“The Soviet police state tried to control every citizen in the country. The new, more sophisticated Russian [security] system is far more selective than its Soviet-era counterpart; it targets only those individuals who have political ambitions or strong public views.” That’s what Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan discover in “The New Nobility,” their impressive new book on the resurgence of Russia’s security services in the post-Cold War era.
Soldatov and Borogan, Russian journalists who have produced some of the boldest reporting on the subject over the past decade, are also the creators and editors of Agentura.ru, a pioneering web site devoted to public interest research on Russian intelligence policy and related matters.
In “The New Nobility,” they present many of the decisive episodes in the recent history of the FSB, the primary Russian security service, from the 2002 Moscow theater siege, to the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the war in Chechnya, and more. Overall they present a picture of a security service of increasing power and influence, uneven competence — but virtually no accountability to parliament or the public.
“The Soviet KGB was all-powerful,” Soldatov and Borogan write, “but it was also under the control of the political structure: The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division. In contrast, the FSB is a remarkably independent entity, free of party control and parliamentary oversight….”
The book is based on the authors’ original reporting, which itself is a demonstration of unusual courage and commitment. A reader soon loses track of the number of times their computers are seized by authorities, how often their papers’ web servers are confiscated, and how many times they are summoned for interrogation or even charged with crimes based on their reporting. Yet they persist.
Their book is full of remarkable observations. For example:
- In 2006, the FSB organized a competition “for the best literary and artistic works about state security operatives.”
- The history of Moscow’s Lefortovo prison has never been documented. “Even the prison’s design [in the shape of the letter K] remains a mystery.”
- The Russian security services in Chechnya have made extensive use of the tactic known as “counter-capture,” which involves seizing the relatives of suspected terrorists in order to induce them to surrender.
Fundamentally, the authors contend, Russia’s FSB has gone astray by acting as an agent of state authority instead of representing the rule of law. “In today’s Russia,… the security services appear to have concluded that their interests, and those of the state they are guarding, remain above the law.” An American reader may ponder the similarities and differences presented by U.S. security services.
“The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB” by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan is being published this month by Public Affairs Books.
“To those following the increasingly hostile environment for journalists in Russia, Soldatov’s career is a curiosity,” according to an internal profile of him prepared by the DNI Open Source Center in 2008. “Despite being questioned and charged by the FSB on several occasions, Soldatov has continued to cover hot-button issues such as corruption, security service defectors, and the increasing role of the special services in limiting free speech in Russia.”
The New York Times featured Agentura.ru in “A Web Site That Came in From the Cold to Unveil Russian Secrets” by Sally McGrane, December 14, 2000.
The New York Times has also published Above the Law, a continuing series of stories by Clifford J. Levy on “corruption and abuse of power in Russia two decades after the end of Communism.”