PROFILE: Putin's Patronage Lifts Ex-Dissident Persecutor
ST. PETERSBURG -- Of all those recently promoted from relative obscurity to the national government by acting President Vladimir Putin, one man to watch is Viktor Cherkesov.
Cherkesov, 49, the first deputy director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, is a St. Petersburger and former KGB officer. Putin is both of those things as well, which may explain why Cherkesov's career these days has wings.
But the other reason Cherkesov merits consideration is that his career has seen some unsavory moments. He has been involved in persecuting dissidents, and he was an early vocal advocate of schemes to let the security services monitor e-mails and other Internet traffic. And it was Cherkesov's St. Petersburg FSB that built the house-of-cards treason case against environmentalist Alexander Nikitin.
"Viktor Cherkesov persecuted dissidents most of his life," said Boris Pustintsev of the St. Petersburg human rights group Citizens' Watch.
Cherkesov for Mayor?
Cherkesov is often named a likely candidate to someday run the entire FSB, a job now held by Putin appointee Nikolai Patrushev.
Just 18 months ago, Cherkesov was the head of the St. Petersburg FSB. But St. Petersburg newspapers have also suggested Cherkesov's next stop could be to come back home and run in the city's May gubernatorial elections as the Kremlin's chosen candidate.
The FSB press office, in a reply to written questions from The Moscow Times, denied Cherkesov would do that.
"Mr. Cherkesov has absolutely no plans or intentions of running for the post of St. Petersburg governor, and the rumors to the contrary are the unfounded creation of the newspaper[s] that printed them," an FSB spokesman said Monday.
The press office declined to answer other written questions or to grant an interview with Cherkesov.
Pustintsev said Cherkesov is infamous in St. Petersburg as the last KGB officer ever to open a case under Article 70 (formerly Article 58) for political crimes. "It was in 1988, against [artist and now Yabloko State Duma Deputy] Yuly Rybakov and others," he said. "This case was closed by Moscow, against Mr. Cherkesov's will."
Pustintsev is no friend of the KGB. In 1957, he was arrested for distributing leaflets to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary and spent five years in a prison camp in Mordovia, west of the Volga River. And when former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak tapped Putin as a deputy mayor, Pustintsev, then local chairman of the Memorial foundation for victims of Stalinist repression, formally protested.
Pustintsev said he doesn't mind Putin's KGB past, reportedly spent as a spy in East Germany. "There's not much difference between the KGB and the Politburo," Pustintsev said, adding that as deputy St. Petersburg mayor, Putin demonstrated himself to be "a bureaucrat of a new school. A reformer. And his initiatives were market-oriented."
"But Viktor Cherkesov," Pustintsev continued, "well, you could never call him a bureaucrat of a new school."
Even more troubling to Pustintsev is that, whether it's on Nikitin or the Internet surveillance project SORM, Putin and Cherkesov seem to be in step.
Last month, Putin signed into law a major expansion of the SORM project. And in July 1999 f when Putin was the national FSB director and Cherkesov was his deputy f Putin broke nearly a year of silence on the Nikitin case by telling Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper the FSB should keep a close watch on environmental groups because they are infiltrated by spies.
Some human rights activists see Cherkesov's Moscow appointment and other actions by Putin as reason to fear the return of a Soviet-style KGB.
"Under Putin, we see a new stage in the introduction of modernized Stalinism," says an open letter published on the Johnson's List, an e-mail newsletter on Russia, and signed among others by Yelena Bonner, arguably the nation's leading dissident voice.
"The security agencies are gaining influence. ? Putin personally laid a wreath on the grave of the odious KGB boss Yury Andropov, a participant in the bloody suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the originator of the practice of confining dissidents in psychiatric wards."
The Fifth Directorate
Cherkesov was barely six years old during the Hungarian invasion, but the career Cherkesov made with the KGB in Leningrad was in that same tradition as Budapest 1956: He was one of the city's most active agents with the Fifth Directorate, the KGB arm responsible for surveillance of the mass media, church, schools, trade unions and general public.
When Cherkesov was promoted in 1992 to head the St. Petersburg Security Ministry f as the ex-KGB was then called f Pustintsev was the chairman of Memorial, whose archives contain documents of all investigations conducted under the Fifth Directorate.
Cherkesov continued to be king of the Bolshoy Dom at 4 Liteiny Prospekt f the building is St. Petersburg's answer to Moscow's Lubyanka f until 1998, when he was called up to Moscow to work for then FSB director Putin.
Cherkesov took on some of the city's better-known intellectuals. He arrested Vladimir Poresh in 1979, Vyacheslav Dolinin and Rostislav Yevdokimov in 1982, Gely Gonskoy in 1983, Dmitry Akselrod in 1984 and Ryabkov in 1988.
But Cherkesov soon found himself swimming against the ideological tide of glasnost and perestroika. Moscow ordered the case against Rybakov shut; Mikhail Gorbachev in1987 pardoned all of these other Leningrad intellectuals, and in 1991 he rehabilitated them as victims of political oppression.
Recently, Cherkesov's FSB suffered three years of international criticism for arresting former Navy captain Nikitin and throwing him in jail as a spy after he co-wrote a report accusing the navy of being negligent with nuclear waste.
The FSB first held Nikitin in jail without a lawyer, and then for nearly a year without a charge; when they eventually did bring formal treason charges, they did so citing "secret" laws that had never been published.
Throughout the Nikitin case, some St. Petersburg media ardently insisted Nikitin was a spy. Chas Pik, a daily St. Petersburg newspaper edited by Natalya Chaplina f Cherkesov's wife f was one of the loudest voices.
Chas Pik also endorsed former Deputy Mayor Putin's boss, Sobchak, for re-election in 1996. That same year, a decree signed by Sobchak handed the couple a spacious Nevsky Prospekt apartment at a cut rate.
Another virulent anti-Nikitin medium has been Petersburg Television f particularly after the station's news programming was taken over by Yevgeny Lukin, the man who for years was the spokesman of Cherkesov's FSB.
Lukin is also the author of a novel, "No Blood on the Butcher's Hands," which is about the KGB predecessor, the NKVD. His book portrays Jews as responsible for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the terror that followed as Jewish revenge on Russian patriots.
With his wife at a newspaper and his former spokesman at the local television station, it is perhaps not surprising Cherkesov believes Internet media belong under the watchful eye of the state.
On Nov. 16, 1998, he offered what many observers believe was the first public acknowledgment of the Internet surveillance projects that have since come to be known as SORM and SORM-2 f announcing the FSB had established an agency for computer and information security.
'Only One Reaction'
"There can only be one reaction to the news that the man responsible for sending you to the Gulag is gaining power in the Kremlin and may be returning to St. Petersburg [as city governor]," said Boris Kysakov, a human rights activist with the St. Petersburg-based House of Human Rights f an organization whose director, Poresh, was prosecuted for ideological crimes by Cherkesov.
"That reaction, of course, is negative," he said.
Former KGB operative Konstantin Preobrazhensky, now a frequent commentator on the security services, said Cherkesov could well be being groomed for the top spot in the FSB.
"Cherkesov is a very dangerous person," Preobrazhensky said. "He still approves of his work in the Fifth Directorate and he is more reactionary than most."
Preobrazhensky said the trend of bringing ex-KGB colleagues to Moscow isn't a new one f it started with former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, another child of the security services. But Preobrazhensky said he believes Putin's people are qualitatively different.
"Primakov brought in elderly officers from the KGB, and the only requirement was that they were communists and personally devoted to him. Putin's are different. They are fewer, not so communist f but more reactionary, especially Cherkesov," he said. "They are very cynical people."
Indeed, Preobrazhensky said, the entire Leningrad KGB had a reputation of being more "severe" and "reactionary" than the national agency, adding that these are the people Putin is bringing to Moscow.
Viktor Ivanov, an ex-KGB man from St. Petersburg, is now in charge of Kremlin personnel matters. Alexander Grigoriyev, who was Cherkesov's deputy at the FSB in St. Petersburg, is now director of the national FSB's Department of Economic Security. And KGB veteran Sergei Ivanov, who worked with Putin in Germany, is now the director of the Kremlin's Department of Analysis, Forecasts and Strategic Planning.