Not since the 1920s has there been such a large Russian emigration committed to change at home, with at least some members prepared to support or even organize violent attacks on the regime in Moscow. And so, it should come as no surprise that some now suspect that the Kremlin may be considering whether to engage in a replay of the stratagem Vladimir Lenin’s regime employed a century ago to geld and disorder such opponents, one long known as Operation Trust. Obviously, to be effective, this tactic is not being discussed by Russian officials themselves. For them to discuss the strategy would make it much less effective. But some in the Russian emigration are already expressing concerns that the Vladimir Putin regime—because of the dominance of the intelligence services and because of a Russian proclivity to use tactics that once worked again and again—may now do what Lenin and the Cheka did so effectively long ago.
Many who oppose Putin have taken what he is doing to heart, as evidenced by a militant anti-Putin movement that is taking shape inside Russia with the blowing up of draft centers and sabotage on rail lines. These detractors have been encouraged even more by the appearance of someone in Ukraine who seems to represent these groups (see EDM, May 17). Indeed, such people have been even more pleased by the appearance of Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian émigré in Ukraine who claims to represent the Russian National Republican Army and seeks the support of all those opposed to the Putin regime to carry out attacks on it (Idel.Realities, September 3). The desire of such people to do so and the attention and support they have been garnering is understandable, but it contains a danger many are not focusing on.
Dmitry Savvin, editor of the conservative Russian Harbin portal based in Riga, Latvia, says that the situation with the current Russian political emigration reminds him of “a bad remake of émigré history in the 1920s and 1930s,” and that should be cause of alarm, especially in this particular case. He argues that it is axiomatic that those who oppose Putin must support a genuine underground in Russia committed to the same thing. But they must be absolutely sure they are supporting a genuine movement and not one created by the intelligence services to disarm and destroy any chances for regime change (Harbin.lv, September 9).
According to Savvin, the risks that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and other government agencies could organize such simulacra are all too real, especially given the large number of people in the Kremlin, including Putin himself, who come from the intelligence services and are well aware of what Moscow has done in the past. The Russian government, of course, has various techniques it can employ to counter émigré activism, including penetration, recruitment and the establishment of alternative organizations. It has used such tactics regularly but most often against exposed non-Russian communities abroad, such as the Circassians, rather than against the Russian emigration (Caucasus Times, November 24, 2020). But given the increasing size and activism of the latter, the gold standard for Moscow’s operations against it remains the Trust.
The Trust is the code name the Soviets gave to an organization they created in 1920, the Monarchist Organization of Central Russia, which claimed it was ready to use violence to overthrow Lenin’s government but was in fact completely controlled by the Soviet secret police. This arrangement gave Moscow three key advantages.
First, it split the emigration with those who fell for the Trust’s argument about claiming to be the true fighters for a free Russia against those who argued for a more cautious approach.
Second, it gave the Trust, and its Chekist handlers, the whip hand not only by ensuring that Moscow always knew the émigrés’ plans but also by allowing the Trust operatives to argue that, since they were on the ground, only they, and not the émigrés, should decide when and where to attack, thus gelding the Russian emigrants.
And third—and possible its most important feature—when the Trust was exposed in 1927 (and this was almost certainly done by the Soviets themselves), those in the emigration who had believed in it found themselves discredited in the eyes of everyone else, giving Moscow another positive outcome. (For background on this murky operation, which was once widely known in the West but has been largely forgotten, see, in particular, Simpkins and Dyer, The Trust, 1989; Brook-Shepherd, Iron Maze: The Western Secret Services and the Bolsheviks, 1998; and Sergey Voytsekhovsky, The Trust, in Russian, 1974, among other Western studies of Soviet intelligence operations.)
According to Savvin, a genuine anti-Putin underground may now be emerging in Russia; indeed, he indicates that he very much hopes this is the case. But before anyone in the emigration decides whether it is genuine or only an FSB plot, many more questions need to be answered about what is actually happening in Russia and who is behind these actions, he reasonably suggests, lest the current Russian emigration fall into the very same trap as their compatriots did a century ago.
This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 135
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .