Accusations of complicity in the murder of a former KGB agent in the UK won't be able to deal Vladimir Putin any serious political damage.
Marina Litvinenko, widow of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, reads a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Thursday, Jan. 21. Photo: AP
For a very different take read: "The KGB: The spies who protect the Russian bear"
The publication of materials on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a political immigrant and an ex-officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who was poisoned in the UK in November 2006, has attracted universal attention. The main reason is the authors' conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been involved in Litvinenko's murder.
By itself such an assumption can hardly be called new and unexpected: many commenters voiced such thoughts right after Litvinenko's death. But now is the first time it's been fixed in an official document which was prepared by order of the British parliament.
This circumstance puts the UK government in the middle of a serious moral-political dilemma: UK Prime Minister David Cameron has to somehow react to Sir Robert Owen's report, and yet there's no desire to completely ruin relationships with Moscow, with whom there has just been some convergence of positions on the Syrian crisis.
The return of Litvinenko's case into the public discourse has again reminded everyone that Russia is headed by an ex-KGB officer and former FSB director – a man whose worldview formed in the womb of one of the most ominous and powerful intelligence services in the world. The ethical code by which Putin abides when making political decisions may be drastically different from the ethical code of the political leaders of the U.S. or European countries.
For Putin, the KGB is top priority
Suspicions that Putin puts the interests of the intelligence services alongside, if not higher, than the interests of his country has been expressed by Western journalists and politicians multiple times. Probably the most famous quote belongs to the American senator John McCain. In 2008, playing on a phrase by president George W. Bush about "Putin's soul" which the former U.S. president said he had seen in the Russian leader's eyes, McCain said: "I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B."
The new features of Russian foreign policy that appeared in 2014-2015 (the annexation of Crimea, support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the military operation in Syria) give many commenters the idea that the authority in Russia has finally gone into the hands of some gang of "hawks," the people close to president Putin who started a career in KGB together with him and who in time have occupied key positions in the Russian government.
Quite popular is the theory that, in the last years of the USSR's existence, the KGB remained the only effective political institution, which helped it survive the breakup of the country and the shocks of the 1990s.
Ex-Soviet chekists under the new name of the FBS have preserved their traditions and esprit de corps, and in 2000, even managed to nominate their representative to become president of Russia. Since then their positions have only strengthened. Having gradually dealt with various "internal enemies," in 2014 they turned to realization of a large-scale program of rejuvenating the foreign policy power of Russia, leaning on the reinvigorated military forces, the nation's nuclear potential and political influence that had been preserved in separate regions of the globe.
In this interpretation, the KGB / FSB looks almost like a savior of Russian statehood, the only structure that is capable of resisting the pressure of wily foreign powers. It's not a surprise that even Russian politicians themselves – in some cases, those with the intelligence services background – are not ashamed of their past; on the contrary, they jump at every opportunity to recall the "officer's code of honor" and noble principles that they have been guided by throughout their entire political careers.
Putin himself participates actively in the formation of this myth of a noble knight – an intelligence officer on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of preserving and strengthening the great and indivisible Russia.
Debunking the myth about the power of KGB
It's interesting that Putin's political opponents both in Russia and abroad quite often involuntarily play along with the Russian president, blaming him for excessive sympathies to the Soviet secret police responsible for mass murders, persecution of dissidents and trampling on any sprouts of political freedom.
Intending to brand Putin like that and put him under moral judgement, in truth they only help him strengthen the myth of his involvement in the "great and terrible" Soviet KGB. In the historical memory of many Russians, the KGB paradoxically embodies absolute evil and absolute power, which gives the leader who proved his connection to this structure an opportunity to use both to his own liking.
By officially condemning all the evils associated with the KGB, Putin somewhat implies that as payment he, an heir of the best traditions of the Soviet "chekists," demands absolute submission. Outside of this ideological myth creation lies a rather prosaic and bleak reality.
By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet KGB was neither the most influential nor the most effective institution. Its chief Vladimir Kruychkov was among the participants of the failed conservative coup in August 1991, who found himself behind bars and walked free due to amnesty only two years later.
In the 1990s, ex-KGB officers wandered off in different directions, some into the businesses just being born, some into the new government, some into openly criminal structures. Nominating Putin for president of Russia wasn't a result of the FSB's efforts as a special corporation; rather, it just happened due to the circumstances.
In the highest echelons of political power of modern Russia, indeed, one can meet quite a lot of KGB graduates. However, practically all of them share another similarity in their biographies: at some point of their lives they studied together, worked together or exercised together in the same sports club with Putin.
What some attempt to showcase as a "top secret" project of Soviet and Russian intelligence officers in truth is a personal project of Putin, who managed to consolidate huge power and political influence in his hands.
Why Putin gains from the Litvinenko report
If one starts attempting to figure out what served as a base for the formation of the ethical code of the Russian president, it turns out that KGB service was only one of the factors, and, most likely, not the key one. Putin was far from attracting attention to his chekist past in the 1990s when he worked as part of the team of Anatoly Sobchak, a mayor of St. Petersburg and one of the politicians whose passionate speeches during the perestroika era led to undermining of the pillars of Soviet statehood.
Also read: "In Russia, you can't beat the sistema"
Exactly during this period, which is now called "the dark decade," all key features of political and business ethics of contemporary Russia were formed. In 1990s Russia, one could not escape the atmosphere of cynicism, loss of ideals and all-consuming desire for profit. There's multiple evidence that neither Putin, nor his colleagues from St. Petersburg city hall remained sheer observers of such events. And it's particularly clear that at the time they did not aim for the image of the "noble knights saving Russia from ruin."
Near the beginning of the new millennium, FSB officer Litvinenko, who had quarreled with his bosses and acquired political asylum in the UK, started publishing revealing materials about the actions of the FSB and Putin. As a result, he was transferred into the category of "traitor spies" whom the KGB / FSB never considered shameful to deal with using rather subtle methods. Litvinenko was later poisoned and died after three weeks of suffering.
Despite the suspicions of Putin having a hand in that, such suspicions doubtfully would ever gain serious evidence. The Russian president himself learned long ago to use such accusations in his favor. Those who consider Litvinenko a traitor will respect Putin even more now. And those who think Litvinenko an innocent victim will fear Putin more.
The respect of followers and the fear of enemies – that's exactly what Putin's influence is based on, both in Russia and beyond.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.