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The Long Afterlife of the KGB

Amy Knight, interviewed by Matt Seaton

On December 4, 2020, we published “Aleksei Navalny, Ready to Run Again in Russia,” by the historian and longtime Review contributor Amy Knight. In this latest post, she reviews the prospects for Navalny, the anti-corruption opposition politician who survived a poisoning attempt with the nerve agent Novichok, thanks to treatment in Germany, and is now planning a return to Russia to resume his mission as a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin.

Knight has become known as one of the West’s leading scholars of the KGB, from her first book, a study of the secret police published in 1988, through subsequent ones on Stalin’s henchman Lavrenty Beria and cold war spying, to her most recent, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder (2017). Although her first love had simply been the literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which made her want to learn the Russian language, the course of her future research was set while she was studying at the University of Michigan.

“A study tour of the Soviet Union with fellow students and professors in the summer of 1967—the height of the cold war—resulted in my brief arrest by the KGB, which took a dim view of our group’s consorting with their dissident students,” she told me via email this week. “After that experience, I became fascinated with the Soviet dissident movement and the efforts of the Soviet regime to suppress it.”

She pursued graduate studies at the LSE and embarked on her career as a Soviet affairs analyst at the Library of Congress, followed by teaching positions at Johns Hopkins, George Washington, and Carleton universities. The dissolution of the Soviet Union is now some thirty years distant, but I was curious to know what those epochal events had meant at the time for a Sovietologist—was she ever worried about being out of a job? 

“On the contrary, the Soviet collapse created huge opportunities because we finally could visit Russia in person,” she replied. “And the Soviet archives suddenly opened up—a treasure trove of files and documents on the hitherto secret operations of the Communist Party leadership. I was able to travel to Russia and do research and interviews, including with a former KGB chief, several times in the early and mid-Nineties. This was the golden age for Western Russia experts and scholars.”

The halcyon era did not last long. By the latter part of the decade, she explained, the shutters were coming down again and her access to such sources ended.

“Once Putin became firmly entrenched in power it became risky for people like me, who were so critical of Putin, to visit Russia. The last time I was in Moscow, March 2008, I was well aware that I was being watched wherever I went to do interviews,” she said. “Shortly before I left Moscow, I became violently ill with what I assumed was food-poisoning from eating at the Marriot Hotel on Tverskaya Street. But in retrospect, I saw the incident as a warning and have not attempted to return to Moscow since then.”

There was no confusing Navalny’s illness with food-poisoning. Placed in a medical coma by Russian doctors, and then flown to Germany for specialist—and safe—treatment, he was lucky to survive. Until this moment, the opposition leader had faced repeated arrests and legal harassment on apparently spurious and politically motivated charges. Why had he now, I asked Knight, faced an assassination attempt that had the Kremlin’s fingerprints on it?

“Navalny addresses the single most important weakness of Putin’s regime: official corruption,” she explained. “The Russian people are suffering terribly economically, and the more they learn about the vast sums of money that Putin’s cronies are pocketing at their expense, the more receptive they are to Navalny’s calls for protest.”

Knight’s article this week read to me as relatively optimistic about what Navalny might still achieve once back in Russia, despite Putin’s iron control of the state security apparatus, the media, and an ersatz electoral process. Will the incoming Biden administration make much difference, I asked.

“Putin has made it clear in his public comments over the years that a strong NATO alliance is one of the greatest threats to his regime,” she said. “The most important thing for Biden in his strategy toward Russia is to repair our alliance with our European allies and act in concert with them in responding to the human rights abuses of the Kremlin. The sanctions that Navalny and his colleagues have advocated are a good example.

“I think that Russian democrats are very relieved to see that Trump will be out of the White House,” she added, “because Trump turned a blind eye to Putin’s human rights abuses.”

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