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Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony

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Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony by Andrei A. Kovalev. Potomac Books, 2017, 247 pp.

A popular television documentary series follows several gold miners sifting through massive dirt and stone piles to find occasional gold. Similarly, Russia’s Dead End delivers much generic Russian information with only the occasional insight into author Andrei Kovalev’s individual experiences. The front cover and flap suggest Kovalev’s work provides perceptive insights based on his long associations with Soviet and Russian regimes. Unique and perceptive insights are present, but the linkages to his own personal experiences are underdelivered. However, some remarkable Russian policy insight emerges, like the aforementioned gold nuggets, from unusual places. Kovalev superbly covers various challenges faced by post-Soviet society, exploring their historical basis and discussing future manifestations. He also analyzes why Russia’s democratic reforms failed to take root.

Russia’s Dead End argues transitioning from the Soviet Union to the Russian Republic offered the Russian people seeds of opportunity to become a great democratic republic. However, at every turn this growth was poisoned, sometimes literally, by active efforts from former KGB agents, the Russian people’s nature, and outright paranoia. Chapter by chapter the book portrays different aspect of Russia’s journey from the USSR’s democratic steps under Gorbachev and subsequent coup, to the Russian people’s challenges after those initial transitions, and then how the KGB flourished as the new Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (Federal Security Service or FSB) in actively denying any further transitions. This central theme explains where the FSB motivation and control sparked Russia’s revanchist strategic leanings and subsequent oppression of their populace. A revanchist strategy, first appearing in mid-nineteenth century France as derivative of the French verb revenchier, expresses a return to previous national boundaries, particularly those lost to either war or diplomacy. Kovalev theorizes the FSB plan indicates a desire to return to Russia’s historical boundaries as well as leadership practices espoused under Lenin and Stalin, except with more financial benefits for their hierarchy.

The USSR’s transition from communism to democracy began as Kovalev worked for Gorbachev’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not surprisingly, the author sees that ministry, and his work therein, as a center for democratic reform. Kovalev’s father, Anatoly Kovalev, was also heavily involved as the first deputy for Gorbachev’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze. This division shaped the Final Act that clarified human rights conventions for the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe through reforming criminal activity legislation in the criminal code of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The criminal code covered state use of punitive psychiatry that supposedly prevented felons from causing any further damage to the state. These punitive psychiatry practices, mandatory drug treatments, and involuntary hospitalization, thought discarded with the USSR’s end, appear later with the FSB’s recycled strategies. Much of the book continues in the same approach, moving rapidly between topics, lacking a consistent internal chapter timeline, and suggesting a shocking revelation about now implemented antidemocratic practices.  As an example of timeline difficulties, the first chapter ends with the completion of the August 1991 coup and the admission of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania to the Committee of European Foreign Ministers as independent countries, while the second returns to only cover previously completed coup events.

Chapters 3 and 4 next share the same 10-year period in exploring transitions to an almost democratic institution including how those organizations functioned until Vladimir Putin’s 1999 election. Once Gorbachev left power, Russia’s population expected a faster democratic transition, and more, immediate material payoffs than the government apparatus was equipped to handle. The text suggests supporting these payoffs to gain popular support resulted in a symbiosis of government, criminal, and business interests that each followed their own material interests while excluding all others, effectively abdicating national responsibilities once their gold was in hand. Kovalev suggests the high-level players used former Russian communist connections to KGB interests and individuals, such as Putin, as the basis for their success. The author even proposes Putin’s most democratic recorded experience, working with the St. Petersburg mayor, was a KGB plot to bring about the mayor’s downfall (p. 186). However, continued struggles with economic, environmental, and Islamic fundamentalist challenges demonstrate internal and external causes that helped prevent any democratic transition. The corruption endemic to the system, the personal politics required for even minor success, and the state agencies actions against their people’s best interests caused these failures throughout Russia—but only because they were guided by the FSB.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 move the remainder of the excess dirt away from Kovalev’s core thesis, revealing where he believes the FSB now effectively controls Russia. The section begins with a reported Putin quote after his presidential appointment, “Order Number One for the complete seizure of power has been fulfilled. A group of FSB officers has successfully infiltrated the government” (p. 173). Unfortunately, like other controversial elements Kovalev espouses from several, apparently Russian sources, the text does not provide locations to confirm the material. The quote certainly makes one believe the FSB controls Russia, but outside confirmation remains important. FSB traditional practices, derived from the KGB, are suggested throughout and used for population control, to arrest or kill journalists challenging the state, and as a basis for Russia’s imperialist military campaigns in Georgia, Crimea, and the Ukraine. Each item explores what occurred and where FSB influences were involved.

Overall, Andrei Kovalev offers a comprehensive, historical look at where Russian democratic transitions fail after the Cold War’s end. From a national security perspective, he offers a chilling hypothesis for where the KGB-associated elements in the FSB are still running the Russian state. If his hypothesis proves true, those motivational changes could alter the decision calculus for any US or other policy makers hoping to interact with Russia democratically. However, other than Kovalev’s personal claims, the details and the sourcing provided are simply insufficient to support similar conclusion. One cannot help comparing Kovalev’s work to other KGB analysis and demonstrated sources, namely The Sword and the Shield and The World was Going our Way, which explore Cold War KGB practices using the Vasili Mitrokhin archive and Mitrokhin’s personal testimony as the more useful evidence standard. Without solid background documentation, or at least endnotes, sifting through the surrounding material for an actual glimmer proves difficult. I found the book interesting but think a solid, detailed background in Russian affairs would prove extremely helpful prior to reading. Certainly not for the general public, and not as nugget-filled as one might hope from an insider’s testimony, Russia’s Dead End offers an unusual look at cause and effect for that nations’s problems over the past 30 years.  

Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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