Politics & Policy

Brand-New Russia, Same Old Disinformation

A quarter-century after the Berlin Wall fell, Putin is building his own Russian Bloc.

In November 1989 I watched on television as the Berlin Wall was being torn down, and my eyes welled up with tears. Once again, I was incredibly proud to be a citizen of the United States. The whole world was expressing its gratitude to this great country for its four decades–plus of successful Cold War against the Soviet empire. “Communism is dead,” people shouted. Indeed, Soviet Communism is dead as form of government. But the Kremlin’s science of dezinformatsyia is on the rise again, and few people are paying attention.

I was with Nikita Khrushchev when the idea of erecting the Berlin Wall germinated in his head. He had landed in Bucharest on October 26, 1959, to solicit Romania’s political support for seizing West Berlin, which had become the escape-hatch through which millions of East Germans were fleeing westward, draining East Germany’s already shabby economy. At the time I was running Romania’s intelligence station in West Germany, and as the country’s “German expert,” I attended most of the discussions.

“No power on earth can stop us,” Khrushchev spat out. President Eisenhower did stop him, however. On August 13, 1961, Khrushchev made the humiliating decision to close off East Berlin with a barbed-wire fence that later became the Berlin Wall, and he proclaimed that a major victory.

On December 26, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a magnificent concert before the toppled Berlin Wall, which for so many years had “protected” tyranny from freedom. His centerpiece was Beethoven’s Ninth, containing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” but with the word joy (Freude) changed into freedom (Freiheit). The orchestra and choir were from both East and West Germany, as well as from the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. That concert celebrated the fall of the Soviet empire.

After a couple of years, the Russians had stopped seeing their government as a boon bestowed from on high, and Socialist Russia had collapsed. On the evening of December 25, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. The next day, the U.S.S.R. was dissolved, and Russia’s old tricolor banner was raised again over the Kremlin. The world watched in amazement as the Russian people, armed only with a fierce desire for freedom, brought down one of the most repressive forms of government known in history.

Post-Soviet Russia has been transformed in unprecedented and positive ways. The barriers the Kremlin spent 70 years erecting between Russia and the rest of the world, as well as between individual Russians, are coming down. The freedoms of religion and assembly have been restored. Commerce and communication with the rest of the world have become a daily reality. Russian culture is reviving, and private ownership of property is now gradually being institutionalized.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, its people had a unique opportunity to also cast off the country’s political police, that peculiarly Russian instrument of power created by the 16th century’s Ivan the Terrible, which had changed its name many times, from Okhrana to Cheka, to GPU, to OGPU, to NKVD, to NKGB, to MGB, to MVD, to KGB. Unfortunately, the Russian people were not yet ready — or able — to seize that opportunity.

My old KGB counterparts must have cackled in their graves on December 31, 1999, when Russia’s first freely elected president, Boris Yeltsin, stunned the world by announcing his resignation. “I shouldn’t be in the way of the natural course of history,” Yeltsin explained, speaking in front of a gaily decorated New Year’s tree and blue, red, and white Russian flag with a golden Russian eagle. “I understand that I must do it and Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, with new faces, with new intelligent, strong, energetic people.”

Yeltsin then signed a decree “On the execution of the powers of the Russian president,” which stated that under Article 92, Section 3, of the Russian Constitution, the powers of the Russian president should be temporarily performed by former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. For his part, the newly appointed president signed a decree pardoning Yeltsin — who was rumored to be connected to massive bribery scandals — “for any possible misdeeds” and granted him “total immunity” from being prosecuted (or even searched and questioned) for “any and all” actions committed while in office. Putin also gave Yeltsin a lifetime pension and a state dacha.

To me, that had all the appearances of a KGB palace putsch.

Capitalizing on the fact that Putin had spent many years in Germany, the Kremlin’s disinformation machinery started portraying him as a Europeanized leader. Together with my wife (an American writer), I visited the cold, threatening Stasi headquarters in Leipzig and Dresden, where Putin had spent his “Europeanizing” years. There we learned that the local Soviet-German House of Friendship — headed by Putin for six years — had simply been a KGB front, and that all its undercover KGB officers had in fact worked out of operational offices in the Leipzig and Dresden Stasi headquarters. We even sat at Putin’s desk, now a museum piece. Prison-like buildings, they had been isolated from even the normal and crumbling East German life by Stasi guards with machine guns, flanked by police dogs. Yet the Kremlin still reverentially implies that Putin’s experience in Germany was similar to that of Peter the Great, allowing him to absorb the best of European culture.

During the old Cold War, Russia was a country where the KGB was a state within a state. Now the KGB, rechristened FSB, is the Russian state. In 2003, according to a study published in the well-known Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and republished by the Center for the Future of Russia, over 6,000 former officers of the KGB were running the “democratic” Russia’s federal and local governments, transforming that country into the first intelligence dictatorship in history. The Soviet Union had one KGB officer for every 428 citizens. In 2004, Putin’s Russia had one FSB officer for every 297 citizens.

On April 4, 2008, President Putin publicly stated that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, and in February 2014 he denied that Russia had anything to do with the unmarked, masked armed forces that had seized Crimea and are now trying to ignite a civil war in Ukraine. The Ukrainians, therefore, referred to these forces as “Martians.” U.S. experts, however, identified the gunmen to be Russian Special Forces.

“I looked the man [Putin] in the eye” and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” said President George W. Bush at the end of their 2001 summit meeting held in Slovenia. “I had looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw a stone-cold killer,” stated former CIA director Robert Gates.

After the Soviet revolution, the Kremlin did indeed transform the once rich and friendly Russia into an epitome of disinformation: a country that is not what it pretends to be, run by leaders who are not who they claim they are. President Putin has continued that disinformation tradition.

That does not mean Russia cannot break out of its police-state-and-disinformation mold. It will not be easy to end a 400-year tradition, but a new generation of Russians is already struggling to give their country a fresh national identity. Let’s hope that the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will give them new impetus.

— Lieutenant General Ion Mihai Pacepa is the highest Soviet-bloc official granted political asylum by the United States. The Russian translation of his most recent book, Disinformation, co-authored with Ronald Rychlak, is scheduled to be in Russian bookstores this Christmas.

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