Putin's Russia: Kremlin Riddled with Former KGB Agents

Four out of five members of Russia's political and business elite have a KGB past, according to a new study by the prestigious Academy of Sciences. The influence of ex-Soviet spies has ballooned under President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a pistol during his visit in November to newly-built defense intelligence headquarters in Moscow.
AFP / ITAR-RTASS / Presidential Press Service

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a pistol during his visit in November to newly-built defense intelligence headquarters in Moscow.

An unprecedented study of Russia's political and business leadership suggests that "78 percent of the Russian elite" have a KGB background, according to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the study's author.

It's no secret that President Vladimir Putin served in East Germany under the KGB, or that the influence of the former Soviet spy agency has grown during his tenure. But Kryshtanovskaya's research for the Center for the Study of the Elite, at Russia's prestigious Academy of Sciences, describes the trend in hard numbers for the first time.

Kryshtanovskaya looked at 1,061 top Kremlin, regional and corporate jobs and expressed surprise at the proportion of "siloviki" she found -- "siloviki" being ex-members of the KGB or its domestic successor organization, the FSB.

"I was very shocked when I looked at the boards of major companies and realized there were lots of people who had completely unknown names, people who were not public but who were definitely, obvious siloviki," she told Reuters.

A "social recovery"

After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, under former president Boris Yeltsin, KGB budgets were slashed and the spy agency was broken into pieces. Private "cowboy" capitalists, meanwhile, took over formerly state-run industries.

But when Putin was elected in 2000, he paid a visit to the old KGB headquarters in central Moscow and, according to numerous media reports, cracked a prescient joke to 300 of his former colleagues: "Instruction number one of the attaining of full power," he deadpanned, "has been completed."

In the meantime he's made no secret of wanting to bring Russia's major industries back under state control. One of his most powerful political opponents, Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- former CEO of the Russian oil company Yukos -- is still in jail. Yukos' main production facilities are under Kremlin influence again, along with Russia's largest corporation, Gazprom, which provides natural gas to much of eastern Europe.

"Putin (has) appointed people he trusts (to positions of power) because in the 1990s there were young unprincipled cowboys who got very rich," a Russia expert named Jonathan Stern told the Belfast Telegraph. It's not unusual in any country for ex-intelligence officers to hold high corporate jobs or political office, Stern admits, but in Russia "a small group of people are controlling very, very large state assets, and that is a concern."

The recent radiation poisoning of ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London has spurred interest in the tactics of power in Putin's Russia. "This rise of the KGB in high state positions is in some senses a social recovery," says Khryshtanovskaya. But it's highly unusual: In other nations with a Soviet-bloc past -- like Germany -- former members of Communist spy agencies still try to keep a low profile.

msm/bbc/reuters

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