Russia's New Nobility

The Rise of the Security Services in Putin's Kremlin

In December 2000, Nikolai Patrushev, who had succeeded Vladimir Putin as director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), gave an interview to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. He described the FSB's personnel: "Our best colleagues, the honor and pride of the FSB, don't do their work for the money," he said. "They all look different, but there is one very special characteristic that unites all these people, and it is a very important quality: It is their sense of service. They are, if you like, our new 'nobility.'"

Over the last decade in Russia, the FSB, the modern successor to the Soviet secret police, the KGB, has been granted the role of the new elite, enjoying expanded responsibilities and immunity from public oversight or parliamentary control. The FSB's budget is not published; the total number of officers is undisclosed. But even cautious estimates suggest that the FSB employs more than 200,000 people. For ten years, Putin, a KGB and FSB veteran himself, has held power in the Kremlin as president and now prime minister. He has made the FSB the main security service in Russia, permitting it to absorb much of the former KGB and granting it the right to operate abroad, collect information, and carry out special operations.

When Putin was elected president, in 2000, the Russian secret services were in an extremely difficult position. They had been left behind in the mad rush to market reforms and democracy of the 1990s, and their ranks had thinned due to the lure of big money in Russia's new capitalist economy. Those who remained faced daunting and dispiriting new challenges: the festering war in Chechnya and the resulting rise of terrorism in Moscow and other cities far from the Chechen battlefield. FSB officers faced pressures of corruption that far exceeded those of Soviet times. The organization also suffered from deep public distrust, a legacy of both the repression carried out by the Soviet KGB and the chaotic first decade of Russia's post-Soviet experience.

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