Staunton, December 20 – Today, the Day of the Chekist is being marked by the Russian Federation, perhaps the only country in the world to have a special holiday devoted to the security services and an indication not only the Chekism “cannot be destroyed,” as one KGB officer put it, but that in Russia today, it is triumphant, Leonid Mlechin says.
The historian of the Russian security services begins his reflections on this point by quoting General Valery Vorotnikov, the former head of the Fifth Chief Directorate of the Soviet KGB: ‘How to destroy Chekism? Chekism cannot be destroyed. Hundreds and thousands of people have been trained on its principles” (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/175012).
“If you want to create a new service, you have the power to do so,” Vorotnikov said in the early 1990s, “but keep in mind that with these people you will create nothing but the KGB of the USSR because you will not be able to reeducate these people. To establish a new service, you would have to remove every single one and assemble entirely new people.”
After the USSR disintegrated, all Russian government structures absorbed the Soviet ones, except for the KGB. It in contrast “swallowed the Russian structure,” Mlechin says, and managed to create a situation that was best for itself, one in which no outsider like the CPSU Central Committee could change its basic values and approaches.
Of course, the successor to the KGB couldn’t restrict travel abroad as it had in the past and couldn’t vet appointments except in the state apparatus. But that had consequences: the new security agency focused on “the spiritual situation of society” in order to ensure its influence under the new political system.
The appearance in the 2000s of new laws restricting criticism in fact gave the FSB new possibilities. As former FSB director Col.Gen. Nikolay Golushko warned, “the application of these norms of the criminal code will bring on more problems” that the earlier Soviet ones about slandering the Soviet state system.
As an experienced specialist, Golushko understood that “such laws push the operational worker down the old path,” not to fight terrorism or espionage but to “try to influence the attitudes in society and to direct them,” Mlechin continues. That is because the security agency consists of people who believe that strict control and subordination are always required.
They are recruited and trained to be suspicious to everyone around them and to view the world as “sharply divided between us and them. And they are accustomed to act with methods which often are unacceptable in civic life,” the historian says. Moreover and quite rapidly, they spread their values into many other spheres of Russian life.
Post-Soviet Russian businessmen were glad to recruit former siloviki but they quickly discovered that in the new system, they could not get along without them. The former KGB officers moved into all kinds of other positions as well, “but they rarely became deputies or ministers. That too was part of the Soviet tradition.”
In Soviet times, only rarely did KGB officers become senior party officials. There were only three exceptions: Geydar Aliyev in Azerbaijan, Boris Pugo in Latvia and Givi Gumbaridze in Georgia. The first was installed to fight corruption; the second and third weren’t really professional Chekists but rather party and Komsomol workers who went into the KGB.
The FSB like the KGB before it won support from politicians because it suggests that any shortcomings are not the result of mistakes by leaders but rather the product of criminal conspiracies that must be rooted out and that only the security service has information, not available to others, that allows the system to defend itself.
In the short term, this gives the security services enormous power; but their influence over time corrupts the political leadership and even gets it in trouble by robbing the latter of the ability to view the world accurately and encouraging them to give the security services their head, something that may land the politicians in trouble, Mlechin says.
Over the last 15 years, the security services have triumphed sometimes helping the political elite but sometimes acting in ways that undercut the goals of the rulers, the historian continues. The turning point was the February 2004 murder of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen leader, in Qatar.
That FSB action showed that once again the Russian security agencies could act on the basis of their own conclusions rather than in cooperation with political leaders who might have decided on a different approach. Since then, the situation has become even more problematic with the FSB acting abroad in ways that instead of furthering Russia’s interests, undermine them.
But Chekism is now triumphant in the Kremlin; and the Kremlin has to live with the consequences of that. How long it will be able to do so very much remains to be seen, the historian suggests.