In This Review

Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB's Successors

Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB's Successors
By Amy Knight
318 pp, Princeton University Press, 1996

After a curious beginning in which the author, relying on a number of dubious sources and her own labored speculations, accuses Mikhail Gorbachev of having plotted the August 1991 putsch and Boris Yeltsin of knowingly overdrawing the danger of a military crackdown, Knight settles down to a detailed account of the former KGB's evolving role in the new Russia. Because the old KGB was a mighty empire -- the equivalent of the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Border Patrol, and Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms rolled into one -- dealing with its many heirs, now separate agencies, represents a formidable task. Knight, a longtime student of the Soviet security police, meets it ably.

She has much to say about the quasi-military forces that provide secret service protection for government officials, including Yeltsin, and about the foreign intelligence arm that Yevgeny Primakov headed until he replaced Andrei Kozyrev as foreign minister. The Federal Counterintelligence Service, however, repository of the KGB's once formidable mechanism for domestic surveillance and repression, gets most of Knight's attention. In a weakly institutionalized environment, with inadequate oversight and rudimentary legal constraints, in her telling, it remains too large for comfort (twice the size of the FBI, even if the vast cuts projected in 1995 go through) and too unreconstructed. It also remains too tempting a tool of power for politicians, Yeltsin included. The best parts of the book guide the reader through the intrigues of Yeltsin and his opponents as they strained, usually with only partial success, to co-opt this bureaucracy for their own purposes. This is not a report saying how well Russia's national leaders and parliamentarians are doing in taming the KGB and turning it into a normal, efficient, carefully circumscribed national intelligence service.