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Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Book Review

Vladimir Bukovsky, a former KGB prisoner and leading Soviet-era dissident, reviews The Age of Assassins by Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky in the Guardian:

I have always wondered why Western political elites love the KGB so much. Nearly 25 years ago, when Yuri Andropov, the longest-serving head of the KGB, made it to the top of the Soviet pyramid, there was no end of jubilation in the Western media. We were told that he was a 'closet liberal', that he liked jazz and cognac and could speak English. As it turned out, this was mostly incorrect. Why such enthusiasm for one whose job for 15 years was to kill people, even if he could speak English and preferred cognac to vodka?

It happened again, at the end of 1999, when President Yeltsin announced his resignation, making the little-known KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Putin his heir. All over the world, familiar faces popped up on television screens: he was surely a committed democrat, a liberal, he had lived in Germany and, yes, he could speak German! As for his KGB past, they said, so what? The KGB was 'the elite of Soviet society'. Strange logic indeed; the SS was once the elite of Nazi Germany. In a rotten society, elites are the source of the rot. What is there to celebrate? Only after all the murders and terrorist attacks in nearly a decade of KGB rule in Russia, with all its consequences for freedom of the mass media and of individuals, after Moscow's bullying of its neighbours and blackmailing the whole of Europe with its natural gas supplies, did the West reluctantly come to its senses.

So who is Mr Putin and what is his regime all about? The Age of Assassins gives a clear and accurate picture of Putin's life and his regime. The book details various aspects of KGB rule, from its genesis in the 1950s to the circumstances of its most notorious assassinations. In fact, it reads like an indictment of Putin & Co presented to the Hague Tribunal.

It also destroys the biggest lie of today's Kremlin propaganda, namely, that democracy has been tried in Russia and failed. There was no decisive victory for democracy in Russia in the 1990s. True, the communist nomenklatura abandoned its bankrupt ideology and the party as ideological straitjacket, but the nomenklatura itself remained firmly in power. Now, freed from Marxist-Leninist dogma, its true essence was revealed: the Mafia.

The book shows Russia of the 1990s for what it was and provides a well-informed account of how the KGB played the oligarchs one against another. It had won its game long before Putin's victory in 1999, which was simply the moment it came out of the closet. 'We are in power again, this time forever,' Putin announced in 1999 to an audience of his KGB colleagues.

Putin's role was that of a time-serving nonentity. In Soviet times, he was pushing papers around in KGB offices and conducting surveillance of dissidents. Then he stayed in East Germany, not as a spy, but as an emissary of the secret police in that part of the Soviet empire, where 'he oversaw the conduct of Soviet students in East Germany' and 'investigated anti-communist acts of protest'.

He was called back to the USSR and assigned to keep an eye on the then mayor of St Petersburg. As deputy mayor, he was deeply involved in organised crime, including the international drug trade. Then, a lucky pawn in the games of KGB clans, he was transferred to Moscow and became a convenient candidate as Yeltsin's successor. It was pure coincidence that the KGB assignment to pose as 'Russia's strongman' went to him.

The rest is recent history. Explosions of apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia - blamed on Chechens, but obviously caused by the Federal Security Service (FSB); a 'small victorious war' in Chechnya which still goes on all over the north Caucasus and has turned into a genocide; closure of all independent mass media in Russia; a Stalin-style atmosphere of xenophobia and spy-mania; political prisoners; strict censorship; a prevalent fear in the country.

The KGB is in power again, with all the consequences that entails. But this time, it cannot be justified even by a crazy ideology and there is no control over it by any body. What used to be done for the glory of an idea, of the world socialist revolution, is done today for the sake of personal ambition. And this time around, it is much cheaper and easier for them to murder their opponents in a dark lane than to put them into the Gulag. As Stalin put it: 'No man - no problem.'

Felshtinsky and Pribylovsky take a bold angle over the KGB's system of corporate rule. 'Russia became a new kind of republic - a corporate republic,' they write. 'A corporation took over a government of the country and put its own President in charge. President Putin, who until August 1999 had been the president of the FSB kontora ('company'), and who on 26 March 2000 was elected the President of the country, began to rule Russia in the corporation's name. For the first time since 17th-century European East India companies ruled entire countries in Asia for their shareholders, a modern company owned the largest landmass in the world - the Russian Federation.'

The comparison is controversial. It is almost commonplace to say that Russia nowadays is run by the KGB Corporation. By that, we mean a corporation as opposed to an individual dictator or a democratic government, but not literally a commercial company. Compared to the KGB, the East India Company was civilised; the main tool by which it solved its problems was not assassination. The present Chekists are mafiosi, villains from the James Bond movies, not businessmen. KGB rule resembles colonial rule in only one way: they don't care much about the country as long as it provides them with natural resources for export.

Regrettably, the authors do not analyse the KGB Corporation's attempts to restore the Soviet empire internally or externally. The strength of this book is not analysis, but research - it puts together hundreds of little-known facts. That material merits a much more intelligent debate than the one provided by 'Kremlinologists'. It clearly shows that people such as Putin are of very limited importance within that system; whoever they are, they are bound to be tyrants to the country and slaves to the corporation. Putins come and go, but the KGB remains.

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