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How the KGB Reformed Russia

How is former KGB official Vladimir Putin different from the last KGB man to run the country?

Master of a KGB plot?


  • Andropov realized that the Soviet Union was a ramshackle collection of often medieval, grotesquely inefficient and incompatible parts.
  • In the end, the KGB — which initiated the process of reforming the tottering Soviet Union — has ended up on top.
  • When Putin unexpectedly became Russia's leader, he seemed to be following in Andropov's footsteps.
  • Andropov had to gain thorough knowledge of reality — not live in the Kremlin's dream world of Leninist ideology. What he saw horrified him.
  • Putin's rise was a combination of wild luck — his own — and monumental stupidity and overconfidence — that of those rich Russian oligarchs who picked him to succeed Boris Yeltsin.

In the waning years of Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year rule, which encompassed a period from 1964 to 1982 and entered Russian history as a period of stagnation, then-KGB chief Yuri Andropov was thought to be the most cultured and open-minded member of the ruling Politburo.

This may seem ironic, because as a Soviet secret police boss, he was in charge of spying on the West, fomenting unrest in the developing world and suppressing domestic dissent.

He did it all well. Abroad, the late 1970s were characterized by seemingly unstoppable gains for the Soviet Union and its allies, from Nicaragua and Grenada in the Western Hemisphere to Angola and Ethiopia in Africa — and Indo-China and Afghanistan in Asia.

Previously non-allied nations and Western clients were one by one falling into the Soviet orbit. At home, meanwhile, the dissident movement that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s was ruthlessly rooted out.

Because he was required to achieve real results, Andropov had to gain thorough knowledge of reality — not live in a dream world of Leninist ideology as his Kremlin colleagues did. What he saw horrified him.

He realized that the Soviet Union, behind a façade of unity and strength, was a ramshackle collection of often medieval, grotesquely inefficient and incompatible parts. Its technology, social and economic infrastructure and economic efficiency lagged far behind the United States and Western Europe.

Whatever achievements were seen immediately after World War II had mostly disintegrated and, unbeknownst to the senile old men living behind the Kremlin wall, the USSR was becoming a third world nation.

Andropov was a highly educated, cultured man who was tough, but well-read. He reportedly enjoyed reading some of the very same dissident Russian writers his KGB had banned from publishing. He understood that, unless major reforms were implemented, the Communist system was doomed.

The problem was Brezhnev — who kept on living. By the time the Great Leader finally died in 1982 at the age of 75, Andropov was mortally ill himself.

Despite being only 70, a relative youngster by the standards of the 1980’s Soviet Politburo, Andropov died of kidney failure in February 1984 — only 16 months after succeeding Brezhnev as Secretary General of the Communist Party.

Few Russians who lived through those 16 months have anything nice to say about Andropov. The first thing he did was tighten discipline at the workplace.

He clamped down on absenteeism — by sending police officers and volunteer vigilantes to stores during working hours, with orders to stop working-age shoppers and demand why they were not at work.

Other harsh measures, reminiscent of Lenin’s murderous War Communism during the Russian Civil war in 1918-1920, were also introduced. But in hindsight, it seems that Andropov was merely working to establish impeccable Bolshevik credentials before embarking on a path of reform.

Richard Nixon may have served as a template. He came to power as the standard-bearer of the American Right, then initiated détente with Russia and China and ended the war in Vietnam — something no liberal Democrat would have ever been able to do.

The problem with Andropov was that he died before the reform stage could begin. However, he had enough time to promote and bolster one of his most talented protégés — Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev, it should be noted, came from Stavropol, Andropov’s power base, and he consistently enjoyed the KGB chief’s patronage since joining the Politburo in 1979.

When they first began in 1985, Gorbachev’s perestroika, glasnost and other reforms were the same package that had been conceived at the KGB headquarters on the Lubyanka Square during the time of Andropov.

Like his late patron, Gorbachev intended to keep the fundamentals of the Communist system in place — but loosen some of the most hide-bound economic and political restrictions that prevented the USSR from competing efficiently on the global stage.

The problem was that even Andropov and his KGB did not appreciate how thoroughly the entire Soviet system had rotted through. Like a dead tree in the woods, it could remain upright as long as no one touched it. Any attempt to adjust it resulted in an immediate, clamorous collapse.

Communist Party reformers, starting with Gorbachev himself, were caught offguard by the ignominious disintegration of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So was the KGB. Its officers — who had been the true masters of the country for 80 years — found themselves out of work. Under Boris Yeltsin, the power of the secret police — now renamed the Federal Security Service, or the FSB — was curbed substantially, its ranks thinned out and its bloody archives were thrown open to historians.

Many former KGB officers employed their skills by working for the newly rich oligarchs, or for organized crime conglomerates. Even Putin had to go to work as a factotum for St. Petersburg’s reformist mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

Initially, when Putin unexpectedly became Russia’s leader, he too seemed to be following in Andropov’s footsteps. He talked of boosting discipline at all levels of government, administrative reform and greater openness to the rest of the world.

He appeared to be moving slowly in practice, but that seemed justified. After all, to cite Otto von Bismarck, isn’t politics in a democratic state “the art of the possible?” The important thing was that he seemed to be moving in the right direction.

However, Putin’s rise was a combination of wild luck — his own — and monumental stupidity and overconfidence — that of those rich Russian oligarchs who picked him to succeed Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

The oligarchs thought they controlled Russia and couldn’t conceive that this uncomplicated, unambitious and seemingly unconnected guy could turn the tables on them. Especially since all the political infrastructure around him remained in their hands.

But they failed to take two facts into consideration. First, Putin did have at least some connections in the KGB establishment and, second, the Russian state — although greatly weakened after the collapse of the Soviet Union — was still a formidable force.

Putin’s old colleagues in St. Petersburg did what other KGB officers were doing after the fall of the Soviet Union — find jobs in the nascent private enterprises.

The main difference was that in Russia’s second-largest city, working for private businesses often meant becoming involved with a highly diversified and powerful private enterprise-gangster network. It is not for nothing that St. Petersburg has been nicknamed Russia’s “Crime Capital.”

Most prominent members of Putin’s administration, as well as those who head powerful “silovik” ministries and agencies and run the increasingly dominant, state-owned energy and natural resource enterprises, were mainly St. Petersburg law and order alumni and personal acquaintances of the president from his former life.

The quiescent early years of Putin’s rule were merely a time when those people moved into the position of power, took over the Russian state — and gathered strength.

In the end, the KGB — which initiated the process of reforming the tottering Soviet Union — has ended up on top. Those who were junior officers when the reform project was conceived now run Russia and its energy monopolies.

The difference is that Andropov, for all his faults, was trying to make the country better. In contrast, too many of his former employees — for all their talk about addressing Russia’s monumental social, environmental, health and other problems — think primarily of stuffing their own pockets and staying in power.

Government graft, bribery and corruption, which has always been a problem in Russia, has now probably surpassed Nigerian proportions.

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