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“I was told we should work with fascists”: former KGB officer Zhirnov

Former Soviet intelligence officer with the Illegals’ Directorate of the KGB Sergey Zhirnov. Photo:
Article by: Kseniya Kirillova

Recently, British media reported that half of the Russian diaspora in the UK are informants of the special services (SVR, GRU, and even the FSB). This revelation was based on a misinterpretation of a report about the scale of Russian espionage by the British analytical center Henry Jackson Society. In fact, this testimony, which refers to sources in the intelligence community, cites more modest figures: about 500 agents led by 200 case officers. However, some Russian emigrants who spoke with the author of the report, professor Andrew Foxall, suspect that every second compatriot could potentially become an informant.

How do Russian intelligence actually work abroad, how do its tactics differ from Soviet ones, and is the Russian diaspora engaged in espionage? These are the topics we talked about with Sergey Zhirnov, a former Soviet intelligence officer with the Illegals’ Directorate of the KGB who has since 2001 been living in France, where he received the status of political refugee.

“Active measures” have always existed

Sergey, if we compare the work of Soviet intelligence and the methods of modern Russian special services, it seems that they have become cruder: murders, interference with elections, and an emphasis on “active measures.” Is this different from the time you worked there?

It is important to clarify that there have always been different intelligence services. If we are talking about the political intelligence in which I worked (that is, the First Main Directorate (PGU) of the Soviet KGB, then transformed into the Russian SVR), then it’s not quite accurate to talk about a change of methods. The evolution of techniques is more likely to apply to the military intelligence. Maybe you noticed that Litvinenko was killed by former FSB officers, and the attempted poisoning of the Skripals was organized by the GRU. They never did a really fine job. As for political intelligence, I don’t think that something has significantly changed there.

Something else has changed. After the collapse of the USSR, modern Russia has not developed any coherent national ideology, except for the single “national idea,” according to which everybody around Russia is its enemy, and Russians are the “greatest nation.” For all its flaws, the Soviet Union had a universal world idea of communism that was attractive to many, and this helped a lot in the intelligence work as well.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]The intelligence’s failures are known, but no one knows what it’s doing successfully.[/quote] On the other hand, sometimes it seems that modern Russia is even more successful than the USSR, because, not having a real ideology, it nevertheless offers various “ideologies for export” abroad for both rightist and leftist groups. The Soviet Union could only attract the extreme left.

Let’s just say this: Russia has become a sort of fascist country, and therefore it is friends with all the fascists all over the world. But I do not think that its activities abroad are so successful. Of course, if people are dissatisfied with what is happening in their own country, they may seek some kind of support abroad, and Russia in this sense may be of interest to them. And in France, too, there are people who are interested in Russia and believe in Putin. But, let’s say, after the recent spy scandal in Austria, Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl who danced with Putin at her wedding, now refuses to go to Moscow.

In general, are there more failures nowadays?

It is difficult to say whether there are more failures or if we began hearing about them faster. We often make the mistake of extrapolating known failures to all intelligence activities. But the problem is that the intelligence’s failures are known, but no one knows what it’s doing successfully. In fact, there have always been failures, just as there have always been defectors. By the way, there were quite a few of them both at the GRU and the PGU. Moreover, there were a lot more of them than in all the other Soviet organizations and ministries.

Is this explained by the fact that they have valuable information and are constantly traveling abroad, where it is easier to establish contact with Western intelligence agencies?

Exactly. In addition, they have special knowledge of how to deceive not only the enemy but also their own chiefs.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]We see that “Russia Today” is located abroad, whereas in the Soviet period the news agency “Novosti” was only in Moscow.[/quote] Basically, there are two objectives in the work of intelligence agencies: “lobbying” on behalf of Russian policy, which includes agents of influence and “active measures,” and espionage itself. Which direction was paid more attention to in Soviet times, and which now?

The first line of work also existed in Soviet times. At first, it was the department of disinformation, which was then transformed into service “A,” that is, the service of “active actions or measures.” In the Soviet era, they used mainly “Progress” publishing house and the “Novosti” news agency. But now it has become more proactive. We see that “Russia Today” is located abroad, whereas in the Soviet period the news agency “Novosti” was only in Moscow.

However, in the Soviet era, they were also quite active. For example, the KGB intelligence opened its own new media or supported the existing communist newspapers in the West with their own money. There have been cases when Soviet agents from among citizens of Western countries opened a newspaper that was paid for by the Russian intelligence in their homeland and printed articles like “The Soviet Union through the eyes of Westerners,” creating an illusion that people in the West positively view the USSR

 “We created neo-fascists ourselves”

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]The KGB maintained secret ties with many extremist organizations and parties, and even with terrorists in the Middle East… When we could not infiltrate some existing extremist groups, we created ad-hoc neo-fascist or Islamist groups for our purposes. [/quote]It turns out that the Soviet intelligence did pay more attention to creating a positive image of the Soviet Union, right? The interference into American elections showed that modern Russian “trolls” often do not even try to promote the image of Russia. On the contrary, they act “under a foreign flag” and try, first of all, to sow discord in American society, without even mentioning Russia.

Actually, the goal of the political destabilization of the West also existed under the KGB. The First Main Directorate of the KGB in this sense had two lines of “active measures”: promoting a positive image of the Soviet Union and its communist idea abroad, and at the same time producing “filth” inside Western countries. That is why the KGB maintained secret ties with many extremist organizations and parties, and even with terrorists in the Middle East. Sometimes we created such groups ourselves when we needed it. For example, when we could not infiltrate some existing extremist groups, we created ad-hoc neo-fascist or Islamist groups for our purposes. Shortly speaking, the KGB used everything that could interfere with the normal existence of our “capitalist enemies.”

Has it ever happened that the KGB, in a desire to ruin the lives of others, forgot about the interests of its country?

No, that never happened back then. Both objectives worked on an equal basis. Another thing is that now Russian intelligence operations became much more arrogant. In Soviet times, we would never decide to openly meddle with, say, the American or French elections. We could throw in some dirt, publish some compromising material, but never went too far. I think that now their point is not so much to spoil the life in the West as to exacerbate [Russia’s] hostility with it for the “domestic consumption” [of Russians- Ed]. Take, for example, the story of the Skripals’ poisoning in the UK – after all, it was organized specifically for Putin’s “reelection.”

One more thing. Of course, we cannot compare the intelligence budgets then and now — this data is classified. But there are objective things that can be seen with the naked eye: just look at the pictures of aerial photography of the Academy of Foreign Intelligence (main faculty) near Chelobityevo and that of the SVR headquarters in Yasenevo. One of the one platforms there is for the operatives, and the second contains technical buildings. So, the number of buildings for operatives has almost doubled compared with the Soviet Union and the technical buildings tripled, while Russia is half the size of the USSR in terms of population. Thus, the espionage activity of Russia has increased about fourfold.

A comparison of historical Google Earth imagery between 2003 and 2018 shows the massive increase of the size of the building of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service in Yasenevo. Photo:

Is classic espionage still alive, or have “active measures” fully replaced it?

Certainly, classic spying is still alive. It is important to understand that Putin is a rather special person, one might say, a maniac. Hence, he lies all the time, he does not trust anybody else and does not believe any publicly spoken or openly printed word. He accepts as true only protected confidential data and hidden information. Relatively speaking, he needs to be brought copies of documents directly from the desks and safes of Western leaders. Since his service in the KGB, he has continued the task of obtaining documentary secret information from the offices of the world’s leading politicians.

Love the enemy country

Your story is very unusual. You were a spy, and at the same time – an anchor on Soviet television. But, after all, people in the West should have understood that a person can achieve such success in the USSR only if he has the right connections with those in power. Not necessarily with the intelligence, of course, but still it was an indicator that you were not a stranger to the regime. How much have you been trusted abroad?

There were no particular trust issues.  I served in the intelligence service during the Gorbachev perestroika period. At that time, the Western establishment completely stopped acting with suspicion towards those with good connections with the highest Soviet nomenclature. On the contrary, Western elites actively accepted such people. Moreover, if you belong to the elite, or if you have connections at the top, this means that you have interesting or confidential information. But if you are just a Soviet radical oppositionist, more often it means that you do not know anything interesting, you have no prospects, and you have nothing to talk about with powerful men in the West.

In general, many spies in the last years of the Soviet Union were dissidents, and therefore many officers defected to the West. Working with Western information, they learned the truth about the USSR faster than everyone else. The intelligence has always been the most dissenting unit within the KGB. In addition, while working with the country of the enemy, you begin to study it, get to know it closer, and then it happens that you simply cannot force yourself to do some nasty things to this country.

That is, there are cases when a Soviet spy arrives on a mission in some country and falls in love with it?

This happened quite often.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]In order to find out the secrets of the enemy, you need to learn it from the inside. Thus, it needs to be understood and even loved. As a rule, all intelligence officers love the country in which they work.[/quote] And a foreign country was capable of melting the harsh heart of a Chekist?

Espionage is a very specific activity. You are constantly forced to lie, and at the same time, they say that in order to find out the secrets of the enemy, you need to learn it from the inside. Thus, it needs to be understood and even loved. As a rule, all intelligence officers love the country in which they work, and at a certain stage, this love can cross the border. For example, this was my case. I can cite a specific story. I worked with one source of information and accidentally found out that he is in close connection with the National Front directed by Jean-Marie Le Pen. When this man came to the USSR, he tried to meet with highly ranked party leaders, and even the “Pravda” newspaper of the CPSU Central Committee wrote an article about him. I sent an alarming report to my KGB superiors, explaining that he was a staunch fascist. I meant that in no case should we work with such a fascist.

However, in the headquarters (Center) my information was welcomed, but not for the reason that I had expected. My commanders perceived the fact that this person was close to the neo-Nazis in a positive way. I was told that we, on the contrary, should work with the fascists, since he clearly had to oppose the regime of Mitterrand, which was then in power. The fascists were perceived as our associates. I could not accept it and was shocked.

Sex, blackmail, idea, or money?

Sergei Zhirnov together with Yuriy Drozdov, a legend of the Soviet intelligence. Photo:

If we talk a bit about espionage tactics: in spy films, we see an abundance of sex and blackmail. How often is it used in reality? How are people recruited?

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]I was told that we, on the contrary, should work with the fascists, since he clearly had to oppose the regime of Mitterrand.[/quote] In the cinema, such techniques are used more often than in real life. In intelligence service, they understand that the person who is being blackmailed is in great discomfort, and will always try to get rid of the KGB hook on which he is dangling. He can even be driven to suicide, tired of being in such a critical psychological state. People who work on some kind of positive “basis”: ideology or money, are always much more successful. This will work better than any dirt.

What was more frequent: people who worked for the idea or those who worked for money?

In Soviet times, there were more of those who worked for the idea. But at the same time, there was another problem. A foreign person cooperating with the KGB on the ideological basis had to learn to hide his communist beliefs because otherwise, he could not get a good job in the West that gave him access to information that was interesting for the Soviet intelligence. Nowadays, I think, foreigners spying for Russia mostly work for money.

Coming back to a report recently published in the UK. According to some Russians living in Great Britain, half of them are informants. Sources within British intelligence services speak about 500 agents who are engaged in espionage. How accurate do you think these numbers are?

In fact, I almost completely agree with its conclusions. As for the number of 200 case officers, many wonder where they came from. Especially when 23 Russian spies under diplomatic cover have already been expelled from the country after Skripals poisoning. However, the report says that this figure includes not only people living in England, but also those who occasionally travel from Moscow, so these 200 case officers, professional spies may really exist. Accordingly, they may have 500 field agents to guide and control. The fact that a carrier operative may have 2-3 field agents is quite a normal ratio.

As for the “informers” in the Russian diaspora and their quantity, this includes not only people who live there permanently but also those who constantly come and go. As to the suspicions about “half of the Russians” serving as informers – I would agree with a slightly different approach. In London, there are very few Russians who never travel to Russia. If someone in Russia has a business or family, he completely depends on the authorities. This means that if during their next visit to Motherland some of these people are secretly approached by the FSB operatives who ask them a couple of questions about their entourage, most likely they will try to avoid conflict and answer them.

Thus, of course, one cannot call these people professional informants. Rather, it can be said that they are at risk, that the Russian special services can ask them questions, and they will not dare not answer them. I would agree that up to half of our emigrants are in such a potential risk zone.

Moreover, it is important to make a distinction between intelligence and counterintelligence. The counterintelligence staff in Russia has increased even more than that of the intelligence. It is their function to spy on their own citizens, including those living abroad. Like in times of the Soviet KGB, Putin’s priority is the internal security, which includes spying on the Russian diaspora abroad, and even more – tracking Russian dissidents in the diaspora.

Do you think the Western intelligence services have learned how to fight against the Russian “hybrid war”?

In fact, they can work professionally, but the problem of Western intelligence agencies is a bit different. In the same report of the Henry Jackson Society, the British give statistics on how many people work for them in intelligence and counterintelligence: 16 thousand. They are up against the FSB with 380 thousand people, the GRU with 400 thousand, and the SVR with 15 thousand. Western counterintelligence agencies simply do not have enough resources. In France, for example, Islamic terrorism is considered the main threat, and the resistance to Putin’s espionage is fading into the background.

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