The Power of the New KGB

An exclusive interview with one of the most respected figures in the Russian dissident movement, Vladimir Bukovsky.

[This interview, conducted by Danila Galperovich, is reprinted from It has been translated for by Yelena Glazova].

One of the best known and most respected figures in the Russian dissident movement, Vladimir Bukovsky, spoke to Radio Liberty about the principles and methods employed by the KGB operatives in their work with free thinkers.  Which of those methods will be used in the very near future to control the latest wave of the protests that continue to transfix Russia?

Vladimir Bukovsky has always been a keen observer of the manner in which the KGB gradually regained its strength after initially losing power in 1991.  KGB representatives now occupy the highest echelons of the power structure in Russia.  What will happen in the near future? What should be expected by the participants of the protests?

This interview was conducted in England, in Vladimir Bukovsky’s home in Cambridge.  The first part appeared in print on the 30th of December, Bukovsky’s birthday (he has turned 69). The interview’s second part will be published on January 4-5.  As we present to our readers the translation of the interview, we congratulate Vladimir most warmly on his birthday.

Galperovich: The young people who came to the meeting at Bolotnaya Square are approximately 20-25 years of age, and they are managers, businessmen, artists; the frequenters and users of Facebook.  They do not really understand the phenomenon of the KGB because the KGB did not exist as a visible phenomenon during their life time.  Nonetheless, this young generation will be dealing with the KGB-trained operatives, all placed in key positions in the country.  What should these young people know about their opponents? What should they expect? What awareness is central for these young people in their battle?

Bukovsky: Let me emphasize first of all that the KGB operatives have lost much of their qualitative acumen and sharpness in the last twenty years.  In my time, the Central Committee of the Communist Party supervised the activities of the KGB, and without the Central Committee’s permission, the KGB was not able even to conduct searches.  This stern control from above made their behavior precise and honed their actions; the Central Committee could always punish KGB operatives when, for instance, they committed errors or acted willfully and without permission. Thus, the KGB was very disciplined, highly professional. And although these operatives were at the height of their game, we were still able to score many victories in their very game, in their very field, so to speak.  All in all, they no longer compared well with Stalin’s NKVD.

Since my time, however, they have fallen much lower.  I frequently gasp in astonishment – their level is that of the most inapt provincial militia; they are not the KGB of old. They cannot even blow up the buildings in their capital city without exposing themselves and leaving traces. Comrade Stalin would have shot them all.  When, for instance, they killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar and got caught immediately after – this appeared almost unreal. Why do they choose to act while being observed by cameras? How do they use traceable telephone lines and then travel to some diplomat’s country house? In our time this would be unimaginable. The former operatives were of a much higher qualification.

But this reality also has a horrifying aspect – these people commit murders with no real thought or planning and with full abandonment.  In the Soviet period, in order to commit murder, one had to make a plan, observe the target for a considerable period of time, submit the plan to the Central Committee and then wait for the approval. This would take time.  This is why the KGB did not like [to commit] many murders; one had to work long and hard preparing murders and engage in much bureaucracy.  It was much easier to arrest the person and send him to prison and then to the Gulag.  But today – to kill is easier than to arrest, for to arrest is to invite publicity, to initiate glasnost, to attracts lawyers – and even the press (no matter how weak or inferior). The operatives do not want this noise. Arrests to them have dangerous consequences.

Sasha Litvinenko was the first person who explained this new reality to me. He told me that KGB operatives plan murders while snacking in their cafeteria. Here is his story: “I am sitting quietly, eating my soup.  A fellow from an adjacent department joins me and asks whether I have reliable criminal contacts. I say that I do. Then he explains: 'We need to take away that German.'  'What do you mean' I ask, 'take away?'  And he says, 'It would be good for you too; 30 thousand is your take.'" This is how they conduct their business now, and this is how they solve their problems.  This needs to be understood.  If you compare our time with the contemporary scene, this pattern points to a major, startling difference. And at the same time these operatives constantly commit the most stupid errors. In the Soviet Union, there was the “wise” Central Committee of the Party, which the KGB hated for the Committee’s power, for its control; the operatives rejoiced when they were finally free from that control, but now they make errors. Nothing really works as it should.

Galperovich: Can they kill the participants of the protest movement whom they consider most dangerous?

Bukovsky: In our time it was difficult, but now…I began by discussing the difference between the Soviet KGB and the KGB of today (I prefer to call FSB by its old name).  But I need also to point to some fundamental similarities that remain in place no matter what.  The first thing the new protesters should remember is that it is futile to make any agreements with the KGB. All the Western politicians (with the exception of Ronald Reagan) make here a basic error.  Western politicians simply do not grasp the fact that among the species of Homosapiens there exists this very special type.  You cannot make agreements with the representatives of this type because it is not in their plans to make agreements. Their task is to make you their agent.  You are either an agent (potential or actual) or an enemy; nothing else exists.  You may think that you are conducting yourself in a civilized manner when you find some compromises, but for them, any compromise is a sign of weakness, and it means that you should be pressed and pushed further.   So one must remember – the quicker one sees through them, the less one is their victim.

I can tell you a story. Well, it has some non-standard language, but I will try to smooth the rough edges.

In our camp I met an old teacher from Zakarpattia Oblast of Southwestern Ukraine. He was an erudite, knew five languages, was an extraordinary man.  But all of a sudden our supervisor begins to punish him and send him to solitary confinement for 15 days, and repeats this again and again.  In the camps among the prisoners there was this multi-ethnic committee – or so it was called. People of different nationalities – Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians – gathered to discuss the situation in the zone.  And here emerges the new problem: how to help our intelligent teacher. I (instead of keeping my mouth shut) say, "The supervisor is trying to make him a stool pigeon, and our teacher is not able to send them all to hell. One should use the foulest arsenal of four-letter words as soon as possible. They do not understand any other language."

Well, any initiative is punishable. The committee decided that I should explain to the teacher the situation as soon as he finished his new term in solitary confinement.

When the teacher came out from his solitary cell, I explained the situation to him and tried to teach him how to swear.  To use Russian “mat” (swearing language) in full measure -- according to the system of Stanislavsky.  But the teacher’s lips refused to move. He simply could not say it. He knew five languages, but he could not swear. Three hours I was instructing him. Finally he learned; he grasped the situation in full depth. Next time the supervisor sent him to the solitary confinement for 15 days, the teacher swore hard and dirty, and when he finished his fifteen days, they no longer touched him.

This is a story – a Gulag parable, in fact.  It shows that with the KGB one cannot behave in any other manner. They do not understand subtlety; their heads work differently. They have been trained only one way. And if you cannot send them off with the foulest four letter words, you will bind yourself to a great woe.

Galperovich: Well, now these operatives face a mass protest. There have been no mass protests in Russia since the end of the 1980s. What will the KGB do now?

Bukovsky: The experience of opposing mass movements was acquired by the KGB during perestroika. It was then that the politicians decided to develop and nourish mass movements for their purposes.  And the KGB was supposed to control and regulate them, and this task was dutifully carried out.  The fact that nobody on this earth can control mass movements is a different question altogether.  Priest Gapon, the phenomenon of zubatovschina and its network of double agents – here you have the best examples of the inevitable failures of these attempts.  The service of these agents led to the revolution of 1905. And this pattern inevitably reappears. The logic here is simple: the web of agents who attempt to control mass agitation will eventually face an inescapable dilemma. The social atmosphere in due course becomes ever more politicized, radicalized; its protest movements come into a sharper focus.  If the KGB structures resist this process, they will be thrown off and lose their power; if they join, they lose their influence. And then at a very specific moment within this process (the process that remains highly dynamic) – they will lose their control over the mass movements.

Nonetheless, they have acquired considerable experience in mass manipulation. One should not think that they spent the 1980s doing nothing.  They worked on learning the patterns of manipulation and control of the mass agitation.  It is also true that these methods are standard; the KGB did not invent them. Placements of agents, creation of false movements – different “people’s fronts” – all of this is hardly new. That these methods will be employed – of this I have no doubt. One should expect this. There are already some personalities appearing on the scene – I do not want to name them – that make me suspect mischief.  I look at them – something is very unclear. From what depths have they surfaced?

Galperovich: But there is Nemtsov, there is Yavlinsky; there are different kinds of people that are hardly new. Do you have a sense that these people have a distinct future within these new processes?

Bukovsky: Some of these people, of course, have a future.  Nemtsov, for instance.  He possesses a unique combination: on the one hand, he has managerial experience, leadership experience (he was part of the government, was himself a governor, and no one in the opposition can equal this). On the other hand he has credible experience in being part of the opposition, and he has an authority in this regard. He would be needed, I am certain. What about the rest?  The most visible figures in the opposition are not accepted as a viable option by the population at large.

For instance, my friend Garry Gasparov – for them he is too intelligent, too removed from the common people, from their viewpoint, at least.  Limonov is a highly specific figure.  For a certain portion of the youth he is a leader and will remain a leader -- this is undeniable.  But this is a very small portion of the public. A wider population does not accept him. Yavlinsky is a figure that has been worked on from all sides. He has been twirling in politics since 1990, tried all paths, accepted compromises, came out from many highly complex situations, and all of this is remembered, and this burden of the past is not going to be forgotten. Thus, I do not think that Yavlinsky aims to become a leader.

I actually think that we do not know the real leaders. Usually the leaders appear in the moment of the highest stress, when it is time, speaking symbolically, to go to the barricades. Then people, clever, capable, but focused on their own tasks, will leave their immediate occupations and go to the barricades, because there is nowhere to hide.  The protest becomes a necessity from within.  This is when the real leaders will appear – in the moment of the confrontation!  The real leaders cannot appear in the peaceful time; nor can the serious opposition emerge from within the peaceful atmosphere. Without an open confrontation there is no opposition! At this point the protests are swelled by the different layers of the public – by the ones who are not certain with what position to identify themselves – so they go to different meetings. The rest are busy, working on their immediate tasks. But when there is a real crisis, it cancels personal tasks. At that time it becomes impossible to pursue private occupations.

Galperovich: So, this is not a crisis, is it?

Bukovsky: I think that the first serious crisis will take place in the spring, in March or April. Now there is a period of warm-ups, build-up, of swelling from within.  This mood will become more radical towards the spring.  Presidential elections are generally viewed as a more serious process than the elections of parliament.  What is parliament? What can it do even if it is made of the ideal members?  But the presidential election in Russia is a serious step – one invites a person to become the country’s tsar! And this awakens emotions, moods, psychological intensity! One does not have to be a soothsayer in order to foresee that the results of the presidential elections will be falsified – in the same manner as the parliamentary ones, even more so. Once again this blatant fraud will be exposed. It cannot be otherwise; the country is very wide! One should expect the sharpening of confrontations – by leaps and bounds.

Even now the situation has developed by leaps, for on August 31st approximately a thousand people went to Triumphal Square, while there were already forty thousand who went to demonstrate at Bolotnaya.  The observers say there were more – sixty thousand, perhaps. This is clearly a leap in numbers, a most serious leap to boot. One can always analyze why this happened, of course, but one cannot negate the reality of this startling jump upwards. One cannot negate the process of unrest and radicalization in the society.  And one must expect a similar jump towards the spring. This is not a complex prognosis; it is easily foreseeable. And then the crisis will begin, and there will be barricades in whatever form. And then you will see a great number of people emerging from some middling business, who will drop their accounting books and go to the square, because otherwise there will be no future.

You can hear this conversation in Russian in a special issue of the program “Face to Face” [ "Лицом к лицу"] on January 2nd at 4:00 a.m. and at 3:00 p.m. Moscow time.

To buy Vladimir Bukovsky's masterpiece book, To Build a Castle-My Life As a Dissenter, click here.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.