Putin's Russia is becoming more and more like Stalin's Russia, according to journalist Andrei Soldatov, one of the most respected experts on the Russian secret services, about whom he wrote three books: "The New Nobility", which describes how secret services captured the Russian state under Putin, "The Red Cloth", which looks into the Kremlin's attempt to control the Internet, and “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia's Exiles, Émigrés and Agents Abroad, published in Romania in 2022, by Omnium Publishing. In an interview with Veridica and TVR, Soldatov explained how Putin corrupted Russian society, why the FSB is the successor to the Soviet KGB, what the methods and mentality of intelligence officers are, and how they came to believe and trust him also convince Putin that a war in Ukraine was necessary.
One of the many signs of Putin's Russia is that especially espionage agencies haven't changed much from their Soviet predecessors
VERIDICA: “The Compatriots…” started with three personal stories, after the Bolshevik Revolution: Zarubin, Eitingon and Gorskaya, a disciplined Russian, a resourceful and ruthless Jew and the Romanian, well-educated, fierce, cosmopolitan woman, who would become highly successful Soviet agents. All three would help define and execute the Kremlin's strategy regarding the threat posed by Russians across the borders. Why did you choose these three characters to tell the story of the beginnings?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: First of all, thank you for having me and for this opportunity to talk about these very important topics. We chose these three characters because, first of all, we wanted to tell and to explain what we can understand about the present modern Russian security services, about what they do now, looking into their past. Unfortunately, one of the many signs of Putin's Russia is that especially espionage agencies haven't changed much from their Soviet predecessors. So, there are several ways to tell this story. You can try to explain things using an academic approach, talking about institutions and organizations and textbook terminology. But it is not extremely interesting for the general audience. And you also can tell this story while talking about people, their lives, especially if you have some characters who have had a really long career in Soviet security services, starting from 1920s and until up to 1960s, in some cases 1980s, and if you have several generations. And that is the case with these characters. We have several generations, and some of the descendants of these characters are very much active in today's Russia.
VERIDICA: Really? One century after that, there are still descendants that are working in the same secret services intelligence?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: No, they are not working in security services. But we have one guy who made his career as a very successful Russian banker, thanks to his connections, his family’s connections to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Agency. He was helped by his grandmother, actually. She helped him and introduced him to the right people. And in the 1990s, many things, especially the Russian banks, are about your connections with the security services and the foreign intelligence played a really huge role, because they have the best and the brightest people. So, he made his career as a very successful businessman because of that. But things changed under Putin. We all know now that Putin is extremely, I would say, ruthless and paranoid, the system he created didn't give and doesn't give guarantees to anyone, even if you have really high connections. So, this guy ended up in jail, was released, and now he is actually on the good side. He is one of the Russian émigrés and he is helping Russian human rights activists. But still, his family and his ideas defined his mentality, and you can trace it back to the beginning of the 20th century.
VERIDICA: What were your sources? We know that the archives of the intelligence services are not opened until after decades later, if they are open at all, and the Russian ones are among the most inaccessible. How did you have access to the files of some of the most important Soviet and Russian spies?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Irina* and I, we are both investigative journalists. We have been writing about this topic for more than 20 years. Over this period of time and we started back in 1999, we developed some good sources inside. We rely, in some part, on the archives. But as journalists, we believe that the most important part is to talk to people. So, we talk to people and they got access to some family histories or some family archives, family memoirs. There are some books which were published only for family use actually by these characters. We have some incredible photographs, incredible recollections of some very interesting events, which have quite a crucial place in the Russian and Soviet history. When you have this kind of access, you can understand what makes people tick, why they do what they do.
VERIDICA: Those who were recruited to become Soviet spies were bound by the idea of a global revolution, as you wrote in the book. But what about now in the last 30 years? What are the reasons why Russian emigrants choose to work for Putin? Does the Kremlin or Lubyanka still have an ideology to attract them? Or is it just money or power? Or maybe they are frustrated about their homeland or patriotic towards their motherland?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Yes, it's a very, very good question. And that is why we chose these characters, because what we wanted to show is that the Soviet and Russian intelligence is always about two parts. On the one hand, you have this legacy of people who are driven by ideology. And that is why we chose this Romanian Jew, because she actually believed in the idea of communism and she was extremely global. She spoke many languages, was extremely well educated, intelligent, worldly. On the other hand, Zarubin represents for us a second phase of the Russian intelligence - very brutal, very nationalistic, with the idea that everything should be under control. And many of the Soviet intelligence’s successes, especially between the wars, were thanks to the first category of people who are really globalized, because they believed not in the idea of Russia, but in the idea of communism. And it was easier to recruit people for the communist cause rather than recruit them, say, to spy and to help Soviet Russia. I mean, when you spy for an idea, you do not feel a traitor, because it's not about the country, it's about the world. But if you are recruited only to spy for Russia, well, it makes things much more difficult. But what happened already in the middle of the Second World War, is that Stalin, who was always paranoid, became even more paranoid. So he decided to get rid of this first category of people and to rely exclusively on these Russian personnel who were, as I said, extremely brutal, nationalistic and narrow-minded. And on the way, they destroyed many things built by the first category. And that is why after the war, Soviet intelligence was not that successful. That was before the Second World War. Now, Russia doesn't have, of course, the ideology which would have an equal appeal to the world as it was like in the 1930s. At the same time, you still have people who feel either really angry about what is going on in the world, and they believe that Russia, especially Putin, presents some sort of alternative, and these people might be approached. But on the other hand, what we also try to show in the book is that from the very beginning, the Soviet intelligence counted on its influence among the Russian émigrés. And we are talking about all these generations, starting from people who fled from the Tsar, because people started fleeing the country long before the revolution. They never stopped. And we see now, again, a very big wave of emigration. The problem is that the Soviet intelligence and the Russian intelligence now know how to talk to these people, and sometimes in a very brutal way. A lot of these people had relatives left in the country. So, people like Zarubin and his friends could have easily approached these émigrés, telling them, ‘Look, you still have family in the Soviet Union. Well, we can get them in jail very easily. So please, that's your choice’. And that is exactly what is going on right now. We already see that the Russian security services now, since the start of the war in Ukraine, have started approaching families of the recent émigrés, of people who left because of the war. And we already have several examples. Thanks to lawyers, we know about these cases that people got approached. Families of émigrés were approached by the FSB and asked to talk to their relatives and all that. So, we see that these tactics, these methods, they never go away.
Putin is using Russian émigrés to achieve its goals in the West
VERIDICA: You have some fascinating stories there for instance, the assassination of Trotsky in 1940 under the direct order of Stalin. And this is easily a scenario for a blockbuster. And speaking about what happened after the 1990s, for example, the descendants of the White Russians who fled to the United States from Russia and gave Putin the Russian White Church willingly. Do these people believe in the world of Putin as he is presenting it – the alternative world constructed by disinformation and so on? Why do these brilliant people choose to work for Putin?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Well, I would say that mostly they are not ideological. They're extremely cynical. The people you're talking about are like Boris Jordan, who has this Russian-American background and is the direct descendant of a family of Russian aristocratic émigrés right after the revolution. Yes, he decided to go to Russia in the early 1990s because he was not that successful in the United States. And he identified very early that Russia's 1990s presented a great opportunity to make money. And for eight-ten years that was what he was doing, making money. He was not really political. Yes, his father wanted to invest in some activities and in Russia, sort of promoting the memory of the White Guard. But for his son, it was not a big deal. But after that, we got Putin. And Putin became really interested, almost immediately after he came to power, in taking control of Russian émigrés in Europe and in the United States. He started talking to these people, and that presented an opportunity for people like Jordan. If you have a leader of the country who is so interested in this topic and you have something to sell, and the Jordans had something to sell - their influence amongst the Russian émigré community, that's exactly what they did. They decided to cooperate and to help Putin. They suffered also a lot because Putin was always very ruthless. His way of dealing with mistakes made by others is very brutal. But nevertheless, until now, actually, until already after the annexation of Crimea, these people were extremely supportive of Putin and they tried to whitewash his reputation in the West using all their connections, their influence with money, which was a big surprise to us. When I was young and was in my twenties, I was reading all these stories about the White émigrés. And of course, we hated Chekists and I thought there is no way these people could talk to each other. And all of a sudden, 20 years later, into the 2000s, you see Boris Jordan, as I said, a descendant of a very aristocratic family, praising Putin, who was never shy to say that he actually was very proud to serve in the KGB, which was a direct descendant of the Cheka who killed all these aristocrats. And I couldn’t make my mind how you can do that? How can you justify these things? It looks like for these people, the idea of a strong leader in the country is a very appealing idea. No matter what. It might be a tsar, it might be Stalin, it might be Putin. The main thing is that it's about a big, strong country with a really strong leader. That's enough.
VERIDICA: I like your quotation from the famous Soviet dissident and political émigré, Vladimir Bukowski, who said that this is how the Russian Empire was built: the expansion of Russia was the result of a long process in which Russians fled from Russian power and the power followed the people. And I think it's not just a figure of speech, it’s more than that. But nowadays, eight months after this war started in Ukraine, I think that the West is not so innocent anymore. So, can these Russians influence again as before in their homelands, in the United States and Western Europe?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Well, I think we have two interesting problems here. One problem is that, all of a sudden, the West took a lot of Russian recent émigrés, people who left the country because of the war. And we are talking about more than 100,000 people. There are different estimates, none of them are really accurate. So I would very cautiously say it is about several hundred thousand people. These people are extremely well-educated. Not all of them are openly anti-Putin, but none of them want to join the Russian army and to fight in Ukraine, which gives me some hope that at least these people do not want to fight. Potentially, they might be a really good thing for the Western countries, because, as I said, many of them are extremely well-educated and they just don't feel comfortable to stay in the country. Of course, we all know this emotional argument made by Volodymyr Zelensky, who said about the Russians that it's better to send them back and that would cause a revolution. I'm quite skeptical that this could actually start a revolution. Well, revolutions never start this way. And obviously, you cannot start a revolution from prison. And that's where you can find these people if you send them back. But nevertheless, I would say that it's still an opportunity. It's not a threat, but it is an opportunity. But you also have different Russians already living in the West for many, many years. And we are talking of people who emigrated in the 1990s, some of them in the early 2000s, some of them in the 1980s. Many of them, surprisingly, are very pro-Kremlin. And we see these people in Germany. We see these people in the Czech Republic, in the United States. These are the people who are going to these pro-Kremlin big rallies on the 9th of May celebrating, as they say, the Russian victory in the Second World War. And they have all these portraits and all that. The problem with these people is that they left Russia so many years ago, that they completely forgot why they left their country. And what we got instead is a sense of the loss of a national identity. They are not completely in the West and they are not in Russia anymore. They’re in-between. Some of them still have some problems in the West. They do not feel like they have a place they deserve. And this crisis of national identity was extremely successfully exploited by the Kremlin, because that's exactly what the Kremlin has given them: the sense of belonging to something really big. For instance, if you live just in a small German town and you emigrated from Russia many years ago and you still have problems with your language skills or your job is not that that great as you aspired. And that's one image of you. It's completely another image of you if you think, well, ‘I'm not just a guy living in this small town, but I am part of this big country which forced everybody to talk about it’. And you have the whole world thinking what to do about Russia. That gives you a gratifying feeling of belonging to something really big. Because, in this case, you can tell something to your neighbors. Actually, you understand Putin and you can sort of be bigger than you are in your everyday life. And that’s the kind of feeling which is exploited by Putin even now. These people still have this problem with their identity, no matter what is happening in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it's not about rational arguments. It's all about emotions for these people. They choose not to listen to all these reports about what is going on in Ukraine, how many people get killed and all these atrocities. They just do not want to hear that, because they need to have their national identity and they need to have this feeling of belonging to something really big.
VERIDICA: Do you think that these communities are manipulated by Russia? And I'm thinking about the Lisa case in Germany seven years ago. It was a huge scandal, also a diplomatic one. It's become one of the most important things that happened regarding disinformation and how you can manipulate a community. Having in mind that the Russian diaspora is the third-largest in the world, 25 million people, do you think that the Russian secret services have the ability to manipulate these people in the West?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: They're obviously trying to and they've been trying for many years, and I would say they never stopped. Right after the revolution, already in 1922, as far as I remember, there were some documents approved by Soviet secret services, direct orders to start working with the Russian immigration to promote the Russian goals, back then Soviet goals. They created a very expensive network of organizations already in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, obviously, and after the war. We are talking about many things, we are talking about cultural initiatives, the movement for peace, exchanges, all kinds of activities which were disguised as civil activities, but actually the KGB played a significant part in these activities. We still have the same organizations active even now. What Putin did, he invested even more in these activities, because he understood this crisis of the national identity I described. What he decided to do, he decided to create a big new network of organizations under the umbrella of Rossotrudnichestvo - the Russian Cooperation Agency, which is officially under the control of the Foreign Ministry, but everybody knows that the presence of Russian spies is very, very high there. What we can do, and what we are doing, obviously, is that now there are so many Russians abroad. And so many of them, as I said, went to these countries years ago, which means that not all, but many of them have passports so they could vote. So, they actually could influence the political situation in European countries, especially in countries with a really large percentage of Russians, like Germany. And they are quite active politically. The other problem is that it looks like it was only Putin and his agencies who wanted to talk to these people. The Russian political émigrés, the Russian political organizations and exiles were never extremely successful at talking to these people. And I remember when we were researching this book, we spoke with Russian political opposition politicians who live in the United States, in those countries. And we asked them this question: ‘Why do you not talk to people in Berlin and in New York and Brighton Beach and all that?’ And they were very… not cynical, but I would say their approach was very short-sighted. They just said ‘We don't see any sense talking to these people’. To some extent, they despised them, which I think was a big mistake. So, you have this very big Russian-speaking community which was left without any guidance, without real media to talk to them. And all of a sudden you've got Putin and his media who invested a lot of money into creating a way to talk to them. They became a very easy target for Putin's propaganda. And of course, they've been used and they're being used now.
‘Don't oppose the Kremlin, because it would be a problem, not only for you, but also for your family and for your friends’
VERIDICA: We know that the Russians tried to influence the elections in the United States six years ago, and in Germany and in France and Brexit and the referendum for independence of Catalonia. We also know that the Russian secret services are to blame for attempts of assassination or assassinations. Do you think that these things are still possible now, keeping in mind that the West is now supporting Ukraine? Is it still possible to interfere in elections and have these active measures and so on?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: I think, first of all, that is still, of course, very likely to happen, because what we see is that, when the Kremlin finds itself in a big crisis and now it's a big crisis, it's an existential crisis for Russia, they tend to look at what was done by their Soviet predecessors. Putin has such big admiration for the KGB, he always tried to learn something from KGB practices. The KGB was not that successful, but it's a big myth for many people in the Russian security services now. And they believe that the practices, the methods used by the KGB are really great to be replicated. So unfortunately, I think that many things we described in our book talking about the Cold War, like the assassinations, they unfortunately are still on the cards now, because that's the way they operate, that's the way they are trained to think about how to deal with a problem, with a threat, with a challenge: to kill people, to recruit them, and sometimes in a very brutal way, to spread fear. We saw that, when Skripal was poisoned, how effective it was and how many people who already lived in the West became really scared. And I remember when we researched this book, literally in every conversation with a Russian émigré, the question about Novichok was mentioned, by them, not by me. So they took this message that they should be extremely careful. That's how the Russian security services operate. On the other hand…
VERIDICA: Just a moment, please. Why poison? Why always poison and not something else? Like the case of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination or Trotsky. Why always poison in the West?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Yes. It's not only about the West, by the way, because, for instance, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian politician, was poisoned twice. Miraculously, he survived, and now he's in jail. Navalny was also poisoned in the country. Dmitry Bykov, a very famous Russian poet, was also poisoned in the country. He also survived. Both of them survived, thank God.
VERIDICA: But some other guys in Russia died falling out the window. What I'm saying is why is poison more important?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: It is a very interesting question. Why poison was and has been always actually on the cards? Stalin’s Security Services started poisoning people back in the 1930s. I think it's something about a psychological effect poisoning has on people, because if you just shoot people like Nemtsov was killed, in this case, first of all, you cannot blame the victim because you cannot say that Nemtsov killed himself, it's just nonsense. It's also something which just happened, and then you need to deal with the consequences of this horrible assassination. But when you poison someone, first of all, you always can blame the victim. And that's always the case with Russian security services. They always blame the victim. They say: ‘No, nobody tried to poison Nemtsov, he poisoned himself because he was drunk. Nobody poisoned Kara-Murza, he was on some medicine in combination with alcohol. So, there’s always mud in the water when we are talking about poisoning, and poisoning provides this opportunity. If people want and choose not to believe that somebody got poisoned, the poisoning gives this opportunity. They can always deny that it actually took place. The other thing is, and I think it's even more horrible, is that the KGB has been working for years developing special tactics, how to affect not only a troublemaker, but also his family and his friends. And that is why, for instance, the KGB has always had this very extensive network of regional departments. In Moscow, for instance, you have the central apparatus of the FSB, you have the Moscow departments of the FSB and in every district you have a special section of the FSB. Why? Why do you have so many people on the ground? The reason is that, for instance, if you have a guy, a politician, for instance, or an activist, and he becomes a target, the KGB, and these days, the FSB, can use this network of regional departments to make life really difficult for him, for his kids at school and kindergarten, for his wife in the hospital, and so on and so forth. The idea is always to send a message: ‘Don't oppose the Kremlin, because it would be a problem, not only for you, but also for your family and for your friends’. Poisoning is something that gives you an opportunity, because usually poisoning takes some time. And as the target is dying, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, it's a horrible experience his or her family is going through, with the victim. It has such a horrible psychological effect on everybody who is in touch and who actually is in the know (34:35). And these days, because we have social media, of course, it affects much more people. And I remember when Litvinenko was poisoned – that had a big effect on people in Moscow, because all these photographs and people talked about it. Before that, Yuri Shchekochikhin, the very famous Russian journalist, was poisoned. Some of my colleagues, Russian journalists told me that it's better for them to leave the profession altogether, because they expected to be shot, but not to be poisoned. It's such a horrible reality which has this big psychological impact on people. And that is why, in a very cynical way, it is very effective.
VERIDICA: We know a lot of things from you, especially, about the FSB. We know some things about the Foreign Intelligence service and about the military one, but we know little about the special unit protecting Putin. What is this one dealing with?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Well, first of all, Putin has not just one, but two agencies protecting him personally. So, you have the FSO, the Federalnaya sluzhba okhrany – the Federal Protective Service. And inside this agency, you have another agency, SBP - Sluzhba bezopasnosti prezidenta, the Presidential Security Service. These two agencies are in charge of providing personal protection to Putin, and it reflects how paranoid he is. An interesting thing is that the powers of these agencies are not extremely clear. We know they are not only about protection Putin, but sometimes they are also in charge of reporting to Putin about something happening in the country, bypassing the usual ways of reporting to him used by other security agencies. To some extent it is a competition to the FSB, but I would say it's very murky. And sometimes, Putin doesn't want to make it very clear where the limits of the powers of these agencies are. What we know now is Putin is getting more and more paranoid, we knew that for many years. But now he is thinking that, if he wants to find a new candidate for some high-level position, he cannot rely on people he does not know personally. And that means he started appointing to these high positions people who used to be his bodyguards, which is not extremely effective. I mean, bodyguards might be good at protecting people, but they don't have any skills at governing big regions of Russia. And we have several examples of these people.
VERIDICA: That is the case of Zolotov.
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Yeah, but Zolotov at least has some experience, because he has been around for so long. But we have some other people like Dyumin, for instance, who is a governor of Tula, which is a big region, and we have a very heavy presence of the Russian military industrial companies there. And his experience with governance is extremely limited.
Putin's Russia is becoming more and more like Stalin's Russia
VERIDICA: Everybody is wondering if Putin himself was the target of disinformation done by the people whom he trusts the most. Because, after the annexation of Crimea, after something like a blitzkrieg, he expected the Ukrainian people to meet the Russian army with flowers. But then something happened. Do you think that Putin was disinformed? There are people around him, of whom he trusts less than the fingers on his hand. So, let's say Patrushev, Naryshkin, Shoigu, Prigozhin or Kadyrov.
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Bortnikov.
VERIDICA: Bortnikov, yeah. Do you think that Putin trusts anyone around him? Or does he decide on his own what to do?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Of course, he has no choice but to rely on the information provided by his people, because he doesn't have any alternative sources of information. The independent media is killed in the country. Of course, he doesn't trust foreign media. He would never read The New York Times if he wants to understand what is going on in Ukraine. The only means he has is his intelligence reports provided by his spies. He might be critical or not critical, but still just by definition, he is a victim of the limits of this kind of system of informing a leader. But I would say it would be too far to say that he was a victim of disinformation. The FSB was in charge of providing political information about the situation in Ukraine. And the FSB has been in charge of that for years, actually starting in the early 2000s. Of course, now we see that it was a gross miscalculation, a massive miscalculation, the idea that Ukraine would immediately collapse. But it's quite interesting why they got it so wrong. It's not like they reported all facts wrong. No, it was not like that. The problem was that people inside the FSB have a very cynical view of things and they had a very cynical, dark view of Ukraine as a state. For instance, they believed and that is what they reported to Putin, that Ukraine had a big problem of corruption. And to be honest, it was quite correct. But they reported only this part of the big picture. The only thing they actually reported to Putin was the message: ‘This country cannot survive, because politicians and the government officials in this country are corrupt, easily manipulated, we can bribe them’. And then they made this big assumption. And that means, for them, that the country would collapse immediately, that it's a failed state, not a real state. And it is here that they made a big mistake, because the problem of the FSB is they always disregarded the grassroots movements and civil society. They always underestimated these things, in a country like Russia, but also in Ukraine. In Ukraine, the civil society is much stronger than in Russia. If you take it out of the question, and if you report to your leader only the problems of corruption inside of the state apparatus of Ukraine, you will get some sort of information, and it would be to some extent true. But in a big sense, it would be absolutely false. That's exactly what happened to Putin. He believed in these reports that Ukrainian politicians were corrupt or easily manipulated and that's it. And also, of course, he despised Zelensky personally. He never believed that Zelensky would stay in Kyiv and he would decide to stay and fight. So, these mistakes cost him dearly.
VERIDICA: You reported about this general, Sergey Beseda, the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service, who was placed under house arrest over his early failures following the invasion. It was world-breaking news and you were the source of that. Why do you think these sources from the FSB told you about Beseda? I mean, it's a war. Are they risking something for telling you this kind of things?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: First of all, it's been my personal quest to report about the Fifth Service of the FSB, which has been the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB for many years. I started doing that back in 2002, 20 years by now. And so, I got some of the sources inside of this particular department back then, in the early 2000s. Some of these people are obviously retired, some of these people are still there. But it means that I can still talk to these people and they trust me. And it's quite interesting that even in the time of war, personal trust matters more than, say, all this talk about the war and all of that. The other thing is that in the beginning of the war, there were so many people who were unhappy about the way the war and the crisis were unfolding. These people were unhappy in other agencies, like military intelligence, but also inside the FSB. And these people, though, they had this urge to talk to journalists, to share their concerns about how things started and how they were going. So all of a sudden, you've got such a big crisis that lots of people inside the security services felt very uneasy. I would say now it's changing, unfortunately for everybody, because now you have people inside who found a way to adjust to this new reality of war. There is a big feeling of acceptance. Nobody now asks why Putin started the war. Now, they feel and they talk about it as something which was completely inevitable: ‘Yeah, maybe he should have started it like maybe a month later or a month earlier’. But they actually believed in this theory that NATO would attack, or something like that. The main point is that actually they believe now that it was inevitable, and they agree with that. They accept it. I would say that now support enjoyed by Putin inside the security service is quite strong. But there are some still interesting things which are going on. This guy, Beseda actually, in a very interesting turn of events, was released maybe because of this scandal. And Putin didn’t want to show to the world that something is not going according to his plan, as he famously once said. So, yeah, in a very Stalinist way of doing things, he released Beseda and he made it public. ‘You told us that this guy was in jail’. ‘No, no, no. He's still here with me’. And it is quite interesting because, again, it reflects the new reality, that Putin's Russia is becoming more and more like Stalin's Russia, unfortunately. Of course, we are not talking about mass oppressions, it's not about the Gulag. But the methods used by the Kremlin and the methods used by the security services are getting more and more similar to what we saw back in the 1940s and 1950s.
VERIDICA: For that reason, because you exposed Putin's purges of spy agencies blamed for failings in Ukraine, Russia put you on the wanted list. You were charged with spreading disinformation about the military. Now, you live in exile. So you are part of the community you talk about in this book. In October, there has to be a trial in absentia. What can happen for you and Irina?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: Well, I got a note from the investigator that the criminal investigation was prolonged until January. It's quite interesting, because we expected… Even in the summer, there was some news and some rumors that my case might be the first case of someone tried in absentia. And they wanted to make it a big story. For some reason, they changed their mind and it was delayed until October. And now, until January. Of course, it's still a problem, because it means that I'm still on this wanted list. And because there is no trial, there is no way to do anything about the case. I still have my assets frozen, I still have my car and the rest. And I cannot travel to certain countries because I could be sent to Russia. So, yeah, it is still a kind of problem for both of us. What is interesting about our case and we have now many cases against Russian journalists, like every day someone else is added to this wanted list, literally, if not every day, every week then. My case, and maybe it’s my attitude towards this, trying to look at this professionally, but my case is quite interesting because we know that the case was started not because I spread some news about the military, but because of this story about Beseda. Because we got a copy of the very first report that started the case. And this very first report was from the Department of the FSB. And it clearly said that, because they published this story, we need to do something about them. So, it would be quite interesting, professionally speaking, to watch how my case will be investigated and tried, because it would give some rare glimpse into how the FSB are changing their methods and what they are going to do. Maybe it would give me an idea about the next chapter for the updated edition. Maybe.
Intelligence officers believe that Russia is so vulnerable that even a small protest can topple the system
VERIDICA: Maybe, it's interesting to know why these guys from the Russian secret services are doing their job. There is no ideology, even if you said that there is a perfect continuity in the last century, from Cheka and the KGB to these present secret services. But do you think that these guys really believe in Russia’s messianic role in the world, about what Putin said, the Third Rome and so on, or are they just pragmatic?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: They have some sort of ideology, it's very far from what they say in public. In public, it's all about Russia being a great country and global affairs and all that. But the interesting thing about the people inside the security services is almost all of them who think (many of these people, they just don't think), but people who think share this feeling of insecurity. They actually believe that Russia is a very weak country. Very weak. And just like they believe Ukraine is corrupt, they believe Russia is much more corrupt. And that is why they believe that, even a small thing, like a small street protest, like five people, might be capable to start a new revolution in Russia and destroy everything. They have this apocalyptic view that the new revolution is quite imminent and again, could destroy everything. And to prevent this revolution from happening, they could do whatever they want: to kill people, to assassinate them, to poison them, to attack people on the streets. Because sometimes you ask them: ‘Why do you think it is legitimate and needed to ban completely any protest activities in the streets?` Sometimes you have like, how many people? Thousands of people, sometimes hundreds of people. Is it really a threat? And the usual response is: ‘You never know what could start a revolution’. And again, this feeling of insecurity, you can trace it back to the Soviet past, because they actually do not know how the revolution of 1917 started. They actually believed in...
VERIDICA: If it was a revolution…
ANDREI SOLDATOV: … yeah. And actually they believed in this idea that Lenin and a bunch of exiles were just brought by Germans to Petrograd and they overthrew the tsar, which of course is very far from reality, because you had, first of all, the First World War and it destroyed not one, but four European empires, and Russia was just one of them. So they kind of miss this context. And they are focused only on Lenin and his friends. And that makes them feel very insecure. And the same thing happened, they believe, in 1991. They do not understand how the Soviet Union collapsed. From their point of view, it looks like that: you had a big country, a real competition to everybody, including the United States. This country had the biggest and the most intelligent security agency in the world, the KGB. And all of a sudden, it collapsed in three days. You need to find an explanation and they had none. And that is why they believe that even a small protest and some small-level activity might start a new revolution. And that is why they are so paranoid.
VERIDICA: And finally, the last question. Some would say that every state has a mafia, but Russia is the only state where mafia has a state. Some will say that this is the first time in Russia's history when the state is run by the secret services. And Putin, of course, is a former officer. Now, the West thinks that, if Putin is gone, Russia will turn to democracy. Do you think that is a correct presumption? Is Putin the only problem now for this system?
ANDREI SOLDATOV: No, of course not. We have more than 90% of people being still supportive of the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it's not only about Putin. Unfortunately, what Putin did with Russian society was to completely corrupt it, not in a way that people became cynical, but in the way that he made them complicit to his crimes. And it's not a secret that Russian teachers and schools were complicit at rigging elections, because we have our elections in schools and teachers are asked for many years to play a role in elections and they helped a lot. We also have not only the military, but we have local governments, like city governments being involved in suppressing activities of people who are protesting on the streets. And that makes a large part of the population an active supporter and sometimes an active part of the repressive apparatus Putin built. So, I would say that, even with Putin gone, we still would have such a big problem in Russian society. And that is something which makes me extremely sad, because I was 15 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, and I remember that back then, especially in Moscow (of course, I lived in Moscow), people were extremely optimistic and enthusiastic about the change, because they believed that what was needed was just to get rid of the Communist Party, and the KGB maybe. That’s it. Now we understand that it's not enough. We just need to think that it's not only about Putin and it's not only about the FSB, not only about the military. It's about so many things. So many things should be reformed. And to be honest, it's a big question for everybody, even where to start.
*Irina Borogan is a well known Russian investigative journalist. She is Andrei Soldatov’s partner both in life and in journalism.