Aleksandr Cherkasov: The Man in the Merry Tower
Photo of A. Cherkasov: Nikita Mouraviev

30 November 2022

by Aleksandr Cherkasov

A version of this article was previously publised by The Insider

On 21 November 2022, at the Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg, Konstantin Sholmov looked closely at an exhibit that had been on public display for many years – it was the official KGB report of the search of the home of Oleg Volkov (‘this famous case of the graffiti “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles!” 1976) – and finally made out the last name of one of the KGB officers, ‘Lt Putin,’ and, struck by this observation, shared it on Facebook. 

A spark leapt between ‘once upon a time’ and ‘today’: it turns out that our current president had ‘worked’ on the case of my friend Yuly Rybakov! 

Yuly Rybakov is a real hero: in Grozny, where after storming of the city over New Year 1994-95 he took part in negotiations to stop the firing and remove the bodies of those killed, he came under fire and lost his hearing in one ear. I wasn’t with him at the time. In Budennovsk deputy Rybakov was also a member of the ‘Kovalev group,’ first as a negotiator and then as a voluntary hostage. I was not there either – I am not a heroic person. But in March 1996 in Bamut – where the local field commander had promised to shoot five prisoners a day and something had to be done about it – we were together. And Putin’s appearance in that old Yuly Rybakov case is ‘personal’ for me.

For Ekaterina Molostovova, who is the same age as me, it’s even more ‘personal.’ The daughter of the dissident Mikhail Mikhailovich Molostov, wife of dissident Yuly Andreevich Rybakov, she asked on Facebook the ‘socially significant’ question: ‘A question to the audience – after all those who brought Putin to power – definitely knew this…) But, you know, … Tolerance, friends – after all people reform themselves, change their minds… Yuly [Rybakov] and Oleg Volkov were imprisoned in 1976. I heard my mum and dad talking about this case, but I wasn’t very interested – I was 10 years old. And they often talked about arrests… Look at the names of those who searched Oleg’s home… They missed it when [the KGB] sent it to the Museum archives.’

That’s right, they ‘missed it’ … What exactly did they ‘miss’? And what else? When? And how did it happen? A ‘sudden’ museum discovery is not a bad reason to talk and reminisce, and not just about ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ 

The Case of the Graffiti: A Poem with Heroes

Let’s turn to the restrained style of the main publication of Soviet dissidents – The ‘Case of the Graffiti’ deserves it:

Chronicle of Current Events, issue 42, section Arrests, Searches, Interrogations. Slogans in Leningrad: 

On 6 April, the day Tverdokhlebov’s trial was due to take place but didn’t (CCE #40), three trams left the tramway park with graffiti on their sides: ‘Freedom to political prisoners!’, ‘Freedom to Andrei Tverdokhlebov!’

On 7 April, similar inscriptions appeared on the walls of the Conservatory and the Lesgaft Institute of Physical Education. Lesgaft Institute, as well as on the Vasilievsky Island headland.

On 4 August, a huge inscription 40 metres by one metre appeared on the wall of the Peter and Paul Fortress: ‘You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles!’ The inscription was whitewashed and sandblasted, leaving a noticeable white stripe.

On 6 August, overnight, slogans appeared on the building of the Tavrichesky Palace, in the underground passage at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya Street, on the Admiralty building and on several buses. They read: ‘The USSR is a prison of nations,’ ‘The CPSU is an enemy of the people,’ ‘Down with the party’s bourgeoisie!’ On the shop window of the radio shop in Gostiny Dvor was written ‘Listen to Voice of America!’

In those days the city was flooded with Interior Ministry troops, police, KGB patrols, and paramilitary guards. To this day in Leningrad, private cars and passers-by with ‘suspicious’ packages are being selectively checked.

On 13 September, a series of searches took place in Leningrad. The search warrants said either ‘in connection with the case of anti-Soviet inscriptions’ or ‘in connection with case No. 62.’ The searches were conducted in the homes of the artists Yuly Andreevich RYBAKOV and Oleg Nikolaevich VOLKOV, the poetess Yulia OKULOVA (literary pseudonym – Yulia VOZNESENSKAYA), her friend Natalia LESNICHENKO and two other people […] Nothing related to the graffiti was found in any of their homes.

After the searches, RYBAKOV, VOLKOV, OKULOVA and LESNICHENKO were arrested.

A man who introduced himself as the deputy head of the Leningrad KGB came to Okulova’s cell. He proposed she take the blame for the slogans and say she was the one who had written them. He promised her that, if she did, there would be a show trial like that of MARAMZIN (CCE #35), after which she would be released and allowed to go abroad. OKULOVA refused. […] Yulia Okulova did not give any testimony. Three days later she was released from custody under travel restrictions. She also signed a non-disclosure agreement with regard to the investigation. […]

At one of her interrogations, Natalya LESNICHENKO was shown a note from RYBAKOV, in which it was stated that he had written the graffiti. […] As the case with OKULOVA, three days after LESNICHENKO had been remanded in custody she was released under travel restrictions. She was also required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. 

RYBAKOV and VOLKOV were told during their interrogations that if they confessed, OKULOVA and LESNICHENKO would be released. 

RYBAKOV testified that he had done all the graffiti himself […] He told where they had thrown the paint cans.

VOLKOV also said he was responsible for all the graffiti. […] 

YURY RYBAKOV (b.1946) has participated in many exhibitions of independent artists, in particular the one that took place near the Catholic Church about 10 years ago. Several artists set up their easels in the street and began to draw. The police moved them away. Yuly’s father, the actor and poet Andrei Nikolaevich RYBAKOV, had been imprisoned in the 1940s – Yuly was born in a camp. […] 

Chronicle of Current Events, Issue No. 45, The trial of VOLKOV and RYBAKOV

[…] At least 60 people were interrogated in the case of the graffiti. […]

On 14 March 1977 in the people’s court in Leningrad’s Vasileostrovsky district the trial began of Yu. RYBAKOV and O. VOLKOV. All comers were admitted to the court, even foreign correspondents. The judge asked that those present not take notes but in practice turned a blind eye to notes being taken. […]

Each of the defendants claimed full responsibility. […]

On 19 March the court handed down a verdict: RYBAKOV was given six years in an enhanced regime prison camp, VOLKOV was given seven years in a strict regime prison camp […]

On 20 March Leningradskaya Pravda published an article entitled ‘Daubers’.

If one departs from the style of the Chronicle, then what we have is something approaching an action movie, a thriller, a TV series. The story is thrilling: those concerned were so successful in running rings round the St. Petersburg law enforcement agencies that today’s ‘dissenters’ can only envy them! 

Everyone probably knows about the graffiti on the Peter and Paul Fortress, but the action on the trams remains underestimated. Imagine this: the tram leaves its depot in the morning with a slogan written on its side and travels around town… And when the driver is finally informed that he is carrying out propaganda against the Soviet Union, he can’t just turn around and go straight back to the depot – he’s driving a tram. He gets nervous and starts ringing his bell, of course, and in that way draws even more attention to the slogans. This is no longer an installation, but a performance of sorts!

What motivated our heroes? Yuly Andreevich Rybakov says it all started when the St. Petersburg Chekists began keeping a close eye on St. Petersburg artists. So closely, in fact, that the studio of one of them somehow very suspiciously burned down. Along with its occupant. This put others ‘on the warpath,’ with brushes and rollers. 

But even after the searches, after the arrests, the Chekists did not get the evidence or testimony they needed. They needed to please their bosses by reporting on an open trial, as in the ‘Maramzin case’ mentioned above (about which – more below), where a good show was put on in the court with a confession and repentance by the defendant. But those arrested in the ‘graffiti case’ showed no such intention to repent. Then Volkov and Rybakov ‘were made an offer impossible to refuse’: if they agreed to confess, then repeat their confessions at the trial, and then go to the camp, in exchange the KGB would release Okulova and Lesnichenko. 

The two knights said ‘yes,’ agreed to take everything ‘upon themselves,’ and go ‘to cut timber’ in a camp. And the Chekists kept their promises…or almost did. Yulia Okulova-Voznesenskaya was given five years in exile: during the search of her home a great deal of various samizdat was found (Yuly Rybakov was later told by Voznesenskaya that Vladimir Putin had also been involved in that search). And then Voznesenskaya escaped from her place of exile to witness the trial of Volkov and Rybakov. And for that she was sent to a camp.

This story gives a slightly different, unaccustomed timescale to the era of ‘stagnation.’ It was a period about which for twenty years the public has insistently been invited to judge by simulacra such as the endlessly repeated Irony of Fate. Just think: the play, once written to be staged in provincial theatres (it can even be put on in a club – you just need a bed, a table laid with food and a set of shelves for the apartment ‘wall’!), for generations became more real than reality! 

But here is no picture gallery of flat characters: there is something of the ancient classical epic in the ‘case of the graffiti.’ There is something too simple here for those who like to speculate about things ‘not being straightforward.’ There is a black-and-white division between nobility and meanness. And there is the lazy Evil one, who does not even try to find and imprison all those involved, and for whom the most important thing is to get the right reports written up for the pleasure of his hellish superiors.

The participation of the 23-year-old Vladimir Putin in the ‘case of the graffiti’ has once again drawn attention to the first place of work of this individual. Although it would seem that there is nothing new here – the KGB is the KGB! However, this aspect of his service has never been advertised: allegedly he worked ‘in the field of counter-intelligence.’ Could it be merely a matter of chance? 

But Yuly Rybakov’s testimony is not the only one.

Against God, the Crown and Peacefulness

Three years ago, yet another knight died in Jerusalem – Mikhail Ruvimovich Heifetz. Just like Rybakov, he was a legend of a man. That’s also probably the reason that he’s just as unknown and underappreciated in our time. Although, reader, you doubtless know him… or rather, you know the literary character he created. 

Heifetz was also from St Petersburg. He worked first as a language teacher, before becoming a writer. In The Deaf Leaf Times, the literary series ‘The Fiery Revolutionaries’ was in high demand not only among readers with a thirst for knowledge, but also among authors with something to say, because it spoke about the Resistance.

And then, in the early seventies, there appeared an underground anthology poetry by Josef Brodsky, who had recently left the country. That story is also fantastical in many senses of the word. 

Firstly, there was the way that all those sheets came together to form folders and volumes in the hands of Vladimir Maramzin – sheets from which the master had read aloud and then lavishly scattered around various friends’ homes…

And then, the way those nagging suspicions that others had cast out of their mind gradually became clearer to see: ‘We had a genius living right next to us!’ 

Then, the KGB’s fruitless hunt for the anthology, for the volumes that it would seem were printed in five editions. The anthology got to the border, and then across it. And the works took on a life beyond that of their author. A life managed from an office.

Mikhail Heifetz’s only contribution to this anthology was a preface, which he wrote at the request of the compiler. But it didn’t ‘fit’ with the overall tone. This was particularly noted in a review by Efim Etkind – no small fish. The KGB then put a target on his back: he would be perfect for a quick show trial, a confession, a public repentance – perfect for the report! The ‘means of persuasion’ would be his daughter Masha, who had passed Heifetz’s preface onto Efim Grigorievich. Masha Etkind could be charged under Article 70 for ‘dissemination,’ and her fate could then be used to blackmail her father. For this, they needed Mikhail Heifetz’s testimony. But he understood what was happening and went into a state of deaf-eared ‘unconsciousness’ and took the fall himself. He was consequently sentenced to four years in a prison camp and two years in exile.

It’s also an ‘epic with heroes’ – the subject matter lends itself to a novel or a TV series! Besides, Evgeny Zakharod has already collected and published a book about the whole affair, entitled The History of One Political Prosecution (and at the same time published ‘almost all of Heifetz’s oeuvre’). 

In the Mordavian camps, this St Petersburg Jewish intellectual makes friends with a motley crew of ‘interesting’ people – the Soviet authorities really knew how to select and gather them there. Heifetz pens, inter alia, Ukrainian silhouettes – perhaps the best book about these heroes of the post-war Resistance.

But let’s return to 1974, to the trial. You may already be familiar with the transcripts of some of the interrogations, if you have already leafed through Boris Strugatsky’s tale The Search for Destiny, or the Twenty-Seventh Theorem of Ethics (which he wrote under the pseudonym S. Vititsky). Boris Natanovich, who was a friend of Michael Efimovich, as well as his wife Adelaide, were then caught up in the investigation – and there was no getting out of it … What the world saw of this communication between the Strugatskys and the KGB took the form of books: the above-mentioned Searches…, in which Heifetz became Senya Mirlin; and the story ‘A Billion Years Before the End of the World,’ published at the end of the 1970s, which the Strugatskys wrote, again, in 1974, and succeeded in getting published two years later. A ‘homeostatic universe’ is not a bad metaphor, but behind the science fiction there was hidden a harsh reality, and the investigator in the book is copied from the one who actually interrogated Boris Strugatsky. And in 1975 they finally gave up hope of getting The Doomed City published, a novel which was the pinnacle of the Strugatskys’ writing and one they had been working on since 1967. In The Doomed City Mikhail Heifetz was the prototype of what was probably the most striking character, who in the first drafts of the manuscript had the name, without any frills, of Semya Heifetz. We now know him as Izya Katsman.  

Well, a few years ago Mikhail Ruvimovich recalled in conversation that during his interrogations a very young Putin used to sit ‘somewhere to the side, like a trainee.’ In a conversation with The Insider, Heifetz recalled more about this:

At one of the interrogations, a young man entered the office of my interrogator, V. Karabanov, and silently gave him some paper of other. Karabanov nodded, and the young man just sat down in a corner, listening attentively to everything. That was all. I would never have remembered him in my life, but I had met him before. My wife is a music teacher and she had a favourite adult student, her name was Natasha Zueva, and several times I happened to see her walking along our Cosmonauts Street arm in arm with some young man. I liked the girl, and, of course, I was interested to know who she was going out with, who was her chosen one (we, teachers, have a special weakness for our favourite students). And then it was him that I saw in the investigator’s office – and I was upset: ‘Natasha has chosen a KGB man!’ Many years passed, and suddenly on the TV screen I saw the new Russian prime minister. I look, and see a familiar face. Where had I seen him before? I started remembering – and remembered.’

The painting ‘Vladimir Putin interrogates Izya Katsman,’ oil on canvas…

Whether the young Don Reba was present at the interrogations of Boris Strugatsky himself as a ‘trainee’ from the Patriotic School, no one guessed to ask in time, and now we’ll never know. But our eagle may well have been. Somewhere to the side, unnoticed. As part of his training, in preparation for future ‘exploits.’

People Without Qualities

I’ll start with a short aside: in 2010, in Yuly Rybakov’s memoirs, My Century,  a photograph was published, dated 12 March 1989, from a rally of the Democratic Union near Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad, showing the arrest of Valery Terekhov, at that time one of the leaders of the Petersburg Democratic Union Party (he gave Rybakov the photo later). In the photo, the police officers are being commanded by an overseer, someone with an inconspicuous but familiar face. According to the official version of history, ‘Volodya-Stazi’ worked in counterintelligence all his life and was in the GDR in the 1980s.

Andrei Reznikov, another Petersburg dissident, saw the photo in Yuly Andreevich’s book and recognized the ‘inconspicuous face’ immediately. Andrei had an adventurous second half of the 1970s due to his participation in a left-wing youth organization, along with Arkady Tsurkov and Aleksandr Skobov. Together, they organized a commune, created samizdat (the magazines Unity and Perspective), and attempted to hold an inter-city conference of like-minded individuals and organize demonstrations.

Andrei Reznikov told the historian Andrei Rublev about one such attempt (Alternatives 2/2012): “…the demonstration [in front of Kazan Cathedral] was in December, the anniversary of the Decembrist uprising, 14 December 1978. Beforehand, all alleged participants were ‘taken out’, so to speak. And, by the way, as part of this ‘taking out’ under all sorts of pretexts (such as ‘hooliganism’) I was detained by, as I understand it, the current Prime Minister of Russia.”

Rublev: Are you sure it was him? You were detained at this demonstration?

Reznikov: No, they picked people up preventively. The day before the demonstration, I went out to get some bread. Suddenly some woman started screaming, “He’s hitting me!” People jumped me, started beating me, threw me to the ground. Later on I saw the picture where I recognized him – he was just a little guy back then. I can say with some certainty, a fair amount of certainty. And later on he himself admitted, in various interviews, that he had been one of the team that had quelled this demonstration on the anniversary of the Decembrist revolt. You’re better off reading the story about the demonstration of December 1978 in Putin’s memoir. As I remember it, he wrote something like this: When the KGB found out about the demonstration, they organized a solemn wreath-laying ceremony by foreign ambassadors on that day at a monument. The square was cordoned off, the ambassadors laid the flowers, and no one was allowed behind the cordon. These are precisely the methods used to prevent marches today…

When Putin was there, they arrested people without any real problems, cleanly and smoothly. But when Putin wasn’t there – the second time – it was a total mess. My wife and I were attacked and beaten. I fought back then using a stick, and people came running out of their houses, because it was late, it was in the evening. People wanted to help, and my wife started yelling, ‘Help us, they’re beating us!’ People came running out to help. Then she said it was the KGB, and everyone left immediately.

The second provocation, the one ‘without Putin,’ was also arranged not any old how, purposefully, with intent. Skobov had already been sent to the ‘asylum,’ but Tsurkov was going to be jailed for real, under Article 70 of the then Criminal Code (‘anti-Soviet propaganda’). And right on the eve of the trial, which took place on 3-6 April 1979, Andrei was set up in another street provocation and locked up in a police cell. Reznikov was unable to attend his comrade’s trial, who was sentenced to six years in a camp and three years in exile:

Current Events Chronicle, Issue 53, Trial of Tsurkov and Skobov

On the night of March 30-31[1979], Andrei REZNIKOV and his pregnant wife Irina FEDOROVA were attacked by eight men as they walked down the street. Andrei was beaten. His wife was thrown to the ground.

On 31 March Judge KOTOVICH of the Kuibyshev district People’s Court of Leningrad sentenced REZNIKOV to 10 days in jail.

Their work, the work of the KGB agents, was hardly visible.

Reznikov wasn’t imprisoned at that point, but by no means out of humanity: his friends managed to safely hide him on a geological expedition to a remote area.


This is all interesting, exciting, and amazing. But it is not the main thing. Vladimir Putin was involved in political repressions. “Yes!” they will say, ‘but that was his job.’ ‘Ich bin Soldat,’ as the saying goes.

The question, after all, is a different one: how did he, with such ‘baggage,’ get from ‘times past’ to ‘times present’? And not just him, but many of his colleagues as well.

So far as Putin is concerned, at first glance it’s all clear: no one really knew anything about him at all. A ‘man without qualities,’ he managed to get by completely unnoticed. He was able to end up in the St Petesrburg mayor’s office not by chance but simply unhindered.

But here is another name next to his in the record of a police search: Koshelev. His is a wholly different story! Pavel Konstantinovich Koshelev, a graduate of the same law department of Leningrad State University as Putin in 1974, was best known not by his own name or on account of his involvement in ‘dissident’ cases (although there were plenty of these). He was better known as ‘Pavel Nikolaevich Korshunov’ – the pseudonym under which as a KGB operative he oversaw Leningrad’s Club-81 rock-laboratory. He was promoted to be head of the KGB’s ‘fifth department’ and, according to the accepted version, retired with the rank of either colonel or lieutenant colonel. And thereafter he led an active life in politics. In 1990 Koshelev-Korshunov was elected to the Petrograd district council and became its chair. In 1991 he was appointed head of the district administration. In 1996, he was first removed by Mayor Sobchak and then reappointed to the same position by the latter’s successor, Yakovlev. From 1999 he was first deputy chair of the Culture Committee of the city administration. And all this was accompanied by a more or less active discussion of the ‘political face’ of Koshelev-Korshunov, although without any visible consequences for him.

These two KGB operatives came to our attention by chance – as a rule, they were not too ‘conspicuous’ in the reports about the investigative actions of their colleagues.

And as for investigators – indeed! – there was, for example, Viktor Vasilievich Cherkesov, who died quite recently. The cases he was in charge of included those of the Christian movements, women’s associations, ‘preventative’ (read: pressure) measures, and the cases of ‘mere dissidents’ such as Dolinin, Evdokimov, Meilakh… The last of the well-known prosecutions he headed (№ 64 under Article 64 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR – ‘treason against the Motherland’) was against the Democratic Union in St. Petersburg that began in December 1988. Viktor Cherkesov was by that time deputy head of the investigative department of the Leningrad regional KGB. At about the same time, in March 1989, a KGB operative with a familiar but forgettable face oversaw the case against Valery Terekhov. So it is possible that our ‘heroes’ worked together. 


At the beginning of 1992 when Sergei Vadimovich Stepashin, head of the Security Ministry Department for Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, was taken to Moscow and promoted, Cherkesov was appointed in his stead. At that point, your humble servant pulled together some background on him – a selection from the Chronicle and other dissident sources in which Cherkesov had been careless enough to ‘put in an appearance’ – and sent it to the Human Rights Committee of the Russian Supreme Soviet, of which the chairman was Sergei Adamovich Kovalev. I wanted to raise the question: What’s going on? But at the end of 1992, the leading staffers of the Security Ministry were due for professional development, in which the above-mentioned Supreme Soviet committee was also due to take part. I added a little more background and again sent it off to the Human Rights Committee.

Here I give myself permission to quote the note accompanying the background piece:

“FIRSTLY, CHERKESOV’s predecessor in the role of head of department was Stepashin, previously head of a militia school and known to be uninvolved in political matters; what’s worrying isn’t the appointment but specifically the replacement. 

SECONDLY …In addition to investigators, on the KGB’s side so called ‘operatives’ participated in the persecution of dissidents and furthermore they outnumbered the investigators (by around 10:1) and carried out the ‘dirtiest’ actions, which are not, however, recorded in the documents – either the official ones (minutes etc.) or the human rights ones which acted as a source in pulling together this background piece. (One operative, erroneously named as an investigator, entered one of the quoted documents by chance; moreover, there is information about his actions ‘copied from’ Rolf in the TV series Seventeen Moments in Spring: “Yes, I too had a mother but I do this on behalf of all mothers of the Reich…” albeit without similar emotion.)

Had one of these been appointed in CHERKESOV’s stead, no experts could challenge the appointment without access to KGB archives. Accordingly, without resolving the problem of ARCHIVE ACCESS and LUSTRATION, new people, implicated in acts of political repression will remain and will continue to appear in the leadership of the security agencies and other key posts.

Among them CHERKESOV is a figure who is, on the one hand, not fortuitous – we are dealing with a process not an individual instance – and on the other, as part of the process, he is neither a key figure nor the most dreadful.

The Russian Security Ministry is one of the buttresses of the current authorities. No ‘purge’ of staffers and no handover of archives has taken place; neither one nor the other will occur OF ITS OWN ACCORD. Calls of this kind once ‘stood in for’ open criticism of the regime as a whole and died out when such criticism became possible. Of course, as a result, the regime ‘as a whole’ was altered, while retaining the immunity of the punitive agencies as a basis. (Previously, the same thing happened during TWO regime changes in Georgia – when Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to power and when he was overthrown; it seems that, right up until chaos ensues, this process whereby the security agencies as a ‘circle of omnipotence’ change their boss while the boss succumbs to the temptation of using them for his own ends, while in fact becoming their slave,  – is a pattern; we are not yet as mature as Czechoslovakia [where state security was abolished and rebuilt ‘from scratch’].) The situation became entrenched with the adoption of the Law on Law-Enforcement Operations and, very recently, of the Law on Security … in relation to the CHERKESOV case we must have a clear awareness that we are BACK TO SQUARE ONE.

The second problem facing us – is a problem of COMPETENCE. KGB investigators as a rule had higher education in the law and were at least formally subordinate to the prosecutor. Unlike the ‘operatives’ whose eduction was usually limited to KGB School, they are virtually the only people in the current Security Ministry to be familiar with the law and to have practice of acting within its framework. It is far from obvious that replacing CHERKESOV with another Security Ministry operative will put a more competent and law-abiding staffer in the post. Should a non-professional ‘democrat’ be appointed, it is entirely likely that control over the security apparatus will be lost (the Murashov and Savostyanov cases). 

In specifying the issues arising in connection to CHERKESOV’s appointment, I would like to specify its context:

– people who are not from inside the system should be appointed to key positions within the Security Ministry apparatus – in other words, professionals who are not implicated in the crimes of the totalitarian regime (if professionals is understood to mean lawyers rather than Chekists);

– agency operatives involved in acts of political repression should not serve in offices of state, even outside the Security Ministry system;

– in particular, in order that this process occurs within the framework of the law, appropriate laws must be adopted and the problem of the KGB archives solved;

– it is a profoundly hopeless matter.” 

The reader may gauge the author’s naivety… It goes without saying that neither this, nor any other background note, has had any effect: we couldn’t even win over our own friends and colleagues.


The logic of our comrades, our opponents – the ones who made the decision not to ‘clean up’ the security apparatus – is more or less clear. 

There are people from the former ‘organs,’ who are now the backbone of the new democratic government, and there are people who are far from former Communists who, along with their comrades, have decided to crush this new democratic government. And you have to pick one of the two. Who are we fighting? Ex-KGB people? Or ‘red-brown killers’? 

Or are we now getting tangled up in lustration, in a long, meaningless, and fruitless lawsuit? The very recent experience of the “CPSU case” in the Constitutional Court – the decision was made on November 30, 1992 – unmistakably indicated this… 

This was litigation in which it wasn’t possible to use the most important source – the archives of the KGB: much changed in this regard between January and December 1992. Access was restricted due to the hasty publication in March of that year of freshly uncovered materials about KGB agents among bishops in the Russian Orthodox Church by Gleb Yakunin and Lev Ponomarev – good people, but totally lacking in strategic thinking – and in this kind of case ‘only well-prepared impromptu events succeed’…    

Or … Basically: ‘We have no majority, no united front, we’ll be destroyed by some kind of Makhnovshchina in the end. So it’s best to put it off for later…‘ Kind of like that. 

In the end, in December 1992, all those ‘from the country’s past’ who wanted to be ‘the country’s future’ were reattested in their posts and reapproved, no exceptions. A choice was made between two evils, which you could call a ‘political decision’ or a ‘principled position.’ There were, of course, many other reasons why, but the main one, even if people kept silent about it, was the spectre of Communist revenge and civil war.  According to Ekaterina Molostovova, this is exactly how her father discussed the dilemma at the Human Rights Committee, with the likes of people who had been political prisoners and dissidents, people who were from Memorial. Then, of course, he returned to those days many times, reevaluating these decisions…


There’s one important detail that the ‘explanatory note’ I took the liberty of quoting at such length did not touch on: the network of informers. This is one of the most guarded secrets under the old and new regimes, their ‘holiest of holies.’ It’s probably why many myths are born and prevail. For example, the idea that there was a huge number of them, that virtually everyone was an informer, so they could keep an eye on people. In fact, the ‘organs’ were not at all eager to overexpand the network of informers, rightly fearing a loss of control. I will leave this particular inexhaustible subject to the experts and allow myself a just couple remarks. 

Although the members of the Cheka cared a great deal – or to be more precise, they had to care – about the network of informers, about maintaining the conspiracy, about morale, etc. (an informer cannot work well when they are nervous, they’ll fail along with the operation), they did not have much respect for informers who became official ‘agents.’ They were of a different ilk. People don’t like traitors at all… well, or people are wary of them – even in these circles. And by the way, that’s why the attitude of the FSB ‘old guard’ toward Putin when he became directof of the agency was… a little ambiguous.

The rejection of any form of lustration in Russia meant, among other things, the refusal to disclose the identities of informers – under nice-sounding pretexts, of course, including the ‘protection of their rights’ and a renunciation of ‘witch hunts.’ 

And that, in fact, was also the right approach.

Firstly, people who worked in the relevant archives would often make the sensible point that the Chekists’ reporting on the network of informers by the Chekists was as mendacious as reporting done by any Soviet organisations. Take their criminal case files, for example, which contained only what they needed – just interrogation records. Nothing at all about the nightly interrogations, week after week, like a production line, and the torture (this stays in another file – the Personal File of the Prisoner!) It was said that the ‘operational files’ were the most secretive part of the Chekist records, but that doesn’t mean they were meaningful or truthful. It was said that the reports from informers were certainly doctored and full of ‘bullshit’. Those ‘handling’ the informers were no exception to the rules, either, and then of course you have human laziness. 

Secondly, there was clearly intrigue going on, but it’s actually ‘all quite complicated.’ So, let’s say someone slipped up and signed a piece of paper but didn’t turn anyone in, or later refused to co-operate and acted like a hero on the whole, but now the file has been published, his life will be determined by that piece of paper and ‘public opinion’, which hasn’t changed much since the ball at Famusov’s [a reference to Alexander Griboedov’s 1829 satiric verse play Woe from Wit – trans.]. On that point, I’m reminded of quite a few people who succumbed to weakness only to then spend their entire lives proving their loyalty to their friends and their devotion to a common cause. Well, will the thrice-denying Peter, the dispersed disciples, and the doubting Thomas now be harshly judged by the same crowd that not long ago issued the cry “Crucify!”, or by those who kept schtum all their lives? Will they pass judgment without having read their stories in full, and judge them the more harshly, the greater they desire to forget their cries and their silence? In my experience, people who have gone through their own personal hell, have generally been far more restrained when judging others’ betrayals and transgressions.  

Thirdly, the ability to read archives, and indeed any document, is no less difficult a skill than reading an X-ray. So, to just take the Chekist files as read, without studying each individual case, is, in fact, almost to be taken in by their rubbish, by their plan and their worldview. As though there’s a chance to get an apocryphal gospel not even from Judas, but from Afranius.

I could go on and make a fourth and fifth point to develop this line of argument – a Treatise on Denunciation or a Treatise on the White Coats, but there is another side to all this. 

Without disputing the above reasoning, I will note one unavoidable and very interesting consequence: the former informers ended up servile. The informer was forever ‘on the hook’ of his handler, especially if he was a prominent politician or a ‘democrat’, etc. in his new life.

Nothing stuck to [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky at all; he was like teflon. He lost his court case in which he contested the charge of being a KGB informer and came out of it just fine! But let’s imagine that yesterday’s agent isn’t a cartoon ‘liberal democrat’, but a universally respected and esteemed democrat and liberal. For such a person, exposure would mean the end of their career. 

Soviet cinema offers many examples of such relationships, from the macabre Eternal Call (where the unstable Polyp Polypovich ‘supervises’ Basilashvili-Lakhnovsky, moving on from the Tsarist Okhrana to the Nazi Abwehr), via the one-dimensional sequel about The Resident (where a former Nazi collaborator, now working for the Americans of ‘Pindostan of the US-USA, fatalistically answers the main character Zhzhenov, “Okay, said Makei…”), all the way to The Twelve Chairs (where Ostap blackmails Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov over his past, demanding “a host of minor services” from him). And this film, unlike The Irony of Fate, is quite lifelike! 

But then, the old ‘handlers’ are nobodies now (like Tikhiy from Bulgakov’s Flight in the film adaptation by Alov and Naumov); they are just useful lackeys… 

You might call this kind of relationship ‘toxic’. Or, in the end, you might quote not our big screen, but the film ‘Casablanca’: “I think this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship!


In 1992, it was scarcely possible to imagine where Russia would be in thirty years. Well, you could have imagined it, but not believed it. We’re living in some sort of alternate reality now.

Thirty years earlier, in 1962, Philip Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle was published, one of the first (as usual with Dick!) and most popular novels in the ‘alternative history’ genre. It describes a world in which the Axis countries won World War II. This happened for a reason, of course; it was caused by a chain of events, when chance or someone’s choice made this other, unimaginable reality possible.

Returning to the question posed by Ekaterina Molostovova, one might answer, No, they did not “miss it”. “Did they know about it?..” Well, everyone had their own [business to attend to]. But some, my comrades, chose ‘the lesser evil’, and others, a ‘wonderful friendship’. I, meanwhile, stuck to debate, writing references, and talking. Perhaps this was one of the ‘forks in the road’, choices, or points of no return that determined the future history of my country.

The big war was still thirty years away…

Translated by Simon Cosgrove, Judith Fagelson, Nina dePalma, Melanie Moore and Lindsay Munford

You can read the full text in Russian here:

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