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.

***PLEASE NOTE – MY US TRIP HAS ALAS HAD TO BE CANCELLED, AND THESE EVENTS WITH THEM. 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.

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Corbyn. Neither Philby nor Fool

Corbyn-Commie-Spy-Live-Aid

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.

 

 

 

‘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.

Stalin-Beria

“”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…

The ‘Prophylactic Conversation’ and the management of Russian organised crime: the Ekaterinburg example

gangstersgrave

Ekaterinburg still seems to have the best crop of gangster gravestones

Back when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB, the Soviet political police replaced, or at least supplemented the blunter instruments of earlier times with more subtle and insidious ones. One such was the profilakticheskii razgovor, the ‘prophylactic conversation.’ Someone identified as a possible problem – talking too openly critically about the Party, say, or trying to get the trade union actually to represent workers’ interests – would be invited to the local KGB office, just for a chat.

Depending on the quality and delicacy of the interlocutor, often no threats would be made, no accusations advanced. It would be just that, a chat. How’s the job? I hear your kid is applying to university next year, that must be exciting. I hope your grandmother’s illness clears up soon. But of course, in a system when a severe and spiteful state controls everything, both sides knew that every word was a threat. A good job could be replaced with a bad one; a child could get rejected from university; medical care could be withheld. Few people have the ruthlessness with themselves or others to be heroes in such circumstances. Andropov’s dictum was, after all, maximum effect for minimal force.

Increasingly, this has become a tool also used with organised crime. The state does not control organised crime (let alone vice versa), but the relationship is complicated. Much of the time, it genuinely fights it, but at other times it recognises a degree of symbiosis. This is not just about the many interconnections, especially at the local level, between political, business and underworld elites. It is also because, like post-war Japan for most of its history, there is something of a sense that organised crime is better that its disorganised counterpart.

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New Facebook page: ‘Mark Galeotti on Russia’

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-08-04-32Many people, especially in Russia, use Facebook as a professional tool, whereas I keep it primarily for personal friends. To bridge the gap between this blog and my twitter feed, though, I have now set up a separate, open FB page, Mark Galeotti on Russia which I will use for my thoughts, links and random postings specifically relating to Russia. Please feel free to go Like this page (so it will appear on your feed) and likewise direct anyone else you think might be interested in it to do the same!

‘The Great Fear’ redux

stalin-reborn-as-putinThere is a great deal of nonsense about “a new 1937” brewing in Russia (frankly, paralleling Putin with Stalin is both foolish and also profoundly demeaning to the memory of the millions of victims of the latter’s murder-machine). Nonetheless, bureaucratic engines of repression in authoritarian regimes do have some structural and cultural similarities, and thanks to a recent one of the excellent SRB podcast series I came across James Harris’s equally-excellent The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (OUP, 2016).

A few aspects of Harris’s explanation for the bloodbath are depressingly relevant today:

The Fear. Stalin and his cohorts genuinely felt at risk and assailed, knowing that the Japanese and the Germans wanted to take their land and resources, believing the British, French and the Americans wanted to see them at war, assuming the fifth columnists at home were powerful, networked and bloodthirsty. This was not just a mobilizing propaganda theme, though it was that as well, it was a strongly held belief that inclined the regime towards more murderous and maximalist policies than otherwise might have been.

The Threat Lobby. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet political police, and his successors not only tended to assume the intertwined domestic and external threats to be more serious than they were, they also had a clear bureaucratic-factional interest in talking them up. At a time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was up in arms about the impact of the Chekists’ activities, and there was talk of tighter subordination to the organs of justice, what better time to stoke the fear, to present it as a choice between security or legal and political niceties?

The Kremlin Echo Chamber. Harris treads a fine line between the top-down and bottom-up (or strong state/weak state) explanations for the Great Purges. I’m not entirely convinced that squaring the circle by saying it was a strong state that thought itself weak quite works, although there is an undoubted elegance to the suggestion, but it is clear that most of the repression was not directed specifically from the top. Stalin was the impresario, but the performers were largely ad libbing. In this context, local agencies were often driven by the hope of correcting interpreting and predicting the Kremlin’s wishes and also the imperative to tell Moscow what it wanted to hear. Increasingly, the scope for loyal dissent shrank and shrank.

There are clear parallels today. Putin is not about to start a campaign of mass murder or try to modernise his economy on the back of slave labour, of course. But we need to recognise, even if just to help us understand and predict this regime better, the extent to which it genuinely believes itself actively threatened, not just by the impersonal forces of economics and demographics, but by Western machination. It is encouraged to do this by a security apparatus that has learned to play to the more paranoid and defensive instincts of the regime and a bureaucratic culture that seeks to identify what an often gnomic Kremlin truly wants. These were dangerous political pathologies in 1937, and they are again so today.

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