Russia celebrates Chekist day and its legendary agents
Russia on Monday celebrated the professional holiday of its intelligence services, still widely known as "Chekists' Day" in homage to the early Soviet agency that organised political repressions as well as espionage.
The Cheka was created on December 20, 1917, by Lenin. The agency has since gone through numerous reincarnations -- including OGPU, NKVD and the KGB. Its internal security arm is now called the FSB and foreign intelligence the SVR.
In 1995, President Boris Yeltsin changed the name of the holiday and Chekists' Day officially became the Day of the Members of the Security Services.
But Russians continue to use the old name for the professional holiday, whose date directly links the Russia agency of today and the Soviet secret services.
For the Russian liberal intelligentsia, as for most Westerners, the Cheka and its successors are synonymous with the bloody history of repressions that left millions shot, deported or dying in the Gulag camp system.
The authorities prefer to stress the successes of Soviet intelligence and miss no opportunity to recall their glory days.
Earlier this month, a plaque commemorating Kim Philby, the senior British intelligence officer who served as a double agent for the Soviet Union, was unveiled on a building of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
Recent months have not been easy for the SVR: in the summer, a group of sleeper agents was exposed in the United States by a former SVR officer who defected to the CIA.
Then in December, a Russian citizen, Katya Zatuliveter, 25, was arrested in London on suspicion of being another sleeper agent for Moscow.
The head of the SVR, former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, acknowledged recent failures to the state Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Monday.
"Failures happen to the secret services all over the world. It's especially hard when they are due to the betrayal of the Motherland. There can be no justification of this," he said of the exposure of the US spy ring.
These hazards have not prevented the appearance in Russia of a large number of books glorifying the spy services.
In December, Filipp Bobkov, a former KGB general, published a memoir titled "How the Traitors were Trained," in which he described 20 years of fighting dissidents.
Such memoirs influenced Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent. Recalling his childhood in a book published soon after becoming president in 2000, he said: "Books and films made me dream of the life of a spy. It seemed as faraway to me as Mars."
The authors of a book that so far has only appeared in English, "The New Nobility -- The Rebirth of the Russian Security State," journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, trace how the FSB acquired sway in political and business circles after Putin came to power.
"Whatever power the KGB had during the Soviet era, it had to report back to the Communist Party. Today the FSB has unlimited freedom and does not answer either to the parliament or to public opinion," the authors told AFP in an interview.
"It just makes it accountable to the Kremlin, due to the lack of an adequate mechanism," they said.
In a commercial side to the Chekist Day, websites such as www.lubanka.ru sell trinkets decorated with portraits of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yury Andropov, a former KGB chief who cracked down on dissidents.
You can even buy Stalin-era police badges and a portrait of Lavrenty Beria, one of the cruellest heads of the NKVD agency.
Lovers of kitsch can order a cake iced with the letters KGB and the agency's sword and shield emblem for the equivalent of 53 dollars (40 euros).
Among the most expensive items are a bronze bust of Dzerzhinsky for 956 dollars (730 euros) or a wooden sculpture of the Cheka founder for 2,620 dollars (2,000 euros).
© 2010 AFP