by J. R. Nyquist
Weekly Column Published: 07.24.2009
Meet Victor Kalashnikov: former KGB officer, scholar, analyst, and writer. He is married to historian and journalist Marina Kalashnikova, the subject of last week’s column. Before the Soviet Union collapsed Victor worked for the KGB in Vienna. After Gorbachev’s bizarre abdication in December 1991, Victor found himself drawn into the Presidential administration of Boris Yeltsin on orders of KGB General Yevgeny Primakov. There he became a research director in the Russian Public Policy Center. “So I turned my attention 180 degrees from Europe to Russia,” Victor explained. “I was quite enthusiastic to explore what was going on in Russia. The people in the Kremlin came across a lot of surprises and discoveries as to what Russia really was.”
And what is Russia?
With help from presidential advisor Sergei Stankevich, Victor managed to retire from the KGB. But the KGB wanted him back, just as they wanted Russia back. Whatever job Victor took, wherever he went, the KGB would appear. “They always arrived on the scene with offers and promises, wanting to exploit my contacts,” Victor explained. You see, the Cold War was still ongoing, and so was the work of Moscow’s spies. In 1997 the SVR (KGB) wanted Victor to bring spies into the German oil company he worked for. When he refused, the SVR promised he would “pay with his blood.” In 1999, after having coffee at the Russian Embassy in Brussels, Victor became very sick. Quite naturally, he suspected poison.
In 2000, one of Victor’s colleagues had been summoned by the secret police and told that the Kalashnikovs were on a “black list” due to their politically incorrect writings. People were being warned on all sides, including their dentist. Friends melted away. Co-workers avoided contact. Dental work could not be done. “What struck me, especially with the younger generation,” Victor noted, “is that they appear to be such conformists. No idealism, no values. They were just ready to cooperate with whomever they saw as their superiors. That’s why ultimately, nowadays, we unexpectedly found ourselves in the position of outsiders, dissidents, even enemies. That’s the way it developed.”
In 2004 Victor and his wife continued their controversial writing activities and found themselves accosted on the street by FSB (KGB) officers who warned them against entering foreign embassies and disrupted their attempts to meet with diplomats. At about this time the Kalashnikovs were fired from their newspaper jobs. From that point forward, Victor and Marina could not find work in the Russian media, academia or business. Eventually, they sought an outlet for their talents in Ukraine. But here again, the Kremlin gave them no rest, as Ukrainian officials warned that the Russian Interior Minister had included the Kalashnikovs on a list of “extremists” and that, as a consequence, their personal safety in Ukraine could not be guaranteed.
“Conformism is absolutely overwhelming here,” Kalashnikov lamented. “You should not distinguish between the Russian authorities and the Russian people. From the unemployed in the provinces, to the top of the hierarchy, conformism is huge. Also within the media, they are all willing to cooperate. It is a reality and it will develop that way, despite today’s economic troubles. It is a typically Russian phenomenon.”
If it sounds like Soviet times, you are not mistaken. The totalitarian system has now become more sophisticated and more streamlined. The West should not deceive itself. The Cold War never ended. The KGB remains in place. According to Kalashnikov, “It is not necessary to control the entire former Soviet area. We can project our influence. Even when we allow the Americans and NATO to have a presence there, we have the upper hand. I even suspect that what happened has produced a modernized strategic model.”
Gone are the imperial burdens. Russia can use its secret agent networks to blackmail executives, politicians and intellectuals. Journalists can be bought inexpensively, as it turns out. The disinformation campaigns of the 60s, 70s and 80s have laid the groundwork for a great deception. The West thinks they are dealing with a new entity in Russia. Yet they are still dealing with the house that Stalin built.
“My feeling is that the old personnel management system has been reinstalled from Soviet times,” said Kalashnikov, explaining how the secret police can deprive uncooperative citizens of a livelihood. “In the Soviet Union your personnel file followed you whenever you changed from one job to another. Your employer sees any black marks set down by previous employers, and my former employer [the KGB] was eager to make life as difficult as possible. They wanted to press us to the degree that we would admit our defeat and failure, reconsidering our behavior.”
In the West we were told that the Soviet system was finished. We were told that the Communist Party lost power, the KGB was reformed and democracy won the day.
Kalashnikov said: “There was not any moment, I can state with certainty, that the old system of KGB and nomenklatura admitted their failure or lost control. They just changed their form and appearance. It was a sort of generational change. Instead of generals in charge, we have lieutenant colonels. They behaved differently, but they are doing the same thing. There has never been any moment when they admitted historical defeat. There never was any serious step toward de-communization – never, never. The Yakovlev Commission was conceived to imitate de-communization procedures in Central Europe.”
So it was a sham?
“Yes, it was a fake, an imitation,” Kalashnikov insisted. “From the very beginning the idea was, we’ll get back, we’ll modernize. And that’s how it happened. Of course, many Western observers were happy about the new faces and new styles and openness. But step by step, you yourself may remember that many American institutions here in Russia have been pushed out or brought under Russian control. So, formally, we have several Western bodies here allegedly doing democracy and consulting work, but in fact they have become an instrument of Kremlin policy to imitate and exploit for their own purposes.”
Here are the words of a former KGB official, telling the truth from his home in Moscow, barred from employment for his honesty – blacklisted by his former colleagues because he did not want to participate in the greatest deception of our time. “There was no real accountability for the past,” Kalashnikov explained. “It was a big deception. People changed their appearance and behavior, but the real meaning of the system remained the same – in substance. It was quite visible to me. The West was just happy that we let go of the names of Communism and Soviet and so on. We changed our vocabulary. Instead of Politburo and Central Committee we have a president and a presidential administration. Instead of KGB, we have FSB. I insist that the interpretation of late Soviet history should be changed profoundly. The KGB maintained huge networks of domestic spies. Hundreds of thousands of people were deployed at the right time, influencing the democracy movement. That system has been extended by Putin. If you look at Russia from the outside you cannot discern who is manipulating the whole thing. Hundreds of thousands of assets are employed in politics and business. There is a hidden agenda and hidden structures. Even the Germans have not gotten rid of their hidden structures having to do with the Communist era. With all the German efforts and technology they still cannot solve the problem of hidden Communist structures. They are still being manipulated. Now take Russia, which was free to reconstruct its [totalitarian] structures under a different guise.”
And what are the strategic implications?
“They would be huge,” said Kalashnikov. “You know, one thing people should understand. There is a definite line of continuity in Moscow’s military policies from Stalin’s time. Moscow has consistently followed the same line of policy. What is misleading for many people is that the material military presence is not there anymore. We don’t need so many tanks. The question is what sort of design, what sort of strategy you have in place. All of that Moscow has in terms of potentials. We see that the Russian presence is being reinstalled in some places – Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.” The important thing is manipulation and influence instead of direct control.
In terms of modern strategy Russia’s reduced size brings advantages. Now Russia is not responsible for feeding Azerbaijan or providing cheap energy to the Baltic States or Ukraine. The KGB’s weapons of influence and manipulation, including organized crime and drug trafficking, can be used to influence and manipulate without maintaining expensive armies. And so, the Russians have learned how to streamline their dominance. Make the Americans think that Washington has the upper hand. But look around today and see what is happening to the American economy, to the U.S. dollar, and to the U.S. nuclear deterrent. There is a visible weakening in all three areas.
Victor Kalashnikov is a brave man. He has refused to falsify reality for the sake of career opportunity or even personal safety. He is telling us the way things are the largest country in the world. You can ignore him if you like, but ignore him at your own peril.