With the rise to prominence of Vladimir Putin in 1999, ex-KGB officers have increasingly taken on an expanded role in steering the future of the nation. Should we be concerned?

"For Putin, being a Russian means to be able to resist outside pressure." Photo: Reuters

For a very different take read: "The KGB saga: Putin and the Litvinenko case"

When Vladimir Putin succeeded Sergei Stepashin as Prime Minister in 1999, he was the third former high-ranking KGB officer in a row to lead the Russian government. By the end of the year, President Boris Yeltsin – in poor health and politically weak – announced his resignation and pointed to Putin as his successor. Thus, with the new millennium, a new chapter in Russia’s history began - a chapter, where former intelligence officers play a crucial role.

The fall and rise of KGB officers

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, some 500,000 active KGB officers were suddenly purposeless. Their employer was gone. And so no orders came to KGB’s station in Dresden on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was falling. As a KGB lieutenant on his first foreign mission, Putin felt hurt by Moscow’s silence. “It was as if my country doesn’t exist anymore,” remembers today’s President in the book from 2000, First Person.

Most of Putin’s colleagues faced the same uncertainty, but not for long. With their knowledge of foreign languages, training and personal connections, the KGB officers were well prepared to succeed in the new Russia. And they were desired almost everywhere.

Many have become successful businessmen: Rosneft’s Igor Sechin and Sergei Chemezov from the technological consortium Rostec, to name but a few. Others have stayed to serve, more or less loyally, to the Russian state. The KGB’s successors – the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Military Intelligence Service (GRU) and the Federal Counter-Narcotics Service (FSKN) – absorbed a majority of the KGB staff.

The share of security and military veterans in central and regional governments doubled between 1988 and 1993, and then doubled again by 1999. Anatoli Sobchak, the anti-KGB activist turned mayor of Saint Petersburg between 1991 and 1996, employed at least five KGB veterans in his team - a surprising number for such an outspoken opponent of the KGB.

Sobchak’s Chief of Staff, Victor Ivanov, worked closely with the first deputy head of the city administration, Putin. When Putin became the head of the FSB in 1998, he in turn made Victor Ivanov his deputy. As one of the closest allies, Ivanov served in Putin’s first Presidential Administration and now heads the FSKN.

Ivanov’s career path eloquently illustrates the path followed by many other of Putin’s trusted aides. Some, such as the current head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, have known Putin since their student years in St. Petersburg in the 1970s. With others, Putin became acquainted during the KGB years in the 1980s. Such connection gives influence, for instance, to Nikolai Patrushev, the Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, and to FSB Director Mikhail Bortnikov.  

Together with other former intelligence officers, they proudly represent the so-called chekists. This traditional term for Russia’s spies refers to the notorious tradition of the revolutionary All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (Chrezvychainaia komisia, or cheka), a predecessor of the KGB.

Putin’s favorites

The chekists in governing roles are thought to prefer a strong, independent, centralized and militarily strong Russia. As the prominent political commentator Andrei Karatnicky notes, the chekists functioned in hermetically detached environments, and so they “still hold troublesome and archaic views on issues related to foreign and security policy.” The group is believed to have a tendency to uphold Russian exceptionalism and civilizational uniqueness. Anti-Western sentiments become an end in itself, serving to preserve and exalt Russian civilization. Russia’s influence over the near abroad, roughly covering the territory of the former Soviet Union, is a priority.

The traditional worldview of the chekists is eloquently summarized by the words of Putin’s favorite philosopher, Ivan Ilyin (1883 – 1954): “They are going to divide the united Russian broom into twigs, to break these twigs one by one, and rekindle with them the fading light of their civilization.” Mr. Ilyin’s writings have been distributed to members of the Presidential Administration and to regional governors.

Putin has himself been an attentive reader of his favorite philospher and has shown a certain aptitude in paraphrasing Ilyin’s maxims. During the 2014 Direct Line TV program, the President compared Russia to a bear (instead of Ilyin’s broom) and explained: “They won't leave him [the Russian bear] alone. They will always try to put him on a chain and, as soon as he is put on this chain, they will pull out his teeth and claws. And when they take out the bear’s fangs and claws the bear will not be able to do anything. It will just be a stuffed animal.“

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Such views are reflected in actual policies. The so-called “color revolutions” in some of the former Soviet republics are seen by the chekisty as orchestrated by the West. This suspected Western regime change campaign against Russia’s allies supposedly culminated in the 2014 ousting of the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych.  There is a “great danger that external forces are increasingly interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states with the aim of changing these states’ course to suit their own interests,” commented Nikolai Borudzha, a Secretary General of the Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – and another former KGB spy.

A nation and a destiny

The confrontational chekists worldview is not dramatically different from the mainstream Russian worldview. The efforts to build an independent Russian state, strong enough to promote Russia’s interests in the near abroad, are shared across the political spectrum, from the nationalist opposition, to the left to activists outside of the system. The prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny affirmed that, if he were ever elected President, he would not return Crimea to Ukraine.

“Is Crimea a sausage with bread to go back and forth all over again?” asks Navalny in Novaya Gazeta. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch turned pro-democracy activist, agrees that the Crimean peninsula should remain Russian.

Many thus agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident and the famous Nobel Prize in literature laureate. As early as in 1990, he called for rebuilding a strong and united Russia which dominates in its neighborhood. Shortly before his death in 2008, Solzhenitsyn – who during his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address so harshly criticized the repressions in the Soviet Union – praised Putin for having finally restored Russia and shown to his fellow citizens what it means to be a Russian. 

For Putin, being a Russian means to be able to resist outside pressure, and willing to endure hardship for the sake of the nation. After fifteen years of his leadership, this principle is reflected in Russia’s foreign policy.

“One man can sometimes achieve more than a whole army,” said Putin an interview for the book, First Person. As he tries to translate his personal will and strength into the will and strength of the nation, his small group of trusted colleagues seems to be supported by many across Russian political and social life.

Sometimes driven by interests, other times simply by satisfaction from opposing the West, Putin’s Russia refuses to be dictated to by the rules of the international game.

“When we look back at all our successes, a certain feeling of satisfaction comes,” says Putin to Vladimir Solovyov, the director of the recent major Russian documentary movie called President. In the film, Putin is depicted as a national hero, courageously leading Russia through economic hardships and security challenges.

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As the movie comes to an end, with patriotic music playing in the background, the President sits in the middle of a magnificent hall with tall ceiling, marble columns and golden decorations on the walls covered by paintings of Russia’s cherished historical figures. In such an atmosphere, Putin mysteriously speaks about the destiny that tasked him and his colleagues to work for the country.

Behind the cameras, Russian life continues as if destiny’s seemingly favorite hobby – to choose Russia’s leaders – has rarely gone wrong.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff. The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author, not the organization he represents.