Russia’s New Nobility lacks ‘noblesse oblige’

Statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky

Statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, still stands in St. Petersburg.

There’s an interesting article in the September/October edition of Foreign Affairs that just arrived in my post box. It’s titled “Russia’s New Nobility: The Rise of the Security Services in Putin’s Kremlin” by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, co-founders of the website The article is adapted from their forthcoming book, The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB to be published this fall by PublicAffairs.

The article begins with a telling quote from Nikolai Patrushev, who succeeded Vladimir Putin as director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). In 2000, to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, he made a rather frightful comment. “Our best colleagues, the honor and pride of the FSB, don’t do their work for the money,” he said. “They all look different, but there is one very special characteristic that unites all these people, and it is a very important quality: It is their sense of service. They are, if you like, our new ‘nobility.’”

I heard pretty much the same comments repeated in 2006. Two friends who had spent years studying and working in Russia warned me that “the spooks are running the country.” Later that year, Alexey Shkvarov, a retired naval officer, gave me a tour through St. Petersburg as I set off to retrace the century-old journey of a Russian spy to Beijing.

As we talked about the country’s imperial history and future, I soon realized that Shkvarov’s vision of the New Russia looked a lot like the old one. Now, however, Russia’s rulers are no longer recruited from the blue-blooded aristocracy, but rather the cold-blooded secret police. Vladimir Putin, then President and now Prime Minister, rose through the ranks of the KGB and its successor, the FSB. By the end of his first term as President, former KGB agents made up a quarter of senior government officials. Shkvarov, who has friends in the FSB, welcomed this new elite.

“The KGB has very clever men in its organization,” he told me. “Most of them are the real patriots of Russia.”

In the article, Soldatov and Borogan chronicle the history of the state security apparatus in Russia, including how Putin, after becoming President, rebuilt the remnants of the KGB and other security agencies into the formidable FSB . “As a former KGB officer, Putin viewed the FSB as the only state agency he could trust,” they write. “He gave the FSB the responsibility to protect the stability of the Kremlin’s rule – and, by extension, the stability of the country. Over the past decade, the FSB has become the main resource of human capital for filling positions in the state apparatus and state-controlled corporations.”

The FSB has been used to quash dissidents, harass and persecute uppity oligarchs, arrest journalists, spy on foreign governments, and intimidate or annihilate anyone getting in the way of the Kremlin. In return, the country’s strongmen have been given perks: Mercs, dachas and much more. “Russia’s new security officers were more than simply servants of the state;” the co-authors write, “they were landed property owners and powerful players, capable of influencing hiring decisions and planting cronies and relatives in positions of power.”

Soldatov and Borogan paint a portrait of a corrupt, suspicious and insular ruling elite, often cynically preoccupied by internecine feuds about the spoils of power. In short, its a nobility with no sense of noblesse oblige. Now that should worry any true patriot of Russia.

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    It is ironic that the current Russian FSB still glorifies Felix Dzerzhinsky. Because if he would be alive today, he would shoot all these supporters of Putin. Felix Dzerzhinsky was a knight of the Soviet revolution and hated everything Putin stands for. Corruption, exploitation of the poor, homeless children, Dzerzhinsky hated it all. People who were corrupt had to arrested and punished, he wrote in 1921. No mercy for those who take on bribes. Putin’s Russian Federation stands for everything Dzerzhinsky fought against!

    Felix Dzerzhinsky died in 1926, before Stalin’s takeover was complete. I think he would have been murdered like most Old Bolsheviks during the Great Terror. Although a friend of Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky was already critical of the state bureaucracy by 1926. Had he lived to see what Stalin would do, he would have turned against his friend!