Cheka Still Going at 81

On Sunday, security service officers past and present will toast the founding of the Cheka secret police in 1917. In its more recent incarnation as the KGB, this organization had prided itself as being the "shield and sword of the Communist Party." And to look at its post-Soviet form - mainly comprised of the Federal Security Service - one can say that not much has changed.

When the pro-Communist State Duma passed a recent motion to return the statue of dreaded Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky to its former place on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, Communist and Agrarian deputies argued it would help the FSB do its work more easily. In effect they were saying: "Be loyal to us and we will thank you 100 times over when we come to power."

The FSB has had a few weeks to respond to the move to put back the statue and has so far kept quiet. Which means it has agreed. The FSB also dreams of returning the huge figure to its spot in front of the FSB's Lubyanka headquarters, where a great number of busts and portraits of Dzerzhinsky are still mounted on their original pedestals and wall spaces.

Whether the modern-day Chekists fully remember their service's history is not clear, but in the past the accession of a new leader always heralded a ruthless purging of the service's ranks. And if the Communists come to power, all the current FSB chiefs will nonetheless be immediately stripped of their posts as either willing or unwilling collaborators with the "occupation" regime of President Boris Yeltsin. Recent growls from senior Communist leaders about reintroducing hard labor and executions of "enemies of the people" suggest the current FSB chiefs might conceivably go the same way as the Russians who once collaborated with the Nazi Gestapo.

They may even be repressed by a new wave of Chekists currently gestating inside far-left and right-wing organizations such as Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party and Alexander Barkashov's Russian National Unity, not to mention among the close associates of General Albert Makashov, the Communist deputy who has lately risen to anti-Semitic prominence.

Today, the Communist Party virtually regards the FSB as its inherited estate. The chairman of the Duma's security committee, Viktor Ilyukhin, who has also come to the forefront of attention this week with his own anti-Semitic statements, was angered last summer when Yeltsin replaced as FSB director the pro-Communist Nikolai Kovalyov with Vladimir Putin, a member of the reform-oriented party Our Home Is Russia.

But regardless of changes in the leadership, there remains a strong grass-roots presence of Communist supporters and sympathizers in the ranks of the security services because of a failure to sweep them out following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The law on removal of Communists from the Russian security services was not completed and enacted for the simple reason that if they were to be removed from the old KGB structures there would be few left. ... In 1993 Galina Starovoitova even reported to Yeltsin that FSB generals were still holding party meetings inside the Lubyanka.

The correct thing would have been to form a completely new structure, as was done in countries in Central Europe and the Baltic states, but Yeltsin chose to simply break up the KGB into the FSB and smaller foreign intelligence, border guard and technical surveillance services.

In terms of concrete results of operations in its relatively short lifetime, the main successor, the FSB, has generally demonstrated a low success rate in crime solving, largely because of a drop in the numbers of informants, who once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Compounding this, criminal studies are far from the top of the list of priority subjects at the FSB training school.

The quality of personnel continues to deteriorate. If in the past the KGB secretly searched out the best university graduates and offered them work, distinguished graduates nowadays have little desire to engage in low- prestige work where the pay is both meager and late. The bulk of the FSB's rank-and-file personnel is made up of young graduates from the organization's academy where, I am told, the revanchist mood is strong, reflecting a longing for the times when the whole world feared the KGB. Nor does the officer corps appear to be faring much better.

Some aspects of operations have stood the test of time, as the trials in the autumn of former naval officer Alexander Nikitin and military correspondent Grigory Pasko show. Both were arrested in connection with environmental expos?s of the navy's pollution of the seas.

Charges against Nikitin of revealing state secrets were redrafted five times, and even though they have now been ruled in court as inadmissible, the FSB is trying again.

Spying charges against Pasko are very suspect and wide open to interpretation, but despite his failing health, he remains locked up in an overcrowded cell full of criminals.

Both cases were handled by the FSB's department for military counterintelligence, which has a long tradition of cooking up spying cases against innocent officers and soldiers, and which in the past had even been instructed by the KGB's own internal watchdog authorities to end the practice.

Today in Russia, the FSB practically remains an entity unto itself, despite theoretical levers of control like the Duma's committees for security and intelligence, which are supposed to keep it in check. But having myself seen senior FSB officers and heads of these governmental bodies chatting away like old friends in the State Duma, it is very clear that they are in fact all part of the same, like-minded oppositional camp, and even suggests that the old Cheka marks its 81st year by emerging as a political force in its own right.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky is a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.