Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Researcher Walks on a Razor's Edge

MTOlga Kryshtanovskaya found Gusinsky the hardest person to get an interview from.
When she started her career, Olga Kryshtanovskaya signed a pledge for the KGB that she wouldn't poll people about Communist Party bosses. Today, the social researcher has collected some of the most comprehensive archives on Russia's pinnacle of power, from President Vladimir Putin's team to the powerful business barons.

Kryshtanovskaya has headed a department studying the political and business elite at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology for the past 14 years. As such, she says rather matter-of-factly, "I can at any time pull a list of people who are the elite up on my computer and say what they are like."

Kryshtanovskaya recently took the spotlight for a study that found a growing number of former KGB and military officers are securing senior government posts. Among the other research projects tucked away in her files is one tracing the career of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the basement office where he started out as a chief of a Communist Party-affiliated business that charged a commission for cashing the accounts of Soviet enterprises.

Kryshtanovskaya set up her department in 1989, after perestroika had wiped out some Soviet taboos about studying the ruling elite and a former dissident was named the head of the Institute of Sociology.

She picked the elite because she found the topic challenging. She said she also felt a civic responsibility to reveal to the public what she could about those in power. "This is important. Domestic and foreign policy and all of us depend on who these people are," she said.

The first steps were not easy. The team was not sure how far it could go in its investigations. A KGB officer posing as a postgraduate student worked in the department's office for a year and followed researchers to interviews, Kryshtanovskaya said.

"It felt like walking on a razor's edge," she said.

But the tumultuous time also had its bonuses. "$200 could buy you information from the KGB or the Finance Ministry."

Kryshtanovskaya, however, said her department has never published any of this kind of information, partly because it was "fragmentary" and partly because "its time hasn't come yet."

"We were pioneers in Russia. It was unbelievably difficult to get any information, but we burned with enthusiasm," she said.

Being pioneers meant that researchers lacked research techniques and had to learn on the job. Sometimes research required "exceptional detective abilities," as was the case with a study describing the emerging class of millionaires in the waning days of the Soviet Union in 1991. "No one knew who actually was a millionaire. Finding them was like tracking down a criminal," she said.

Struggling to find leads for the study, commissioned by the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, she and her team asked well-known people whether they were millionaires, interviewed them if they were, and begged them for further references.

In another example, researchers ended up joining forces with an unusual partner to wrestle responses from tight-lipped bank officials for a report about banks.

"We found a powerful state agency that was interested in the same material, and we sent our requests for information under the letterheads of that agency and ours," Kryshtanovskaya said.

She refused to identify the agency.

In contrast to the secrecy and the opaque nature of the topic of her studies, the soft-spoken researcher seems to have a special liking for light colors. The living room of her apartment, where she was interviewed, has two cream-colored armchairs and a sofa placed around an imitation polar bear skin rug. A collection of small white elephants stand on a table near a white wardrobe.

Kryshtanovskaya's group gathers information by scanning newspapers, collecting stale official biographies and interviewing the subjects of their research.

Former media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, whom Moscow is currently trying to extradite from Greece on fraud charges, was the hardest person to nail down for an interview. Her department called his office 120 times before he agreed to talk.

Since its inception, Kryshtanovskaya's department has completed 34 studies for clients such as Russian and foreign research foundations, the Russian government and newspapers. The latest project, "Putin's Elite," will be in progress until 2005. Kryshtanovskaya was reluctant to name specific clients, saying only that foreign organizations have been the main ones in the past three years. She said her first major contract came from the Economic and Social Research Council, a leading British research agency. In 1991, the organization ordered a study of the Brezhnev-era elite.

Apparently impressed with the department's work, the Russian government in 1995 asked for an investigation into regional authorities. The reason, Kryshtanovskaya said, was because federal officials "didn't trust their special services."

Kryshtanovskaya's main team numbers 14 people, and the staff swells up to 200 for some studies.

Apart from the large number of former KGB officers in the government, Kryshtanovskaya's research has found that a third of those currently in the elite -- 3,000 -- were also among the elite before the Soviet collapse -- a large number given the whirlwind of changes since that time.

What also has remained the same is that authorities are continuing to keep close tabs on researchers. Kryshtanovskaya said that after the release of the study about former KGB officers, she was grilled by Kremlin officials who wanted to know who was behind the research and who paid for it.

"Now the same feeling of danger as in the beginning has re-emerged," she said. "I feel that I am walking on a razor's edge again."