The KGB Rises Again in Russia


Top officials of Russia’s secret police, known these days as the FSB, gathered last month to celebrate the founding of their agency in 1917 by Communist leader V.I. Lenin.

Vladimir V. Putin, an ex-KGB colonel who had become prime minister only months earlier, spoke to his compatriots and reported with a smile: “A group of FSB colleagues dispatched to work undercover in the government has successfully completed its first mission.”

Putin, referring to his own rapid rise within Russia’s power structure, meant to be funny. But less than two weeks later, when he unexpectedly became the nation’s acting president, there were many who didn’t take it as a joke.


“The KGB has risen from the ashes and come to power in Russia,” said Sergei I. Grigoryants, a human rights activist arrested twice in the 1970s and ‘80s by the KGB and imprisoned for nine years for publishing anti-Soviet literature. “It is the logical outcome of the process that has been unfolding for the past decade.”

Putin’s appointment as acting president upon the resignation Dec. 31 of President Boris N. Yeltsin symbolizes the resurgence of the secret police agency long feared for its role in killing millions of people during the reign of dictator Josef Stalin. Known in that era as the NKVD and renamed the KGB in 1954, its activities included repressing dissidents, assassinating enemies and controlling the thoughts of ordinary citizens.

During the Yeltsin era, the KGB was broken up into smaller agencies and its main department was recast as the FSB, short for Federal Security Service. Biding its time, the FSB played a more subtle role, gathering strength and information while infiltrating businesses, government agencies and other institutions of the changing society. In 1998, Yeltsin named Putin to head the FSB, then appointed him prime minister in August.

Now, instead of the democratic transfer of power that many had envisioned would take place this summer, the former FSB chief has stepped into the vacuum of power in the Kremlin and taken charge of the country. With the backing of wealthy power brokers who control most of Russia’s media, he is expected to win the presidency in a special election March 26.

Putin, whose popularity stems from his nationalist message and his war in the separatist republic of Chechnya, embodies the KGB spirit, but he doesn’t publicly embrace Communist ideology. He has promised not to seize the property of Yeltsin cronies, known as “The Family,” who profited immensely from the corrupt privatization of the 1990s. The Communist Party plans to run its own candidate, Gennady A. Zyuganov, against him in the March election.

Ex-Colleagues in KGB Gain Key Posts

Since becoming acting president, Putin has moved former KGB colleagues into top posts in his administration. “Putin’s appointment is the culmination of the KGB’s crusade for power,” said Konstantin N. Borovoi, an outgoing independent deputy in the Duma, the lower house of parliament. “This is its finale. Now the KGB runs the country.”


Many Russians wonder what link remains between Putin and the agency where he spent most of his professional life. Some worry that the country will return to the repressive methods used to control the public in Soviet times. Others hail him as a skilled operative whose training and experience as a KGB agent mark him as the creme de la creme of Russian society.

Putin has said he resigned from the KGB in 1991, about the time he took a job in the city government of Leningrad, since renamed St. Petersburg. But some who know the KGB--loyal former officers as well as victims of its persecution--question whether Putin retired. They suggest that his role was to infiltrate local government in a city with a budding pro-capitalist movement.

“It is quite possible that he continued to work unofficially for the service,” said retired Col. Igor N. Prelin, a 30-year KGB veteran who now writes novels. “One can change a job, but it is impossible to change one’s heart.”

Retired navy Capt. Alexander Nikitin, acquitted Dec. 29 of espionage charges pursued by the FSB, put it this way: “There are no ex-KGB officers, just as there are no ex-German shepherds.”

Putin joined the KGB in 1975, the year the agency began a campaign to discredit Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei D. Sakharov before sending the dissident into exile in Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow. A year earlier, the KGB had forced author and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn into exile abroad.

Putin had just received a law degree and, like others recruited by the KGB, was among the best and the brightest of Soviet society. As an agent, he received the highest level of training as well as perks reserved for the Communist elite--housing, food and travel opportunities unavailable to ordinary citizens.

Putin’s activities over the next 15 years remain murky. He was stationed at least some of the time in East Germany, the front line of confrontation with the West. Various accounts say he recruited agents, monitored East German contact with Westerners, oversaw the East German Stasi secret police and fraternized with West German politicians.

According to Stratfor--an Internet service based in Austin, Texas, that provides intelligence reports to corporate customers and offers a Web site,’s most important mission was to help steal technology from the West and prevent the Soviet Union from losing the Cold War.

By the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders knew that they were falling behind the West. Stratfor and author Yevgenia Albats, in her 1994 book, “KGB: State Within a State,” contend that perestroika--the opening up of society under Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--was part of a KGB plan to catch up with Western technology by expanding trade relations. The KGB, preparing for a new era of business, began shipping Soviet wealth abroad, foreshadowing the widespread corruption of the Yeltsin years.

By 1986, “KGB operatives began to funnel state and party resources out of the Soviet Union through KGB residencies in foreign countries, with the initial intent of cycling this cash back through the new banks and joint ventures,” according to a report on the Stratfor Web site. “Putin’s position with the KGB placed him at the heart of these theft-for-hard-currency schemes.”

Around 1989, Putin returned to Leningrad, where he had attended university. According to Stratfor, the evidence strongly suggests that Putin remained a KGB agent and monitored the city’s active pro-capitalist movement that later would help drive much of Yeltsin’s economic program.

Putin rose to become Leningrad’s deputy mayor and is often credited with running the city, earning the nickname “Stasi,” after the East German police.

In a 1998 newspaper interview, Putin explained his decision to resign from the KGB in 1991: “It was the time of confrontation between the Russian and federal authorities, and I was aware that nobody was interested in me,” he said. Nevertheless, “I was surprised by the ease with which I was allowed to leave,” he said.

Leonid V. Shebarshin, who was vice chairman of the KGB from 1989 to ‘91, said it is entirely possible that the agency had “sanctioned” Putin’s entrance into Leningrad’s city government.

“What Putin was doing in his work in the Leningrad administration naturally was of some interest to the service,” he said in an interview. “The service was interested in having its own man in the administration. This is quite obvious, although the service had never set out to watch how the reform movement was developing.”

With the breakup of the KGB into smaller organizations after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, its agents burrowed into the new system. Many took advantage of a new reserve status offered to agents, allowing them to officially retire while maintaining ties with the organization.

Because of their high level of training, discipline and knowledge, they were very marketable. Many received top jobs in banks, private enterprises, government agencies and, in a few cases, organized crime groups. Some could offer protection from the authorities as well as dirt on rivals culled from the KGB’s vast archives.

“Like cockroaches spreading from a squalid apartment to the rest of the building, they have eventually gained a firm foothold everywhere,” said Grigoryants, president of the Glasnost human rights foundation. “They meet their ex-colleagues at every turn: in parliament, in the Kremlin administration, in the government.”

Putin came full circle when Yeltsin appointed him to head the FSB in the summer of 1998. He purged some agents but did not change the agency’s course.

He continued, for example, the FSB’s persecution of two environmental activists, Nikitin and navy Capt. Grigory Pasko, who had been charged with espionage in separate cases for exposing nuclear pollution by the navy. Both were subsequently acquitted of treason, though Pasko was convicted on a lesser charge.

Putin also moved to monitor e-mail and other Internet communications by requiring providers to install equipment linking their computers with FSB headquarters. Putin said the FSB was not “going to establish control over the Internet” but wanted to “prevent the potential enemy from freely accessing classified information.” Critics say the technology could allow the FSB to read, block or alter private communications without the knowledge of the sender or recipient.

The emergence of a onetime KGB colonel as acting president strikes fear in the hearts of many, in part because the agency has never renounced its brutal past. There have been no Nuremberg trials, as were held in postwar Nazi Germany; no Truth Commission, like the panel that reviewed the sins of the apartheid era in South Africa. Former KGB agents have not been prosecuted in Russia for their part in mass deportations, as they have in the now-independent Baltic nations. Except in unusual instances, KGB archives housing evidence of the agency’s crimes remain closed to outsiders.

Training Is Said to Produce Loyal Agents

There are some, however, who say the choice of Putin is an acknowledgment of the exemplary kind of person the KGB produced.

The high level of training turned out agents who “have always been the most reliable, trustworthy and loyal people in the country,” said Prelin, the KGB colonel-turned-novelist. They know how to execute orders quickly and efficiently and do not need to be told what to do twice, he said.

“The accession of the KGB to power will mean that, finally, some honest and responsible people will take over the country,” Prelin said. “These people have a sense of responsibility. They are as good as their word. They will always serve their motherland first.”

Borovoi, who lost his Duma seat in Dec. 19 elections, takes a much darker view. He contends that ideology is irrelevant to Putin and his close circle of former KGB advisors; they are motivated solely by their desire to control society in the tradition of Russian czars and Soviet dictators, he says.

“The final aim of this community is to gain maximum power and influence,” Borovoi said. “They will never get enough. Their ultimate goal is to separate Russia from the rest of the world with an Iron Curtain and rule undividedly in every sphere of public life. It is only through the isolation of Russia that they can gain absolute power.”