On a balmy day in late August 2019 in the center of Berlin, a man on a bicycle rode up to forty-year-old Zelimkhan Khangoshvili and fired three bullets at close range, killing him instantly. He then botched his getaway. Witnesses saw him throw his pistol into a nearby canal; police caught him hiding in bushes not far from the scene. The alleged assassin, who has been named as Vadim Sokolov, was discovered to be holding a Russian passport. Khangoshvili was an ethnic Chechen from Georgia who had served as the commander of a rebel unit during the anti-Moscow insurgency in Chechnya at the turn of the century.
In December the German authorities announced that they suspected Moscow of orchestrating the killing and expelled two Russian diplomats in retaliation. (The Russians responded in kind a few days later.) I would be surprised if the legal proceedings do not end up generating negative publicity for the Kremlin, as did the attempt in Salisbury to kill the defector and former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in 2018, and the murder in London of another ex-spy, Alexander Litvinenko, using a radioactive poison in 2006.
Both of those incidents took place in the UK, a favored destination for political exiles from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That the attackers in those cases used weapons obtainable only from a government suggested that Moscow was sending a message to Russians in general and regime opponents in particular: Yes, it was us—and we haven’t forgotten you.
Putin’s brazen revival of the Soviet practice of killing political opponents outside Russia has shocked many in the West—though one could argue that he has merely updated a long-standing political tradition. For hundreds of years, Russian leaders have sought to assert control over those who have sought new lives abroad. Ivan the Terrible was driven to distraction by Prince Andrei Kurbsky, a nobleman who went over to Muscovy’s Polish-Lithuanian archenemies and used his safe haven to bombard his former sovereign with scathing critiques. Peter the Great’s wayward son Aleksei wandered Europe, seeking political support from governments hostile to his father, until he was finally lured home to a fate of torture and death. In the nineteenth century Alexander Herzen railed against tsarist tyranny from his comfortable London exile.
Herzen managed to get away with it. For all their brutality at home, the tsars did not make a habit of killing their critics abroad, apparently fearing the likely effects on their international reputation and diplomatic prestige. The Bolsheviks had few such compunctions. From the very beginning of their rule they unleashed a campaign of terror against real and imagined class enemies, and they soon demonstrated that they were willing to extend it to political opponents who had left the country.
As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan show in The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad, many Bolshevik leaders had spent long periods in foreign exile themselves, so they were all too aware of the possibility that a marginalized political movement could return from abroad to seize power. Soldatov and Borogan, Russian journalists who have specialized in reporting on the Russian security services, recount the obsessive efforts of Soviet intelligence to monitor the movements of Russians in exile. In 1930, the Kremlin’s agents zeroed in on Alexander Kutepov, a veteran of the civil war who had become the leader of the military wing of the exiled White Guard. A group of men in two cars grabbed him off the street in Paris; he was never seen again.
Yet Stalin’s biggest enemy abroad wasn’t the Whites but one of his former comrades-in-arms: the former Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. In 1940, after the spectacular failure of an earlier attempt by Soviet agents, a Spanish civil war veteran and Comintern operative named Ramón Mercader finally succeeded in hacking Trotsky to death with an ice ax at his home in Mexico City.
The KGB continued the practice throughout the cold war. (Its agents referred to assassinations as mokrye dela, “wet work.”) Soviet intelligence created laboratories for the development of poisons and easily concealable weapons. (Soldatov and Borogan note that a Soviet mole infiltrated the US military in the 1940s in order to track down similar laboratories run by the Department of War. There apparently were none.)
The ex-KGB man Putin also proved himself willing to resort to any means to achieve his goals. He first showed his determination to pursue his foes across international borders in early 2004, when a car bomb killed another former Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, in Qatar’s capital city, Doha. The bomb was quickly traced to two Russian citizens, apparently officers of the GRU (military intelligence), who were captured shortly after the killing, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. (The Qataris released them to Moscow after a bit of time served.)
The killing of Litvinenko two years later dramatically raised the stakes, because of both its location (in the heart of a major Western capital) and its means (polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance whose trail British investigators were later able to follow all the way across London). The Russian operatives who attacked Skripal and his daughter in 2018 carried this ostentatious sloppiness to a lethal new level. Though failing in their murderous mission, they managed to kill an innocent woman, Dawn Sturgess, who found a bottle of nerve agent discarded by the assailants and picked it up, thinking it was perfume.
In From Russia with Blood, Heidi Blake, an investigative journalist with BuzzFeed News, argues that the resulting scandal may have been just what Putin wanted. Russia was scheduled to hold a presidential election two weeks after the attack on the Skripals, and the Kremlin was happy to twist the story to its own ends. Though Moscow dismissed Western accusations of its involvement in the nerve agent attack as slander, Putin gave an interview just days before the election in which he pointedly declared that Russia never forgives “betrayal.” His spokesman attributed the relatively high turnout in the election—which, to the surprise of no one, Putin won by his usual resounding margin—to Britain’s harsh reaction to the Skripal incident.
Blake’s book makes the sensational claim that at least fourteen recent mysterious deaths in the UK (and one in the US) should be attributed to Russian assassins. The cases in question range from a British lawyer’s fatal helicopter crash to the apparent suicide of Boris Berezovsky, the exiled oligarch who had helped Putin rise to power at the end of the 1990s before a falling-out that turned the two men into bitter enemies. British counterintelligence has reopened investigations into some of the deaths on Blake’s list, including Berezovsky’s. I remain skeptical about a number of her conclusions; to name but one, she asserts that Russian intelligence has developed a program that uses “drugs and psychological tactics to drive their targets into taking their own lives.” This seems like a lot of work for an outcome that you could achieve just as easily with a fast-acting poison that doesn’t leave obvious traces in autopsies.
Blake is, however, right to urge Western governments—and Britain’s in particular—that they must show far more resolve in confronting Moscow’s attacks on their societies, whether through poison, corruption, or disinformation. Yet we cannot afford to succumb to hysteria along the way. If we’ve learned anything by now, it’s that Putin is always happy to turn our weaknesses against us.
The policy of targeted killings is just one of many Soviet practices that the Russian president has revived during his two decades in power. Yet even as he has restricted or rolled back some of the freedoms achieved in the 1990s, there is one that he has conspicuously left intact: the freedom of movement. In this he has notably departed from the Stalinist model.
Almost immediately after seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks set to work transforming the borders of Russia (and then the Soviet Union) into the walls of a gigantic prison. No other regime had gone to comparable lengths to seal its citizens off from the outside world. Stalin’s concentration camps soon included inmates guilty solely of trying to cross the border—an unforgivable offense not only because it demonstrated a lack of loyalty, but also because emigrants could potentially tell the outside world what life inside the Communist utopia was really like.
Those borders became porous under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, and since then millions of people have chosen to leave Russia and the other countries of the former USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union involuntarily exiled many more—including a large number of ethnic Russians who suddenly found themselves citizens of new countries such as Kazakhstan or Ukraine. Citing statistics from the United Nations, Soldatov and Borogan estimate that the current global Russian diaspora numbers around eleven million people. Putin himself cites a figure of more than 30 million.1
Over the decades, many of those Russians made the decision to leave for economic or personal reasons rather than political ones, and often retained a deep emotional bond to the land of their birth. Boris Yeltsin, keen to establish policies that contrasted with those of his Communist predecessors, understood that many of these Russians abroad could be useful allies in his project of democratization. Soviet officials had habitually referred to emigrants as “traitors.” Yeltsin and his government consciously chose a different term: “compatriots” (sootechestvinniki). Yeltsin invited the first delegation of émigré Russians, which included many descendants of those who left the country following the Bolshevik takeover, to a conference in the summer of 1991 in Moscow, where their visit overlapped with the unsuccessful coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev staged by Soviet hard-liners.
Putin has continued and expanded that embrace of the exile community. In 2008 he created an entire agency, subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that was tasked with the management of Moscow’s relations to overseas Russians. In Russian it is known simply as Rossotrudnichestvo (“Russian Cooperation”); in English, it grandiloquently refers to itself as the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation. Shortly before, Putin founded a parallel organization, called Russian World, that aimed to promote Russian language and culture abroad in close conjunction with the Russian Orthodox Church.
That last element is important. One of the most striking features of Putin’s time in office has been his transformation of the Orthodox Church into a pillar of the regime. To be sure, present-day Russia is still a long way from becoming a theocracy; that is scarcely a practical option for a country that remains a bewildering quilt of ethnicities and faiths, among them an indigenous Muslim community numbering in the many millions. Yet these days the Moscow Patriarchy looks increasingly like a state institution in all but name. “Insulting the feelings of believers” has become an offense enshrined in the criminal code, and religious officials routinely take part in military ceremonies, administering blessings to new weaponry as well as to soldiers.
As Soldatov and Borogan show, officially sanctioned Orthodoxy—as a marker of putative authentic Russian identity—has become a major component of Putin’s efforts to meld the diverse Russian presence abroad into an army of sympathizers capable of mobilizing support for the Kremlin’s agenda. To show how this translates into practice, they visited the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center in Paris. The church at the heart of the complex is open to the public; when they tried to enter one of the other buildings, “a man appeared from nowhere and gestured at us to stop and go back.” They note that the French authorities regard the complex as an intelligence outpost and have refused to accede to Moscow’s request to give its employees diplomatic status. Soldatov and Borogan conclude:
Orthodox believers in France, mostly Russian emigrants and their descendants, were invited to come to a church that was clearly under Moscow’s control. There, they would be embraced by the new Russia, one no longer divided into two groups—the Russian diaspora and Russians still living in Russia—but constituting a single Russky Mir (Russian world), whose members were all “compatriots.”
Soldatov and Borogan give an interesting account of Putin’s campaign to reunify Moscow’s branch of the Orthodox Church with its exile counterpart, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (also known as the White Church), which broke away from the Moscow church in 1919 after it came under the control of the Soviet government. The effort to woo the émigré church officials took six years, but in the end they succumbed to the Kremlin’s peculiar brand of suasion. In November 2018 the authors conducted an interview in Moscow with a man named Peter Holodny, whom they describe as a “priest and financier” of the White Church:
He brought his grown son with him to the meeting, probably as a witness.
“Forgive me for not being as naive as I used to be. You have an ambiguous reputation, and you have powerful enemies,” he said. He was referring to the FSB, the Russian security service. “Now you want to write about the reunion. I’m telling you—there was no money, no one bribed anyone, there was no coercion.”
Nobody had asked him about money or coercion.
The story of the Kremlin’s use of overseas Russians as a medium of power projection isn’t just about culture and religion. Putin’s reign has coincided with an extraordinary worldwide expansion of Russian economic and business interests—often in ways that are hard to distinguish from the overtly criminal. Émigrés—and Russian tycoons who seem to spend as much time in the West as they do at home—figure prominently in the story.
Blake, Soldatov, and Borogan all show, in impressive detail, how Western institutions have proven more than happy to corrupt themselves—from the banks and lawyers eager to help launder funds of suspicious provenance to the universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions keen to bestow their cachet on deep-pocketed donors. American journalists such as David Corn, Michael Isikoff, and Craig Unger have amply documented Donald Trump’s myriad relations with dubious Russian investors, showing how Soviet and Russian émigrés flooded his real estate business with hard-to-trace cash at a time when most US banks had ceased to lend to him.2 One need only recall the notorious tale of the FBI’s hunt for Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a Russian mobster who was running an international gambling ring headquartered in New York City. When agents finally tracked him down in 2013, he turned out to be living in a luxury apartment in Trump Tower.
Soldatov and Borogan have little to say about Trump, but they do offer an intriguing biography of the American businessman Boris Jordan, an investment banker whose grandfather fled Russia after the revolution. Jordan was one of the first Western investors to understand that the dawning of capitalism in post-Soviet Russia offered unlimited opportunities to those willing to bear the risks; he ended up making millions. Along the way, he became the CEO of NTV, one of the country’s most outspoken private TV broadcasters, at a moment when Putin, still a newcomer in power, wanted to neutralize it. Jordan was happy to help, willingly firing critical journalists and eliminating critical programs in return for Kremlin goodwill.
The Compatriots contains many useful subplots like this one, but they don’t necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. The main problem is that Soldatov and Borogan haven’t quite figured out what story they want to tell. They devote a lot of space to overseas assassinations, but the book doesn’t really work as a history of Russia’s targeted killings.3 Some of the most notorious examples—including both Skripal and Litvinenko—barely earn a mention, apparently in the flawed assumption that readers already know all the details.
Soldatov and Borogan make similarly passing reference to a particularly revealing operation in 1959, when the KGB succeeded in killing the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in his Munich exile with a cyanide spray. The murderer, Bogdan Stashinsky, was arrested by the Germans, served time in jail, and declined, upon his release, to return to the USSR—thereby becoming a member of the same Soviet diaspora to which his target had belonged. The Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy has written an engrossing and meticulously researched account of the Bandera killing, The Man with the Poison Gun (2016). It makes for a riveting case study in the use of murder as an instrument of Soviet policy. Soldatov and Borogan could have learned from its example.
The subtitle of The Compatriots announces that Borogan and Soldatov aspire to tell the tale of “Russia’s exiles, émigrés, and agents abroad.” But they don’t really do that, either. Here’s how they describe the community of exiles after the Bolshevik Revolution:
But instead of thinking of the future, the intelligentsia kept talking about the past. They seemed trapped in thousands of poignant what-ifs: What if World War I hadn’t broken out, the tsar hadn’t abdicated, Lenin was refused entry into the country, the allies hadn’t betrayed the White Cause? Years, then decades, passed in conversations like these. They continued, endlessly, in kitchens and cafés, salons and meeting halls, from Harbin to Belgrade, Paris to Constantinople.
Dwelling on the past didn’t answer any questions about the future, and it was a surefire way to lose touch with the realities of everyday life back in the Soviet Union.
This portrayal is a caricature that echoes Soviet-era propaganda, which went to great lengths to depict those who left the USSR as the castoffs of history, myopic tsarist aristocrats filled with nostalgia for their old mansions and estates. The reality was far more interesting.
The post-1917 wave of exiles encompassed a startling range of talents. One need mention only a few of those who ended up in the United States (far from the only country to be enriched by their presence). Vladimir Zworykin, who left Russia in 1918, gained fame as an inventor of the television. The economist Simon Kuznets became a US government planner during World War II and later won the Nobel Prize. Igor Sikorski, a pioneering aircraft designer who played a vital part in the development of the helicopter, abandoned his homeland in 1919. The composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky also ended up choosing life in the United States. George Balanchine, who departed Russia for good in 1924, transformed American ballet; Vladimir Nabokov, who left in 1919, had a profound effect on American literature.
Nabokov’s father, incidentally, embodied the political complexity of the emigration. A lawyer with a staunch belief in liberal democracy, he was a fierce opponent of the monarchy who lobbied against capital punishment during the final years of the Romanov era, then served in the provisional government in 1917 until the Bolshevik coup. Such figures belied the Soviet tactic of reflexively characterizing all émigrés as “Whites” who yearned for the restoration of the Romanovs. Nabokov senior was assassinated by a right-wing extremist at a political meeting in Berlin in 1922—not by a Soviet agent but by a fellow émigré.
Soldatov and Borogan do tell the stories of a few celebrated defectors, notably Stalin’s star-crossed daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, who returned to the USSR for two years before redefecting to the West in 1986, and the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yet here, too, they end up leaving far too much untold. I particularly missed a mention of Viktor Kravchenko, a Soviet bureaucrat who defected to the United States during World War II and later published one of the first accounts of the Gulag to appear in the West. He lived in constant fear of assassination at the hands of Soviet agents; Stalin made sure that Kravchenko’s son was packed off to the Gulag for the crime of having a father deemed a traitor. This tale would have made a perfect fit with the authors’ effort to chart the “brutal and chaotic history” of the Russian diaspora. There is no mention of Kravchenko in the book.
A satisfying account of the Russian diaspora from 1917 to the present remains to be written. In our globalizing world, we have come to understand that migration, innovation, and creativity are fundamentally interconnected in the story of humankind. The formation of the Russian diaspora must count as one of its most instructive chapters. One can only hope that someone will take on the task of telling it.
The difference probably involves the rather thorny issue of how one defines “Russian.” Unlike, say, “Han Chinese,” the term “Russian” is notoriously elastic. Some define it linguistically (“Russian-speakers”), others as an ethnicity—the latter a highly slippery approach in a country in which diversity has been the only constant. Soldatov and Borogan never attempt a definition in their book. ↩
See Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (Twelve, 2018); and Craig Unger, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia (Dutton, 2018). ↩
In this respect, I couldn’t help comparing the book to Ronen Bergman’s masterful Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (Random House, 2018). ↩