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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Former Spies Changing Their Image Through Books

The KGB's fearsome reputation will take decades to fade, but Russia's spies are -- bit by bit -- trying to change their image. It seems they're just ordinary guys, doing a hard job on a tight budget.

A book published last month was the latest step in an operation to present edited highlights of the espionage triumphs hidden during the dark days of the Cold War.

"There are no superheroes. Superheroes are an artificial creation of the quill or the screen," wrote Vladimir Karpov, a highly decorated ex-spy in "The Elite of Russian Intelligence."

"But real espionage work is always more interesting than any inventions," his foreword to the book said.

Books like this, and the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, helps publish around a dozen a year, aim to change Russian spies' image from that created by thriller writers such as Ian Fleming or John Le Carre.

"This policy of openness has helped us reduce the number of myths and legends," said Boris Labusov, a former agent who works as spokesman for the SVR and was listed as "scientific consultant" in the book's credits.

"People are always attracted to what they cannot know. And now we have said what the service is, and what it does, well, that's the end," he said in an interview.

He spoke in a light, airy SVR house near the Garden Ring Road -- a far cry from the grim halls of the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters as enshrined in Russian spying legend.

"We have to explain to society why it needs a foreign espionage organ. ... They pay their taxes, and they have the right to know where their money goes," he said.

He declined to discuss current operations, but scandals have made sure that spies, in a state now headed by former spy Vladimir Putin, are never long out of the news.

Russia has been through at least six rounds of tit-for-tat diplomat expulsions since Putin's election in 2000.

And the spies were plunged into crisis last year when Qatar convicted two Russian agents of using a car bomb to murder a Chechen rebel leader in exile in the Gulf state -- the kind of "wet work" even the KGB might have shied away from.

But commentators say the intelligence services' policy of openness only goes so far, and that a system with any kind of democratic control is still a long way off.

"The situation has changed, there is not the stand-off there used to be. The Americans probably know more about our security than we do," said Mikhail Lyubimov, a former spy in Britain who became a journalist and writer in the later 1980s.

"Of course it is not like it was in Soviet times. ... If they speak, it is wonderful, if there are books it is wonderful. But I would not exactly say this is a triumph of openness," he said.

Vladimir Zavershinsky, first deputy head of the SVR, hardly comes across as a staunch democrat. In the new book he attacks the fledgling Russian parliament's attempts to establish control over spies' activities after the collapse of Soviet rule.

"We got crushed by pointless parliamentary investigations, run by incomprehensible and, believe me, unprofessional commissions," he said in an interview published in the book.

He went on to savage the lack of support shown by Russia's democratic government for the authoritarian leaders of East Germany -- including Erich Mielke, the so-called "Master of Fear" who headed the Stasi intelligence service.

"They cravenly gave them up, basically threw them out of Russia, forgetting that they had been not only close allies, but also anti-fascists, heroes of our Soviet Union," Zavershinsky said.

And for some, the tentative steps toward openness have gone too far.

"I do not understand why these people talk about spies so much, it is totally wrong," said Valentin Velichko, head of the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence organization, which played a key if unexplained role in freeing Dutch hostage Arjan Erkel from captivity in the North Caucasus last year.

"There should be [legislative] control, because espionage is paid for by taxpayers, but the commission should be former agents, professionals who know how things should be," he said.

With so many former spies in top ranks in the Russian state -- including Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and several members of the presidential administration -- it looks unlikely that spies will see any return to the interference in their work of the immediate post-Soviet years.

"You cannot compare then with now. We sense that the state and the president need us. The head of the SVR reports to the leader of the country with intelligence every week, more often if needed," Zavershinsky was quoted as saying.