Michael Weiss

Director for Special Investigations, Free Russia Foundation

Feb 10, 2020
“Recruitment or Elimination: The Kremlin’s Dark History of Dealing with Ethnic Russians Beyond Russia’s Borders”

On May 5, 2018, New York became a parade ground for two diasporas commemorating a distinct source of ethnic pride. Cinco de Mayo commanded the larger following that day, if only because of the kitsch bacchanalia every bar and restaurant in the five boroughs makes of a holiday meant to mark the Mexican army’s defeat of French empire. But the smaller gathering was distinguished by an unusual spectacle: an aircraft emblazoned with an enormous orange-and-black ribbon overflying the Statue of Liberty. Down below, some two thousand Russian-Americans, some in World War II-era uniforms, solemnly marched downtown along the Hudson, many of them carrying photos of relatives who’d fought Nazism decades earlier. It was four days before Victory Day, the official Russian state holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler.

The marchers in Manhattan were doing their part early to honor the Immortal Regiment, the name bestowed by Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Administration in 2012 on deceased Russian veterans who are said to live forever so long as their heirs remember them. Yet this mass act of necromantic remembrance had an unmistakable political overtone.

The Immortal Regiment parade was organized by a pro-Kremlin youth group ensconced in St. Nicholas Church, the headquarters of Russian Orthodoxy in New York. Ever since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the orange-and-black Ribbon of St. George that buzzed Lady Liberty has become an omnipresent symbol of revanchist and nationalist Russian sentiment.

For the Kremlin, this civic gathering, similar versions of which were held across the United States, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, “represented a significant projection of power to America,” according to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.  It also represented a little-noticed high point for one of  Putin’s long-held foreign policies, one that is really an extension of domestic policy: the de facto enlistment of all ethnic Russians, wherever they are born or reside, as citizens of the Russian Federation, whether they like it or not. “Russia’s ‘compatriots’ policy reflects Putin’s past as a KGB intelligence officer,”  Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on the Russian security services, explained to me, citing a KGB manual on this very subject published by The Daily Beast in 2018. “He was trained to see every ethnic Russian living either inside or outside the Soviet Union as one of two things: an asset to be recruited or a threat to be eliminated.”

There are plenty of tales of eliminations — or attempted eliminations — in Soldatov’s book. The Compatriots opens with a reconstruction of the poisoning of my colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Putin. Kara-Murza nearly died by poisoning not once, but twice, while traveling through Russia. The substance that nearly killed him has never been publicly identified. I say “publicly” because the U.S. government apparently has reached a conclusion as to the toxin used.  Soldatov and Borogan quote an unnamed FBI agent who, in December 2017, informed Kara-Murza that the Bureau was preparing to hand the chiefs of the three main Russian intelligence services a report suggesting “that there was an attempted murder of a Russian citizen on Russian territory for political reasons.”

The chiefs arrived in Washington, D.C. a month later, a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, to meet with their American counterparts. Soldatov and Borogan are skeptical the report was ever even brought up, much less passed along. The timing might not have been judged to be quite right, what with a new U.S. administration headed by a president whose avowed wish was to “get along” with Russia. But the timing could hardly have been better, either.

In February 2018, Sergei Skripal, a defector from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, would be found unconscious, along with his daughter, on a park bench in Salisbury, England, both victims of a near-lethal poisoning by the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok. Two operatives from the GRU, the apparatus Skripal once served, would later be identified as the culprits and sanctioned by the European Union, as a host of Western democracies responded to this act of state terrorism by expelling more spies stationed in Russian embassies than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

So much for the eliminations. As to the “recruitments,” Soldatov and Borogan wisely follow the money, the messaging, and the ties to the Russian security services.

In July 2018, Soldatov drove up the driveway to a sprawling mansion in the Rublyovka suburb of Moscow. He was there to interview Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB officer turned oligarch and media magnate who had just returned from celebrating his wedding anniversary — in occupied Crimea.

Lebedev is a colorful figure, even by Russian oligarch standards. He was arrested, interrogated, and ultimately convicted by Russian authorities in 2011 after knocking out a fellow guest on a live television broadcast. Sentenced to 130 hours of community service, the billionaire ex-KGB man and bon vivant was exhibited on Russian state media sweeping the Moscow streets. It was a housebreaking, write Soldatov and Borogan; a signal from the top that ”you might be a former high-ranking KGB officer and an oligarch with newspapers from Moscow to London, but don’t forget you are totally at the mercy of the Kremlin.”

Yet for all this official turbulence, Lebedev hasn’t exactly gone rogue. He has routinely chastised Western governments for instituting sanctions on Russia for its invasion and destabilization of Ukraine. In conversation with Soldatov, he also dismissed the idea of a viable Russian opposition to Putin, of which Lebedev nonetheless considers himself a part, and derided Kara-Murza’s poisonings as an unproven conspiracy theory. Then he allowed this remark about how his various news holdings navigate an overweening Russian state: “Where it’s needed they criticize Russia, and where it’s needed, say, on Syria, we support the Russian position.”

Two of these holdings are in fact prominent British newspapers, The Evening Standard, a free daily now edited by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne; and The Independent, a left-of-center tabloid with a notoriously eccentric comment section, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.

Lebedev and his socialite son and business partner, Evgeny, have lately come under scrutiny in the UK for two reasons. The first is their well-photographed coziness to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who attends parties hosted by the Lebedevs at home and abroad, including one lavish affair in London the day after his blow-out election victory last month. The second is the existence of a 50-page British intelligence dossier on Russian interference in the British political system, a report Downing Street has refused to de-classify, as Johnson waves off allegations that oligarchs such as Alexander Lebedev might be wielding undue influence over his government.

Closer to these shores, Soldatov and Borogan train their investigative attention on the American-born billionaire Boris Jordan, the scion of an exiled aristocratic dynasty responsible for financing and supporting the pro-czarist White Army during the Russian Civil War. Today, Jordan is gemutlich with the powers that be in Moscow and has done very well for himself in New York. He is currently the chairman of Curaleaf, the world’s largest legal marijuana seller, as well as the patron of the eponymous Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University. In recent public appearances, he, too, has railed against sanctions on Russian officials and institutions over Ukraine.

Like a number of ethnic Russians born and raised in the West, Jordan moved to his ancestral home after the collapse of the Soviet Union to reap the benefits of a fledging democracy and market economy. He amassed a fortune through savvy investments and excellent contacts. Renaissance Capital, the investment bank Jordan cofounded, enlisted two Russian foreign intelligence officers for executive positions. One of them, Yuri Sagaidak, had been expelled from London in the late 1980s for attempting to recruit a member of the British parliament.

Jordan was later tapped by Putin as CEO of the popular NTV television channel upon its hostile takeover by the state. NTV’s crime was reporting honestly and critically on the Kremlin, and Jordan dutifully oversaw its transformation into a pro-government mouthpiece. One of the casualties of that transformation was Kara-Murza’s father, a veteran reporter who died earlier this year.

Although Jordan at one point fell out of favor with the Kremlin, he is back in its good graces now owing to his successful stateside facilitation of the reconciliation of the two churches of Russian Orthodoxy. The “White Church” was established by émigrés, such as Jordan’s father, who fled Lenin’s regime after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. It came to represent more than a mere spiritual alternative to the grim totalitarianism constructed by the new rulers of the metropole, but also a way-station for the preservation of Russian culture, literature, and art.

The “Red Church,” meanwhile, emerged under communist rule in Moscow and gained in significance after Josef Stalin, himself a drop-out from the priesthood, realized how an ancient faith could be instrumentalized to advance a secular nationalism. The White Church had always been hostile to whoever was in charge back home, whereas the Red Church had consistently been little more than the black cowl of the Russian government. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church even counted more than a few former KGB officers in its ranks, including its current head, Patriarch Kirill.

“Jordan helped Putin achieve his most ambitious goal in dealing with the Russians abroad,” Soldatov told me. “He brought under Moscow’s control the Russian Orthodox Church in exile, the one seen by many as a symbol of the spiritual Russia uncorrupted by KGB control. He secured it by investing his money and his personal prestige as a Russian aristocrat.”

That investment, too, has paid off for Jordan, as those Immortal Regiment marches across America in 2018 demonstrated. As for the corruption of KGB control, that the wealthy American heir of a storied White Russian family would do the bidding of Russia’s first KGB-czar might be counted yet another satisfying realization of Putin’s compatriots policy.

“You don’t drag me into criticizing Putin!” Jordan told the authors of this timely and important new book.

Photo credit: UNIAN.

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