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Review: Patrick Pesnot, Russian Spies: From Stalin to Putin

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There are few countries in the world in which various secret services have, over the centuries, played such a major, significant, and infamous role as they have in Russia. From the notorious Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina to Vladimir Putin’s secret service, the Russian political police have always enjoyed a tremendous influence on the fate of the country and the peoples living within its boundaries, whatever shape Russia has taken throughout its history. In most cases this influence was exerted by criminal or murderous means.

Patrick Pesnot, a French writer and journalist specializing in the secret service or, in a broader sense, in historical sensation, shares his reflections on the titular issue in Russian Spies: From Stalin to Putin in an interesting and compelling way. Pesnot’s book is not a thorough and in-depth study of the evolution of the Russian intelligence over the last century; instead, it is a subjective choice of stories connected with Russian intelligence activities. In the eighteen chapters of his book, the author analyzes various aspects and cases of the Soviet, and then Russian intelligence working both inside the USSR/Russia and abroad in the twentieth century, and at the turn of the new millennium.

In one of the most interesting parts of the book Pesnot touches on the time of the system transformation in the Communist Bloc countries, in particular the bloody Romanian revolution, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the process of the decomposition of the Soviet Union.

Pesnot argues that the overthrow of Ceauşescu was the result of a USSoviet conspiracy. Both superpowers, acting in line with a behind-the-scenes agreement, disposed of the dictator through the sinister Romanian political militia, Securitate. According to the author of the book, in the late 1980s every other Securitate functionary was a Soviet intelligence informer or a secret collaborator. Being so deeply infiltrated, the Romanian political militia was in fact totally subservient to Moscow. The entire Romanian revolution was by no means a spontaneous act; on the contrary, it was played according to a script written in Moscow. Admittedly, the author’s reasoning is suggestive and convincing. The Velvet Revolution, as Pesnot argues, was also controlled. He lists a number of strange coincidences, instances of inexplicable behavior of Czechoslovak security forces, which form a picture of a controlled removal of the Czechoslovak Communist Party from power. The French journalist argues that in this case, too, the initiative came from Moscow. While other communist parties in the satellite countries obediently and meekly followed the Kremlin directives on political and economic liberalization, the leaders of the communist party in Czechoslovakia were not so eager to make more than cosmetic changes, and clung onto power for dear life. As Gorbachev did not like this very much, a scenario was developed in the Kremlin to make the rulers of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia renounce their power.

The chapters of the book describing the political transformation of the USSR are very interesting. Pesnot claims that it was not Vladimir Putin, but Yuri Andropov who laid the foundations of the current power of the secret service in Russia. It was under his command that the KGB [Committee for State Security] reached its all-time peak of power and influence in the Soviet Union. Throughout his entire career in the KGB and the Soviet Communist Party, Andropov was committed to making the KGB not only an important tool, as it was before, but indeed the central instrument of power in the USSR. And he undoubtedly succeeded.

Pesnot describes how the KGB infiltrated the democratic opposition in the USSR, and even in some cases created it. All this was in order to maximize control over changes in the country. The book contains passages on the Soviet secret police preparing for the inevitable political transformation by taking enormous amounts of capital out of the USSR through various channels, which then returned to the Russian Federation to become the foundation for the gigantic fortunes of oligarchs – a new Russian business elite, in most cases connected in various ways to the Soviet or Russian secret service. The author of Russian Spies... claims that as early as in Andropov’s time it was evident (at least for him) that the USSR would not survive and would lose the Cold War. Thus, long before the Gorbachev era began, he started comprehensive preparations to guide the Soviet Union through the system transformation. All in all, Pesnot’s version of the former Eastern Bloc transformation bears slight resemblance to what is commonly believed about these events in our country.

The book is full of other interesting theories, usually backed with fine examples and arguments. Several pages are devoted to Russia under Putin. These chapters provide an inside story of the Chechen war and Putin’s rise to power, though the author’s revelations add little to what has already been revealed by Alexander Litvinienko and Yuri Felschtynski. In this respect, therefore, the book is not innovative, though the fragments about Putin’s scams in the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office or disappearing documents concerning a secret biography of the incumbent President of the Russian Federation are a good read.

The book teems with mysterious suicides, unexplained murders, and accidents met by important Russian dignitaries, businesspeople, and officials. All this adds up to an image of Russia as a mafia state, where violence, crime, deceit, and trickery are par for the course in how the highest state officials wield power. Patrick Pesnot seems to share Spanish crimefighting prosecutor Jose Grinda Gonzales’s opinion about Russia. Quoting a diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks, Gonzales, in a private conversation with the American ambassador in Madrid, said that “Russia is a corrupt, autocratic superpower run by Vladimir Putin, in which the officials, the oligarchs and organized crime hand-in-hand create a virtual mafia state.”

In sum, the book will be interesting for all those who are interested in the history of Russian secret services and also for those who are unsatisfied with the conventional, naïve story about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, told to gullible listeners as the only indisputable truth, challenged only by “conspiracy theory freaks.”


Przemysław Furgacz. Read international relations at Jagiellonian University, earned his PhD in political science, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the position of the People’s Republic of China in the military security policy of the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush. He has published academic and feature articles in numerous journals and magazines, such as Politeja, Przegląd Morski, Kwartalnik Bellona, and others. His research focuses on US security policy, military science, and international economic relations.


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