Launch events in London for ‘The Vory’

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 14.09So, although alas it will be be weeks before I get to see the final version myself, the advance copies of my new book, The Vory: Russia’s super mafia (Yale University Press) are here, and the count-down to its release begins. It will be published on 10 April in the UK, and 22 May in the US. Meanwhile, I just wanted to flag up some launch events in London next month.

The actual launch will be at Pushkin House at 7pm on Monday 16 April, at which I’ll be talking about the writing of the book and, especially, the historical and cultural evolution of this organised crime subculture, and how far it has come to permeate Russia today.

Then, at Waterstones Gower Street on 6:30pm on Tuesday 17 April I’ll be in conversation with Matt Potter, author of the excellent Outlaws, Inc. (on Russian arms-and-everything-else air smugglers) on gangsters, Russia, and writing about these shadowy topics. Note that the price of a ticket includes a copy of The Vory and a drink – a bargain!

There will then be a closed session at Chatham House on Wednesday 18 April, which will soon be up on their events schedule, discussing the current Russian organised crime situation. I’ll update with a link when it is available.

For those of you in the States, I would also parenthetically mention that I’ll be giving a book talk at the NYU Jordan Centre on the Advanced Study of Russia at 12:30 on 4 April, and another talk on Russian organised crime at Colgate University on 2 April at 4:30pm.

Beyond that, there are one or two other possibilities still under discussion, and again I will update this post if, as, and when they firm up. You can also keep up to date by following me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) or on my Facebook page Mark Galeotti on Russia.


Corbyn. Neither Philby nor Fool


The Sun. Really, what else can I say?

I am old enough, alas, to have been active and adult when the original Cold War was still on, and I have retained my childhood (but hopefully not – always – childish) interest in intelligence matters. As such, as few thoughts on the current hullabaloo about Jeremy Corbyn and the Czechoslovak StB spy who met him in 1986-87.

Is there any evidence Corbyn gave secrets, let alone sold them? No. Even the unfrocked StB case officer who met him, Jan Sarkocy (‘Jan Dymic’), who initially claimed so, has retracted that allegation, and the Czech Security Forces Archive, whose job is precisely to dig into the StB’s files to find the truth on such matters says there is nothing to suggest this. Its Slovak counterpart agrees.

Was Corbyn naïve to meet with ‘Dymic’? Probably. Or rather, I wouldn’t be surprised if he naively took at face value what ‘Dymic’ said he wanted to discuss; there was (and still is) a depressingly uncritical assumption on the part of many in the British left that the USSR embodied any of their values, rather than just being a slipshod authoritarianism wrapped in an increasingly tattered red flag. However, ‘Dymic’ was an accredited diplomat who had reached out to Corbyn, so why not meet with him? So long as there was a Czechoslovak embassy in the UK, so long as the Foreign Office held meetings, why shouldn’t an MP?

Was ‘Dymic’ naïve to meet with Corbyn. Probably. If his goal was to uncover British MI5 and MI6 secrets, as seems to have been the case, quite what did he think a relatively junior lefty Labour MP knew, let alone would say? Corbyn’s warm views on the IRA alone – itself enough to get MI5 watching him – precluded him from being brought into any confidential discussions. But that probably didn’t matter. Spies, especially Eastern bloc spies, had quotas to fill, needed to show they were active (while enjoying a relatively plum, comfortable posting – most spent as much time shopping for goodies to bring back home and sell as grooming sources). Corbyn (‘Cob’ – there’s an impenetrable codename for you, that tells you something about Sarkocy’s tradecraft) was likely written up in much more glowing and encouraging terms that reality would dictate (Sarkocy does seem to have form as a fabulist). This is spycraft to fulfil the Plan, and every bit as tokenistic, half-hearted and inefficient as the rest of the Soviet planned model.

We meet spies all the time. If you’re active in politics, in strategic sectors of business or the media, or study the ‘right’ things, then you become of interest, and people will want to meet you, to see if you’re a viable candidate for recruitment, to see if you know anything (or anyone) or interest. Sometimes they are in time-honoured guises, as solicitous second secretary politicals eager to buy you lunch and ask you about your views on the world, but they could as easily take the form of journalists, potential customers, or attractive young grad students flatteringly enthused by your research. Sometimes you know in advance what’s likely what. Sometimes it soon becomes clear. Sometimes you never know. But to suggest Corbyn was uniquely naïve or vulnerable is downright wrong.

Frankly, I am worried not about past clumsy attempts at contact in a world long since gone, but the new generation of recruitment, smartly-suited businesspeople making all the right connections in British political, business and social circles, some of whom may be Russians, others simply handling Russian money. A pillar of the community is much more likely, knowingly or not, to make a great human intelligence asset and agent of influence than an avowed Bolshie outsider.




A Few Thoughts on the ‘Troll Farm’ Indictment

The first takes on the Mueller-team indictment of the Internet Research Agency ‘troll farm’ have, perhaps predictably, reflected as much about the interests, goals and predilections of the authors as anything else. To Trump and his cohorts, it “proves” no collusion, because the text describes Russians pretending to be Americans in their contacts. To those still hoping for impeachment, it is “proof” that Putin stole the presidential elections for Trump. Of course, the truth is at neither end of the spectrum.

This is just one indictment. It is the start of the process, not likely the end. There is no point saying “is that all they have?” when it is patently clear that it is not.

None of this should come as a surprise. We’ve known about the Internet Research Agency since it was reported in Novaya gazeta in 2013. We’ve known about the twitter and other social media hacking. We’ve know… You get the message. This is not about “putting Russia on notice” nor about some revelation about which we should pretend to be shocked. This is the tradecraft of modern information war, and a certain amount of modern advertising too, for that matter. It is rather, I would presume, about demonstrating that the Mueller investigation is ongoing and, above all, that…

This is a political – with a small p – statement. None of these Russians are likely ever to see the inside of a US courtroom, and the apparent bankroller, Evgeni Prigozhin, is already on the US sanctions list. This is not about a trial, it is about laying down a marker to the effect that the Mueller team believes there is evidence of a Russian attempt to influence the elections.

This is about crime rather than politics. Of course it is deeply political, but the remit of the Mueller investigation is not about whether the Russians were naughty, immoral, or whatever (for a start, please don’t try and tell me that none of these techniques are also known to and used by Western intelligence services in some of their missions), but whether crimes were committed under US law. The effort to prove that they were is perhaps the single most important element of this indictment.

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. There seems a widespread willingness to accept the indictment as somehow proof (and we have also seen that about statements from typically anonymous intelligence sources). It is not. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe the broad thrust, that Russia did try to influence the elections, but unless and until there is proof, we ought to be cautious, especially in accepting the detailed elements of the indictment. (I write this knowing that now elements such as “$1.25 million per month were spent on hacking the US elections” will be reported ad nauseam as demonstrated fact. Such is the modern media environment.*)

*And by the way, even the indictment says that money was spent on a project with “multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” So from this, we don’t know if a million dollars or a hundred were being spent on messing with America.

Mueller is working with covert and/or inside sources. This ought to have been pretty obvious, but the indictment makes this much clearer. A great deal of the detail within it can be gathered through normal means, given that so much of the activities cited left fingerprints within US jurisdiction, from visa applications to setting up fake accounts. However, there are elements, especially when asserting what the IRA and its people themselves described as their roles, which I cannot see how they would be able to state in an indictment without such non-regular sources.


‘The Death of Stalin’ – arguably all the more accurate and honest for not pretending to be either

DeathOfStalinA few people have asked me to give my take on the film The Death of Stalin, so here are my thoughts, in no great depth or particular order. First of all, at its most basic, I thought it a very good film, extremely funny, but even darker in its humour than I had anticipated. Jason Isaacs is a wonderful genially thuggish Zhukov, but the real star, if that’s the appropriate term, was Simon Russel Beale’s mesmerizingly ruthless Beria who is also, in a way, one of the most honest figures around. The corrupting influence of terror is evident throughout. Frankly, it takes someone like Armando Ianucci, whose humour so often is based on tiptoeing up to the limits of taste and then deliberately stepping over that line, to write this.

Of course, it is not a biopic and doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. The timeline is compressed to fit months of scheming into a week or so leading up to and right after Stalin’s funeral. Stalin’s daughter was not whisked out afterwards by Khrushchev. And so on: there are all kinds of concessions made in the name of the story. Personally, though, I don’t think that is at all a problem: quite the opposite. First of all, and this is something Simon Jenkins has recently written about in the Guardian, much pseudo-historical film is really just as much in the myth-making business, simply with more pretension and less honesty. He especially talks about All the Money in the World, based on the kidnap of John Paul Getty III, Darkest Hour on Churchill, and The Crown on Queen Elizabeth II, but there are so many more examples. However much we – rightly – decry the new bombastically nationalist and propagandistic turn in Russian film making with such ‘epics’ as Crimea (Romeo-and-Juliet-meets-annexation) and Panfilov’s 28 (fictional-Soviet-diehards-hold-off-nasty-Nazis) – let us not forget the extent to which American audiences have for generations been told how they pretty much won WW2 by themselves, Brits have been fed a sugar-coated image of ‘Blitz spirit’, and so forth. Fictionalising history is more honest: it makes no claims to an accuracy very few films really embody.


“”Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.”

But also I felt that through the fiction, The Death of Stalin did a first-rate job of conveying the macabre spirit, the feel of the times. The terrified paranoia, the constant scheming, the degree to which everyone was vulnerable, the easy re-invention of history. One of the of the brilliant aspects of the film’s Beria is precisely the way he uses yet also mocks the self-justificatory compromises of the others. He is a ruthless cynic and knows it, owns it; the others are (while less personally repugnant) willing to work within that system , all the while pretending to some higher moral or political cause. There is an interesting moment when Svetlana, assailed on all sides by politicians trying to use her for their own purposes, asks Beria why she should trust him, and he says she shouldn’t, that she should ‘trust nobody” – but adds that she should remember that at least he told her that. Maybe this is the highest level of honour in such a toxic environment…

It’s macabre, sometimes a little slapstick, always sharply written and observed – very well worth watching. And roll on the day Ianucci writes the film of the Putin years…


Book Review: Open Participatory Security, by Jesse Paul Lehrke

9781538105290Open Participatory Security: unifying technology, citizens and the state by Jesse Paul Lehrke. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

According to Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “No society is strong if it is not […] an open society, a participatory society.” Fair enough, although as usual with statements emanating from the EEAS, it is hard to see any sharp-edges of policy behind the billowing clouds of comfortable rhetoric. This is one of the problems; especially in the age of so-called, if much-misunderstood ‘hybrid war’ – which I could characterise as political warfare fought in the field of governance, with the aim of reducing the enemy’s capacity or will to resist – then the need to defend ourselves on a societal level is evident.

At the same time, though, experts want to retain their arcane authority, the military still want their tanks and missiles, and too often the debate gets rendered down into banal platitudes about not listening to ‘fake news’ and having good online passwords. In this respect, ‘participation’ becomes a call for citizens to do their duty, as defined by the experts and the government, not really engagement, and hardly especially ‘open.’

In his Open Participatory Security: unifying technology, citizens and the state, Dr Jesse Paul Lehrke of the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für öffentliche Verwaltung (you can also follow him on twitter here), starts from the usual empty language of participation, and has written an imaginative, even daring book about just what security means in a future of global communications, multiple threats, and weak political ties. To put it another way, how security can be furthered not thanks to, but in spite of those aged, hide-bound, elephantine beasts we call states.

This is in part a cybersecurity question, or at least many of the basic premises emerge from the cybersecurity debate, but what makes this book important is the points it makes about taking those lessons and applying them to wider questions of security. About gamifying security awareness within the population, about democratising information gathering, about emphasising the transitory and uncertain nature of security. In other words, that no security is guaranteed, and that it will always be in what technical types call a ‘perpetual beta’ state – in other words, always being revised and improved as new threats and fixes emerge.


Here’s a diagram inexpertly snapped from the book that neatly encapsulates his thesis, that we face a world of complex insecurity, marked by a lack of trust and also constant technological but also methodological innovation. The response is not trust in the state itself, so much as that this is a by-product of a series of necessary responses including, and this is crucial, the state’s trust in society. That is, in my opinion, a crucial point; in many ways the complexity of the modern threat picture has led to a pernicious combination of the sort of vaporous platitudes Ms Mogherini deploys along with a retreat, behind that smokescreen, of security into the hands of political, technical and intellectual elites. And that’s bad for society, and bad for security.

This is not always the easiest read, although Lehrke does a commendable job of tempering it with humour, but it is an important one. As with recent initiatives such as the Prague Insecurity Conference, there is something of a backlash against the securitised and secretised consensus that sees security as too important to leave in the hands of outsiders, and this is an important step forward in crafting a new concept of security – imperfect, unstable, democratic – for the emerging world.


A Purely Personal ‘Best of 2017’ on Russia

new-year-400-e1419387976106Monstrously egotistical, I know, (though this is my blog, after all!), but here are the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 about which I am happiest, for various reasons:



Russia has no grand plans, but lots of ‘adhocrats’, in Intellinews Business New Europe, 18 January. I enjoy writing my ‘Stolypin’ column for BNE for all sorts of reasons, not least the chance it gives me sometimes to play around with my emerging ideas about how Russia works. In this one, I explored how it could be considered “a pluralistic authoritarianism, in which a variety of ‘adhocrats’ seek fame and fortune by finding their own ways of playing to Putin’s broad vision for the future. Sometimes that can lead to disaster, sometimes unexpected success.”

Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe, a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, 18 April. Beyond being happy with the title, as a paper bringing together Russia, gangsters, and spooks, how could this not have been a fun one to write?

Russia’s Nationalists: Putin’s Critical Children, co-written with Anna Arutunyan, published in English by the Henry Jackson Society, June. This is cheating, in a way, as this was originally published by RFE/RL in Russian in 2016, but since it only came out in English in 2017, I’m allowing it. Especially now that Igor Girkin, the infamous ‘Strelkov’ is increasingly open about his disenchantment with Putin, it is worth revisiting the nationalist critique of the Kremlin, the extent to which embezzlement, corruption, and inefficiency can all be attacked from a right-patriotic perspective, too.

The ‘Trump Dossier,’ or How Russia Helped America Break Itself in The Tablet, 13 June. There are many, many things to lament about the Trump presidency, in my opinion, and one is the way the debate about his legitimacy, supposed collusion with Russia and the like, is creating a toxic political environment that will outlast his time in power. For me, the issue is not about some supposed Kremlin masterplan to put a puppet in the White House (if it was, it has backfired badly) so much as the combination of a Moscow eager to undermine the USA and a candidate whose circle and business ethics leave them not so much wide open to connections with crooks and kleptocrats so much as eager for them. This is about moral and business corruption, not a ‘Siberian Candidate.’ (I explored this point earlier from a different angle in this CNN piece.)

Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe, a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, 1 September. The capstone of the four reports I wrote for the ECFR, and I was very pleased to be able to try and cut through much of the supposition and exaggeration and try and dig into the crucial questions of how far Russia’s ‘active measures’ campaign is coordinated (on the whole, it’s not) and insofar as it is, where the hub for managing the process really is.

What exactly are ‘Kremlin ties’? in The Atlantic, 12 July. Terms such as ‘Kremlin ties’ and ‘connected to Putin’ are used so widely and loosely these days, especially in terms of anyone even faintly connected to someone who knows Trump, such that I was delighted to have a chance to explore what this really means in such a diffuse, de-institutionalised system as Russia’s, full of political entrepreneurs hoping to find some angle.

Iron Fist in Jane’s Intelligence Review, August. Behind the IHS paywall, I’m afraid, but this was a pretty in-depth study of the Russian National Guard, the Rosgvardiya, and I was especially gratified to be able to pull a pretty comprehensive order of battle together – a testament to the fact that, whatever propaganda may slosh around the TV stations and government newspapers, there is a still a wonderful wealth of great open source reporting in Russia.

Kremlin’s puzzle: how to frame Putin’s re-election? in Raam op Rusland, 2 October. If you don’t know Raam op Rusland, it is well worth following, a Dutch collective seeking to raise the level of discussion about Russia, not least by translating some of the best writings to and from Russian. In my first column for them I presented the forthcoming presidential poll as “Schrödinger’s Election. The Kremlin is already engaged in the campaign, but is trying to keep its existence unclear and undefined until it knows what election it will be fighting. Who is the bigger threat, apathy or Navalny? Can it afford to give the appearance of a real election – or can it afford not to? For what will it stand, other than “business as usual”? While it tries to answer these questions, March gets closer and closer, and someday the box will be opened and we’ll see if the cat is alive.”

How Putin could yet save Britain from Brexit in The Guardian, 2 November. Arguably a piece of magical thinking, but it was fun to put together the likelihood that more evidence will emerge about Russian backing for Brexit and the possibility that some of the UK’s leaders will actually be willing to show leadership for a change and use that as the basis to slow or halt the lemming rush for the cliff edge. I don’t think that Russian interference was critical — but reality and appearance are two different things in politics…

The Modern Russian Army 1992–2016, book in the Elite series from Osprey Publishing. It tickles me immensely to write for Osprey, given how I devoured their beautifully-illustrated books as a child, especially when I have an excellent artist like Johnny Shumate doing the colour plates!

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