Circling the Lion's Den

The mindset of Russia's security services

A mix of Orthodox Christianity, trails of Slavic paganism and a pride in being successors to the Soviet and Byzantine Empires, both destroyed by the Western crusaders.

Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan

In the Soviet Union the political elite, fearful of recurrence of Stalin era purges, did its best to place every KGB section under strict party control. Thus, the average KGB officer was deprived of initiative and fearful of party punishment for professional misgivings and wrong moral behavior. The two wars in Chechnya changed everything: the brutal persecution of the rebels distorted the methods used while the absence of outside control and a failed attempt to establish parliamentary oversight provoked adventurism.

Vladimir Putin added a new element to the character of the FSB; when he came to power for the first time in their history the Russian secret services were given the right to define their own political agenda. Oil prices continued to climb, Russia was quickly recovering from the nineties-- a decade of humiliation – and the Federal Security Service was seen by the Kremlin as being at the vanguard of the general move to new heights of power and prosperity. By the mid-2000s the FSB had long been expanding beyond the borders of the conventional secret service, and was in a hurry to find an ideology to support its claims to be the new nobility of Russia.

That was not an easy task. On the one hand, FSB personnel appeared unwilling to turn their backs on the Soviet past and Yuri Andropov joined the pantheon of FSB heroes. At the same time the Communist ideology had been dismissed even before the fall of the Soviet Union: in the late eighties KGB colonels saw themselves not as Comintern agents busy undermining the Imperialist West, but as defenders of the state, real patriots who chose motherland over ideology.

That view was supported by state propaganda: in 1980-1988 the KGB produced a series of films titled “State Border” devoted to the history of the Soviet Border troops (structurally subordinate to the KGB). The series started in 1917, showing how the officers of the Border Guards Corps of the Russian Empire chose to serve Soviet Russia because only the country mattered.

In the 2000s the same people, now generals of the FSB, privately admitted that their main task was to protect the political regime, irrespective of its nature, because stability and order were the top priority. As a result, FSB officials now regard themselves not only as heirs to the KGB but also the secret police that the Tsars deployed to battle political terrorism. They see no contradiction between these seemingly disparate missions: their main objective is to serve and protect.

But the idea of “service” lacks some crucial qualities that would allow it to become an ideology. The status of the “new nobility” was never expanded to the army. It was an old Soviet tradition: KGB personnel were consciously distinguished from the Soviet Armed forces - the supervisors and supervised should never mix. Thus, it posed an obvious existential problem: if the Army is proud to defend the motherland, what is left for the FSB to defend?

In 2006 the gap between the army and secret services was made even deeper. That August a Presidential decree changed the color of the uniform of the Russian secret services: the FSB, Federal Protective Service FSO, the Service of Special Facilities (subordinate to the GUSP) and SVR from army green to black.

The color of night has never been popular with the Russian special services; black uniforms were only worn in the prison department of the Russian Empire and very briefly by policemen in the 1920s. Obviously this was not about returning to traditions; the color choice was of some symbolic importance.

Some critics hastened to compare this new fashion with the Nazi SS troops’ obsession with the color black. In fact there is a Russian history of using black for defenders of the Motherland. During the Civil War, when they were suffering defeat after defeat, the White Guard formed officers’ regiments named after generals Markov, Drozdov, and Kornilov. The regiment of General-Lieutenant Sergey Markov called itself a “brotherhood of monastic knights who sacrificed their liberty, their blood, and their lives for Russia.” They wore black tunics as a symbol of their scorn for earthly goods and were strictly religious.

This is how FSB generals prefer to see themselves in today’s new Russia. The FSB has also strengthened its ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2002, the Cathedral of St. Sophia of God’s Wisdom was restored and reopened just off Lubyanka Square a block away from the FSB headquarters. Patriarch Aleksey II himself blessed the opening of the cathedral in a ceremony attended by then FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev.

Despite the repression carried out by Patrushev’s predecessors against the Church in Soviet times, support from the Russian Orthodox Church to the FSB is not as surprising as it seems - in this case the Church merely followed the old national tradition. The Russian Church had always been closely connected with the state: the Russian Tsar was also the head of the Church and Russia’s brand of Orthodoxy is based on a belief in Russian uniqueness and the concept that Moscow is “the Third Rome” (after Ancient Rome and Constantinople). Being “unique,” Russia sees itself as surrounded by numerous envious enemies that the FSB and other secret services must combat. Not surprisingly, in the mid-2000s the Byzantine Empire became extremely popular within or among figures in the Kremlin. The special historical documentary “The Fall of an Empire: The Lesson of Byzantium” was produced and aired in January 2008 on Russian state TV; the fall of Constantinople was explained as being due to the intrigues of local “oligarchs” and Western crusaders.

As in the Middle East, the Crusades are viewed negatively in Russia – one of the northern Crusades ended abruptly in April 1242 when the Teutonic Order’s advance into Russian territory was repelled by Prince Alexander Nevsky, a national Russian hero, in the Battle on the Ice at Lake Chud. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to fear Catholic expansion: in 2002 five Catholic priests were expelled from Russia, some of them accused of espionage.

The alliance between the Church and the FSB seems quite logical: the FSB helped to protect the Orthodox sphere of influence against Western proselytizing; in return the Church blessed the secret service in its struggle with enemies of the state.

In the meantime, if the legacy of the Russian and Byzantine Empires suited the FSB’s generals, the colonels are much. The xenophobic education provided by the FSB Academy, the main alma mater for all Russian secret services, has changed little since the fall of the Soviet Union, makes neophytes vulnerable to all ideas supporting the notion of a global conspiracy against Russia.

These claims were supported by the Russian education system during the Soviet era. True, Russian science (mathematics, physics, chemistry) flourished under Soviet rule, but the humanities were suppressed by Party control: history and philosophy were the main victims of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and no free discussion was permitted.

Not surprisingly, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, those Marxist-Leninist professors, compromised and lost, were unable to explain what was happening to the country. Thus, it was the turn of a parallel body of thought, closely connected with the KGB, emerged.

From the beginning of Soviet rule, a hidden national system of scientific research was created, which consisted of secret institutes and research centers. The existence of a confidential research industry in the sciences could be easily explained by its closeness to the military. Lesser known perhaps was the fact that a similar system in the humanities was also established to carry out research considered too sensitive to be conducted openly: for example, only KGB centers were allowed to study sociology and social behavior studies. In most cases talented youths were recruited in universities and then transferred to the KGB system, as happened with Andrei Milekhin, now president of ROMIR-Monitoring, the largest Russian research company specializing in market research and sociological surveys. Milekhin studied psychology in Leningrad University and then joined the sociological division of the KGB.

The very existence of secret research centers presupposed that answers to the most existential questions might be held by the guardians of KGB's repositories of hidden knowledge. And they responded to the call.

In the early 1990s many theories flourished explaining why the West is so keen to destroy Russia. The most popular among them was the Public Security Concept “Mertvaya voda” (Dead Water - in Russian mythology the Dead water may revive dead and cure wounds) which convinced many otherwise sensible people’s eyes to the role of Judeo-Christianity in both destroying the human psyche and also in shaping a slavish mentality. This Concept, created by General Konstantin Petrov, argues that all Russia’s woes began with the adoption of Christianity (specifically, "Judaic Christianity"), imposed by the Jews.

In the 1990s the Concept leaflets were disseminated in underground, self-published brochures, but by the 2000s its adherents were found in the Russian secret services and government bodies.

“Taking a realistic view of the current sweeping expansion of the Satanic Global Predictor and its secret-agent network, it cannot be ruled out that a path to a future Planetary Bio-Defense Union lies through an accelerated creation of a Pan-Eurasian Defense Union as a geopolitical alternative to the ongoing expansion of the United States and NATO” - it is a characteristic quote from the Concept, which was discovered by the authors of this book in the draft memo, “Global processes: trends of developments in the world and Russia until 2020” prepared by the Systems Analysis Research Institute, a think tank under the Russian Audit Chamber, headed by Sergei Stepashin, chief of the FSB from 1994-1995. Nor was the Audit Chamber the only Russian government body infiltrated by the ideas of the “Dead water concept”.

The official website of Concept's followers stated that the FSB had always supported the Concept. As proof, it reproduces scanned copies of three documents signed by high-ranking FSB officials. The first is a letter dated 14th October 1998, signed by then director of the FSB Vladimir Putin and directed to Mikhail Glushenko, one of the leaders of the movement in support of the Concept. In the letter the future Russian president wrote:

    “Unfortunately, being extremely busy, now I am not able to accept a personal meeting with representatives of the group of authors of “Dead water” Petrov K.P. and Ivanov M.N. At the same time, sharing your concern for the perfection of the process of maintaining the security of our country, I agree to consider the given problem at a conceptual level. I have given necessary assignments to respective structures of the FSB of Russia on research of problems of security, given the ideas stated in the note attached by you.”

In the regions the Concept was included in training programs for FSB officers. A number of lectures given by Victor Efimov, a prominent adherent of the Concept, were published on YouTube. As it turned out, some of them had taken place in 2003 in the St Petersburg department of the FSB, possibly the most important regional FSB department, which, since 1999 had been busy delivering generals and colonels to high positions in the Russian state.

The “Dead water concept” and other mystical beliefs though never shown to foreigners or admitted officially, put constant pressure on the secret service community from within. Today the Concepts about why the West is determined to destroy Russia might be different – Russian spirituality lost by most western peoples (thus the source of envy), the unique Slavic character or the legacy of Byzantine civilization destroyed by the Western Crusade (but saved in Russia); they all perfectly suited those in the Russian secret services who favoured isolationism. The result is that the FSB is not ready to trust and cooperate with the West and constantly fears some kind of plot.

At the same time the very idea of democracy, being obviously foreign, came to be considered as another piece of the plot to undermine the Russian state and society. In the 2000s Vladimir Putin found a new source of inspiration to replace “Dead water”. During his Presidency the only thinker Putin referred to was Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954): Putin cited him in his Presidential addresses in 2005 and 2006 and in his speech to the Council of State in June 2007. In June 2009 he visited the Sretensk Monastery's cemetery in Moscow, laying flowers on his grave: Ilyin’s remains had been reinterred in Moscow in 2005 from Switzerland by a Kremlin sponsored program.

Ivan Ilyin fled Russia in 1922 and wrote articles for newspapers financed by organizations of White Guard officers. Understandably, his main theme was how to combine Christian values, Russian patriotism and duty of an officer. Having created the ideology of militarized Orthodox Christianity (his concept was called “On Resistance to Evil by Force”), Ilyin was strongly criticized by contemporaries – one of the reviews was titled “Chekist in the name of God”. Supporting nationalism (“As opposed to any internationalism, both sentimental, and furious; in a counterbalance of any denationalization, household and political, we approve Russian nationalism, instinctive and spiritual, we profess it and we erect it to the God.”), Ilyin advocated strong authoritarianism and claimed that Western democracy does not suit Russia:

    ... The Mechanical, quantitative and formal understanding of the state which is applied in western democracies, is neither unique-possible, nor true. On the contrary: it conceals in itself the greatest dangers; it does not observe the organic nature of the state; it does not unite citizens in general... Therefore such a form of "statehood" and "democracy" does not promise Russia anything kind and not a subject either to borrow or reproduce. Russia needs the other one, new, qualitative and creative.

Such ideas perfectly suited the Kremlin’s concept of “sovereign democracy” in Russia, coined by Vladimir Surkov, the first deputy of the Administration of the President and thereafter used by Vladimir Putin, Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and then minister of defense Sergei Ivanov.

In the meantime, it is unlikely such ideas would have been sustained for almost a decade if they were not shared by a crucial mass of the population.

In the 1990s the United States served as the example state Russian politicians liked to refer to. But the humiliation followed the defeat in Chechnya and the economic crisis of August 1998 ruined popular hopes of a quick transformation into a second America – a country of the same wealth, might and invincibility.

A scapegoat had to be found during Putin's presidency and the nineties became known as “the decade of chaos”. The West’s credibility was compromised because the arrogance of Western economists towards the Russian government was tolerated only if the return was instant prosperity – and those hopes were completely shattered in 1998. In turn Western (notably U.S.) politicians were not longer trusted after Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia in 1999, which was seen by most Russians as a challenge to Russia’s status and role in the international order, a threat to post-Cold War European security governance and a flagrant breach of international law. In Moscow NATO’s intervention was seen as a selective defense of the interests of leading western powers, rather than upholding liberal democratic values.

And even the glasnost period of Gorbachev, damned in the nineties only by ultra-patriots, was now regarded by a large part of the population as historical evidence of the wrong path. Never go for democratic reform until you have prosperity and stability. China was proclaimed a new state model and those who benefited in the 2000s because of skyrocketing oil prices believed that an excess of freedoms would damage economic growth, political stability or social harmony.

Thus the Kremlin made a new pact with the people. According to John Kampfner, the author of “Freedom For Sale”, a close examination of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Singapore, China and the United Arab Emirates, published in September 2009,

    Repression was selective, confined to those who openly challenged the status quo. The number of people who fell into that category was actually very few – journalists who criticized the state or published information that cast the powerful in a negative light; lawyers who defended these agitators; and politicians and others who publicly went out of their way to 'cause trouble'. The rest of the population could enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as they wished and to make and spend their money. This was the difference between public freedoms and private, or privatized, freedoms.

Understandably, given the circumstances of the “sovereign democracy” built up by Vladimir Putin in 2000-2008, Russian secret services played their role differently to the secret services in Western countries. Having obtained the status of protectors of the political regime, or the 'new nobility', the FSB had removed all oversight. As exclusive defenders of power, the FSB is not answerable to the population, and does not need to consider public opinion, only the Kremlin. But the Kremlin in turn lacks the tools to control the FSB and is vulnerable to advances made by the hordes of officers of the KGB/FSB throughout the state apparatus.

Thus the Lubyanka found itself in the rather unique position of being in charge of formulating its own agenda and modus operandi: in the intelligence cycle 'tasking-collection-analysis-dissemination-tasking' all steps were occupied by the FSB.


  • Presidential Decree 28.08.2006 ¹ 921 "O vnesenii izmeneniy v Ukaz Presidentqa Rossiyskoi Federacii ot 8 maya 2005 ¹ 531 “O voennoi forme odezhdi, znakakh razlichiya voennosluzhashikh I vedomstvennikh znakakh razlichiya" (On Military Uniforms, Insignia of Servicemen, and Ministerial Insignia)
  • Alexander Alekseev “Markov I Markovci” Spetsnaz Rossii July 2003
  • Moskovskie Novosti “Rossia vo mgle” May 2004 by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
  • The United Russia web-site. Transcript of a speech by the Deputy Head of the Administration of the President, aide to the president of the Russian Federation, Vladislav Surkov for the centre of partisan study and preparation of the staff "United Russia", 7th of February 2006.
  • John Kampfner “Freedom for sale. How we made money and lost our libery” Simon & Shuster, p.5 2009 London
  • Agentura.Ru. Milekhin's speech at Freedomforum in St Petersburg December 2001
  • KBE official site
  • Ivan Ilyin “On Russian nationalism” Articles. Russian foundation of culture 2006 p.1
  • Ivan Ilyin “On coming Russia” the article first published 30.10.1950. Selected articles, Moscow Voenizdat 1993 p.368
  • The web-site of the Vizantia documentary. English version of the transcript

Agentura.Ru, December 29, 2010