John le Carré on the Russians, the KGB, and Kleptocracy

John le Carré: Vladimir Putin’s KGB became a streamlined kleptocracy.

From John le Carré’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, about  serving in British intelligence and then becoming a writer of spy novels.

I have met two former heads of the KGB in my life and I liked them both. The last to hold the job before the KGB changed its name, though not its spots, was Vadim Bakatin. . . .In 1999, to his surprise and not altogether his pleasure, Mikhail Gorbachev handed him the poisoned chalice: take over the KGB and clean it up. Sitting listening to him now, I could well imagine what might have prompted Gorbachev to offer him the job: Bakatin’s patent decency, which is of the deep-running, stubborn sort, made of awkward silences while he carefully weighs a question before delivering the carefully weighed answer.

“My recommendations were not popular with the KGB,” he observes. . . .He means not an easy assignment to breeze into KGB Headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square one summer’s morning, purge it at one blow of its autocratic tendencies and deliver a new, sanitized, socially aware spy service fit for purpose in the reconstructed democratic Russia that Gorbachev dreamed of.

Bakatin knew from the beginning that the going would be tough. But how much he knew is anyone’s guess. Was he aware that the KGB was a streamlined kleptocracy that had already pocketed a large chunk of the nation’s stock of hard currency and gold reserves and stashed it abroad? That its chieftans were hand in glove with the country’s organized-crime syndicates? . . .

“I was brought up from childhood  to believe that communism was the only true path for humanity,” he said. “Okay, things went wrong. Power got into the wrong hands, the Party took some wrong turnings. But I still believe that we were a moral force for good in the world. What are we now? Where is the moral force?”

Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer for 16 years before retiring in 1991 to enter politics in St. Petersburg. He moved to Moscow in 1996, joined President Boris Yeltsin’s administration, and became acting President in 1999. In 2000 he won the presidential election and was re-elected. In 2012, he won with 64 percent of the vote despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging.




  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Henry Kissinger’s view, expressed (as I read it) in either WHITE HOUSE YEARS or YEARS OF UPHEAVAL, was irony: Communism, which solved nobody’s economic problems, was popular among some for its moral proclamations, while capitalism, ostensibly based on moral (even religious, I’d say) precepts, was popular among some for its economic free-enterprise successes.


    I just read John le Carre’s “Single & Single” [1999] and the characterizations of the Russians and the ex-KGB are, I believe, both dead on and cautionary for the world almost 20 years hence. It might be an interesting task to see which of the characters reminds you of whom today.

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