Russia's spooky mania for its hero spies

Former spymaster Putin throws the Kremlin behind a wave of Bond-style books and films glorifying the bloody past of the KGB, now the FSB. And ordinary Russians lap it up. Andrew Osborn reports
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The Independent Online

The democracy-hungry crowds who cheered as the statue of Soviet Communism's most reviled secret policeman was toppled in 1991 could not have imagined it in their most lurid dreams. But they are gradually being forced to accept an unsettling new reality in President Vladimir Putin's Russia: KGB chic is back and it is prikulno (cool) to be a secret agent.

Of an evening, diners in central Moscow's Shield and Sword restaurant (the emblem of the KGB) can be observed sipping Joseph Stalin's favourite red wine in the shadow of a replica of the very statue that was toppled. Felix Dzerzhinsky or Iron Felix, the bloodthirsty Pole who founded the forerunner to the KGB and unleashed the Red Terror against Vladimir Lenin's opponents, stares vigilantly into the middle distance as customers munch on wild game.

From blockbuster films where Russia's answer to James Bond saves the world, to television series glorifying the deeds of Soviet and Russian spooks, the world's most feared intelligence service is back in vogue, carefully nurtured by Mr Putin, a former KGB spymaster. As Russia's democratic credentials come under scrutiny from the rest of the world, the country is in the grip of spy mania, and the FSB, the Federal Security Service, the successor organisation to the KGB, is basking in its afterglow.

Fourteen years ago, such a phenomenon would have been unthinkable. Vladimir Kryuchkov, who then headed the KGB, was among those who tried and failed to execute a military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. His undemocratic actions discredited the organisation and it was quickly disbanded, renamed and reorganised. But for the new FSB, with one of its own in the Kremlin and much of the government made up of former spies, times have changed. "Chekhists," "KGBshniki" or "FSBshniki" (all slang Russian terms for spies) are "in" again.

Russia believes it is facing multiple threats and the Kremlin needs heroes. Chechen separatist rebels appear irritatingly indomitable, radical Islam is making inroads into the volatile south of the country and a shadowy third force allegedly intent on weakening and even dismembering Russia continues to hover in the smog above Moscow. And many Russians believe the Chinese are intent on swallowing up large parts of Siberia. Someone has to stop the rot: someone such as Major Pronin, for example. The fictional creation of writer Lev Ovalov, Major Pronin appeared in print in 1939 as a masterful counter-intelligence operative with a similarity to Ian Fleming's James Bond and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. With his faithful sidekick Viktor Jeleznov, he protects the Soviet Union from numerous sinister plots which often see him face an evil British spy known as "Rogers". The last Major Pronin novel was penned in 1962 but in the past year, five Pronin tales have been republished and reportedly sold extremely well.

For a while, a themed Major Pronin restaurant even existed in Moscow in which diners could also enjoy a spot of target shooting. It has gone but a restaurant facing no such threat is Shield and Sword. Conveniently near the FSB's central Moscow headquarters, it revels in the intelligence service's bloody past and claims to count present-day spies among its clientele.

Portraits of the KGB's chiefs line its walls, as does a signed letter from Stalin, and assorted KGB medals and busts of famous spymasters such as Yuri Andropov jostle for space in the dining room. Waitresses in KGB uniforms serve dishes prepared by Nikolai Morozov, a Kremlin chef for 30 years who was also the personal chef of the late Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

"It's about the history of our country," Armen Pasikovich, the restaurant's manager, told The Independent. "Some people like to go to clubs and listen to jazz. But this is a place for people who love their country. A country cannot exist without government structures." Mr Pasikovich agrees KGB chic is not to everyone's liking. "There will always be critics. You can't please or convince everyone. But all we are doing is showing part of our history."

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the restaurant's name is the same as that of a film and a book which Mr Putin has said helped fuel his aspirations to join the KGB. The 1968 film Shield and Sword follows the exploits of Soviet spy Alexander Belov who infiltrates the German SS during the Second World War and obtains vital intelligence. In First Person, a book of conversations with Mr Putin, he specifically mentions the tale. "My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories," he is quoted as saying. "Books and spy movies ... took hold of my imagination. What amazed me most of all was how one man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not."

Today the country's cinemas are doing their bit too. FSB Major Smolin, star of the recent blockbuster Dog Tag or Lichny Nomer, typifies the new breed of spy the Kremlin wants the young generation to lionise. Stoic, courageous and a man of few words, the film shows him escaping from separatist rebels in war-torn Chechnya. He quickly goes on to free hundreds of innocent civilian hostages from a Moscow circus that has been seized by Chechen terrorists and prevents detonation of a nuclear bomb above a Nato summit in Rome. Not bad for one man armed only with a pistol. The $7m film, a huge box-office hit in Russia, was made with the help of the FSB and the government. Planes, attack helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and real-life special forces troops were deployed to lend it authenticity. Up and down the country, adolescents are cramming into internet cafes to while away hours playing shoot-'em-up games where the targets are always Russia's number one enemy of the moment: terrorists.

FSB agents are sprinkled with hero dust in TV series such as National Security Agent, Liquidator and The Motherland Is Waiting. Valentin Velichko, head of the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence and a former KGB spy, in his airy office on the southern outskirts of Moscow, is among many who feel Russia can be saved only by its spooks. Surrounded by daggers, bullets, a bust of Peter the Great, a sinister-looking safe, and a special Russian intelligence service flag, Mr Velichko says: "We see our task as ... introducing law and order in the country with a view to establishing a dictatorship of law where everyone is equal before the law. We are [society's] ballast. When the waters get choppy we bring stability. But nobody needs to see our work." What is lacking in Russia, he says, is a strong sense of spirituality. "There is prostitution, corruption and thievery. The Russian Orthodox Church is weak."

With the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany looming on 9 May, the armed forces and the country's elite special forces units are also getting the stardust treatment.

This month a "military-patriotic" TV channel - Zvezda or Star - aired in Moscow for the first time. It will soon be rolled out across the rest of the country with the backing of the Defence Ministry and will devote at least 10 per cent of its output to military matters. Its purpose is to reawaken dormant Russian pride in the armed forces.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a well-known political scientist, says KGB chic and glorification of the armed forces is going down well among Russians. "In Russia's political consciousness, the idea of strong power and order is quite popular ... and this propaganda is quite effective. It's not just about Chekhists [spies] but about the general militarisation of society. If you think you are encircled by enemies and some kind of fifth column then it's quite a natural process."

Mr Piontkovsky adds: "Nobody is going to restore Communism because the Chekhists have become millionaires. The idea of private property has won. But in Nazi Germany totalitarianism existed alongside private property and it had a different name. It was called fascism."

Mr Putin dismisses such talk as paranoid nonsense. In his view, democracy is not under threat but is merely being adapted to Russia's unique needs; unique needs which the West seems to be having increasing difficulty understanding.

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