The New Nobility – Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

The New Nobility – The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, is a book that delivers exactly what its title promises. This is a very brave work, written in English by Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. I don’t say “brave” lightly, when you consider the fate of so many Russian journalists, lawyers or human rights activists who dare challenge or question Putin’s establishment in today’s Russia. Indeed, reading a little online about the authors, they have experienced their share of harassment prior to authoring this work, including involuntary “visits” to Lefortovo prison – one hopes that this literary work will not be used as an excuse for more of the same against them.

This book is an exquisitely detailed account, possibly an expose, on the “new nobility” in today’s Russia, namely past or present members of the FSB – Russia’s Federal Security Service. This book charts the emergence of the FSB from the ashes of the infamous KGB, and their rise to ultimate prominence in Russia over the last two decades. Perhaps the most well-known and prime example of this FSB success story is Vladimir Putin – would anyone dispute he is the de-facto ruler (I won’t say dictator) of modern Russia? This account chronicles his, and others rise to power, but also focusses on the absolute power and societal-control yielded by Putin’s FSB organization.

Although this is a collaborative work, it avoids the pitfalls of many collaborative efforts (unlike Tournament of Shadows), in that the book does not have “two voices”, and stays on track throughout. For anyone with any interest whatsoever in modern Russia or the KGB/FSB, this is a must read, and in fact it is rare indeed to have such books written by such knowledgeable authors on this subject, and especially one written in English.

Most likely from journalistic best practices, but also anticipating the very likely prospect of this work undergoing extreme legal review (by the FSB), the authors are meticulous in detailing sources and backing up all statements from fact. They are very careful when drawing conclusions, sometimes leaving it to the reader to infer from the facts the truth – but it is fairly obvious in these cases where the truth lies. The main case in point being the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 which killed hundreds of Muscovites, which Putin immediately blamed on Chechen terrorists, and used as the pretext to invade Chechnya, thus starting the second Chechen war. The authors point out the facts, most important of which was that FSB agents were, in the week (or weeks – I can’t remember exactly which) before the bombing caught, and admit, planting bombs of the exact same type and materiel as used in the subsequent bombings, in another apartment block in Moscow. Get that? FSB agents did exactly the same as what the supposed terrorists did – what are the odds of that being a coincidence? Their excuse was they were checking for citizen vigilance or such. Why then did they use real explosives and detonators? Anyhow, draw your own conclusions, I (along with the authors) am merely just pointing out the facts here.

As you can imagine, you get a great insight into many of the very high profile events in recent years in Russia, all of which the FSB were intimatley involved in, such as the Moscow Theater siege, the Beslan massacre, to name but a few. But you get much more than just the news-worthy items – the authors really introduce us to the lifestyles of the new nobility in Russia, as well as giving a fantastic portrayal of the day-to-day life of ordinary Russians. Human-rights activists also get special mention, e.g. the litany of bloggers who are persecuted for anti-Russian views and the exceptionally large number of journalists and lawyers that have been murdered in Russia.

They also provide a fascinating and in-depth view into the incredible security and surveillance mechanisms employed by the FSB and other state security services in Russia today. They have a staggering level of internal security, with state-of-the-art face recognition surveillance software being employed nation-wide in train stations for example, amazing anecdotal stories of people simply getting on trains and being stopped mid-journey by security agents who had so quickly picked-up on them traveling – and these were ordinary citizens who may have only expressed minor anti-state sentiments – yet they are amazingly flagged and tracked when traveling.

In fact there are many fascinating anecdotes and stories throughout, such as the two Cuban Karate masters, who specialized in lethal Karate techniques and trained the Spetznaz special forces group in the 1980s. Or the FSB’s and the new nobility’s love of sport – Chelsea F.C. anyone?

Overall then, its a fascinating and well-written book, and it really should be read by anyone who wants to gain any sort of insight into what’s going on in a fairly big corner of the world today. I have to say, it paints a pretty intimidating picture of Russia today, and the people who wield power there.

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