Russia’s Spy Elite

The FBI’s recent arrest of several alleged deep-cover Russian intelligence officers, also known as “illegals”, has provoked astonishment in the media. As if U.S. intelligence agencies would never dream of carrying out covert work in Russia! Since the memory span of reporters and pundits rarely extends beyond a few weeks, perhaps this is understandable. But it should come as no surprise that spying remains an important tool of statecraft. As exemplified by the illegals, the Russians are top players in the game of human intelligence.

Since the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia has been an espionage superpower. The reasons for Russian excellence at spying lie deep in the nation’s culture and history, factors which suited the eventual development of a world-class intelligence service. Centuries of dynastic rule, the Byzantine nature of the Russian state and attendant intrigue sharpened the skills of deception necessary in the struggle for power.

The mobilization political culture that led to the creation of the Russian secret services stretches back a thousand years. The feuding medieval principalities of Rus’ formed alliances and betrayed each other with regularity. To centralize his power Ivan IV, “The Dread”, formed a precursor to the secret police, the black-clad Oprichniki, to wipe out opposition and sow terror among enemies real and imagined. The Romanov Tsars, meanwhile, maintained all manner of secret chancelleries that culminated in the Third Section of Nicolas I[i]. Through the Third Section, Nicolas established a security service his successors presided over until the autocracy’s overthrow in the Russian Revolution…

Read the whole article at Mark Hackard’s Espionage History Archive.