The Chicago Tribune’s ace Russia correspondent Alex Rodriguez reports on Vladimir Putin’s shameless, Stalin-like paranoia and tactics in dealing with dissent:
The spy was only 20, a soft-spoken college student with a pouty smile and a double life. She had 40 agents working for her and dossiers piling up on her home computer. She revved up recruits with talk of an enemy bent on government overthrow. Anna Bukovskaya’s band of young spies stalked about western Russia like Cold War operatives, infiltrating the enemy, jotting down names and numbers, and at times using hidden cameras to secretly film targets.The fruits of her network’s espionage were eventually relayed to the Russian government, Bukovskaya says. And the enemy? They were young Russians just like Bukovskaya, though young Russians belonging to youth groupscritical of the Kremlin and Russian authorities.
It all was very seamy, Bukovskaya says, and ultimately too much for her conscience to bear.
”I’m very sorry I took part in this,” says Bukovskaya, her hands clasped on the table of a noisy cafe in downtown St. Petersburg. “The government is exploiting young, impressionable minds — controlling them and tempting them with money. It’s not very nice.”
For about a year, Bukovskaya helped lead a network of young Russians who were paid to spy on several opposition movements, including the youth organizations Oborona and Youth Yabloko along with former chess champion Garry Kasparov’s group, the United Civil Front. The spying gave Russian authorities advance notice of opposition rallies as well as information about where members lived, studied and worked.
One of Bukovskaya’s spies filed reports on Oborona leader Sergei Razlivsky’s visits to St. Petersburg bookstores. “He had to report what books I bought,” Razlivsky says, chuckling.
Though the Soviet era is tucked away in history books, Russia still grapples with a culture of surveillance it has never been able to fully jettison. That’s no surprise in a country where the successor agency to the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB), has attained unrivaled political power.
Russia’s previous president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, cut his teeth as a KGB spy. Russian experts estimate that up to 78 percent of the country’s leading political figures at one time worked for bodies affiliated with either the KGB or FSB.
Today, the most probed and scrutinized segment of Russian society is its opposition movement.
Far from influential players, opposition groups operate on the fringes of Russia’s political landscape. Russia’s state-controlled television networks ignore them, and much of the population dismisses them as powerless and obsolete.And yet, the Russian state under Putin has never freed itself from the gnawing worry that an opposition movement could one day get traction.
For years, the Kremlin has been especially wary of youth movements that could spawn the kind of uprisings that toppled pro-Moscow governments in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.
One way it fought back was to engineer its own brand of youth group. With names like Nashi, the Russian word for “Ours,” and Young Guard, they’re aggressive, amply funded and guaranteed a spotlight from Russian media.
Bukovskaya was 17 when she joined Nashi, though she never really latched onto the ideology. “I liked the people there,” she says, “so I stayed.”
About a year ago, Nashi colleague Dmitry Golubyatnikov said he was organizing a group of young Russians to spy on youth opposition groups, and wanted Bukovskaya to be his second-in-command, Bukovskaya says.
The group funneled everything it gathered to a Russian governmental body called the State Committee for Youth, and its head, former Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko, Bukovskaya says. Yakemenko would then send the reports on to Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s first deputy chief of staff and a longtime Kremlin strategist, she says.
Neither the Kremlin nor Yakemenko answered requests for an interview.
Bukovskaya’s first task was to find spies. In almost every case, the recruits were cash-strapped college students desperate for the paycheck, about $570 a month. The network operated all over western Russia, from St. Petersburg to Moscow and to small provincial capitals like Kaluga, Tver, Ivanovo, and Voronezh.
”I told them the opposition was bad, it could harm our government or overthrow it,” Bukovskaya says. “It’s hard to repeat it now when you don’t believe it anymore.”
Bukovskaya’s own paycheck was $857 a month. She kept each spy’s work logged in a spreadsheet, honed psychological profiles of opposition leaders and pored over field reports before sending them on to Golubyatnikov. Those reports laid bare each opposition group’s inner workings.
Not content with being a handler, Bukovskaya became a spy herself, convincing Youth Yabloko’s branch in St. Petersburg that she was finished with Nashi and wanted to defect. “I made friends there straightaway,” Bukovskaya says. “Soon, I realized the opposition wasn’t as bad as they said it was.”
This winter, Bukovskaya’s cover was blown. While visiting someone else’s apartment, she forgot to log off her e-mail browser. Word of the spy network leaked out to Oborona leaders, who called Bukovskaya into their office in February for an explanation.
”We asked her to lay it all out in writing,” Razlivsky says. “She said, ‘all right,’ sat down at this computer and wrote it all down.”
”What upset me the most,” Razlivsky adds, “was the scope of the network. … They say we are building a civilized society here, but in reality they are preventing it from happening.”
Bukovskaya says she would like to remain in Youth Yabloko and hopes one day they’ll give her a second chance. “I’m happy it all got revealed,” she says, “and I’m glad that I remain frank and fair about all this, especially with myself. But I am worried that this could damage my future.”
Bukovskaya says she knows which direction she wants her career to take. She wants a job in government.