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BBC News: Russian ex-spies flex their muscles

BBC News President Putin image

(Mr Ivanov and Mr Putin, both ex-KGB, are close associates)

This week Russian communists laid flowers at the tomb of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, on the 130th anniversary of his birth.

The BBC’s James Rodgers in Moscow examines the enduring influence of the secret police in the era of President Vladimir Putin – himself a former KGB officer.

Communist-era secret police became hate figures across much of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

When those regimes unravelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people celebrated their demise. Archives were opened, informers were exposed, former dissidents became presidents.

But in Russia, things turned out differently.

After a decade of unpredictable change – in which jobs, savings, and many of the certainties which had come with communism simply disappeared – Russians looked for another solution.

In March 2000, they turned not to a dissident writer or activist. They elected a former KGB officer to lead the country.

As he prepares to leave office next spring, Vladimir Putin enjoys popularity ratings his predecessors could never have dreamed of.

His KGB past has proved no obstacle to widespread support among the population.

Soviet iron fist

The secret police under one name or another were a hugely influential force in Russia throughout the Soviet period.

 Working in intelligence you need to be informed about a lot of things and you need to be able to work with people and respect your partners

President Vladimir Putin

They began as the “Cheka” – from the Russian letters standing for “Extraordinary Commission”. In that incarnation, they gave the Russian language the word “Chekist”.

The ties of loyalty which agents develop are supposed to last for life. As the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as a former Chekist”.

KGB veterans may add: “there are only traitors”.

Many of Mr Putin’s former fellow officers have prospered during his tenure.

They are known in Russian today as the siloviki. The name comes from the Russian word sila, meaning “strength” or “power”.

Privileged elite

In Soviet times, those who joined the KGB’s ranks were in a position of privilege. They were considered reliable enough to see and hear things which the Soviet regime kept from the majority of the population.

Foreign travel was a rare opportunity. It gave those lucky enough to get it an experience denied to their follow citizens. They gained an understanding of the world as it really was, not just as it appeared in the Soviet media.

They served under the guise of diplomats, journalists and members of trade delegations. Top-quality language tuition had equipped them for intelligence-gathering.

Their varied experience and extensive contacts gave them the qualities they needed to find their way through the chaos and uncertainty of Russia in its immediate post-Soviet years.

Not only have they survived, they have succeeded. KGB agents, and those from the KGB’s main successor agency, the FSB (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or State Security Service), are among those making millions from Russia’s economic boom.

“Former KGB officers and current FSB officers are increasing their influence in the oil and gas industries,” says Mikhail Krutikhin, of Rusenergia.

Mr Krutikhin’s years as a foreign correspondent for the Tass news agency brought him into frequent contact with Soviet intelligence officers. He sees the hand of their successors in Russia’s richest industries, which he now follows as an analyst.

“Russian companies have ‘curators’ assigned to them,” he explains. “They make requests and demands for information on foreign clients.”

Shadowy careers

Mr Putin himself has spoken proudly of his past in the KGB, suggesting that the experience has helped him as head of state.

Many of those now occupying positions of power in the Kremlin, and in the top levels of Russian business – the two often overlap – are believed to have been KGB agents. Their official biographies rarely spell it out, but gaps in individual CVs, or foreign postings during Soviet times, strongly suggest it.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has studied the country’s centres of power since the late 1980s. This is what she sees today.

“A quarter of the political elite are siloviki,” she says.

Her definition includes not only the KGB, but also the military and other security forces.

That’s only the ones who publicly admit to it. It is not in the nature of many secret policemen to disclose their identity.

Ms Kryshtanovskaya estimates that when those she describes as “affiliated” – that is, not publicly declared – are taken into account, the figure could be as high as three-quarters.

One of those who makes no secret of his KGB past is Sergei Ivanov. “I am proud of it,” he told the BBC’s Hardtalk programme last year.

Mr Ivanov is currently one of Russia’s first deputy prime ministers. He is frequently spoken of as a likely successor to Mr Putin.

The siloviki look set to stay strong.

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