anna Politkovskaya being the most prominent example.

This volume concerns itself with the FSB, the domestic Russian security service and descendant of the Soviet-era KGB. The story is of an organisation that rose from the ruins of the USSR to become even more powerful and all-pervasive than its predecessor.

The character of the modern Russian security apparatus is put down to Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB who in 1982 became leader of the USSR. In his early career as a diplomat Andropov had witnessed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was horrified at the speed with which the Hungarian resistance rose up and he witnessed at first hand members of the security services being strung up from lampposts. This experience led him, on taking control of the KGB in 1967, to create a department dedicated to political investigations.

Like Andropov, Vladimir Putin ruled first the security service then the country and when he became director of the FSB in July 1998 the rehabilitation of Andropov’s image was one of his priorities. Another was the acquisition of power. The FSB, originally intended as an organisation with domestic oversight (like MI5 or the FBI) soon absorbed its counterpart with overseas responsibility (MI6, CIA), as well as the communications intelligence agency (GCHQ, NSA).

But times had changed. The security picture included new economic and commercial targets. Russia had boomed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and FSB officials were encouraged to become consultants to Russia’s new capitalist institutions. This they did wholeheartedly. But problems arose. Financial capture began to confuse their priorities: they were still paid FSB salaries but also received payment from their new employers – often much more. Not surprisingly, loyalty shifted. There was a further complication: the more senior the FSB employee, the higher the salary in the marketplace. Thus, perversely, senior FSB employees had their heads turned more than their juniors.

The FSB also arranged inhouse benefits. State-owned land, formerly reserved for the Soviet elite, was simply given away to top FSB employees. These gifts, often dachas outside Moscow, were worth millions.

Indulgence begat incompetence. If the FSB exists to ensure the security of the homeland, in this it has failed miserably. In October 2002, for instance, Chechen terrorists took hostage the entire audience at a Moscow theatre – 920 people. It was a colossal security failure, compounded by the bungled storming of the theatre by FSB paramilitaries. During the raid, 130 civilians died, many poisoned by fentanyl gas, a strong sedative pumped in to the theatre to sedate the terrorists. Paramedics at the scene were not told about the gas. Numerous avoidable poisonings occurred.

The September 2004 siege of a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, was another exercise in FSB ineptitude. Chechens captured the school, taking over a thousand children and teachers hostage, and issued demands. A chronic malfunction of the FSB’s command structure meant that it failed to take control. Details are unclear, but it appears that parents took up arms and tried to free their children – to do, in other words, what the FSB could not. The authors write: “The Beslan operation quickly turned into a city battle.” A total of 334 people were killed.

This is a thorough and very brave examination of an organisation that has a tight political, commercial and economic grip on Russia. That grip is maintained in the interests of the FSB alone. The protection of the Russian people, it seems, comes a very distant second.

Oliver Bullough, The New Statesman, December 9, 2010

After the party

Several recent books have claimed to expose the secrets of a newly expansionist Kremlin. As a former Moscow correspondent myself, I've read them all, but the suggestion of a great stand-off between Russia and the west does not strike me as persuasive.

The notion of a monolithic Russia has always made me suspicious, as it doesn't fit with the chaotic country I knew when living there. I have never tried to analyse those suspicions methodically, however, and so I'm grateful to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan for doing it for me. Drawing on extensive investigations, the two journalists have written a gripping account of how veterans of the KGB seized control of the Russian state.

In 1991, after the then KGB head, Vladimir Kryuchkov, backed the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin resolved to weaken the Lubyanka's grip on power. He created half a dozen distinct security services out of the sprawling mass of the old KGB. These new services squabbled among themselves, as well as with outsiders. Top employees went to work for private companies, while other companies hired units from the new services to work on their behalf.

But amid this disintegration, Soldatov and Borogan argue, the services gained a new power. Although the KGB was stronger than any of the bodies that replaced it, it was nonetheless controlled from top to bottom by the Communist Party. Now that the party is gone, the FSB - as the most powerful of the successors to the KGB is known - is subject to no checks at all.

In some ways the FSB most closely resembles the mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world: devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted, and unopposed to employing brutal methods.

That may seem alarmist, but the book is anything but. It shows methodically how FSB employees dominate the state and describes the culture of paranoia they have sown. Soldatov and Borogan's clear-eyed analysis is all the more remarkable considering that they were colleagues of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist whose assassination in 2006 is still unsolved. They know all too well the dangers involved in uncovering the secrets of the powerful.

Soldatov and Borogan wrote the book in English, but it is permeated nevertheless by a sardonic Russian humour. Their account is often hilariously and lugubriously downbeat. For example, at one point they observe with lethal sarcasm that "extrajudicial killing would seem to be at odds with the law". It is also to their credit that they avoid the wilder conspiracy theories favoured by certain of their western colleagues. By dismissing the claim that the FSB, looking for a pretext to restart the Chechen war, killed more than 200 people by bombing four Moscow apartment blocks in 1999, they make other disturbing allegations seem altogether more plausible.

Their analysis of the way the FSB restored the might of the KGB after Putin's election to the presidency in 2000 is particularly impressive. Lacking resources, the FSB simply arrested people who had contacts with foreigners, manufactured evidence and - in at least one case - appears to have packed a jury in order to ensure a conviction.

The examples assembled by Soldatov and Borogan reminded me of a time, in 2004, when I was reporting on the case of a group of Chechen doctors who had been accused of planning suicide attacks - just because their names were on the books of a western charity.

I was interrogated at a checkpoint in neighbouring Ingushetia for more than two hours by an FSB officer. On leaving, I was tailed by two cars, each containing four agents. They stuck to me all evening, standing behind me while I carried out such suspicious tasks as changing money, buying a plane ticket and eating supper.

I mention this because, just a few weeks later, a group of militants drove out of Ingushetia and took over a school in Beslan. Some 336 people, including 186 children, died in the siege. Perhaps those eight agents could have helped to prevent the tragedy if they hadn't wasted so much time bullying insignificant people such as me.

According to Soldatov and Borogan, though such incompetence is widespread, the FSB continues to expand its power base. As the attacks in Beslan, Moscow and elsewhere show, ordinary Russians are still far from safe, despite the assault on civil liberties launched by their government in the name of "security". Putin's new nobility has all the arrogance of the aristocrats swept away in 1917, and more powerful weapons. This book paints a chilling picture of a country dominated by a power-hungry clique. Anyone who wants to understand Putin's brave new Russia should read it.

Oliver Bullough was a Reuters Moscow correspondent and is the author of "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus" (Allen Lane, £25)

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, Post-Soviet Armies Newsletter, December 1, 2010

The Soviet KGB, the notorious secret police, was all-powerful, but fully under control of the Communist Party. By contrast, the Russian FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB, is solely autonomous and eludes control from even the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin, former director of the FSB and later Russian president and prime minister, made it the main secret service in Russia, permitting it to absorb two former parts of the KGB. In The New Nobility, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan document the rise of the FSB from the inside in the years from 2000–2009. They shed new light on the methods and characters of one of the most closed and secret intelligence communities in the world. They also weigh the FSB’s role as the new elite, granted material wealth, power and prestige. They argue that a newly invented heroism, mixed with the real challenges of terrorism and corruption, has led to the creation of something very different from both the Soviet secret services and the intelligence community in developed countries around the world—and something considerably more troubling.

Oleg Gordievsky, Literary Review, December 1, 2010

SPOOKED OUT

This important monograph, written by a brave and talented team, is a history of the KGB (now called the FSB) over the last fifteen years. It covers, if not always explicitly, the full range of the organisation's interests: strengthening the state and weakening society; gradually infiltrating independent groups that might otherwise become unduly influential at some time in the future; creating the impression that Russia is actively opposed by a variety of aggressive, inimical forces (while simultaneously claiming that the Cold War is over); encouraging anti-Western attitudes (not least towards Estonia and Latvia); restarting the war against Chechnya; grabbing parts of Georgia (rather reminiscent of the annexation of part of Finland after the Winter War of 1939-40); controlling almost all the media, especially television (which is used as the main means of brainwashing the population), while allowing a few small critical voices to let off steam as in the post-Stalin Soviet period; arresting a few scientists and killing a few journalists from time to time to maintain an atmosphere of healthy anxiety among the intellectuals; purporting to struggle against various manifestations of vaguely defined extremism (thereby trying to give the impression that it professes a middle-of-the-road political outlook); using all manner of devices in an attempt to improve its own image, sometimes with the assistance of 'useful idiots' abroad; covering up its abysmal failures such as the theatre siege in 2002 and the massacre of schoolchildren and others in 2004; and resuming 'active measures' (influencing the governments) in foreign countries such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Austria and Britain, as in Stalinist times. In other words, the book is not only about the FSB but also, and inevitably, about contemporary Russia and the prospects for the Russian state and Russian society.

The authors provide us with a great deal of detailed information about the FSB and its institutional mindset. Of exceptional importance is Appendix 1, which details the structure of this vast organisation. How vast it is remains one of the major state secrets - a sure sign that Russia is still a closed rather than an open society. Judging from the various 'services', 'directorates', 'departments' and 'centres' in Moscow and all over the country, there must be no fewer than 600,000 FSB officers in today's Russia. The FSB propaganda claims it is merely 200,000. But in addition, as the authors point out, there are innumerable 'former' KGB and FSB officers, members of the 'active reserve' or 'apparatus of attached officers', who now occupy important positions in every sphere of Russian life. In other words, the FSB is now more powerful and proportionally even larger than the KGB was in Soviet times, given the smaller population (about 142 million) of the contemporary Russian Federation. And of course in the past the KGB, however brutal and dangerous, was under the firm and effective control of the Communist Party. Now that the latter has almost vanished from the scene, there is no higher power that can maintain a firm grip on the FSB, which has thereby become the main 'state-bearing' force. The FSB, with its sinister past, huge resources and aggressive inclinations, should be taken very seriously by Western politicians and statesmen.

Boris Yeltsin made a catastrophic mistake in 1999 when he, in effect, appointed a dyed-in-the-wool KGB officer as the next president of Russia. Yeltsin thought that Vladimir Putin's basic instincts could be kept under control, repeating the error of those Communist Party barons in the 1920s who backed Stalin, thinking that he was a small and insignificant member of the leadership and a good compromise choice for the top job. Moving so gradually and inconspicuously that hardly anyone noticed, Putin turned the Duma (parliament) into a rubber stamp. Many of the other freedoms of the 1990s were drastically cut back. Even the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the brutal poisoning of the human-rights activist Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the assassination in Qatar of the former president of Chechyna, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, were not wake-up calls for most people. Now 'former' intelligence officers can be found everywhere: in the prime minister's office, among the deputy prime ministers, in the Presidential Administration, the armed forces, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the major branches of industry, the railways, banks and the Academy of Sciences. The production of strategic metals - such as nickel, palladium and polonium - is also in the hands of the FSB. Relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the FSB are even closer than they were prior to 1991, now that official state atheism has been discarded.

Of course, as the authors seem to imply, the FSB is lacking in creative ideas about how to create a better future for the Russian people. The stress is placed on maintaining the status quo, on stability rather than sustainability, as though the supplies of gas and oil will never run dry. One of the main myths revolves around the dogmatic and unimaginative Yuri Andropov, still seen by some today as a sort of role model, despite the fact that he placed the world on the verge of a nuclear holocaust in the autumn of 1983. Another unimaginative person is Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB from 1999 until 2008. In 2000 he fatuously referred to FSB officers as 'our new "nobility"'. But most members of the old Russian nobility were by nature and tradition humane, well-educated, fluent in foreign languages and genuinely cultured. Compared with them, the new 'noblemen' are a bunch of uncivilised commoners.

Some readers of this volume may query a few of the sources used by the authors. It should be realised that most of the archives of the KGB and FSB remain completely closed and will not be declassified for many years to come. With very few exceptions, only Russians living in Russia really know and understand the truth about the past and present of their country, because they have experienced it in their own skin.

Carl Schreck, The Moscow Times, November 12, 2010

'Tracing the Rise of 'The New Nobility'

Since the ascent of Vladimir Putin a decade ago, many hands have been wrung down to the bone in the West over his KGB pedigree and the array of spooks that have joined Russia’s ruling class under his watch. For some excitable critics of the current government, the mere fact of Putin’s service to one of the more ruthless security agencies in modern history is indisputable evidence of his sinister nature and unwavering commitment to restoring a totalitarian state and a menacing security apparatus to safeguard it. The KGB is evil; Putin is KGB; ergo Putin is evil. So goes the supposition.

Fortunately there are inquisitive and intrepid journalists like Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan to bring nuance, analysis and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to the subject of the revival of Russia’s security services. In their new book “The New Nobility,” Soldatov and Borogan — co-founders of the Agentura.ru web site — provide a sober look at the increasing influence of the KGB’s main successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, on the country’s affairs under Putin.

Relying primarily on first-hand reporting they did for a variety of publications — including the influential opposition biweekly Novaya Gazeta — the authors pull no punches in their criticism of endemic corruption and incompetence in the country’s security forces. But they do so with a refreshing lack of hysteria, drawing conclusions from facts they were able to document and refusing to indulge in conspiracy theory.

The book draws its title from a description of his subordinates given by erstwhile FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev in a 2000 newspaper interview. The agencies ranks include “highbrow intellectual analysts,” “broad-shouldered, weather-beaten special forces men,” “taciturn explosives specialists,” and “discreet counter-espionage” officers, Patrushev beamed. “They all look different, but there is one very special characteristic that unites all these people … : It is their sense of service.”

Patrushev’s ebullience was understandable. Russia’s security services had been largely castrated in the 1990s by Boris Yeltsin, who divvied up the former KGB into various agencies in order to play them against one another. In Putin, they now had one of their own running the country. And over the next decade, the authors note, Putin brought much of the former KGB under the auspices of Patrushev’s agency, while “former and current security service agents permeated the ranks of business and government structures.”

Along with their new status, of course, came spoils — including expensive real estate on the prestigious Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Shosse in western Moscow. In contrast to Soviet times, when the KGB merely loaned these properties to its officers, this land — some of the most expensive in Russia — has been handed over to FSB officials for a song.

In one of the book’s more entertaining sections, the authors investigate this naked land-grab and the futile attempts of independent State Duma deputy Viktor Alksnis to challenge such deals, which had outraged his constituents in the area. When the authors pressed authorities for an explanation, they were told the land was doled out under a law meant to provide modest housing to security service veterans. Alksnis’ voters weren’t the only ones incensed, apparently. In a hilarious twist, Soldatov and Borogan discover that several FSB officers had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg with claims of discrimination over their bosses’ access to such perks.

If you live in Russia — or follow its politics — long enough, you learn to shake your head and chuckle at such hijinks. And Soldatov and Borogan delve into plenty of similar light fare associated with the security services’ growing power in the Putin era — including the infamous 2006 “spy rock” scandal involving British diplomats in Moscow and the bizarre tale of Alexander Novikov, who claimed that he was an FSB plant in Garry Kasparov’s opposition group and subsequently sought political asylum in Denmark. But the authors tackle the serious as well, most notably in several chapters devoted to Russia’s response to the terrorist attacks, organized by Chechen rebels, on the Dubrovka theater in 2002 and School No. 1 in Beslan in 2004.

Soldatov and Borogan reported from the ground during both of these horrifying attacks, and their accounts in this book are as gripping as they are incisive — conveying the tension and chaos as security forces attempt to free hundreds of hostages. In the Dubrovka crisis, Russia’s “frightening lack of preparedness for a grave hostage situation” led to more than 100 deaths, largely because medical personnel had not been properly mobilized to handle the aftermath, they conclude.

In Beslan, shoddy organization proved deadly as well, with no visible chain of command controlling the operation to free the parents, teachers and children held in the school by terrorists. About an hour after the gunfire started, the authors saw Eduard Kokoity, president of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, giving orders to Russian troops. “He was the president of another country, but he was one of the people making decisions,” they write. No senior officials were punished for either debacle. Indeed, many received medals or promotions.

To be sure, “The New Nobility” has its flaws. There are stabs at broad conclusions that seem rushed and included only as afterthoughts, and in spots the authors jump from subject to subject with little sense of a narrative thread — like following a chapter about FSB propaganda with a section about secret KGB tunnels under the streets of Moscow. But the sheer volume of original reporting on Russia’s security service — which has landed both Soldatov and Borogan in criminal probes by the FSB — is remarkable.

Those seeking anti-Kremlin diatribes or a categorical denunciation of the country’s increasingly powerful security services will be disappointed by this book. If there is one overarching theme, it is not that the FSB is an inherently insidious entity. It is that in a healthy society, an organization entrusted with so much authority over the public’s well-being must be accountable in some way to the public itself.

Adam LeBor, The Irish Times, October 30, 2010

How Putin and the New Nobility took control of Russia

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM in today’s Russia is a dangerous trade. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group based in New York, 52 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992 while carrying out their work. Many of the murders remained unresolved, the authorities apparently having little interest in bringing the culprits to justice. So it’s a brave reporter who probes the deepest recesses of Russia’s secret state and the seamless morphing of the KGB, the Soviet-era security service, into today’s all-powerful federal security service, the FSB.

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan previously worked at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, one of Russia’s last outposts of critical thinking and investigative journalism. Several of their former colleagues are among those murdered, including Anna Politovskaya, Russia’s best-known critic of the war in Chechnya. Soldatov and Borogan now run the website agentura.ru , which is fascinating, even essential reading for those interested in Russia’s security state (and which is also available in English). Recent stories include an investigation into the spread of surveillance technology, which sounds chillingly familiar to the spread of the surveillance society under British Labour governments, the return of old KGB-style methods of information and propaganda control and the growth of the “New Nobility”, the former KGB and security service officers who now work for the FSB and who control much of Russia’s economy, media and politics. Collectively known as the “Siloviki”, they are embodied most of all in Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer and president of Russia who is now prime minister.

Putin’s ascent and the rise of Siloviki have led many to believe that Russia has lurched back to the Soviet era and a 21st-century version of the former dictatorship. In fact, as Soldatov and Borogan note, in many respects the Siloviki are far more powerful now than under communism.

The Soviet system at least had some in-built checks and balances, as the KGB was under the control of the Communist Party. But, like nature, dictatorships in transition abhor a vacuum, and when communism collapsed the Siloviki swiftly took over the levers of power. Soldatov and Borogan argue that under Putin’s reign the FSB became Russia’s new elite, with greatly expanded responsibilities and immunity from democratic or parliamentary control. FSB officers now fill numerous positions in state bodies and state-owned corporations. The authors chronicle in detail how the rise of the Siloviki has severely curtailed the brief flowering of civil society and democracy under President Yeltsin, in the early 1990s.

Putin at least is open about this. After Russian police detained more than 150 people at an antigovernment protest in Moscow in August, the prime minister said in an interview that anyone protesting without permission would be hit on the head by batons: “That’s all there is to it.”

In fact, as Soldatov and Borogan argue in this impressively detailed and unsettling book, there is much more. Authoritarianism buttressed by a repressive state and violence does not serve Russia well in today’s complex, globalised world. For example, Moscow neither predicted nor prevented the popular uprisings known as the Colour Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, all near and strategically important neighbours. The Kremlin viewed these as a direct result of western meddling. The truth was more complex: as with the uprising that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, western expertise was indeed used by local activists to channel popular discontent by using the internet and modern marketing techniques, such as by branding each revolution with a colour: Rose for Georgia, Orange for Ukraine and Tulip for Kyrgyzstan. Western intelligence services did help topple Milosevic and at the very least closely monitored the Colour Revolutions. But perhaps because of its own unchallenged power and reach the FSB regards its western counterparts as being equally all-powerful manipulators. This is a mistake, as no external agency could actually plan, trigger and execute an uprising in a foreign country. The Colour Revolutions were made not by the CIA or MI6 but by local citizens who wanted to live better and freer lives.

A Colour Revolution in Russia is the Kremlin’s greatest fear, write Soldatov and Borogan. NGOs have been threatened by charges that they are paid agents of foreign states, and Russia’s (very) nascent civil society is cowed and intimidated, although not yet completely crushed. But, as the authors note, the FSB is wasting vast amounts of resources and energy chasing nonexistent threats. There will not be a Colour Revolution in Russia, as there is no appetite for one. The rule of Prime Minister Putin and his Siloviki will continue unchallenged for many years yet, and he remains enormously popular, regarded as a strong leader who will crush Chechen terrorism. Ultimately, the FSB’s greatest weakness is itself, the authors write: “Their excessively suspicious, inward-looking and clannish mentality has translated into weak and ineffective intelligence and counterintelligence operations. In addition, since security agents are everywhere in the government, it also undermines the effectiveness of state governance as a whole.”

Soldatov and Borogan have done an excellent job in shining a light in some of Russia’s darkest corners. But it’s important to note that the Kremlin has no monopoly on repression. The steady stream of reports about CIA rendition of prisoners to be tortured by pliant allies, the growing evidence of collusion in this by British intelligence services, and the massive expansion of Europe’s new security state, which brings enormous riches to those profiting from the non-stop warnings of imminent terror attacks, all show that the West, too, has its ever more powerful Siloviki.

Charles Clover, The Financial Times, October 18, 2010

Secret agents more doltish than tough

It has become a cliché to write that Russia today is ruled by the siloviki – literally, the “tough guys”. Men from the security services, mainly the KGB and its descendant, the Federal Security Service (FSB), swept to power alongside Vladimir Putin, former president, now prime minister, in 2000.

This has become a cliché because it is basically true. But it is possible to overstate the problem. Throughout the decade of Mr Putin’s Russia, which has seen the rise of an authoritarian national security state, the security apparatus has proved to be among the country’s least effective institutions, less a totalitarian juggernaut of Orwellian proportions than an incompetent, corrupt, out-of-its-depth force of provincial thugs.

The New Nobility by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan offers a detailed dissection of the FSB, the heir to the KGB, which still casts a long shadow over Moscow. For more than a decade, the two authors have run the website Agentura.ru, a gold mine of information on the inner workings of the security services, particularly the FSB. In a country where many journalists have been attacked or killed for speaking truth to power, their reporting has been brave.

Their book tracks the rise of the secretive agency at the centre of Mr Putin’s political ascendancy. The FSB has a staff of 200,000, they estimate, with its own police force, army, prisons, companies and foreign networks of agents and assassins. There is no part of Russian life it does not touch.

On coming to power, Mr Putin, a former FSB chief and KGB agent, offered the special services a deal, the authors write. Demoralised and fractured after the Soviet Union’s fall, they barely escaped the fate of the outlawed Soviet Communist party. But in exchange for their help in consolidating the Kremlin’s grip, “Putin’s offer to the generation of security service veterans was a chance to move into the top echelons of power”.

Whereas the Soviet KGB was heavily supervised by the Communist party, the FSB is answerable to virtually no one, and its reach extends from television to university facilities, from banks to government ministries.

But this being the case, why is the FSB so bad at what it does? Stuffed with provincial Russian cops, today’s FSB is less like the former KGB of elite mandarins, and more like a modern day Mukhabarat of Arab regimes, the authors argue, capable of infiltrating and neutralising student groups but largely at sea when it comes to fighting terrorism or espionage.

The agency is less a monolithic force than a resource for the many-sided and diffuse power struggles that collectively make up Russian political and commercial life. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the FSB and the organised crime groups that it infiltrates, or the banks and oil companies that it keeps tabs on. Who, in other words, is working for whom?

Operatives “go dressed in business suits into a zone of influence where power flows back and forth – sometimes the agents are the exploited, and other times they are the infiltrators” write the authors.

In other areas, notably terrorism, the FSB and interior ministry come across more as Keystone Kops than as cold-eyed professionals. From the Nord Ost theatre siege in Moscow in 2002, in which 130 hostages died, only five at the hands of terrorists, to the Beslan high school takeover in 2004, where leadership failures led to a massacre of more than 300 hostages, mainly children, the security services have failed disastrously.

The FSB’s knee-jerk secretiveness creates more problems than it solves. Even when not manipulating, subverting and conspiring, the agency tends to behave as if it is. Its biggest bugbear, for example, is the behaviour of its leadership during a campaign of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in 1999 which killed 293 and led to the second Chechen war. Mr Putin came to power on a wave of xenophobia and war fever accompanying these events and has been the target of speculation that the agency organised the bombings.

When a bomb was discovered in the city of Ryazan and FSB personnel were revealed to be involved, Nikolai Patrushev, FSB director from 1999 to 2008, described it as a training exercise and said the bomb was fake. Soldatov and Borogan believe Mr Patrushev’s claims were essentially true – that a training exercise was indeed under way – but that confusing statements by FSB chiefs fanned the flames of public suspicion. “Instead of providing the public with exhaustive explanations, the FSB did its best to silence questions”, they said. This has inevitably led to more questions.

The writer is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief

Misha Glenny, The Guardian, September 25, 2010

Spooks at the helm

The Russian President, Dimitry Medvedev, has recently had one of his periodic spurts of positivist thinking. His two watchwords, "modernisation" and "democracy", have been echoing across the local and international media as he seeks to ward off persistent accusations that Russia has returned to its bad old ways. "I know the shortcomings of our system better, perhaps, than anyone," Medvedev told an international forum, the Valdai Club, at the beginning of September. "But I categorically disagree with those who say that there is no democracy in Russia; that authoritarian traditions still rule."

Stirring stuff, but before the president throws his cap in the air and an emptied vodka glass into the fireplace, he may like to flick through the pages of The New Nobility, which charts the brief decline followed by the resolute resurrection of the KGB as a primary political force in the country. Or rather, he may not like it. Because every page in this book gainsays his claim in the most forceful fashion imaginable that democracy is now decisive in defining Russia's political direction.

The authors describe how the KGB (or FSB as its primary reincarnation is known) suffered an acute trauma in consequence of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1990 and the failed coup of August 1991 designed by hardliners in the KGB and the military. Dazed and disoriented by the brave new world of capitalism, a majority of generals and other senior ranks scuttled the Lubyanka, the KGB's sepulchral HQ in central Moscow, and placed themselves at the service of the new moneyed class, the oligarchs and their imitators. There are apocryphal stories of how the skeletal remnants of this previously terrifying security service were compelled to sell off the Lubyanka's lightbulbs and toilet paper supply to ward off extinction.

The moment that symbolised the organisation's breathtakingly swift collapse occurred just after the 1991 coup fizzled out, when protesters hauled down the statue of Feliz Dzerzhinsky that dominated Lubyanka Square. Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the Cheka, the first post-revolutionary secret police, which was largely modelled on the Ochrana, its tsarist predecessor.

In one of countless fascinating details, Soldatov and Borogan describe how, in the wake of this event, a group of officers snuck out of the Lubyanka and unscrewed the plaque commemorating Yuri Andropov, ex-head of the KGB and briefly, in the early 1980s, general secretary of the Communist party – that is, the most powerful man in the Soviet Union. It turns out that today members of the FSB still revere Andropov as the man who could have steered the Soviet Union out of the torpor of its later years and into a dynamic future without having to experience the chaos of the 90s and gangster capitalism. Andropov, they are convinced, would have followed a Chinese model: economic transformation while retaining complete political control.

As the oligarchs started ruthlessly hoovering up the wealth of Russia's rich natural resources, they also succeeded in exerting almost total control over President Boris Yeltsin, then sinking into the final stages of alcoholism and heart disease. Under this influence, the KGB was broken up and restructured, partly in the genuine hope that the security force would never again enjoy its lost influence but partly to ensure that the new, even smaller and less representative oligarchic elite were unthreatened. It was the oligarchs who promoted a little-known apparatchik from St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, into the centre of the Kremlin's power on the assumption that this former KGB officer would be as malleable as his predecessor. Soldatov and Borogan demonstrate just how misguided this was.

Once elected president, Putin set about quashing the political dominance of the oligarchs. They were given a choice: buckle under, go to Siberia or leave Russia. With purpose and determination, he then embarked upon the restoration of order. His old pals from the KGB (especially those from his home base) were given the keys to the Kremlin and just about every other important building in Moscow.

Soldatov and Borogan give the creepy details as to how the wild political freedoms that accompanied gangster capitalism were systematically eroded by the Kremlin's new masters. They chipped away at charismatic individuals, at alternative centres of power in Russia's vast regions, at environmental groups and human rights organisations, at foreigners and, as the authors know only too well, at the recently won media freedoms.

There are two profound differences between the KGB and the new FSB structure of power. In the Soviet Union, the KGB was clearly subordinated to the Communist party. This meant that, albeit within the framework of the country's opaque totalitarian structures, there existed some oversight of the KGB and its activities. Now the FSB leadership that so influences policy combines the two roles, which means, of course, that nobody is overseeing its activity. It is effectively free to act as it feels fit; it does so; and that means that for all of Medvedev's warm words about modernisation and democracy, he is living in cloud cuckoo land. The FSB controls all the key political offices of state (with two exceptions – one is Medvedev, the other is the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and they happen to detest each other).

Second, the renaissance of KGB power has not led to a questioning of the new economic system. There is no suggestion of a return to the planned economy. Quite the contrary: the leading members of the security state are gutting its resources with the determination of the best oligarchs. The Kremlin boys are stinking rich and they have no intention of returning to the modest luxuries once enjoyed by the Soviet elite.

The New Nobility is not a work of Kremlinology. It is the product of two profoundly courageous Russian journalists who are meticulous about their reporting. They only publish information that they can properly document. They cultivate contacts inside the security services where they can; they will talk their way through to the front line of dramatic events such as the Nord-Ost siege, when Chechen terrorists took hostage an entire theatre audience.

It is because they are Russian and superbly professional journalists that this book offers dozens of insights that no outsider could provide. They are able to describe their enforced visits to the Lubyanka for interrogation, not to mention a brief spell in the dreaded Lefortovo prison for Soldatov. But perhaps most astonishing is how these two have avoided the gruesome fate that has befallen so many of their colleagues: the four o'clock knock on the door, followed by "whoosh" – erased from history.

Misha Glenny's McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime is published by Vintage.

John Kampfner, The Sunday Times, September 19, 2010

Two investigative journalists expose how the heirs to the KGB are running the nation’s politics and businesses with an iron fist

Journalists who uncover a little too much tend to come to a sticky end in Russia. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan have uncovered more than most. Co-founders of the information website agentura.ru, they have spent the past decade revealing to the world information that the state would rather stay secret. Their target is the most sensitive institution of all in modern Russia: the country’s security service, the FSB, successor to the KGB.

This compelling book is a distillation of their work on the website. Drawing on considerable research, it describes how the KGB, for decades at the violent vanguard of the communist dictatorship, switched effortlessly after the fall of the Soviet Union, preserving the stability of the new ultra-capitalist Kremlin; same people, many of the same methods, different name and economic system.

For a while a more enlightened future beckoned. In the early 1990s the collapse of communism gave rise to a brief flowering of free speech and individual liberty — and also, so the official narrative goes, to chaos. As the old structures collapsed, boundaries were tested. I remember in 1991 watching police stand by as a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, was dismantled right outside its headquarters.

Soldatov and Borogan describe how, in the wake of the collapse, Boris Yeltsin tried (and failed) to split up the security structures in the hope of weakening them. Given that one of the ringleaders of the unsuccessful coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 was the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the organisation was hardly going to stand back while its grip was loosened. “The fall of the Soviet Union was, for the tens of thousands of people in the KGB, a personal disaster,” the authors point out. “For many the KGB was a family business that spanned generations.” Once Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, it saw the opportunity to re-establish itself, albeit with a new name, at the centre of Russian affairs.

Putin was one of the KGB’s own, a middle-ranking spy stationed in East Germany. As the Yeltsin regime disintegrated in a haze of vodka, the security establishment gathered round Putin, and exploited a popular yearning for “order”. Through a mixture of guile and brute force, the new president quickly reasserted the Kremlin’s control. Business leaders who had helped to install him were brought to heel. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the country’s richest entrepreneurs, began to challenge Putin’s political authority, he was dispatched to a labour camp in Siberia. When Vladimir Gusinsky refused to silence his independent television station NTV, the channel was taken over and he was hounded out of the country.

Politicians, businessmen and security chiefs at the heart of the new order worked seamlessly together, and were rewarded together. Old KGB officers suddenly acquired vast new wealth and power. Igor Sechin, one of the key figures in military intelligence, became a deputy prime minister and chairman of Rosneft, one of Russia’s largest oil companies. Sergei Ivanov, a senior official in foreign intelligence, became another deputy prime minster. A former intelligence officer in New York, Vladimir Yakunin, became head of the railways. And so on. The nation’s assets were carved up between them all.

Under Putin, the FSB/KGB was back where it felt it belonged — at the forefront of Russian life. Opposition rallies were in-variably broken up, with violence. The most tiresome oppositionists were done away with. At the same time it had become the Establishment again. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, 75% of senior politicians in Russia have a background in the security services and the country’s 27 largest companies are now headed by former KGB men with personal ties to Putin.

Those who chose a different path were deemed suspect. A series of laws, immeasurably boosting the FSB’s power, were passed clamping down on “anti-state behaviour”. Acts of dissent were categorised as forms of treason and extremism, crimes punishable by up to 20 years in jail. From human-rights groups to environmental campaigners to a mine-clearance charity, anyone not directly under the Kremlin’s thumb was regarded as subversive. Anyone who received support from the West (particularly Britain) was assumed to be in league with foreign intelligence. Under the guise of fighting radical Islam, new laws were passed to support the FSB. “In the campaign against extremism, the authorities placed the emphasis on prevention,” the authors note.

The book explains some of the tools the security services use. A system called PTK is connected to the “Express” and “Magistral” databases, which receive information about all travel tickets. “Practically every large rail terminal and airport in Russia…is now equipped with a face-recognition system known as ‘video lock’,” the authors point out. Cameras are located in railway cars, waiting rooms, cash registers and platforms. All security forces have access to a new database called “Extremist”. By 2008 fingerprint data from almost half of Russia’s 145m citizens had been logged on a central register.

Yet few people complain. The middle classes have been largely anaesthetised by conspicuous consumption, and most people have bought into the propaganda about the “perils” facing the nation. Television has played a key role in this. In 2002, Putin installed a senior FSB official, General Alexander Zdanovich, as deputy director of the main TV and radio company. One of his tasks was to ensure that popular shows were created to improve the reputation of the security services. Production values are slick and modern. The message is relentless. In one film, Kod Apokalipsisa (The Apocalypse Code), an attractive female FSB colonel saves seven world capitals. Another, a documentary called Shpioni (Spies), revealed the infamous “spy rock” scandal in which a British embassy official was accused of trying to retrieve data from a spy communications device disguised as a rock.

One omission is stark — and puzzling. The authors devote scant attention to the murder in London of former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko, confining themselves to the basic facts and stating that they have no conclusive evidence. The newspaper they were working for at the time, the Novaya Gazeta, had previously covered Litvinenko’s allegations against the authorities. Yet when he died, they did not really investigate.

The state of Russian journalism reflects the state of its democracy. Putin uses the term zhurnalyuga, “journalist scum”, to describe the profession. Beleaguered and intimidated, the vast majority of reporters buckle under the pressure; a precious few refuse to do so. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 52 (including, most famously, Anna Politkovskaya) have been killed since 1992 in Russia, a country with one of the worst records for safeguarding free speech. Given the dangers, self-censorship and compliance are the norm. It takes some tenacity to keep going.

Soldatov and Borogan have suffered their fair share of intimidation. Soldatov has been interrogated half a dozen times. He and Borogan have worked for, and been asked to leave, four different newspapers. Their editors have used conventional reasons such as cost-cutting as the pretext. Everyone, though, knows the real reason: fear.

Despite this, Russian newspapers still quote their views as security experts, even if they don’t dare commission fresh reporting from them. Their website was hit by a mass cyber attack earlier this year; as a result they have shifted their server to America. It is still going strong, though. For all the lost opportunities of the past two decades, Russia has not quite returned to pre-1991 USSR. This book, after all, is being published by dogged journalists who continue to ply their trade there. That is remarkable in itself.

John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship and the author of Freedom for Sale.

Edward Lucas, The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2010

State Security, Post-Soviet Style

Closing down independent political life, branding critics as 'extremists.'

In Soviet days, every corner of the KGB was under the tight control of the Communist Party. In Vladimir Putin's Russia, the FSB—the KGB's main successor—is largely unsupervised by anyone. Mr. Putin, briefly the FSB's boss in the late 1990s, gave the secret-police agency free rein after taking over as Russia's president from the ailing Boris Yeltsin in 2000. The FSB's license has continued under the Putin-steered presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. The agency's autonomy has been a catastrophe for Russia and should be a source of grave concern for the West.

Mr. Yeltsin encouraged competition between Russia's spooks, but—as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan make clear in "The New Nobility," a disturbing portrait of the agency—Mr. Putin has given the FSB (from its Russian acronym Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or Federal Security Service) a near monopoly. Originally just a domestic security service, it has become a sprawling empire, with capabilities ranging from electronic intelligence-gathering to control of Russia's borders and operations beyond them. "According to even cautious estimates, FSB personnel total more than 200,000," the authors write. The FSB's instincts are xenophobic and authoritarian, its practices predatory and incompetent.

Critics of Russia see the FSB as the epitome of the country's lawlessness and corruption. But those inside the agency see themselves as the ultimate guardians of Russia's national security, thoroughly deserving of the rich rewards they reap. Nikolai Patrushev, who succeeded Mr. Putin as the agency's director in 2000 and who is now secretary of Russia's Security Council, calls his FSB colleagues a "new nobility." Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan see a different parallel: They liken the FSB to the ruthless Mukhabarat, or religious police, found in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries: impenetrable, corrupt and ruthless.

Few people are better placed than Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan to write with authority on this subject. They run the website Agentura.Ru, a magpie's nest of news and analysis that presents a well-informed view of the inner workings of this secret state. Given the fates that have befallen other investigative journalists in Russia in recent years, some might fear for the authors' safety. But the publication of the "The New Nobility" in English is welcome; it should be essential reading for those who hold naïve hopes about Russia's development or who pooh-pooh the fears of its neighbors.

The book provides a detailed history of the FSB's ascendancy over the past decade. It describes how Mr. Putin turned to the agency to consolidate his power. (The authors do not share the notion, held by some Russia-watchers, that it was the FSB—in those days a demoralized and chaotic outfit—that actually put Mr. Putin into the top job.) We're told that Mr. Putin gave the agency a seat at Russia's "head table," but "trough," rather than table, might be more accurate.

The authors recount how the Russian government has made outright land grants in much sought-after areas to high-ranking FSB officials, who then build gaudy mansions down the road from their oligarch neighbors. "Whether in the form of valuable land, luxury cars, or merit awards, the perks afforded FSB employees (especially those in particularly good standing) offer significant means of personal advancement. Russia's new security services are more than simply servants of the state—they are landed property owners and powerful players."

Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan also present a chilling account of how the FSB, along with the prosecutor's office and the interior ministry, has closed down independent political life in Russia, intimidating bloggers and trade unionists, infiltrating and disrupting opposition parties, and tarring all critics of the regime as "extremists."

The authors give skimpy treatment to the FSB's downgraded but still important rivals within the Russian bureaucracy: the GRU military-intelligence service and the SVR, which retains the main responsibility for foreign espionage (including the maintenance of an extensive network of "sleeper" agents, such as those unmasked in the U.S. over the summer). "The New Nobility" is unbeatable for its depiction of today's FSB, but the book might have paid more attention to the long-term debilitating effects of the agency's corruption and nepotism: Those may contain the seeds of the FSB's ultimate destruction.

Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan rightly highlight the grim results of FSB power in Russia. Its counterterrorism efforts have been a fiasco. Russia faces a terrorist threat from alienated and brutalized Muslims in the North Caucasus that is far worse than it was in the Yeltsin years.

Greed, rather than selfless patriotism, has been the hallmark of Mr. Patrushev's "new nobility." The FSB may indeed be in some respects as dreadful as the indolent, spendthrift and brutal Russian aristocracy toppled in the Bolshevik revolution. But that is presumably not the parallel that the grand-duke of spookdom had in mind.

Mr. Lucas is the international editor of the Economist and the author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West."

David Hearst, Guardian, September 13, 2010

Who really wields power in Russia

A corrupt security service on a longer leash than the KGB – a new book tells a very different story to the official one

The two men who run Russia have been sketching varying visions of the future, in what passes for the party conference season. In Sochi a week ago, Vladimir Putin spent nearly three hours parrying questions from theValdai Club, a group of foreign academics and journalists (including the Guardian) and told them that things would stay as they are. The prime minister looked tanned and fit. His nails were manicured and he turned out for the occasion in a glitzy suit and open linen shirt. If Franklin D Roosevelt had four terms of office, why could not he? Putin poured scorn on the idea of returning to elected regional governors and regaled the company with tales of how one of them bolted through the back door rather than face angry villagers after a disaster.

On Friday it was Dmitry Medvedev's turn to take the stage. The Russian president was flanked in Yaroslavl by South Korea's Lee Myung-bak on one side and Silvio Berlusconi on the other, but the annual gathering had some way to go before it could be called a Russian Davos. Medvedev wanted to knock on the head the notion that Russia was an autocracy – the description Putin seemed only too comfortable with in Sochi. "In Russia there is democracy. Yes it is young, immature, inexperienced but its democracy all the same. We are at the very start of the road."

Maybe, but Medvedev is not at the start of his. A year after his "Go Russia" article in which he tore into Russia's primitive raw-materials-based economy, its chronic corruption and the arbitrariness, lack of freedom and injustice to which its citizens were treated – all his phrases – the question can rightly be asked about when the president intends to set out on his long liberalising journey. By all accounts, not quite yet.

Both performances in Sochi and Yaroslavl are in marked contrast to how government actually functions in Russia. A glimpse into this will be provided at the end of the month by the publication of a book into the Federal Security Service (FSB) by two investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Their thesis is that under the aegis of Putin, a veteran KGB officer, the FSB has developed into something more powerful and more frightening that its predecessor. They call it the New Nobility and, significantly, the book will be published in English and outside Russia, before any attempt is made to sell it in Russia.

Soldatov and Borogan stick only to what they know and what they can prove. They discard claims they can not stand up, such as the allegations by Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB lieutenant colonel poisoned in London, that Putin was behind two apartment bombings in Moscow, which killed over 200 people and were used to launch his career and a second war in Chechnya.

This approach makes their account all the more authoritative. The organisation they describe has grown into every facet of Russian life – the media, business, the internet – but it differs from the KGB in two respects: there is much less political control over the security service than there was under communism, and the generals who run it are now wealthy men, with both land and business interests.

The clearest example of the FSB's new wealth is to be glimpsed behind three metre high walls along the gold coast of Rublyovka. This is the route all occupiers of the Kremlin have taken to their dachas in the forests outside Moscow. It was called the road of the Tsar after Ivan the Terrible used it to go falcon hunting. In Soviet times, the politburo, the central committee, artists and scientists all had wooden retreats along it.

Their wooden dachas in pale, flaking green paint are dwarfed by today's columned brick and stone mansions, which trade hands for millions of dollars. The road of the tsars is now lined with Maserati showrooms and adverts for flats bureaucrats can buy for their mistresses.

In 2006 Viktor Alksinis, a former colonel in the Soviet air force who was elected to the state duma from a district which included the Rublyovka, discovered the state had doled out 99 acres of land in the area to private citizens. They were divided into 90 allotments, 38 of them taken from the funds of the FSB material support management directorate. This land was given outright to former and current high ranking FSB officials. In researching these transactions, Soldatov and Borogan noted that the FSB generals were not noted by name or rank and were merely called: "servicemen who served more than 15 years".

This is just one example out of many presented in the book about who really wields power in Russia. The authors conclude: "Reaping lucrative property in the elite forests of the Rublyovka may comfort generals nearing the end of their careers but does not prepare a new generation to become fair arbiters and respected enforcers in a democratic society."

Steven Aftergood, director of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, September 13, 2010

The New Nobility: Russia’s Security State

“The Soviet police state tried to control every citizen in the country. The new, more sophisticated Russian [security] system is far more selective than its Soviet-era counterpart; it targets only those individuals who have political ambitions or strong public views.” That’s what Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan discover in “The New Nobility,” their impressive new book on the resurgence of Russia’s security services in the post-Cold War era.

Soldatov and Borogan, Russian journalists who have produced some of the boldest reporting on the subject over the past decade, are also the creators and editors of Agentura.ru, a pioneering web site devoted to public interest research on Russian intelligence policy and related matters.

In “The New Nobility,” they present many of the decisive episodes in the recent history of the FSB, the primary Russian security service, from the 2002 Moscow theater siege, to the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the war in Chechnya, and more. Overall they present a picture of a security service of increasing power and influence, uneven competence — but virtually no accountability to parliament or the public.

“The Soviet KGB was all-powerful,” Soldatov and Borogan write, “but it was also under the control of the political structure: The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division. In contrast, the FSB is a remarkably independent entity, free of party control and parliamentary oversight….”

The book is based on the authors’ original reporting, which itself is a demonstration of unusual courage and commitment. A reader soon loses track of the number of times their computers are seized by authorities, how often their papers’ web servers are confiscated, and how many times they are summoned for interrogation or even charged with crimes based on their reporting. Yet they persist.

Their book is full of remarkable observations. For example:

  • In 2006, the FSB organized a competition “for the best literary and artistic works about state security operatives.”
  • The history of Moscow’s Lefortovo prison has never been documented. “Even the prison’s design [in the shape of the letter K] remains a mystery.”
  • The Russian security services in Chechnya have made extensive use of the tactic known as “counter-capture,” which involves seizing the relatives of suspected terrorists in order to induce them to surrender.

Fundamentally, the authors contend, Russia’s FSB has gone astray by acting as an agent of state authority instead of representing the rule of law. “In today’s Russia,… the security services appear to have concluded that their interests, and those of the state they are guarding, remain above the law.” An American reader may ponder the similarities and differences presented by U.S. security services.

“The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB” by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan is being published this month by Public Affairs Books.

“To those following the increasingly hostile environment for journalists in Russia, Soldatov’s career is a curiosity,” according to an internal profile of him prepared by the DNI Open Source Center in 2008. “Despite being questioned and charged by the FSB on several occasions, Soldatov has continued to cover hot-button issues such as corruption, security service defectors, and the increasing role of the special services in limiting free speech in Russia.”

The New York Times featured Agentura.ru in “A Web Site That Came in From the Cold to Unveil Russian Secrets” by Sally McGrane, December 14, 2000.

The New York Times has also published Above the Law, a continuing series of stories by Clifford J. Levy on “corruption and abuse of power in Russia two decades after the end of Communism.”

Kirkus Reviews, June 14, 2010

Russian journalists Soldatov and Borogan track the troubling rise of the new Russian secret service – the Federal Security Service (FSB).

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the successor to the much loathed and feared KGB became the FSB, decentralized and defanged of much of its espionage activity by Boris Yeltsin, who initiated an unprecedented era of openness. However, the FSB was beset by internal splintering, ethnic independence conflicts, organized crime and corruption – until Yeltsin appointed KGB veteran Vladimir Putin as the new director in 1998. Under Putin the service consolidated much of its lost power, such as overseas electronic intelligence and military counterintelligence, and absorbed many of the former retired KGB chiefs as “agents on active reserve” or captains of business, media and the public sector – e.g., former FSB spokesman Gen. Alexander Zdanovich, appointed deputy director of the state-owned TV and radio company VGTRK. After the economic crisis and renewed war in Chechnya, the KGB reasserted its control under Putin, and a new era of targeting foreign organizations ensued.

The “hunt for foreign spies” was deemed top priority, experienced firsthand by authors, who were both harassed as journalists at Novaya Gazeta.Soldatov and Borogan pursue the KGB's tactics in monitoring “extremists,” i.e., dissident protestors, trade unions and youth groups. They look into further pernicious developments, including how the new elite KGB officers have cultivated taste for luxury every bit as decadent as the former KGB heads; how the KGB has infiltrated sports; the haunting ramifications of Putin's rehabilitation of ruthless long-running KGB chief Yuri Andropov; and the shakeup following the disastrous responses to the Chechen hostage-taking attacks of Nord-Ost (2002) and Beslan (2004). In short, clear chapters, the authors delineate with substantial evidence FSB activities at home (Lefortovo Prison) and abroad (assassinations and hacking).

A relentless investigation that demonstrates how, with Putin's rise, the KGB has taken its place “at the head table of power and prestige in Russia”.