Baku, May 18 – Many Russians have long believed that the Cheka and its successor security agencies were, in the words of Academician Andrei Sakharov, “almost the only force in the USSR untouched by corruption.” But in fact, they were deeply corrupt, a quality that allowed them to exploit the enormous opportunities for enrichment after the fall of communism.
In articles in the last two issues of “Argumenty nedeli,” Stanislav Lekaryev traces both the corruption that was endemic in the Soviet agencies (www.argumenti.ru/publications/6665) and some of the various ways KGB officers used that background to enrich themselves under Gorbachev and after (www.argumenti.ru/publications/6702).
In February 1919, Lekaryev reports, the Soviet government issues a special decree against corruption. Forty-four Chekists immediately fell under its provisions. One case is almost amusing: Petr Voykov, who had killed the tsar, was in turn killed by a White Russian before he could be sentenced for corruption. As a result, his crimes were ignored and he became a hero.
In the 1930s, the relationship between charges and realities was to be it mildly loose, but it is significant that in 1939 along, two-thirds of the 7372 members of the security service were dismissed for corruption. The actual number may have been greater or a little less, but even this number is indicative, Lekaryev says.
After the death of Stalin, efforts to clean up the security organs by eliminating people connected with the notorious Laverty Beria opened the way for more corruption, with senior people participating and being transferred to the republics rather than being dismissed whenever they were caught.
And by Andropov’s time, corruption within the KGB had become as widespread as in any other Soviet institution, with the differences between legal and illegal action breaking down almost entirely. Officers took bribes from those who wanted their children to get into MGIMO or other prestigious universities, who needed medical treatment or who sought scarce goods.
And then a curious but entirely expected thing happened: the KGB started to struggle against corruption, using first the 10th chief directorate and then portions of the 5th chief directorate, and those involved in that struggle quickly became corrupted themselves as they saw some of the opportunities available to them.
Andropov himself wanted to put a stop to this, Lekaryev says, but he was blocked because too many senior party officials were involved in corruption directly and because his own KGB officers felt they had not had sufficiently large pay raises and thus saw corruption as an entirely justified supplement.
Their pursuit of such funds increasingly involved them with the criminal world, a tie that positioned them to exploit the opportunities the end of the command economy brought but one that undermined their authority and thus the authority of the system they were supposed to be defending.
Corruption in the KGB became a public political issue in April 1986 when Boris Yeltsin denounced corrupt practices in the entire elite and when investigators Tillman Dyane and Nikolai Ivanovo put out information about their findings. That opened the floodgates for both partial acknowledgement of the problem and its repeated denial.
But as these verbal pyrotechnics were going on, close observers noted that the KGB had lessened the pressure it had been applying to criminal groups. The reason for that is the decision of KGB officers and senior officials to use these groups to enrich themselves, moving money around and even making money in the new situation.
A new category of people from the organs was created, Lekaryev says, “commercial workers from the KGB.” They attached themselves to all black and gray economic groups and traded their influence for money, property and private power. In doing so, they were only copying what the party elite was doing.
Far more deeply involved in this process, Lekaryev continues, were two more powerful institutions: the International Department of the CPSU Central Committee and the Administration of Affairs of the same body. They moved money around, hid it at home, and ensured that party loyalists would control the economy even if it was privatized.
In doing so, the “Argumenty nedeli” journalist says, they used their own Special Subdivision Zet because party leaders did not trust the officers of the KGB to keep their mouths shut or not seek a cut in party funds being handled in this way.
KGB involvement in the shadow economy expanded from 1987 on. Moscow lifted restrictions on foreign trade in January 1987 opening new possibilities for corruption. In 1988, the KGB was even assigned responsibility for creating new mixed companies and set up approximately 500 of them.
As conditions deteriorated for the party and Soviet state in 1991, the KGB became more actively involved in concealing and using party funds, a process that led to 1746 mysterious suicides between August and October 1991 and the establishment of “almost as many” joint enterprises during the same period.
And the KGB set up some 600 bank accounts within the country and almost 500 abroad, Lekaryev says, but when an American detective agency provided information about this to Yegor Gaidar in 1992, the report, in which figured “about 30 prominent political figures” somehow disappeared without a trace.”
This last point helps to explain why Lekaryev’s two articles have appeared now: They are a reminder that some former KGB officers were deeply involved in corruption and that other officials have information about their involvement, an indication of the way in which conflicts between Putin who is in the first category and Medvedev in the second may play out.