Skripal Poisonings Are an Eerie Throwback to the Soviet Era

(Bloomberg View) -- With U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May rather confidently pinning the attempted murder of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on the Russian state, the past is fully upon us -- several different pasts, in fact.

To better understand what's going on, skip the BBC TV series "McMafia" and dip into "Babylon Berlin," the recent high-budget German production set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Berlin's Russian community was enormous in those days, as it is again today: It was in the 1920s that Charlottenburg, the borough in which I live now, was first nicknamed Charlottengrad. In "Babylon Berlin," an emigre cell works to get a shipment of Russian gold to Trotsky and thugs sent by the KGB predecessor and working out of the Soviet embassy massacre the Trotskyites. In Volker Kutscher's novel "The Wet Fish," upon which the series is based, a Russian tells the German protagonist, "We Russians live here among ourselves, and we regulate our own affairs. We don't like it when Germans meddle in our affairs."

So it was in 1920s and 1930s Paris, too. The city's enormous contingent of White Russians was thoroughly penetrated by Soviet intelligence, whose work culminated in the kidnappings of Generals Alexander Kutepov and Yevgeny Miller, successive heads of the Russian General Military Union -- the remnant of the White Army command. "The Bolsheviks infiltrated White Russian organizations and compromised every political opposition movement," wrote British author Vanora Bennett, who has long been fascinated by the first Russian emigration. "The Russian expatriate community was riven by suspicion and double-dealing. It was impossible to tell who was with you and who was in the pay of the Soviet secret agents from the Cheka, later known as the NKVD (and later still as the KGB)."

Berlin and Paris had the biggest concentrations of Russians in the 1920s, though London, too, had its emigre community. Today, "Londongrad" is clearly the leading city for the new emigration, with a Russian population conservatively estimated at 150,000. As in the interwar years of the 20th century, the Kremlin appears to feel it's playing on home turf there. Just as the Stalin government wanted to prevent high-profile emigres from joining forces with the Nazis, the Putin one wants to make sure its Western rivals get as little Russian help as possible. That's the propaganda message from Russian state TV following the Skripal murder attempt. "Perhaps the British climate is indeed deadly for defectors," a (Russian state-owned) Channel One journalist quipped.

As during the interbellum, Russia is trying to lure the emigres back by promising -- not always sincerely -- to forgive their sins. Late last year, Russia's business ombudsman Boris Titov visited London and came back with a list off Russian entrepreneurs who were interested in returning to Russia. Last month, the first of them, Andrei Kakovkin, did so -- and was immediately arrested

Also like in Berlin and Paris of the 1920s and early 1930s, there is a full spectrum of backgrounds and opinions in the emigre community. Andrei Sidelnikov, the founder of the Speak Louder emigre movement who represents highly vocal opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has called on the U.K. authorities to kick out those Russians who are "clearly connected to the Kremlin." "It's time to expose this entire KGB bunch in Great Britain," Sidelnikov wrote on Facebook. "They behave as though this were their home." On the other hand, Putin loyalists such as billionaire Alisher Usmanov and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov own expensive real estate in London; they're not emigres, but they and those who work for them are part of the scene. Then there's the Russian embassy in London, famous for its no-holds-barred Twitter account, and the community around it. Because of the Russian scene's multifaceted nature, there's widespread suspicion, just like in Bennett's description of 1920s Paris, and stories of conspicuous Russian agents watching the dissidents.

As if all these blasts from the past weren't enough, there's also the nerve agent used, according to May, in the Skripal assassination attempt -- a chemical weapon of the Novichok family. This time machine trip is shorter: The nerve agent was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It was a binary weapon based on a common pesticide that reacted with another substance to release the poison. This allowed Russia to find loopholes in future chemicals weapons treaties; it has never admitted developing or possessing the weapon. "They just wanted to exploit the loopholes written into the Chemical Weapons Convention in order to destroy their old and useless chemical weapons, while trying to keep the development and stockpiling of new deadly weapons a secret," wrote Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who worked on the top-secret Novichok program and who blew the whistle on it in the early 1990s.

Russia's domestic intelligence, the FSB, tried to put Mirzayanov in prison for divulging state secrets but, this being the messy beginning of the post-Soviet era, the Russian prosecutor general dropped the charges. Long retired, the chemist now lives in the U.S. His book, "State Secrets," contains an annex of documents on the Soviet chemical weapons program, released by the FSB for his secret trial -- and an explanation of the chemistry of the Novichok nerve agents. 

As I wrote last week, the Skripal attack suggests the rules of the spy game have changed from the old days. Indeed, Putin's Soviet reconstruction is thoroughly post-modern. It takes strands from Soviet Russia's original struggle for a place in the world and from the 1970s height of its power. It brings together 100-year-old methods and modern weapons. It mixes the early Soviet authorities' desire to push dissidents and "traitors" outside of Russia with the Stalinist reflex of trying to control them where they end up, both through surveillance and intimidating messaging. This is the entire Soviet history rising up to confront Russians in the West -- and a West that, again, has been welcoming to a wave of diverse outward-bound Russians.

Whether the West can handle this without closing itself to continuing Russian emigration is an important question for policymakers. As for the Russian expatriates in London and elsewhere, it's time for us to reread history books and prepare to deal with a variety of Motherlands from the past.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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