With tensions growing between Russia and the West, FP spoke with this dissident spy about Putin's KGB past, the dangers of political activism, and the future of Russian democracy.
FOREIGN POLICY: In 1980, you were transferred within the KGB from foreign counterintelligence to the domestic arm of the KGB. You were later very public about your discomfort with the way the KGB operated within the Soviet Union. In your mind, what was the distinction between spying on Americans versus Soviet citizens and dissidents?
Oleg Kalugin: When I was transferred to the domestic service, I learned the truth about my own country. Instead of spying on America or whoever, I had to look into the domestic problems and ferret out Russians who by Soviet standards looked disloyal to the Soviet regime. Who are my enemies? People who do not feel good, who are not happy, who are disgruntled, disenchanted, disillusioned? And my job is to punish them by putting them in jail or psychiatric institutions? I understood pretty well why the Soviets were unhappy.
FP: When you were in St. Petersburg working for the KGB, you counted Vladimir Putin and Nikolai Patrushev, the current head of the FSB, Russia's domestic security agency, as your subordinates. What memories do you have of these two men?
OK: Nikolai Patrushev was my subordinate for years in Leningrad. One day he brought a report about one dissident in his district and said, "We must take care of him, maybe arrest him." I said, "Why? Give me the case." I read the file of this man, and it showed that he was honest about the lack of food, long lines you have to stand in for food, the bureaucracy of the Soviet party and government institutions. When Patrushev brought it, I said, "Why do we have to put him in jail? What is this case?" Patrushev's first desire was to put the guy in jail because he would spread his discontent and unhappiness among his friends and colleagues and that was dangerous.
Putin was too small to report to me directly. He was an operative; he was five steps below, so he never reported to me. He was one of 3,000 guys. He was just a gray, nonentity walking in the corridors. He was like all subordinates who had no confidence in themselves.
FP: Why don't you consider yourself a defector?
OK: I never defected. A defector is one who deserts his service. I never deserted. I was rehabilitated. I would go back to Russia, but Putin called me publicly a traitor and I called him a war criminal. I asked for political asylum in the United States.
FP: Do you believe, as Alexander Litvinenko did, that the apartment bombings in Moscow, which were blamed on Chechen rebels and used as a pretext to invade Chechnya, were planned?
OK: I do believe that. The Chechens would never blow up low-income housing in Moscow. Why would they? That would spread animosity towards the Chechens. Mr. Shchekochikhin, the editor of the only liberal Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, was appointed by the Russian parliament to investigate the bombings of these apartment houses and was poisoned just like Litvinenko. He died the same way: He lost his hair, 12 days in a coma. Sergey Yushchenkov, also a member of the same commission to investigate the bombings, was gunned down by his apartment. That is a train of events that tells you the current nature of the regime. Those who tried to investigate it are all dead.
FP: What in your mind then is the difference between the system Putin operates and Soviet Russia?
OK: Putin has partially restored the old Stalinist methods. The difference is Stalin used mass repressions. He would imprison and execute hundreds of thousands, millions. In Putin's case, it is more selective: individuals who he finds too hostile or harmful for his rule. Putin has actually put the country back to the authoritarian state; it's not as bloody but just as criminal as Stalin's regime.
FP: At what point did you begin to become suspicious of Putin, and what pushed you to become more outspoken against him?
OK: Putin? Well, I was always outspoken about him. I know this man's background better than many others. I do not talk in details—people who knew them are all dead now because they were vocal, they were open. I am quiet. There is only one man who is vocal, and he may be in trouble: [former] world chess champion [Garry] Kasparov. He has been very outspoken in his attacks on Putin, and I believe that he is probably next on the list.
FP: Do you credit your KGB training for your life at this point?
OK: Well, it helps. It really helps.
Oleg Kalugin is a former KGB general living in Washington, D.C.