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Russia: The KGB's Post-Soviet 'Commercialization'

Before the fall: KGB headquarters in 1990 (ITAR-TASS) December 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russia today is honoring workers in the state security agencies -- a professional holiday better known by its Soviet-era appellation, "Chekists' Day" -- as the legacy of the KGB grows increasingly commercial -- and criminal.

The mysterious murder of former security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko is once again shedding light on how the Soviet-era KGB has evolved in contemporary Russia.

Before it was disbanded in 1991, the KGB was a massive organization, employing over half a million uniformed officers as well as a network of millions of informers.

A highly disciplined and militarized service, it controlled almost every aspect of life in the USSR and adhered with utmost loyalty to the Communist Party line, even across state borders. Its status and operation was strictly directed by 5,000 party documents.

The 1978 murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, for example -- carried out with the use of a ricin pellet lodged in the tip of an umbrella -- was conducted by Bulgaria's secret service with help from the KGB.

The Communist Party had ordered the KGB to contribute their expertise and assist their Bulgarian colleagues in the liquidation of a "personal enemy of the Bulgarian leadership."

Beginning Of The End?

But the KGB monolith could not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was ultimately divided into several new organizations, including the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Protection Service (FSO), and the body considered the true KGB successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Many KGB officials evolved into new positions within those bodies. Tens of thousands of others reappeared in positions of political and entrepreneurial power.

The KGB was never officially condemned for its Soviet-era crimes, making it easy for many top security officials to make the transition to the world of politics -- Russian President Vladimir Putin being the most obvious.

Those not in politics have also found numerous ways to make a living -- most notably by opening the private security companies that mushroomed in privatization-era Russia, or by entering the service of the oligarchs, who employed hundreds of former KGB officers to provide both security and intelligence.

Not surprisingly, the largest of these private security groups is the one at the disposal of Russia's aggressive Gazprom monopoly.

Marriage Of Convenience

Observers have dubbed this dubious partnership between business interests and security officers the "privatization of the KGB." At the same time, the official security bodies underwent their own period of "commercialization," launching veterans associations and other charity groups aimed at bolstering state funding for the secret services.

Another example of the growing commercial mind-set of the KGB heirs is their inevitable commingling with Russia's ascendent criminal element. In many areas, the lines between organized crime and the work of security groups has grown gray. In Putin's Russia, there is virtually no administrative or civilian control over security agencies.

This development is a marked change from the Soviet heyday of the KGB, when no less a figure than dissident and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov called the agency the only segment of the Soviet elite untouched by corruption.

Today's KGB descendants are, more often than not, divided along commercial or criminal lines. Litvinenko's murder is hardly the first instance of a former or present member of the security community translating their experience into business opportunities -- and putting themselves in harm's way in the process. A few notable examples follow.

The Case Of Anatoly Trofimov

On April 10, 2005 , a masked gunman shot dead retired FSB Colonel General Anatoly Trofimov, the former chief of the FSB's Moscow branch. Trofimov's young wife was also killed in the ambush outside their Moscow home; their 4-year-old daughter survived. Trofimov was the highest-ranking security official to be killed in Russia.

During his career in the KGB/FSB, he specialized in combatting corruption, and led the investigation into a 1996 incident when two men were arrested carrying $500,000 in cash out of the reelection campaign headquarters of President Boris Yeltsin. He was dismissed a year later, after two of his deputies were accused of selling cocaine.

After his murder, FSB investigators claimed the attack was the "likely result of his commercial activity." He was reportedly involved with several private security firms set up by retired KGB officer.

It is interesting to note, however, that Litvinenko described Trofimov as a behind-the-scenes critic of the Kremlin's policies in Chechnya who had opposed the 1998 appointment of Putin as FSB director. Litvinenko suggested Trofimov's murder was politically motivated, because no businessman in Russia would dare attack such a powerful figure from the security organs.

The Case Of Roman Tsepov

Roman Tsepov (TASS file photo)

On September 24, 2004, 42-year-old Roman Tsepov, the director of an elite private security company based in St. Petersburg, died of severe radiation sickness brought on by a mysterious substance he had ingested.

The substance has never been clearly identified, but some reports suggest he was fed an experimental poison containing heavy metals or large doses of a drug normally used to treat leukemia and other cancers.

Tsepov rose from the ranks of the Interior Ministry troops to become an extremely influential power broker in St. Petersburg. In the early 1990s, his security firm, Baltik-Eskort, provided protection for the family of the city's mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, and his deputy, Vladimir Putin.

Tsepov maintained close ties with Putin after the latter's move first to the top of the FSB and then into the Kremlin. He also stayed close to Viktor Zolotov -- who was first Sobchak's personal bodyguard and then chief of the presidential security service -- and Rashid Nurgaliyev, an FSB general and Russia's interior minister since 2004.

Tsepov was also given license to act on behalf of the Kremlin in some of its most delicate deals, including talks with beleaguered oil giant Yukos. At some point, however, his work clearly aroused displeasure. The source of the poison and the poisoners themselves have not yet been identified; the investigation continues. However, many trails lead back to Tsepov's myriad business connections -- which included influence in everything from casinos to ports to pharmaceutical companies.

The Case Of Igor Klimov

Oleg Klimov was killed in Moscow on June 6, 2003 (TASS)

Igor Klimov, a colonel with the SVR, was shot dead on June 6, 2003, outside his apartment building in downtown Moscow.

Klimov, another close associate of Putin's, was picked by the president to serve as acting general director of the defense contractor Almaz-Antei, one of Russia's largest producers of air-defense systems.

Klimov was killed just weeks before he was due to become the CEO of Almaz-Antei. Many suspected at the time that his death was the result of his efforts to end the diversion or embezzlement of millions of dollars from the firm. Eventually, however, several arrests were made in the case that suggested his death may have been tied to a property battle between criminal organizations.

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