The Compatriots | Andrei Soldatov

Summary of: The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad
By: Andrei Soldatov


Delve into the gripping dynamics of Russia’s exiles, émigrés, and agents abroad as explored in Andrei Soldatov’s ‘The Compatriots’. The book sheds light on the complex and often chaotic history of the vast Russian diaspora, exploring their attempts to influence both their homeland and Western perceptions of Russia from afar. Discover how figures like Vladimir Bukovsky sought to instigate change in the Soviet army and the USSR as a whole, while the KGB continued to treat emigrants with suspicion. As you progress, you will encounter the world of Soviet spy George Koval and learn about his crucial role in stealing American secrets during World War II.

The Russian Diaspora’s Influence

The Russian diaspora, comprised of over 30 million people, makes up a significant part of the “Russky Mir” or world of Russian speakers connected to Russia. Many emigrants have sought to sway Western perspectives about Russia or create change within the country. Vladimir Bukovsky attempted to prompt mass defections from the Soviet army in Afghanistan, while former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko claimed the FSB orchestrated the 1999 Moscow bombings to aid Putin’s presidential elected bid. During the Cold War, the US State department searched within emigrant communities for potential members of a new Russian government, and tried to form liberation committees to ignite resistance in Communist-occupied countries. Some Russians and sympathizers abroad have aided the Kremlin, including George Koval, who spied on the American atom bomb program for the Soviets while his family was stationed in Moscow. The KGB has always regarded emigrants as a threatening congregation of potential rebels challenging the Kremlin’s sovereignty.

Waves of Post-Revolution Russian Emigration

The history of Russian emigration after the revolution is characterized by waves of migration, each with a different motive. While the first wave consisted mainly of anti-communist White Russians trying to escape Stalin’s regime, the second wave was comprised of thousands of Russian soldiers and civilians who found themselves in the western part of Germany on Armistice Day. The third wave, which occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s, saw members of the intelligentsia emigrating due to political convictions. In the early 2000s, well-educated young people were leaving Russia and other former Soviet republics for better career opportunities. The article highlights that under authoritarian regimes, intelligence is about protecting the regime and policing émigrés. US policymakers took a decade to comprehend how corrupt and cynical the political system was that replaced Communist rule in Russia. Additionally, many politicians, activists, and artists fled state persecution and joined anti-Putin activists in the West.

Soviet Espionage in America

Soviet espionage in the United States during World War II was rife with deception and disinformation as the US Communist Party worked to prevent America from entering the war and sow discord among Trotskyites. The Cheka, a Bolshevik secret service, first opened an office in New York in the late 1930s, and Soviet secret service activity in America escalated during the war. Midtown Manhattan buildings hosted offices for Trotsky’s newspaper and the Soviet trade organization Amtorg, providing many spies with entry to the country. Alexander Vassiliev, a former SVR officer and journalist, revealed much of this information from KGB archives he accessed while compiling his book.

Blood-Soaked Russian Espionage

The KGB’s ice-cold style and Stalin’s paranoia created a legacy of ruthlessness towards exiles. The Soviet secret police abducted and assassinated their enemies around the world from the 1930s to the present day. The poisoning of an anti-Putin activist in London in 2006, the killing of an opposition leader in Moscow in 2015, and a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain in 2018 are but a few examples. Russian espionage retains its blood-soaked history.

The KGB’s Calculated Tactics

The KGB used both violence and psychological tactics to control and manipulate Soviet émigrés in the 1950s. These tactics included radio propaganda and even using family members to plead for their return. Later, a new unit called the Nineteenth Section was created to manage Soviet citizens abroad, and false rumors were spread to foment distrust. The KGB’s foreign intelligence became the Foreign Intelligence Service in the mid-80s, but leaks and cyber operations have shown that their tactics persist today.

Putin’s Modern Exile

The KGB chairman, Andropov, used exile against political dissidents during the Soviet Union. Exiles were allowed to return in 1991, but few returned and received little support. In 2000, Putin renewed the practice of exile as soon as he took office, with many activists leaving to avoid persecution. Putin’s opponents, such as media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and chess champion Garry Kasparov, were forced out, while oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed and then exiled to Germany. In 2017, 2,664 Russians sought political asylum in the US. “Prison and exile have always been intertwined in Russia.”

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