In Moscow, vestiges of a KGB mentality

Thursday, July 1, 2010

SOME PROFESSIONALS in the espionage world have taken pleasure in mocking the 20th-century tactics of what the U.S. government alleges is a ring of 11 undercover Russian agents arrested this week -- the B-movie codes and counter-codes, the brush-past money exchanges and so forth. But there's a bigger mystery to many Americans: Why would the successor to the KGB invest so much money and effort "to infiltrate academic, policymaking and government-connected circles," as The Post described the mission in its news story Wednesday, when people in those circles are only too happy to talk with anyone who comes calling?

To answer that question, you have to understand the steadily widening asymmetry between Russian and American societies. During the past decade, with former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in charge, Russia has become increasingly closed in many ways. Historical archives that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 welcomed scholars from all nations have re-shut their doors. Television has fallen back under government control. International organizations have been pushed out of Russia, and independent nonprofit groups in Russia have been squeezed, harassed and threatened. Russia is essentially a one-party state, as it was 20 years ago.

The United States by contrast is wide open. Unlike American organizations in Russia, the Russian government is welcome to hire public relations firms here, put Russian programming on cable television and distribute its message as it sees fit. Its diplomats are welcome to attend think-tank seminars in Washington, and the give-and-take of American politics is an open book for them.

Many modern Russians understand this perfectly well. But to the conspiratorial KGB mentality, it all seems like a trick. Because the Kremlin determines which stories appear in state-controlled media in Moscow, it assumes the same must be true in Washington. If think tanks and academics welcome all comers, they must have a hidden motive that only insiders understand. If their reports are publicly available, there must be a secret annex distributed only to those in the know.

As with any such scandal, there's much we don't know about this alleged ring. Eventually we may learn that some of its agents managed to learn real secrets that the U.S. government wanted to hide. For now, though, what's sad about the event is the distorted mirror Russia's rulers are holding up -- and what that says about Russia itself. Their view of an American society that can be "penetrated" only by secret agents reflects the Russia they are creating: one where civil society is stifled, and fewer and fewer people dare or are permitted to express their true views in the public sphere.

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