Russian Spies and the Diaspora: The Compatriots with Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Russian Spies and the Diaspora: The Compatriots with Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov

DATE: 2 March, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan




Dr Jade McGlynn 00:01

Okay, let us begin. Thank you to our audience for joining us today. My name is Jade McGlynn. I’m the director of research here at Henry Jackson Society, where I also head up the Russia and Eurasian Studies Centre. I’m just going to start with some housekeeping, so everybody should be muted, please type any questions that you have into the zoom Q&A box, then at the end, we have sort of 20-25 minutes for questions. We’ll group the questions as we work with the questions together. But we’ll ask those selected and to ask their questions individually, to the speakers, who are the wonderful Andre Soldatov and Irina Borogan, experts on the Russian security services and investigative journalists, originally from Moscow. They’re the founders and editors of the website, as well as the authors of several books, including “The New Nobility,” “The Red Web,” and “The Compatriots”, which we are here today to discuss, and which is an excellent read, expertly taking the reader through the historical context necessary to understand the Russian government’s attitudes or uses of the diaspora today, and especially how to control youths, and unfortunately, on occasion on assassinate. So, let’s start, perhaps with a nice, simple question. Again, Andre and Irina, what was your aim in writing this book?

Andre Soldatov 01:29

First of all, thank you for having us, it’s really a great pleasure for us to have a chance to talk about our book. And as the main objective was somehow natural for us, because of first book is an inability was about, I would say, traditional means to control Russian people via security services. So, it was about the FSB. And it was called “The New Nobility.” And then, after that, we looked at the new dimension, cyber dimension, and it was about people living into content abroad but it was mostly about this fifth domain, the Russian Internet, and how successful or not really successful the Kremlin was at putting this cyberspace under control. And after that, we thought, well, probably now we need to think about the Russian people who live abroad, because they should be of big interest for the Kremlin, and given the long history of relationship between the Kremlin as a political emigration, and that prompted us to actually take a look at this issue and to start researching this book.

Irina Borogan 02:42

Thank you for having us here and I will just add couple forwards. When we started, it was very difficult to remember how the idea came to your mind to write the book on this particular issue, because I remember our conversation with an American journalist who talked to us and told us, you wrote a book about security services, you wrote a book about technology, but you have to write something about people. And I told Andre, we have to write something about people. It’s so bad that people say that we have never written about people. So, it could be caused as our issues are mostly security services, investigations and we have also been covering war conflicts and terrorist attacks in Russia and abroad. What people could we write about? It seems that we should write about immigrants and poisoning, and people who were poisoned, and that’s how it started. But after that, it got bigger and bigger.

Dr Jade McGlynn 04:02

I mean, I’m happy it did. I think it all fits together wonderfully. It’s like a mosaic of different stories, and then they all link back in together. I suppose I would like to pick up on one point, though, which is the titles so “The Compatriots” or in Russian “Соотечественники”, and it has quite deliberate overtones in Russian. I mean, in the English history bit as well. Obviously, this language around compatriots was very prominent during the annexation of Crimea and during the Ukraine conflict and sort of the need to defend compatriots. Could you explain this a bit more about why this time and this term is so relevant, and why particularly Vladimir Putin went to use this.

Irina Borogan 04:45

This towards emigrants and competitors have different meanings in Russian language, I mean, the meanings may be the same but connotation is different because emigrants are people who emigrated and started being a little bit anonymous to the former Motherland, or just seized the relationship with their former Motherland completely. And that has some kind of negative connotation in Russian language. Of course, it happened during the Soviet times. But compatriots, they’re people who are very loyal to the Russian state and believe in the Russian state and still have close cultural and historical connections with Russia. So, the compatriots, they are good people.

Andre Soldatov 05:54

And the emigrants means was actually synonymous with like greater enemy or even subversive element, something like even a spy, actually.

Dr Jade McGlynn 06:05

Okay, thanks for that. Yeah, that’s quite an important thing, I think to get to delineate. Thank you. Is it fair to say then, based on the definitions, as well, that, of course, compatriots have these positive overtones, but it’s really talking about a sense of cultural patriotism, If you will, it’s not necessarily an ethnic issue? It’s about promoting certain cultural historical ties. And you pick up, in your work, on the, I suppose, government organized, NGOs, also other forms of culture? And do you see this as an area that, I suppose, an area to watch? Do you think that we’re likely to see more of this? So, you referenced the immortal regiment marches and their growth throughout the marches, where people hold the portraits? Do you think that there’s likely to be more growth in trying to perhaps even move beyond just the Diaspora and actually use the Diaspora to push a positive image of Russia abroad? Or do you think that’s reached the limit? What are your thoughts on that?

Andre Soldatov 07:16

I think that we need to look at this problem as something very multi, actually, it had lots of levels. On one level, you can say that, first of all, it’s not about ethnic Russians anymore. It’s about people sometimes from the territory of the former Soviet Union. So, it helps to promote, and project powers of the Kremlin, to the counter sorts of former Soviet Union, like Central Asia, the Baltics, Ukraine, of course, Belarus. That’s to keep the Russian influence alive and palpable in these regions. The other level is that a country like Russia, which used to have the status of a superpower, and projected an image of a superpower in the Cold War, by say, traditional means, because we had this big army, nukes, and all that. Now, the Kremlin wanted to protect the same power, the same idea, but Russia is still the superpower, but using different means, which are not that expensive. You can use some radical things like you can say use some cyber-attacks, and that will protect your image as someone who is really powerful, I can do some damage, very far from home. But you can also launch some organizations in western countries, and organize some manifestations, just to make sure that people actually feel your presence there. And that’s exactly what’s going on, and has been going on since 2015, for instance, in the United States. We’ve been seeing this manifestation for five years now and now it’s not only about New York, it’s about many cities, from Chicago to Washington, to Los Angeles and San Francisco, when all of a sudden in May you have 1000s, sometimes hundreds, of Russians with flags with Russian slogans marched in the streets. Not big actually but nevertheless, the meaning of that you have Russians there who are still loyal to the Kremlin, who use the same terminology as was used, for instance, during the occupation of Crimea, and they use the same symbolism, the same things as the same words literally, and that’s I think it’s quite successful. The limits to these activities are actually not exactly known now, because we know that these organizations might be and actually use it as front organizations for Russian intelligence services. One of the most remarkable examples is the Institute of the Russian Diaspora, exposed as the front organizations of the Russian military intelligence by the Washington Post in 2018. Actually, the unit which runs (inaudible) operations, engineers, they actually they use this institute as a cover. But many things we just don’t know because, for instance, in 2016, when the Kremlin made a decision to interfere in the elections, they decided to use on the online elements. They used targeted cyber operations, but for some reasons, they decided not to use people who they had on the ground, but that doesn’t mean that these people are not there.

Irina Borogan 11:06

Even the fans of Russian diaspora are huge, the third largest in the world. It comes after Indian and Mexican and Chinese diaspora is on lift force. So according to Putin’s estimates, there are certain millions of Russians who are living abroad, including the population of the former Soviet Republic, like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and so on. And among, according to the UN estimates are 10 million of those people living in Western Europe and in the United States. So, it’s a huge fertile-

Andre Soldatov 11:45

No, only in Europe.

Irina Borogan 11:47

Yes, only in Europe, 10 million in Europe. So, it’s huge fertile ground for recruiting for, I don’t know, spreading cultural information, there are a lot of other possibilities to work with these people.

Dr Jade McGlynn 12:05

So, compatriots as a race as a natural resource.

Andre Soldatov 12:09

Absolutely, yes, absolutely.

Dr Jade McGlynn 12:12

Thank you. I’m actually going to move over slightly to security services that we’ve already touched upon them that never popped on the surface in the book and in conversation, but you’ve been working on security services for a long time. So, you referenced your first book, and obviously even before then, I just wonder if back in the early 2000s, did you think that you would end up with Russia, we’d end up where it has in terms of the situation now.

Irina Borogan 12:41

It was much better. It was bad but not that bad. But you know, even from our experience as journalist when we started to write about the Russian security services, like literally 20 years old, and already back then we came to communicate, we came talk with people on the inside of the security services, and not only this operator, but also with generals. I remember that I could meet with an active FSB general in a small cafe, and he wanted to explain what’s going on inside the FSB is a Russian counterintelligence agency and now a secret police. He was disturbed by a rivalry inside the service. And he feels that a lot of sins went wrong, including corruption, and even some operatives were involved of organized crime and had close connections with mafia. So, he was very disturbed and he decided to meet with me and explain all these things and in the end of this meeting I remember it literally like it happens yesterday, he pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a structure of the FSB, very, very detailed. So, that happened when I was 20 years old, but now I have much, much more difficulty, even given the fact that people know our source and we have a lot of connections inside the security services, people are so frightened, they are so intimidated and they don’t feel that they can expose information and make some facts public, they can achieve something good for them, for the service for anything. So, it’s much more difficult to get information from them because it’s fear, intimidation and because there’s absolutely new security services than it used to be.

Andre Soldatov 15:06

For people actually get really intimidated by the FSB, but people inside FSB were also intimidated by Putin, they actually understood that now they serve at the mercy of Vladimir Putin and, and actually, sometimes we overlook this fact, because we have this image of the FSB, as all powerful organization, but Putin made it very clear, in 2015, when he started his selective repressions, that he doesn’t want any independent actions from the FSB. And he stripped them from foreign passports from the right to have properties abroad, and the right to travel abroad. He also actually punished some people inside, and he got several FSB officers in jail, we got an FSB general in jail, and it was made very public to teach a lesson that, now you should understand that all of this old independence that you enjoyed in the 90s and in the 2000s, it’s all finished now. It’s all gone. And since then, I would say for the last five years, we’ve been seeing an increased activity of the FSB, other oppressive towards the president, but it’s actually a tool, it’s nothing more.

Dr Jade McGlynn 16:36

So, it doesn’t have that sort of any independence, that independence outside of-

Andre Soldatov 16:41

No, that’s all that’s all gone.

Dr Jade McGlynn 16:44

Given what you’ve just described, about the fear intimidation, see, not only caused by the FSB, but felt inside the FSB. Why are the FSB and other security agencies, popular is perhaps a loaded term, but the number of Russians who would consider a career at the FSB, for example, as a worthwhile pursuit that’s increased to 69% and 76% of that figure constitutes young people under the age of 30. And the number of people who view work at the FSB in a negative light declined from 34% to 11%. During the same period, you maybe unpack that for Western audiences’ little bit why that’s the case?

Andre Soldatov 17:26

Well there are different schools of thought to explain that. Lev Gudkov, actually is a brand a behind this research, explained that actually, people respect something they do not know and did not understand. They had this image of a mysterious and all powerful organization, and they just expect that because we have the legacy of thinking that national security, meaning, not the security of ordinary citizens, but the security of the nation, the security of the state, is such an important thing that the agency, which is in charge of it, should be respected and the status of these agencies should be really high. If you look, for instance, at the criminal court of the Russian Federation, and you look how several or multiple different crimes are punishable by law, you can see that if you kill somebody, you get seven years in jail. But if you are accused of state treason, you might get 20 years in jail. So, the crimes against the state punished more severely than the crimes against people. And we have a big consensus in society, that its exactly right. The other problem, but actually people got really frightened by the FSB, and just barely mentioned that many of these polls are done by a phone call. And you just need to imagine, well, you have an ordinary Russian citizen sitting somewhere in a small regional town getting a call asking what do you think about the FSB? Do you respect them?

Irina Borogan 19:14

And let me explain what the job inside the FSB means, practically. Of course, now Russia is not economically very well. Of course, in Moscow, you can make a lot of money and be happy, but outside Moscow, outside big cities, especially in the Russian provinces, in Russian regions, you can’t make money at all it’s very difficult. Making money, making business, you put yourself at an enormous risk of being punished even by the FSB too, and security services. If you get a job in the FSB, it means you will be well paid, you will get your medical insurance for free, you will get your apartment for free. And you get a right to have your pension at the age of 40-45 and this pension will be a 4-5 times bigger than average pension in Russia. So, that’s the reason and that’s not such a difficult job. I mean that only maybe 2 or 5% of people who work in the inside the FSB, they put out their life at risk. And I would say well, I don’t want to be too bad but frankly speaking it’s like around 1%. And other people, they’re just sitting in these very comfortable offices, there are not a lot of jobs, it’s mostly bureaucracy, and following the rules. So, as a job, and it’s very well paid. There’s a reason. Also, back in the 90s, it was absolutely different because people who were doing business, they were paid well, and they had a lot of opportunities to make a lot of money. But all the bureaucracy was paid, including Security Services were not paid very well, they were really poor people. So, people didn’t did not want to go to the security services, but now it’s absolutely different.

Dr Jade McGlynn 21:31

So, there’s that prestige, but also the financial aspect.

Irina Borogan 21:35

Yeah, of course, all these factors.

Dr Jade McGlynn 21:40

When I spent some time at the university there, and actually a quite a lot of the younger students were explaining to me that they liked, sort of different young men, and it was often the young men who were going into, what they described, as the police. But of course, they probably wouldn’t explain to them going into the FSB. They explained to me the difference in salaries and how much higher it was than the local average as it were, and it was, you know, markedly higher than the average salary which is pretty low. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that, but it was interesting review, thank you. Um, another thing that can puzzle people around, that you touch upon in a really wonderful way, is the role of the church and you write about how Putin brought the sort of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia back to the Russian Orthodox Church abroad in the process for which that happened. And it was a very sensitive move. He was very sensitive and sort of cautious and tactical in his approach. But one of the things that, that you also write about that’s pretty, I think is pretty amusing for a lot of people, is the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church now, and perhaps even to a certain extent then already under security services. And I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit? Where that’s come from?

Andre Soldatov 23:03

Yeah, I think it’s, it’s actually a fascinating topic, because it’s not only about the church, and it was never only about the church, in fact, it was all this about something bigger. For instance, why Putin became really interested at subordination of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, there’s a Moscow paternity, not because he was such a religious person as he claims to be, but also because he knew, as we all knew, that, back in the Soviet Union, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have this image of this Russia what we live in, but we also have an image of the other Russia, of people who fled after the revolution and, several generations of Russians living abroad, not corrupted by communism, and there was a very idealistic notion of this other Russia, which is, which is full of Russian nobility, aristocracy, and intellectuals. And of course, they are much more, if you can’t use this word spiritual minded, because they have is charge and this charge is not corrupted by a communist, or the KGB. And while the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a big idea that maybe these people and the descendants would come back to the country and help to fix it. And actually, Yeltsin believed in his idea and he invited the first descendant of the first wave of emigration back to Russia, because he believed that if you can somehow reunite with Russians and into one that could help fix the problem with background to society which was absolutely, I would say, void of any ideas and just horrible in terms of failures, if you wish. So what Putin actually didn’t want to see was any other Russia, he didn’t want to have any alternative to what he had in the country, he wanted to subordinate was a crucial element and I think that was really interesting how he did that, because he started with the church but it was not only about the church, it was about the biggest names in the first wave of emigration. And, for instance, he actually he launched a special kind of operation to have the remains of the biggest name since the Russian emigrations, white army generals, being transferred to Russia. Because after that, he sort of he co-opted at the memory of his people, he became a leader, not only of say, checkers, but also of some ways of the people who formed checkers. So he became something absolutely indisputable, and that was very smart of him. But then he got his objective achieved, lots of people, including people in the intelligence agencies, they understood that the church actually provides an excellent cover for all kinds of operations. And only one we were talking about the immortal regiment manifestations, it’s an interesting thing that in New York, for instance, you can see these manifestations organized by the youth department of the church there. And we use the facilities of the church to have some of these rallies in, they have a facility in the woods, in upstate, and they use it to host people with who actually use the uniform since the Second World War, and they must wear and racing, some Soviet patriotic songs and all that. So, you have to church providing the cover. You have the same thing in in Paris, for instance, the administration of the President, and the church decided several years ago to build an enormous facility very close to the headquarters of the French Foreign Ministry. It’s called the Russian spiritual centre and actually, it’s about it’s about Exhibition Centre, but also the church. And the interesting fact that the Russian Embassy requested for all people who actually work at this facility to have a diplomatic status. And of course, we understand why. And we know that the French became really, really nervous about this facility, because we understood all of a sudden that we have this facility, which is protected by immunity to some extent, at least in close proximity to a foreign ministry, and it’s maybe not really safe. And they started talking about some electronic surveillance probably. And all of a sudden, you have the centre of this facility, you have a traditional Russian church very visible before his pupils and all that. So yeah, this cooperation, I would say, between the state and the churches is very interesting phenomenon. And the church describes it, put in a very interesting way, they said it’s a symphony between the state and the church.

Dr Jade McGlynn 28:46

That is a lovely way of putting it. It’s very generous description. Just a quick reminder, actually, to the audience to please type your questions into the box. And then we’ll ask them towards the end. Sorry for the interruption, Andre, Irina. I’m looking at this idea of the other of the other Russia and this sort of fascination if that happened. If we could go back a little bit in history, I suppose one of the things that surprised me reading the book was when I think of emigres, I think of Paris and, you know, the literature and you know, all of the writers, I wouldn’t necessarily straightaway think of the USA, but that’s really where the political activity happens. Why do you think that is? Could you talk a bit about the geography of the Emigre as it were?

Irina Borogan 29:39

This is absolutely my feeling when I started working on this issue, Russian emigrations we know about, as well, we have a lot a lot of parents immigration, Chinese in Shanghai, Parisian emigration, and also amongst Berlin, crowds of immigrants, but we didn’t learn a lot about American immigration at the beginning of the 20th century. But we found out that there were huge crowds that went there, they’re mostly Jewish people, people of Jewish origin, most of them emigrate and because of crazy anti-Semitism of service authorities and personal and these people they created community, the most of active people in the Communist Party of the United States have Russian origin, since they were Jewish. So, it’s, um, they did a lot. So, it was fascinating even for us,

Andre Soldatov 30:48

And actually, Trotsky spent some time in the United States and right before the revolution, and actually well from other people from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Bolshevik Communist Party has spent some time in in New York. It was a really important thing. But even after that, I mean, because even the people who were expelled from the Soviet Union, so enemies of Bolsheviks, they, for some reasons, ended up in New York. That started even before the Second World War. For instance, Trotskies have decided to set a shop in New York, because they understood that actually, the second world war already started, and we needed to relocate somewhere, and they chose New York. And then the war started and a lot of organizations of the first wave of emigration, also emigrated to New York. Once the war ended, lots of Russians, who, for instance, happen to be in Yugoslavia, and collaborated with local authorities and sometimes very collaborative with the Germans, they fled out of fear of the Red Army to Germany, and many of them ended up in the American zone of occupation. And for them, it was very natural to move after that to New York again, and it’s quite interesting that in the end of the day, by 1945-1946, almost I would say most of the most important political emigrate organizations were based in New York from the church, though social democratic movements, to have imperialist and national labour union, all these people, they ended up in New York.

Irina Borogan 32:52

And that’s interesting. The third wave of emigration from the Soviet Union with mostly consist of Jewish emigration to the United States. They were absolutely different from that people in the beginning of the 20th century, they were all, the first wave, Jews who emigrated before the Russian Revolution, were all communist. Maybe not all but they were political, of course, there were a lot of people who are uneducated, but the educated people they were all communist. They even started a huge war between Lebanese and Stalinist and there were huge division inside the Communist Party and among all the left movement back then, and of course, people who came in the 70s and the 60s, they were all anti-communist. But the wave of Russian Empire wide emigration was absolutely different, they were pro Czarist, pro Imperial, not liberal at all, so absolutely different people.

Dr Jade McGlynn 34:06

It’s mad if you think about some of the different historical contexts in which these different waves of immigration came. it is just fascinating. I just as an aside picking up on obviously, you’re talking about World War Two. And one of the things I found so interesting that you picked up on was the amount of intelligence sources that were going to targeting Trotsky, when World War Two was already underway, I obviously the Nazis hadn’t invaded the Soviet Union, but still, they might have needed intelligence sources at home that they diverted or even in sort of August 1940. When you see all this money and the resources going towards Trotsky, even though I sort of knew about it, I hadn’t put it together before in a way that was very interesting. None of the political activities though that the State Department or various people just tried to put together had much of an effect. I think it’s fair to say among lot of different emigres. And I suppose if I can bring this back to the present day. We’ve just seen Alexei Navalny obviously returned home, and he’s currently in prison. And one of the lines that he says, and we’ve heard all the sort of prominent opposition figures is “a Russian politician must be in Russia.” Why is this? Why is this so important? Why is it seen as if it’s not possible to sort of be that politician from over the sea over the water?

Andre Soldatov 35:39

I think it’s the problem is that Navalny reads the same book, as we all do. I mean, the books about the Russian emigration. And, of course, it’s very sad story. Because, to be honest, if you look at the history of Russian political immigration, it might be seen as kind of a case study of what could be done and could not be done from abroad with a country like Russia. Because political immigration groups, they try to literally everything. They started with a terror campaign, so they attack people, and they sent agents back to Russia, and they organize it on terror campaign against Bolshevik officials in the county. When Bolsheviks went to the west as a diplomat, so they attacked them in the West, when the Red Army became involved in a military conflict out of Russia, like in Spain, some emigrate organizations, sent the soldiers to help Franco once the war started again, of course, we know this history of some of the immigrant organizations, they decided to help Hitler because they believed that was a way to get rid of communists. And after the war, the whole history of the Cold War is about political emigrants engaged in some kind of activity, from espionage to propaganda efforts and all that. The problem is that almost all of these efforts were absolutely disasters, or they achieved absolutely nothing. And what was also bad that they had constantly aggravated themselves. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible mess. Social Democrats hated Czarist, Ukrainians hated Russian imperialist, because Russian imperialists believed that we can reinstate the Russian Empire in its borders, and so on and so forth. Actually, we, at some moment, we tried to find at least one thing where the Russian emigration had some successes, and we found only one, the books. So, when the Russians smuggle the books to the west, or when they took the books with them, and they fled to the west. Some of these books actually worked pretty well at affecting public opinion in the West. And we have Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Allilueva, Stalin’s daughter. These books were enormous successes, but when the same people tried to be active politically, it was always a disaster. Solzhenitsyn was a disaster for trying to unite Russian political immigration and Svetlana Allilueva didn’t want to do that and finally decided to return to the Soviet Union which was a big embarrassment to everyone who supported her. I think these legacies affected Navalny when he said, “Look, it doesn’t make any sense to stay out of the country.” And I think it’s not exactly true, because back then the crucial element was that the borders between Russia and the rest of the world where all this closed, they were sealed, it was absolutely almost impossible to leave the country and to get back, of course, it was impossible to get back. Now we have the internet, which is a really important thing. We have some of the most important media in Russia, well, based out of the borders for instance, and we also have opposition politicians who live, for instance, in Washington, traveling to Russia all the time, like Vladimir Kara-Muza, who is a lobbying and has been lobbying for anti-Kremlin sanctions for many years, he still is capable of getting back to Russia and to do something in the country. So, I think now it’s not that black and white. We have this new factor that the borders still remain porous and open. Well, not in the time of Covid, we’re hoping after the crisis. So, I think that Navalny just sort of overlooked this new factor.

Dr Jade McGlynn 40:09

Okay, thank you. That’s really fair answer. And we need to move to questions. Now. Could I ask you very, very quickly just to summarize for because this comes up in your book, and I think its important, just what sort of impact the Skripal poisonings had on, on today’s emigres around the world.

Irina Borogan 40:30

The impact of Skripal poisoning on today’s immigrants and all people in Russia is huge. It caused enormous fear and the effort was intimidating because when we research for the book, or literally everybody we met, including an those who lived who abroad, including a priest from Russian church abroad, who is now very well connected with Russian authorities, including those who live in Russia, they all started asking us about the Skripal poisoning and what could be behind it and what does it mean. And that was clear, the questions and reactions was very different, but the one common thing was fear. When talking about it, it was it was absolutely clear that they were intimidated, and they felt uncomfortable about such things can happen and that such a thing could happen to with the approval of the Russian authorities and possibly with the Russian president.

Dr Jade McGlynn 41:53

Okay. Thank you. I mean, it does, as you as you just said, and also it comes through in the book, quite the impact. I should go to questions now because I’m taking up far too much time for myself. I’m rather greedily. Um, so for the first question. I think maybe there’s a couple of questions. Could we hand over to Craig Oliphant, please.

Craig Oliphant 42:27

Lovely. Yes. Well, thanks very much, Craig Oliphant from the Foreign Policy Centre. Thank you both Irina, Andre, for sharing those overview comments with us. I wondered if I could ask you to say something really about the role of the Russian military. Not so much from the point of view of tanks, kit, missiles, but rather role of the Russian military as perceived in society. And also, its role not least, as drawn upon in education in Russia. Be very interested to hear from you.

Andre Soldatov 43:08

It’s a fascinating question, actually, because sometimes we overlook this issue, we tend to think and talk about law enforcement and first of all the Russian security services, because we have this notion of the new nobility that these people proclaimed themselves for Putin. But actually, what we saw, I would say for, it started right after the annexation of Crimea, I would say, probably in 2014, or just before that, they see that the military is getting more and more ambitious, and much more important in the Russian society. And now they have to say about the Russian history, which was always about ideology, because Russian history is all about ideology. How do you perceive your military history and the Second World War and all that? Also, the grammar of the Russian military now builds a biggest church, which is meant to be a symbol of the increasing influence of the Russian military, for some reasons its painted green. Maybe it’s a camouflage challenge, but it’s it sends a mixed message. And also, of course, they are now interfering in schools, and they launched this big thing called the youth army. And they actually now they’re taking it very seriously. The idea that kids should be actually brainwashed in our schools about the military history. We also build an enormous park, Military Park with all these trophies on kinds of things, In Moscow, I call it the backyard. And it’s actually for 1000s and 1000s of people and it’s quite popular. I will say they also launched maybe the most successful propaganda campaign recently, when they organized the trip on a train with the trophies they got in Syria, which actually cross the whole country, from Kaliningrad, to Siberia, to Vladivostok, and it was an enormous success. Just imagine you have some regional town with nothing to do, nothing to see. And all of a sudden, you have a train coming right from Moscow, with all these tanks and some exciting things. It was really, really big. And the problem is that we do not know the extent of these ambitions, because the military in history never played a really big role, to be honest, it’s nothing comparable with Latin America or Spain. The last time the military actually played some political role, I mean, independent political role was when they had this embrace the role that in 1825, after that, it was always under control of the party. And now all of a sudden, we have the military playing such a crucial role. Oh, I forgot, of course, about foreign policy. We have foreign ministry, and you can say well it is important, but actually, it’s in some crucial regions like Libya, Syria, Ukraine, the military have a decisive say about what is going on actually, and not the foreign ministry. So, I think it’s very worth watching.

Irina Borogan 46:45

The militarization of Russian society is so huge now that I have a Vitabank, this is a Russian Bank, I have a Vitabank app on my phone. And it is always like blue and white because blue and white, as I say are colours of Vitabank. And on the first of March, I noticed that it is became painted in hockey colours. So can you imagine that this is the largest bank of the Russian Federation are these people who own these banks. They are bonkers. They’re known to us from the 1990s that oligarchs and they painted and they changed their colours into hockey. That’s ridiculous. And that’s sad.

Dr Jade McGlynn 47:41

I thought you are going to the orange and black actually, after the George ribbon. I’m not sure if that would be better or worse, but maybe not in March, maybe that’s a May this. Thank you have the answer questions. The next question we’re going to take is from Marina Delargy. Please.

Marina Delargy  48:06

Thank you very much Henry Jackson society for this event. Thank you, Irina. Thank you, Andre. And I have a question regarding both of your books, “The Compatriots” and “The Red Web.” Is it possible for the Russian government to control the internet and obliterate all positional models of expression inside Russia and abroad? And can the Russian government exert control outside of Russia through the intelligence agency and operations by the Russian speaking society?

Andre Soldatov  48:51

Thank you but we are quite optimistic here. While the internet is an interesting technology, it’s actually it’s designed in a way that you can disrupt something quite easily. Even if you are you have a modest means and tools you can use some small teams to cause an enormous mal impact, as we have seen in many countries. But this technology is really getting bad if you want to contain something and control something, because there is always some way. And the interesting thing about internet that you always have some new technology come in, and some new platform come in. So, you might be finding a way how to deal with that platform or this platform but all of a sudden you have a new generation of young Russians and new protests. And all of a sudden, instead of something old and well known, they do something new, like TikTok and they start posting all these political videos and if you are in the government, you need to catch up constantly, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. And to be honest, I would say that the Russian government has been trying to put the Russian internet under control since 2012. So now it’s about eight years. And they had some successes but to be honest, on the whole, now, it’s not a success story. Global platforms are still available. They filter program is in place, but not really successful. If you want to get information about what’s going on, say, in Ukraine, and above the Russian Military presence there, you can get it. If you want to watch Navalny’s videos, they are absolutely available. If you want to read something, it’s all available. They are quite good at intimidating people. We have lots of people sent to jail for posting something critical online. But again, access to information is still available.

Irina Borogan  50:58

Even given the fact that the Russian authorities launched a special agency part of the special agency rules of conducts for filtering and censorship and from there, for eight years, they have been working ever since they can, and there are a lot of people who are in charge of this job. But they absolutely fail because you can find anything on internet, anything.

Dr Jade McGlynn  51:24

That’s some good news. Okay. The next question I have to read out. So, I think it’s an interesting question. So, it’s not from me, but I’m just reading out. So, the question is, apart from embassy and diplomatic cover, what are, in your view, the main networks and channels of Russia’s intelligence operations in Ukraine, has the emphasis of these operations shifted from human sort of intelligence to more cyber and mass media? And I suppose I’m adding this bit but if it is mass media, probably the Medvedchuk sanctions weren’t very welcome.

Andre Soldatov  52:02

To be honest, we are not experts on Ukraine. So, it’s really difficult to say something in detail and provide some details. But we see the actual traditional covers are extremely popular, still very popular with Russian intelligence. We’ve thought for instance, when we started researching this book, that something like cultural centres are such an outdated thing that, well probably, we could forget about it. It’s like something from the 50s or 60s. Why on earth do you need the Cultural Centre and in the middle of London or Washington? What do you use it as a cover? But well, it turns out that that’s not true, actually, these things are still popular. And as we know, I think this story was published in The Washington Post two years ago by the head of the Cultural Centre in Washington, and he was exposed by the FBI because he actually he kept tabs on American students here. His centre was sending to Russia for some for some fellowships, because he wanted to have a database on people who might be recruited in the future. And he was exposed and sent back to Moscow. So, they use these traditional covers very extensively all of the world

Irina Borogan  53:37

And remember that Ukraine is a very special country for Russian intelligence, because the calculation between the Russian security services and the Ukrainian security was very close. And so, there’s still a lot of people who are inside the agreement, security services, and Russian security services. And in terms of cultural connections, there are also a lot of possibilities to recruit people, as one language, very similar culture. So, there are a lot of possibilities, much more possibilities for gathering information and recruiting people inside Ukraine and other countries for Russian intelligence.

Dr Jade McGlynn  54:26

Thank you. Thank you for that. And now I think we’ve got time for one last question from Judith Kleeman, please.

Judith Kleeman  54:43

Most interesting afternoon. Thank you very much for having me, to the Henry Jackson Society and both of you. My question is do you think, with the imprisonment of Aleksei Navalny, that Putin has reverted his policies back to the 1980s?

Andre Soldatov  55:03

I think it’s Civil War since 1970s. Because actually, well in the 80s, we had Gorbachev, and today actually they celebrate his 90th birthday. And well, and he started historic and all by then and I think that, under his rule, it was absolutely unthinkable to imagine that even his KGB would poison somebody. But in the 70s, we had some examples. Actually, the KGB, well, provided some poison to, friendly security services like Bulgaria and Serbia for famous umbrella poisoning here in London, or doing something on their own as it happened with the Russian defector in Vienna. And it’s actually it’s quite striking. It was very striking for us, because when I was really young journalist and I, as a way to, to start writing about these issues was of course to talk with police officers of Russian intelligence and counterintelligence. And these people, very polite people, very intelligent people, they always insisted that all these so-called wet operations, meaning, killings and assassinations, were stopped after the after the death of Stalin. And they insisted on that every day, like, “No, no, no, it’s all stopped in the 1950s” as the last operation we had was against the Ukrainian independence movement, Stefan Bandera and that was the last operation after that it all stopped. When you understand, it actually was not true. And you see the same people are the same technologists, the same methods, the same department sometimes, still, they’re working on these issues. And that was, to be honest, the biggest lesson we got when we researched this book, the idea of continuity, that you have these traditions very much alive. But actually, paradoxically, if you look at the KGB as a big security service, which was split into several agencies after 1991, and you think that well the FSB is be probably the worst, because it’s so visible. But FSB was still, to some extent reformed. They needed to be reformed because they faced a new problem and new challenge of terrorism in the country, so they needed to do something. And because they were much more visible, there were many scandals inside again, there was a big demand for reform inside of FSB, it was a failure, but at least there was some attempt to reform the FSB. The foreign intelligence, the SVR was never ever reformed at all. Nobody tried to reform it. They always pretended to be the most liberal part of the KGB. And that helped them from any reform, they still exactly the same that they have been on the bow in Soviet Union, and they cherish their traditions, and they still praise the heroes. One of the main characters of our book is Vasily Zarubin who was chief of the intelligence station in New York, and he helped to steal the American atomic bomb. And his portrait is still displayed in the offices of the SVR these days. So, you have these things, and this continue each year and well, it’s it was really striking for us.

Dr Jade McGlynn  59:06

Thank you, I think you’re striking for us as well, especially later on when you have one of Zarubins, I think he’s his great grandson turns off in his marriage to the journalist, and then has these links and of course, ends up unfortunately in prison. And of course, there’s a different story, but I don’t want to ruin the book, which everybody should go and read. But thank you so much for joining us and for answering, you know, really quite a range of questions. Some quite specifically about the books on which got slightly distracting. So much to pursue on a on a slight detour. But I know I’ve learnt so much. I hope that our audience feels the same I’m sure that they do. But now unfortunately, it’s time to end. I would like to apologize that if you didn’t get a chance to ask questions and thank you to those who did ask questions. And finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Andre and Irina for joining us today.


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