The Kremlin’s reckless foray into U.S. domestic politics, coupled with a whole list of dangerous adventures elsewhere around the world, has triggered an avalanche of conspiracy theories and nutty commentary that make Moscow’s foreign correspondent corps cringe and despair.
A new book, The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad, is different though, even if it covers a century of clandestine operations, “active measures” and political assassinations conducted both by and against Russians — who either found themselves in the West as refugees or were sent there as Kremlin’s agents.
The author duo, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, are two of the most revered experts on the subject of Russian secret services — and ones who have cultivated multiple insider sources in the world of spies during their two-decades as journalists in Moscow. Not only does it give the book a credibility most other publications on this subject lack, but it also changes the optics. What many Western authors often present as an epic attack of soulless aliens on their cozy, civilized world transforms here into a set of fascinating human stories. Some of these amount to a family saga, as characters belonging to the same close-knit family of spies and assassins keep popping up at different points in time — from the Bolshevik Red Terror to Vladimir Putin’s hunt on domestic opposition.
It is also written in pithy language and reads like a bunch of Hollywood plots bundled together into one mind-bending narrative.
The authors trace the genesis of Kremlin’s latest behavioral patterns from the origins of Soviet secret services, which emerged essentially out of international terrorist cells at the time when the Bolsheviks — the ISIS of the early 20th century — subjugated Russia through unprecedented terror that by far exceeded people’s threshold of pain. Having lost the elections to the Constituent Assembly in 1917, they drowned the country in blood during the Civil War and subsequent decades of terror in order to stay in power.
It was those underground operatives, from all sorts of ethnic and national backgrounds, bound by the idea of a global revolution that have shaped a culture that persists today. Their largely non-ideological heirs from modern Russia’s secret services conducted a successful state capture during the two decades of Putin’s rein. Be it the poisoning of the defector Sergei Skripal in Britain or online disinformation campaigns in America — Borogan and Soldatov trace these patterns back to the heady days of post-revolutionary terror and to a community of security agents that has for a century enjoyed a certain level of autonomy from political leadership and absolutely no oversight from civil society.
The strata they (and their Western adversaries) have operated within since the 1920s is the multi-million, Russian-speaking diaspora ejected from their motherland by Communist totalitarianism and continuously refilled with Putin’s opponents today. The authors go through successive waves of emigration — from the White Russians to anti-Putin opposition via World War II refugees and Jewish refuseniks of the 1970s — looking at how Kremlin agents tried to influence and recruit some of them, while silencing or physically destroying the others.
What emerges is a surreal landscape of shifting loyalties and changing political views, most surprisingly among the agents themselves. It feels like almost everyone sooner or later finds themselves on the verge of defection, especially when the political leadership is driven by personal paranoia rather than ideological principles and interests of the state. The evolution of that paranoia, from Joseph Stalin’s genocidal insanity to Putin’s self-defeating obsession about security, is another invaluable takeaway from this book.
Ideological and psychological evolutions of some characters are equally fascinating. A Jewish pogrom survivor becomes Stalin’s deadliest assassin. An ardent Communists turns into a hardened CIA operative. A woman raised as an unquestioning fighter for the global dictatorship of proletariat blesses her grandson to turn into a shrewd financial speculator. A scion of an aristocratic White Guard family helps Putin grab an opposition TV channel and the independent White Russian church. These changes might seem random, but in fact they are not. True Communist idealists naturally gravitate towards Western liberal democracies when they are confronted with the reality of a post-Soviet state. Staunch anti-communists with monarchist and/or Nazi-collaborator backgrounds seamlessly accept Putin’s illiberal rhetoric and authoritarianism.
But perhaps the most striking part of the book comes towards the end when authors turn from historians back into reporters and embark on investigating a less well-known case of two alleged assassination attempts on a Putin’s opponent (it has never been proven). This is complemented by a convincing analysis of why this person might have been targeted.
On a more subjective note (given that I know quite a few of the characters and have met the authors), I wish this book had been thicker and some of the plots rolled out less sketchily. I also wish the editors had been less patronizing to the U.S. audience when it comes to simplifying various aspects of Russian history and politics. Using “Russian” and “Soviet” interchangeably, as it often happens in the book, is also neither helpful nor historically accurate.
But it is a great read that now forms a perfect trilogy with two previous books by the same authors — The New Nobility, which describes how secret services captured the Russian state under Putin, and The Red Web, which looks into the Kremlin’s attempts to control the Internet.
One might think that this latest book goes to show that “nothing has changed” in Russia and its relations with the West. But it, in fact, shows the opposite. After all, we have two Moscow-based journalists investigating what would have certainly landed them in the Gulag a century ago. On the other hand, both Russia and the Western world no longer afford the option of living in a hermetic sarcophagus that blocks them from any foreign influence (or indeed meddling) whatsoever. In that sense, there is no more domestic politics anymore — Russia’s politics is a domestic issue for the U.S. as much as U.S. politics is a domestic issue for Russia. So let’s learn to live with it.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Latvia. He previously worked for the BBC for a dozen years, was a foreign correspondent for the Russian Newsweek. and is an author for Lonely Planet.