Moscow has made November an ominous month. On November 24, 2007, Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion and current candidate in the Russian presidential race of 2008, was arrested in Moscow for participating in a political rally against Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin.
On November 23, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB/FSB dissident living in London, became the first victim of Russian nuclear terrorism. Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium 210, an extremely rare state-produced substance whose traces led to Moscow.
Kasparov’s arrest and Litvinenko’s assassination would be unthinkable in a democracy. But what Russia is today is less a democracy than a continuation of the murderous totalitarianism that began in November 1917.
The Bolshevik coup of November 1917 started the cataclysmic age of political mega-murders around the world, in which the Soviet Union alone killed some 63 million people. Most of the deaths, perhaps 39 million, were owing to lethal forced labor in gulags. Moscow’s export of communist revolution to China generated another 35 million deaths.
Today we fight terrorists who kill thousands. Is a state that kills tens of millions in its war to control the world any less a terrorist regime than one that sponsors Islamic terrorism? Alexander Litvinenko would answer that. If he were alive.
The Soviet Union has been wrongly defined as a dictatorship that based its decisions on, and derived its legitimacy from, the Marxist ideology of the Communist Party. Seven years after the 1917 revolution Stalin came to power. To him, who was unencumbered by the idea of Western democracy, the autocratic Russian police state that dated to the Czars was simply the normal structure of the country. Thus, he began his rule by upgrading Lenin’s political police, not his party.
Stalin promoted the Cheka to State Political Directorate or GPU, a revealing name change, and initiated a bloody era of show-trials aimed at consolidating his power. It was he who institutionalized the terrorist nature of the Soviet regime which has not yet been expunged.
In 1934 Stalin turned his political police against the most important creation of Lenin’s revolutionary life: the Bolshevik Party. Between 7 and 9 million party members lost their lives during those purges, including most of the Soviet communists who had fought for Lenin’s revolution. Out of the seven members of Lenin’s Politburo at the time of the October Revolution, only Stalin was still alive when the massacre was over.
With the party under his belt, Stalin took absolute control of the military. In June 1937, his NKVD executed the Red Army’s chief of staff, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, hero of the civil war. It also liquidated 70 out of the 80 members of the Supreme Military Council and shot an estimated 35,000 other Red Army officers. Stalin then installed himself as commander in chief.
By 1939, the Marxist Soviet Union had devolved into a secret samoderzhaviye, the historically Russian form of one-man totalitarian dictatorship in which, behind a facade of Marxism, the new Czar’s political police took precedence over ideology and the Communist Party in running the country. This form of society would, in one shape or another, continue to hold sway throughout the Soviet Union and beyond.
* * *
In 1991 the Soviet Communist Party was officially disbanded. Boris Yeltsin, the country’s first freely elected president, inherited a gross national product smaller than that of Portugal — then the poorest West European country — and was not in the mood to try the uncharted waters of democracy. Rather, he continued the tsarist way of governing the country with the help of his political police. Yeltsin began by changing the KGB’s name and pretending it was a new, democratic institution. That was exactly what his predecessors in the Kremlin had done whenever their political police had been compromised in the public’s eyes.
In August 1998 Yeltsin appointed his spy chief, the former KGB general Yevgeny Primakov, as prime minister and tasked him to transform Russia into a “managed democracy” whose institutions were to become “loyal, obedient, and indebted to those who have chosen them.” Soon Yeltsin realized that Primakov, who became an oligarch, intended to run for the Kremlin himself, and replaced him with former KGB general Sergey Stepashin, the head of the FSB.
In August 1999, Yeltsin sacked Stepashin and appointed a new prime minister: Vladimir Putin, a 25-year KGB veteran who allegedly spoke two foreign languages and had a more diversified experience. In a 14-page article, Putin defined Russia’s political future: “The state must be where and as needed; freedom must be where and as required.”
On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin stunned Russia and the rest of the world by announcing his resignation. “I understand that I must do it and Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians,” he explained. Yeltsin then signed a decree appointing Putin as president. In exchange, Putin signed another decree pardoning Yeltsin “for any possible misdeeds.” The ailing Yeltsin had in recent months come under a cloud of scandal for bribery, and Putin granted him “total immunity” from prosecution, from search and from questioning for “any and all” actions committed while in office. Putin also gave Yeltsin a generous lifetime pension and a state dacha.
To me, it all had the appearance of a behind-the-scenes KGB putsch.
On December 20, 2000, numerous former top KGB-niks gathered at the Lubyanka to commemorate 83 years since the founding of the ruthless Cheka. One of my former bosses, Vladimir Semichastny, the author of thousands of domestic and foreign political assassinations, was among the organizers. “I think a goal was set to destroy the KGB, to make it toothless,” he groused at a news conference.
It would have been hilarious, if it had not been so dreadful.
As of 2003, some 6,000 former KGB officers were running Russia federal and local governments, and 70% of her leading political figures today have some intelligence affiliation. On February 12, 2004, president Putin declared the demise of the Soviet Union a “national tragedy on an enormous scale,” and last June he declared a new Cold War against the West. A few weeks later, Putin announced that Russia had a new generation of long-range rocket weapons matching those of the United States.
Putin’s new weapon, if it exists, must have been developed in one of the super-secret KGB-managed nuclear cities I was familiar with in my other life, when I coordinated Romania’s technological intelligence. In May 1992, Russia’s minister of atomic industry, Viktor Mikhaylov, disclosed that all these KGB cities were still not on any Russian maps or counted among the population’s labor force. According to him, Chelyabinsk city, for instance, was on a map of Russia, but Chelyabinsk-40, a KGB city of 40,000 people located in the Urals, where 27 tons of weapons-grade plutonium were stockpiled, was not. Nor did even Russia’s newest military maps show Chelyabinsk-65, Chelyabinsk-70, Chelyabinsk-95 and Chelyabinsk-115, all in the Urals. More recent information has shown that the military nuclear industry of the former Soviet Union might alone have had as many as 87 super secret KGB "cities," some occupying whole islands, such as the secret military laboratories on Vozrozhdeniye and Komsomolsk islands in the Aral Sea.
Russia’s contemporary version of the KGB is also still guarding the country’s 6,000 nuclear warheads—a task it received on August 29, 1949, when the chief of the Soviet political police, Lavrenty Beriya, reported to Stalin that the first Soviet nuclear bomb, constructed entirely with intelligence stolen from the U.S., had proved successful.
All this nuclear power makes the new KGB/FSB the most dangerous organization in the world today.
During a February 25, 2007 Dateline NBC program about Alexander Litvinenko’s horrific assassination, American intelligence expert Paul Joyal launched a stern warning to anyone who might speak out against the Kremlin: “If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, it will find you, and it will silence you—in the most horrible way possible.” Four days later, Joyal was shot in front of his home near Washington D.C. by two unidentified attackers, and he needed 20 days on a respirator and five surgeries to survive. The very next day, another Kremlin critic was silenced: Ivan Safronov, a military expert for the Russian magazine Kommersant, “fell” out of a fifth floor window—wearing his hat, his winter coat, and carrying a bag of oranges. Safronov was working on an explosive article about Moscow’s secret sale of SU-30 fighter jets to Syria and S-300V missiles to Iran via Belarus, a subterfuge so that the Kremlin could not be accused of providing weapons to terrorist states.
Safronov is the 21st journalist critical of the Kremlin who has been killed since Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president.
There is no historical precedent for a country to be governed by former and active officers of a political police organization that killed millions in the past and still considers murder an acceptable, even obligatory, practice.
Russia’s surviving political police is a malignant tumor on the body of our contemporary world. Like any cancer, it works silently—you can feel it only after it has spread throughout the body, and then it is usually too late. I was 25 when the doctors advised my mother to have a just-discovered malignant tumor surgically removed. “What’s the rush, if it doesn’t hurt?” my mother kept asking me, every time I tried to take her to the hospital. One year later I was kneeling at her grave. That was when I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: If you have a cancerous tumor, get rid of it as soon as you can.
We cannot break Russia’s four-hundred-year tradition of a police state. Only the Russians can. But for that to happen we should motivate them.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter