You can run, but can you hide?
A review of The Compatriots. The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad. By: Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Publisher: Public Affairs, New York, 2019.
In July 2018 the journalist and writer Andrei Soldatov went to go and see Alexander Lebedev at his home in Rublyovka, on the outskirts of Moscow. Lebedev was a KGB agent turned banker and media tycoon. Over the years his relations with the Kremlin had ebbed and flowed. For a long time they had been good: there even were one-on-one meetings with Vladimir Putin. Then they turned bad after one of Lebedev’s newspapers published a story saying that Putin was having an affair with a 24-year-old Olympic gymnast. Now they were good again.
Soldatov’s description of his encounter with Lebedev is one of the highlights from his wonderful and illuminating new book on Russian émigrés, The Compatriots, co-written with his wife Irina Borogan. Soldatov drove to the village of Razdory, past the fortified dachas belonging to Russia’s power people. He followed a pair of bodyguards in an SUV, down a winding path through pine trees to a big grey mansion. The oligarch, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, greeted Soldatov and invited him to sit on the verandah and vanished. Twenty minutes later Lebedev had still not reappeared. Soldatov ate a biscuit on a plate in front of him. More time passed. “Andrei considered eating the second biscuit,” the book records drolly. It started raining. Soldatov was moved inside. A man in a chef’s cap flung open a door and said: “Alexander Evgenevich your lunch will be served in five minutes!” Lebedev emerged and went off to have lunch. After waiting for almost two hours, Soldatov finally got to speak to the man.
The episode described by Soldatov says something about self-importance and a lack of manners prevalent among the global rich. More than this, though, it is an interesting snapshot of where Russia’s elite finds itself, after two decades of Putin, caught between the demands of a nationalist regime at home and a comfortable life in the West, where much of its money is invested. Lebedev is the owner of significant assets in “Foggy Albion” – as Russian TV likes to call Britain – including the Evening Standard newspaper.
Soldatov went to see Lebedev soon after two GRU assassins – Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin – tried to murder a renegade former colleague, Sergei Skripal, in the English city of Salisbury. The operation was a disaster. Skripal and his daughter Yulia survived; the weapon – a nerve agent called novichok – was discovered and the government of the United Kingdom and its allies subsequently expelled 150-odd Russian military spies.
Still, it was clear that the bungled hit had badly spooked Lebedev and others like him. The oligarch said that the idea the Kremlin was behind Salisbury was absurd, a conspiracy theory. “There is no such practice, poisoning the opposition,” he declared. As a former KGB officer, based in London, Lebedev knew better. He perfectly understood the Skripal message. It said: if you co-operate with western spies, we will most definitely crush you.
As Soldatov and Borogan relate in their book, political murder was something of a Moscow specialty. Stalin sent Nahum Eitingon – one of several talented interwar agents – to murder Trotsky at his Mexico hideout. After a bungled front-on attack, Eitingon arranged for a Spanish operative, Ramon Mercader, to whack Trostky with an icepick. The plan worked. The Soviet secret service mounted similar operations against Ukrainian nationalists abroad, using poison guns and bombs hidden in cakes.
Russia’s large diaspora posed a problem for the Soviet and, later, Russian Kremlins. Political emigration was seen as a threat. White Russians, Trotskyists, Jewish refuseniks in the 1970s, troublesome oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky in the 2000s … all promised to subvert the regime back home and to stir up trouble from afar. At the same time, Moscow could use émigrés for its own purposes – to spy on other Russian citizens, for example, and to penetrate western societies. Its best recruits stole the US’s wartime atomic secrets.
In The Compatriots, the authors point out that Russians have been fleeing their homeland for a long time. The exodus began in the late 19th century, with thousands escaping pogroms and tsarist persecution. Later generations fled the Russian revolution, Stalin and the KGB. The Politburo also expelled undesirables – the incorrigible dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who died this past October in British exile, and the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the nature of Russian emigration. For a decade or so Russians left their homeland for reasons separate from politics – to make money and to enjoy a better life. Once Putin came to power, however, there was a lurch back to the old ways of selective repression and compelled exit. Meanwhile, Putin ratcheted up pressure on his compatriots abroad. He saw them as belonging to what he called the Russky Mir – or Russian world – a community of Russian speaking people not necessarily living in the borders of Russia or a Russian-speaking state.
Soldatov and Borogan aptly illustrate Putin’s efforts to exploit this diaspora, the third largest in the world after India and Mexico. As Putin viewed it, the Russians living abroad had obligations to the state – a state that was strong again. He established Rossotrudnichestvo – a new federal body to promote Russian culture and to fund pro-Kremlin media projects. The agency’s other hidden purpose was to spy on host countries – using culture as cover – and to monitor the activities of émigrés, especially the rich ones.
Under Putin, exotic killings of the KGB’s heyday resumed. In 2003 Soldatov and Borogan met Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB officer and Berezovsky aide. It was a rainy evening in Piccadilly Circus. Litvinenko had no umbrella: “I’m a warrior,” he told them. “I can sleep on bare ground.” The book suggests that Litvinenko was struggling to learn English and to adjust to British ways. Unbeknown to the authors, he was doing freelance jobs for MI6. Three years later two Kremlin killers – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun – poisoned Litvinenko with radioactive green tea.
The murder was confirmation that Putin had reverted to the old KGB playbook, without the trappings of Marxism-Leninism. “The assassination was straight out of the early days of the Soviet Union when the operatives of Stalin’s secret service had fled to the West, published revelatory books and ended up hunted down and killed by Stalin’s agents,” the authors write, calling the plot “textbook Nahum Eitingon”. Other murders followed – notably that of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader and former deputy PM, shot dead in 2015 outside the Kremlin.
How has the West reacted to such rogue behaviour? Generally speaking the push back has been conventional and inadequate. The UK expelled four Russian diplomats after Litvinenko, more after Skripal. But it has done little to stop wealthy Moscow folks from buying properties in London and enjoying the high life. Soldatov and Borogan touch only briefly on today’s America and the question of whether President Donald Trump – to some greater or lesser degree – is beholden to Putin.
What they report in the book is troubling. Nemtsov’s close colleague and fellow activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was poisoned in Moscow not once but twice. Miraculously, he survived. In December 2017 Kara-Murza met with an FBI agent in Washington. Seemingly, the FBI had identified the mysterious toxin. It planned to give its report on the case to three important Russian visitors – the heads of the GRU, FSB and SVR, who were flying in for talks with the Trump administration. Three weeks later the FBI agent rang Kara-Murza. He told him – not very convincingly – that the lab tests were “inconclusive”. The report was shelved.
Despite the obvious risks, the authors have chosen to stay in Moscow and to investigate the murky activities of Putin’s spy agencies from there. Other talented Russians with language skills – experts, journalists, economists – have left, especially since 2012 when Putin returned as president. Soldatov and Borogan are brave. Their latest book is an essential read – carefully written and entertainingly told – about Russia’s engagement with the wider world and its ever watchful eye.
Luke Harding is a writer and an award-winning journalist with The Guardian. He is the author of many books; his latest, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, was published in 2017.