The Magazine

Secret Agent Man

The KGB past of Russian president Vladimir Putin is worrying. Then again, the KGB isn't what it used to be

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
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Over the past few days and weeks, much has been made of the "mystery" of Vladimir Putin, the man who now runs Russia. Yet in some ways, we know far more about him than we ever knew about the very private Boris Yeltsin. We know, for example, how he interprets the history of his country in the twentieth century. And we know who his heroes are. In fact, not long ago, a few weeks before the election, he took time out of his prime ministerial duties to enact a ceremony commemorating both.

He chose the site with care: the Lubyanka, once the headquarters of the KGB and its most notorious jail -- prisoners exercised on its roof, and were tortured in its cellars -- and now the home of the FSB, Russia's internal security services. He also took heed of the date: December 20, a day still known and celebrated by some as "Chekists Day," the anniversary (this was the 82nd) of the founding of the Cheka, Lenin's secret police. In that place and on that day, both so redolent of the bloodiest pages of Russian history, Vladimir Putin solemnly unveiled a plaque in memory of . . . Yuri Andropov.

Given that Putin has just come to power in Russia by virtue of a democratic vote, Andropov would seem, at first, an odd sort of hero. Andropov was director of the KGB for many years before briefly becoming, in 1982, general secretary of the Communist party. And he was not just some faceless apparatchik: Andropov is still known for his fervent belief that "order and discipline," as enforced by the methods of the KGB -- arrests of dissidents, imprisonment of corrupt officials, the creation of fear -- would have restored the sagging fortunes of the Soviet Union.

Still known, that is, and still admired. Indeed, the idea that Andropov died "too early," and that Mikhail Gorbachev subsequently bungled the assignment is a sentiment common to many in the ranks of the former KGB, some of whom still see a conspiracy in his premature death. "They got him before he finished the job," one ex-officer told me wistfully. Hardly surprising, then, that in recent months Putin, who first tried to join Andropov's KGB at the tender age of 15, has become the first post-Soviet leader to openly link himself to the same set of beliefs: "Order and discipline" are favorite words in Putin's vocabulary too.

This is not to say that Putin is the second coming of Andropov. Putin is not even the first leader of post-Soviet Russia to have ties to the world of espionage and repression. Both of his predecessors as prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin, were also former KGB agents. Nor was he ever a Russian James Bond: One former elite agent, based for many years in the West (I spoke to him in his slick offices in a new Russian bank) dismisses Putin as a "second-rate middle lieutenant." Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB double agent in Britain, is equally scathing about "the gray mass of officers" who were sent to places like Dresden, Putin's only foreign posting. Putin was not, he says, part of that "cosmopolitan group of officers" that clamored for change in the KGB at the end of the 1980s.

Nor can Putin be held responsible for bringing what Russians call the "special services" back from the low point they reached at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Yeltsin regime excluded them, effectively punishing them for having participated in the coup against Gorbachev. Most observers date their "return" not from Putin's appointment to the prime ministership in 1999, but from 1993. That was the year Yeltsin sent tanks to fire on his parliament -- and simultaneously decided that the gaggle of squabbling democrats around him were not up to running the country. The services were, says Mark Galleotti, specialist in Russian security for Jane's Intelligence Review, "looking to regain ground just as Yeltsin was looking to regain control."

Over the past seven years, Yeltsin has increased their funding, beefed up their public image -- books and articles have celebrated the glamorous lives of patriotic Soviet spies -- and put them to work. Since 1995, the FSB has had permission to open mail, tap telephones, and enter private residences without a court order -- if Russia's "national security interests" (a term left undefined) are threatened. In 1998, the agency began demanding that Russian Internet service providers install technology linking their computers to those at FSB headquarters as well. Increased harassment of small human rights and environmental organizations, particularly those investigating issues of nuclear pollution, dates back two or three years now. Putin's rise to prominence is a reflection of the increased power of the security services, not its cause.