Circling the Lion's Den

Kolpakidi: No-one wants to publish a book about the secret services

The historian and publisher, co-author of the book The GRU Empire, Alexander Kolpakidi told Marina Latysheva (Agentura.Ru) about secret service themed literature and how the secret services' publishing houses now work.

- What state is the book market in post-crisis, when it comes to books about the secret services?

- The market is not only in a bad way, it is all but dead. I won't say it's absolutely dead, but let's say the patient is more dead than alive. There was a time when the market here, for books on the subject, were all smash hits, they had record popularity, noone has since even come close to beating them. Take the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, published by GEYA. Apart from those memoirs and the first book by Oleg Gordievsky (KGB. History of External Political Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev by Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew note by Agentura.Ru) we haven't seen any other commercial successes in this genre, unless you count books by Mlechin and Khinshtein.

Today many of the good authors and publishers, the ones who really knew how to creat that atmosphere, have died. The head of the Military Intelligence Veterans' Council, Anatoly Pavlov, has died, as has the former heard of the GRU archives, Pupyshev, the SVR Press Bureau Chief Vladimir Karpov, former Intelligence Officers Viktor Bochkarev, Igor Kadetov, Vitaly Cherniavskii and Stanislav Lekarev. So many others have also passed, there's simply noone left to write.

And then you have to take into account the fact that the Russian book market is still underdeveloped. Last year saw a couple of successes, one of them being Penal Batalion (the other was Nilola Tesla). Our Yauza published factual, documentary accounts of these Russian and German Penal Batalions, as well as fiction, everything you could think of, up to 50 different titles. They all met with a very positive response. Once upon a time this would have been a forbidden topic, but almost 20 years have passed. There've been a whole host of articles, the internet is bursting at the seams with information about these Penal Battalions. And it continues to be a popular topic. Why? I just don't get it. They're just as insanely excited about Tesla.

What about non-fiction?

Print runs for books on the history of the Third Reich have fallen, although they always used to be very popular. Yes there are a whole load of works published on subjects related to history, self-published works, or books published with the help of grants with a miserly print run of 200-300 copies, all of which are distributed among friends and acquaintances or dumped. But these books barely exist, they've got no internet or library presence.

- In the 1990s a situation developed whereby the publishing houses started to work with the security forces, publishing books prepared by the FSB Public Information Office and memoirs of former agents. The SVR also actively used publishing houses like this. What is the current state of affairs here?

The FSB and the SVR were supposed to essentially oversee the publication of books about the secret services. However only TV was considered really influential. And that makes sense, there is a collosal difference in audience size. They barely work with authors, although, for example, under Yury Kobaladze (head of the SVR Press Office in 1990s. Note by Agentura.Ru) they were all very loyal. When we met I had only just started to be published, and he was nearing the end of his career. He helped a great deal, and certainly didn't interfere. Then everything started to decline.

Now, for example, the very same GRU is not engaged in any such work. Three volumes by Mikhail Alexeev (official historian of the GRU, Note by Agentura.Ru) come out, one in Veche, two in Kuchkovom Pole, thanks to the author's own intiative, and one he started five or six years ago at that. The Veche edition was a re-working of a book that had already been published some time ago by the publishing house Military Intelligence. The two other volumes are new and very interesting, but they are a hard read. They're about Zorg, and the publisher decided to publish them as two separate volumes, one about Zorg, the other about our intelligence war with China. So the GRU has no connection with these publications at all. Further, books about military intelligence written by civilian historians could prompt a negative response. There were people in the GRU, political specialists who cultivated ties with historians, I myself tried to get acces to pre-war material through them, and was given the green light by Valentin Korabelnikov himself (Chief of the GRU from 1997-2009, note by Agentura.Ru) but even with his backing I didn't get anything. And then that post was closed.

As for the FSB, the current head of the registration and archive department, Vasily Khristoforov, says that a host of documents have been de-classified, nigh on one million. This is, frankly, not quite the case. They did de-classify all kinds of trash that's no use to anyone. But they're not giving people access to any really important documents. Even the Trust operation has not been de-classified and it's been ten years. Then there's the most important subject of the repressions of the years 1937-1938. Those archives still remain closed. With this one policy they have, in essence, paralyzed the study of Soviet history, and reduced the literature that can be written about the secret services to an impossibly narrow margin.

I can tell you how our archives work from my own experience. There's the military archive at Vodny. It was there that, while studying some open or de-classified documents, I came across the record of closed file on the war (and my did they make a fuss when they realised I had it). It was about the famous Non-integrated Motorized Special Purpose Brigade of the NKVD. There was so much highly valuable information about our infiltrators, about Sudoplatov's directorate, I could barely contain myself. However they never let me see the actual contents of the file. It wasn't that it contained any kompromat, anything compromising, just information about our heroes. Judging from the record it had everything biographies, details of operations and so on. Simply everything an historian could want in his wildest dreams. So why does it remain closed? Whose idiotic idea is that? And what do we have in the open files? Food purchase receits for that same Non-integrated Motorized Special Purpose Brigade of the NKVD. Why keep 400 receits for jelly? I am not kidding!

Even our leading historians attached to these agencies, Alexander Zdanovich (Lieutenant-General of the FSB, head of the Administration for Assistance Programmes of the FSB from 1999-2002, currently general director of the VGTRK or All Russian TV and Radio Broadcasting Company, and head of the Soviety for the Study of the Secret Services' History, note by Agentura.Ru) and Vladimir Khaustov (head of the department of history at the FSB academy, note by Agentura.Ru) are given very little new information, judging from their footnotes, only a few crumbs.

You know it's also to do with the fact that no-one wants to publish books about the secret services. Take Kuchkovo Pole for example which is doing a great deal, it can only afford to publish the books it does, because it receives money from sponsors, including from FSB veterans' organizations.

- ... So there are publishers which have close ties to the security services.

- Honestly, I don't know. As far as I can tell, the head of the publishing house had never served with them, he was a civilian. I have noticed, overall, that in our country we have very little sense of who is linked with who and how. Some historians are allowed into the archives and given access to the material. Others aren't. What criteria are used here to decide? But the Kuchkova Polya logo on the books and the veterans' thanks makes it clear that there is a connection with the services. However, I think that these are entirely independent people, just people who are able to negotiate and who are good at publishing books.

Some agencies even today forbid authors from publishing, and it looks quite preposterous. Under Fradkov (Director of the SVR since 2007, note by Agentura.Ru) they're scared of doing anything. He's a man from a different system, under his leadership the Press Service's work has ground to a halt. They are even banned from publishing books that contain no new information whatsoever. One former intelligence agent wrote an encyclopoedi of the secret services, using only that information that is in the public domain, and he was forbidden from publishing. But white-wash is flourishing. For example, all that fuss over Willy Lemon (Gestapo agent working for Soviet Intelligence, note by Agentura.Ru) which anyone and everyone has written about or filmed. There was even a book published under the pseudonym Stavitsky claiming to be based on newly de-classified materials. The SVR press service has really declined since the days of Kobaladze.

As I understand, the GRU publishing house Military Intelligence is now doing some publishing in Veche. For example, Evgeny Popov's book about separate negotiations in Hungary during the war, was published, as were another round of biographies of GRU bosses. But there's no particular demand for it. And that's understandable.

But and this is most important the secret services themselves openly disregard their image and the promotion of their organisation and its achievements. No serious effort has been put into publishing books since Kobaladze and Zdanovich.

- And the publication of books by the Association of Secret Services' historians is that a PR or commercial venture?

Only the desire to get published to defend their dissertations. Of course noone earned or earns anything from it. There was a time when the Association only published dictionaries. And once again the key figures responsible for the body of the work, like Ivan Vasiliev and Victor Bylinin, have died. The last volume about the war, as I heard, was given a miniscule print run, with copies going only to the authors, not even all the members of the Association got them. In my view, the Association never grappled with the real matters it was supposed to deal with. It was in essence a closed circle, existing solely to give selected authors the opportunity to publish themselves.

- In the 1990's there was no Russian version publication of the Mitrokhin/Andrew book, and there were rumours that this was due to SVR pressure on the publishing houses. In the 2000s similarly, Peter Early's book Comrade J, containing Tretyakov's revelations was not published. Do the secret services continue to put pressure on the book market?

In the case of the Mitrokhin archive it was definitely pressure. As far as I heard, AST bought the rights to publication, they'd even translated the book. And then something happened, let's say. It is surprising, after all AST has a record of publishing books that go much further in challenging the authorities. It looked like someone was scared of seeing their own name there, in what was published, so I think it's more about that. And then the timeframe in terms of rights held by AST ran out long ago, but if the book was published today it wouldn't have the same effect. The reading public has changed.

Incidentally, it could be that the Mitrokhin scandal was answered by Kobaladze in the Tomlinson story (Richard Tomlinson, former MI6 agent, published scandalous memoirs The Big Breach, in English through a Russian publisher Frigate in 2000 and in 2001 the Russian translation emerged. The publishing house disappeared right after the books had been printed, note by Agentura.Ru).

And now, for a whole year a colossal scandal has been playing out right in front of our very eyes: the so called Vasiliev papers published on the internet (a former KGB officer, in the 1990s a journalist with Komsomolskaya Pravda, in 1993 Alexander Vasiliev was invited to work on a project to write the official history of the SVR and was allowed into the intelligence service's archives. In May 1996 he left Russia, taking his notes with him. In 2009 they formed the basis of a book, published in America, called Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, and all the documents were published online. Note by Agentura.Ru). And the Russian secret services did not react to this in any way at all. This should serve as an indicator that they are wholly unconcerned with their reputation.

As for Earley's book, the fact is that no-one is buying it in Russia now. I mean readers. I am convinced that there might be some pressure possible, on publishing houses, perhaps it's even more likely than at other times. But the publishers' main reason for not publishing is commercial. We have on file excellent new books by the historians Oleg Mazokhin, Mikhail Boltunov, Oleg Khlobustov, Nikolai Cherushev and others, and I am simply not given the opportunity to publish another series about the secret services, they say there's just no demand!

In America and the UK journalists, former employees, and historians write about the secret services, but here there is barely any journalism on this subject at all. Don't you think that there is a severe bias towards history in Russia, to the detrement of more revelant work? It is totally pointless to think about that! We are living in a state in which no-one is prepared to write truthfully about reality. Who'd risk it after the Politkovskaya affair? There are loads of suicides but most choose something more simple.

- Wouldn't the existence of journalism about the secret services help solve the demand issue?

I don't think that it would ever be a bestseller, but it would likely sell all the printed copies. The issue is that there is simply no audience for these books, the liberal opposition represent a very small proportion of society. These books might get a print run of from 3 to a maximum of 10,000 copies. That's not bad, but it's no besteller.

In addition, our journalists aren't writing books because it doesn't really pay. Journalists get 3-4 times more writing copy than they would through a book. Getting a book published doesn't mean anything here, there's no Pulitzer prize here, no awards, no specialist review shows in the media, in general there's no system supporting the industry. A book like that would be like a voice in the wilderness.

- But there are some in translation, aren't there, for example At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA by George Tenet in the Kommersant Library series published by Exmo. Or The CIA's Secret Prisons published by Europa.

- And no-one in Russia is interested in or even concerned by it. There is no demand. It's all dumped.

- Why don't we see the publication of books railing at the West, for Al Qaeda, for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or for Guantanamo? Those books are about America and its wars, its problems, and our bored public could not be less interested in them. Theft and survival: that's what's at the core of our people. All the more so since Russia today has no obvious enemy. Or rather, there are a myriad of enemies but the authorities, TV, and so on, pretend that they don't exist. No-one in the country is interested in the secret services, or thinks they're necessary. People either hate them or have no respect for them. And if they're not scared of them, they still don't want to know anything about them it would ruin their mood and for what? So there's no chance of a bestseller about the secret services appearing in Russia any time soon. Look at what Akunin and Pelevin write about, but their reputations drive their success now.


Alexander Kolpakidi: Historian, screenwriter, political scientist, deputy director of the publishing house Yauza. Graduate of the History Faculty at Leningrad State University, taught history and political studies in universities in St Petersburg: the Polytechnic and the Electro-Technical university. He earnt his fame as an historian and political scientist thanks to his work on the history of the Secret Services and radical political movements. He is the author of over 20 books, including: Double Cross, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Services, The Empire of the GRU (with Dmitry Prokhorov), The GRU's Superfrau, KGB Soviet Intelligence Special Operations.

Agentura.Ru September 6, 2010