Holiday Unmasks Spies

Every year on Chekist's Day, when I was working in Tokyo as a Tass correspondent and KGB agent in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Consulate would be bursting with people. The holiday falls on Dec. 20, and on that day the Chekists f or secret service agents f would come running from every corner of the huge Japanese capital, and the offices of Aeroflot, Intourist and the trade representatives would empty out. A huge crowd would cram into the elevator that would take them to the second floor, to the secret residence of the KGB. There, they would hear a note of congratulations from Vladimir Kryuchkov read to them by the local bureau director. Then everyone would drink a shot of cognac and dash back to their offices, cursing the stupidity of the their superiors for so openly underscoring everyone's identity as operatives. Even the Japanese police guarding the embassy would train long, disapproving glances at our cars as we sped off as if to remind us that espionage is supposed to be secret business and that we shouldn't have been so obvious about our spy holiday.

Skipping this bash was, of course, unthinkable. Too disloyal. If, however, some spy or other was discovered by the Japanese afterward, the brass would ask sternly and with contrived incredulity, "So, how did they blow your cover?"

The bureaucratic and sluggish KGB came apart at the seams with the Soviet Union and couldn't take the first historical shocks of 1991. But the KGB's progeny held on to its spirit. The Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, and the FSB still take the Dec. 20 holiday f which comes this Monday f as much to heart as the KGB did.

The date is nothing less than the birthday of modern secret police. On Dec. 20, 1917, Lenin signed an order creating the Cheka f or Emergency Commission ffor the fight against counterrevolutionary activities and sabotage. The Cheka was responsible for countless monstrosities against civilians, what was proudly called the "red terror." This opened the door for the mass repressions that the KGB predecessors continued right up until the 1950s.

The break-up of the KGB means that intelligence work in the SVR, and counterintelligence in the FSB, have far less influence on society than they did f but they are taken very seriously in foreign policy circles. Intelligence used to have to pass its proposals up to the director of the KGB, who would pass them on to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Sometimes, though, the Central Committee wouldn't approve the proposals. Now, intelligence has its own ministry, and its director has the right to turn directly to the president. And making a regular civilian who doesn't understand the subtitles of spy work f such as Boris Yeltsin f submit to your influence is much easier than dealing with the spy-filled Central Committee ever was.

It is the SVR that is responsible for the anti-Western attitude in Russia's current politics, and it played an active role in Yeltsin's recent visit to Beijing. In fact, it is entirely possible that it put the anti-American rhetoric in his mouth. This rhetoric may have served as an ideological foundation on which to build a cooperative Russian-Chinese intelligence network against the United States. I wouldn't doubt that there are even secret talks going on at this moment. The one conciliatory word about this, though, is that China already has enough spies in the United States and doesn't need Russia's help. However, strictly for political ends, the Chinese might accept such an offer as past cooperation between the two spy agencies is a fresh memory.

The FSB are more active in the interrelations of CIS countries. This is because in many of these countries, especially in Central Asia, former agents have taken up posts in the local governments. These former agents, with their superior KGB education and grasp on foreign languages, chased the weak local bureaucratic corps away. The former agents keep in good touch with their old KGB classmates who work in the local Russian embassies. As such, the special services maintain better relations with some of these countries than the Russian government does.

The FSB's relationship with Belarus stands apart. A year and a half ago, a special department was created within the FSB to deal with the KGB of Belarus. This was explained in the press at the time as a cooperative anti-mafia effort. But this is something that would hardly require the creation of a huge bureaucracy. Characteristically, the first links with Lukashenko's totalitarian regime were established in secret and long before the signing of the union treaty earlier this month. It is an umbilical cord between the two nations.

So, how will this effect the development of Russian democracy? What is troubling about the secret services in Russia is that they are under no one's control. There is, of course, the State Duma Security Community, but that is largely in the hands of the Communists f and the FSB is full of Communists anyway. Aside from this, there are a staggering number of agents among the Duma deputies who serve their masters faithfully and truly. As such, it's less likely that the Duma controls the secret services than it is that the secret services control the Duma. And with the fortification of the secret services' role in political and foreign policy decisions, Russia will become increasingly more isolated.

Happy Chekist's Day.

Konstantin Priobrazhensky is a former KGB lieutenant colonel and author of the forthcoming book "The FSB Today." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.