“Leaping into a happy
future in a single bound”:
vetting former officials 35 years ago
and the day after tomorrow
Who should be punished for Russia’s war against Ukraine and the political crackdown currently underway in Russia itself? Who should be forgiven for their actions? Who should build the Russia of the future that some hope will one day replace the Putin regime? These are vital and painful questions. Unlike other post-communist countries, Russia did not vet officials after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Retired KGB officers now discuss geopolitics not at their local bar but as members of the country’s Security Council. Russia has again become an "evil empire" in the eyes of the rest of the world. Was there a chance to avoid this turn of events? North. Realities (Radio Svoboda) examined this difficult question with experts from Memorial.
Thirty-five years ago, on 30 October 1988, dissidents and descendants of victims of Soviet political crackdowns gathered in Moscow for an organizing conference. The Memorial Society was established as an organization whose mission was historical research and educational outreach. (It would become a human rights organization only later.) During the conference, the attendees discussed criminal culpability for Soviet-era political crackdowns. Their heated discussion of the issue was captured in the event’s transcript:


I oppose abolishing the statute of limitations. We cannot be the same as them, taking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We must flush them out, shine the bright light of glasnost on them, so that no scum can ever again build their nest in the state structure. Let them all know [that we know everything]. But there is no need to take revenge on them with weapons. Their crimes are already a matter of history: you can no longer tell who is right and who is guilty. Let everyone decide for themselves.
(Remark from the audience: "We are not going to shoot them!")


Comrades, I don’t agree with the previous speaker. Enemies are enemies. They exterminated many of the finest people—the people who won the revolution and established the state. They spat on them, and now we should say thank you to these bastards? They should be exterminated in the same way as they exterminated others. (Applause).


We exterminated enemies in the past and now we’ll keep on exterminating them? Where will this end?

Memorial’s founding conference took place several months later, in January 1989. "To morally cleanse society, the Conference deems it necessary to acknowledge the large-scale political crackdowns as crimes against humanity and to publicly try Stalin and all those guilty of the crackdowns, while in the interests of humanity and mercy refusing to prosecute those who are still alive," read the resolution it adopted.

The victims of the Stalinist crackdowns were recognized as victims and exonerated in post-Soviet Russia. But there were no trials of the executioners, no dismissals of officials who had been involved in human rights violations, and no disclosure of the rosters of the KGB’s secret agents and informers. Ex-KGB officers and Communist Party functionaries continued to work in government posts. The KGB archives remained closed.

Memorial has now been shut down by the current Russian authorities, who also continue to add more names to their list of "foreign agents." People are again jailed for words and images, and Last Address memorial plaques have been disappearing from the walls of residential buildings once inhabited by victims of the Great Terror. It has again become dangerous to condemn the policies of the Russian state, even its war of aggression.

Although history does not operate in the subjunctive mood, asking "what if" questions helps us to make decisions about the future. As part of the project 30 Years Before, North. Realities thus asked experts from Memorial to reflect on the decision not to vet former Soviet officials after the Soviet Union’s demise.
Photo: Alexander Nemenov
October 26, 2023
Opponents of vetting officials of ousted regimes usually say that revenge is bad policy. In this sense, the term "vetting" is synonymous with "crackdown": all those implicated in crimes are prosecuted and maybe even imprisoned, but at minimum they are dismissed from their government posts. Supporters of vetting remind us that this is not so much about the past as it as about the future. After regime change, members of the former elites must be subjected to legal restrictions in order to make a country governable. Simply put, all the former regime’s "guard dogs," including government officials, security services officers, and propagandists, must be banned from government service and politics.

Yevgenia Lyozina’s book Reworking the Past: Transitional Justice and the Politics of Remembrance in Former Dictatorships in the Twentieth Century, published in Moscow in 2021, describes in detail how vetting was implemented in different countries. In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it reads like a medical case history: the causal link between vetting and successful democratization appears absolutely direct and immediate. There was vetting in Germany (the Nuremberg Trials), the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Baltic states. Ukraine undertook vetting in the wake of 2014. But vetting never took place in Russia. Lyozina writes:

As liberal freedoms and institutions shrink, and Russia turns into an authoritarian state with an aggressive expansionist foreign policy, Russian society cannot avoid asking questions about the possible mistakes of reforms and the missed opportunities of perestroika and the early post-Soviet period—the time when the Memorial Society was born. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Soviet totalitarian regime was not publicly condemned. Its security services were not prohibited, outlawed, and dissolved, and high-ranking Communist Party and state security officers were not banned from entering politics and public life. Consequently, veterans of these structures and their successors remained and continue to remain in power, holding leadership positions in government, mass media, and education. Not a single person guilty of the crimes of the Soviet regime was brought to justice, and the archives of the secret services are still essentially closed to researchers.

"It would be unnatural and wrong for our country to engage in vetting. This was done by the Czechs in 1992 and several other post-communist countries. Generally, adopting a law on vetting is possible in countries where the regime was regarded as an occupying power and after its overthrow ‘collaborators' can be subjected to vetting. This is possible everywhere except Russia because the Bolshevik regime is our own homegrown regime. It did not rule for twenty years or even forty, but for seventy," wrote human rights activist Arseny Roginsky in 2001 in an article on the tenth anniversary of the law "On Exonerating the Victims of Political Repression."
“It is our own homegrown regime”
Roginsky held the post of board chair of International Memorial until his death on 18 December 2017 and was an opponent of vetting. The human rights activist who replaced him, Yan Rachinsky, on the contrary, supports it. "Memorial has not had and does not have a unanimous viewpoint on vetting and a unanimous understanding of the term," he says.

Rachinsky cites two reasons why vetting would have been difficult in the USSR in the late 1980s.

"First, a significant number of the initiators and active participants of the democratic transformations belonged to the former political elite (for example, Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Yeltsin, Shevardnadze, Kravchuk, and Brazauskas, among many others). It would have been necessary either to make an exception for certain persons, thereby rendering the procedure completely unlawful, or to replace them with unknowns. Second, (and maybe this is the main reason), collective punishment is generally a dubious ‘road to righteousness.'"

"In reality, the window of opportunity to change the situation was quite small: only a few months in the autumn of 1991. After that the democrats, who were in power for several more years, could do little in reality," says Alexei Makarov, a historian and archivist at Memorial.

He cites fear of a new civil war as another argument made against vetting at the time.

"Perhaps the majority did not support vetting because they did not want to see more bloodshed. And we see how well state propaganda invoked this fear in October 1993. In addition, people who worked with the archives rightly drew attention to how difficult it would be to carry out vetting, especially if we are talking about informers. A person was recruited [as an informer] because there had been a recruitment campaign, and after that the KGB never contacted them again, but there is a card with their name on it in the files and you say, "That's it! Now you can’t run for elected office." It seems to me that the rejection of vetting could also have been due to the fact that a fairly large community of intellectuals and dissidents stayed strong during the country’s final decades due to their friendships. Maybe people were simply afraid that this community would be destroyed if it were revealed that this or that friend of theirs had been a KGB informer."

Did they not want to find out the unpleasant truth?

"No, they didn’t. I tell this story about [the renowned Russian dissident, political prisoner, and human rights activist] Sergei Kovalyov. He had a favourite teacher, an older comrade, who was still alive. People would go to Kovalyov and tell him that the man had actually been a provocateur in a political criminal case in which three people had been sentenced to death and shot. Kovalyov could not fully admit that this was true until the end of his life. (I tried to communicate with him many times on this topic, because I am the grandson of one of the people involved in the case.) That is, he did not vehemently deny it was true, but it was difficult for him to admit that his beloved senior comrade turned out to be such a person."
Yan Rachinsky
“The window of opportunity was quite small”
Alexei Makarov
Nikita Petrov, a historian whose research focuses on the personnel of the Soviet special services, was not on the board of Memorial in the early 1990s, but he remembers the conversations about the culpability of people involved in Soviet-era political crackdowns and whether they should be punished. At the time, he says, society did not come down either for or against vetting.

"Memorial is a public organization, but such decisions should have been made at the governmental level. However, as a public organization, if Memorial had discussed this issue widely and publicly, it would certainly have an impact on decision-making by state bodies. But this was not done at the time," Petrov notes.

At the time, Petrov himself worked in the archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the KGB and was an expert on the Russian Supreme Soviet’s respective committee. In June 1990, he became deputy council chair of the Memorial Research and Education Centre. He recalls "an escapade" undertaken by Vladimir Bukovsky and Memorial: "This was the idea of establishing an international commission that would take charge and investigate the archives of the CPSU and the KGB."

"When Vladimir Bukovsky came to Moscow, such a document—a proposal to create this international commission— was in fact drawn up at his behest, at the behest of the international academic community, and at the behest of the Memorial Research and Education Centre," Petrov recalls. "If we remind ourselves of what vetting involves—revealing the whole truth about secret state security agents, about the people who served in the state’s punitive bodies—then this international commission would have coped with the job. This document was drawn up and typed out on a typewriter in my presence by Bukovsky, and then Bukovsky took it in the autumn of 1991 to the Kremlin. He struck out, because the officials there either brushed him off or asked him why an international commission was needed when they already had an archives commission. An international commission was even a somewhat offensive idea to them, suggesting that they could not cope on their with their own history, with their own archives. In fact, it turned out that they could not cope on their own."

The fate of the KGB archives and the lists of the agents it recruited was also discussed by the commission investigating the causes of the August 1991 coup, Petrov recalls. Supreme Soviet deputies who consistently advocated opening up archives—for example, Galina Starovoitova and Gleb Yakunin—served on this commission. But opponents of vetting were the majority in the Supreme Soviet.

"A countervailing undercurrent emerged [in the Supreme Soviet], which quickly adopted the 1992 law on domestic intelligence, classifying all agents and informers as top secret," says Petrov. "That was that! As a member of the Moscow city hall’s commission, I continued to work in the KGB archives, but I understood perfectly well that I could not risk publicizing anything. This had to be a matter of state policy. But state policymaking was blocked precisely by this law on domestic intelligence. I can’t say that this was for good. If there had been a powerful social movement for revealing these secrets, then, of course, the deputies would not have been able to oppose the society. But back then, in 1992, it was the adoption of the law on domestic intelligence that shuttered the issue."

Was there no popular desire or public demand to open the archives?

"It's hard to say. Popular demand must somehow show itself. There were articles in such magazines and newspapers as Ogonyok, Stolitsa, and Moscow News. I would say that it was the mainstream opinion during perestroika that we should open up all the archives. But since economic transformations had also begun, the general public immediately had other things to worry about: they had to think about how to survive in the conditions that ensued. Shock therapy can turn anyone away from ‘rarefied' matters and bring them back to simple earthly realities," says Petrov.
“An international commission would have coped with the job”
In her book, Lyozina shows how smoothly the branches of the Soviet KGB were transformed into today’s Interior Ministry, FSB, and Federal Protective Service (FSO). New Russian laws parroted the wording of the old Soviet ones. The institution of "seconding" officers was preserved. Top positions continued to be held by ex-KGB generals who had been involved in persecuting dissidents—for example, Anatoly Trofimov, who, as head of the Moscow KGB’s investigations department, had spearheaded criminal cases against many prominent dissidents, but remained in leadership roles in the new FSB.

Even when Boris Yeltsin, after his showdown with the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, admitted in his decree abolishing the Ministry of Security that "the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD-NKGB-MGB-KGB-MB system has proved unreformable," the Federal Counterintelligence Service (the future FSB), which had been established to replace the Ministry of Security, was headed by Nikolai Golushko, former chair of the Ukrainian KGB. And only thirteen of 277 high-ranking special services officers were not recertified, some of them because they had reached retirement age.

The shake-up of the special services in the 1990s proved useless to society, but the head of state, on the contrary, benefited. "Yeltsin again used the secret services to strengthen his own power and to prevent attempts by parliament to challenge him in the future. From now on, full control over the Federal Counterintelligence Service belonged to him: it was directly subordinated to the president," Lyozina writes.

"At first there was no problem with this, from my point of view," argues Petrov, "because there were ideas of a new Russian statehood based on law, based on democratic principles. The Constitution adopted in 1993 was quite suitable for building a new democratic Russia. The disease was manifested later when there was a constant violation of constitutional norms. But purging the state bureaucracy or former Party machine was not an urgent issue at all in 1993. On the contrary, back then, in 1993, opponents of vetting could say that we were coping somehow, that we were building a democratic Russia."

Alexei Makarov agrees with Petrov.

"I think there was just a feeling that times had changed," he says. "We had a new country, and these people would not be used in the same way [as before.] That was in the past."

According to Makarov, all the isolated attempts by victims of KGB persecution to file lawsuits against the investigators in their cases proved fruitless. No one sought out or pursued the executioners. Former special services officers either went into business as "security consultants" (like Filipp Bobkov, whom the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky made head of security at his company Media Most) or became lawyers. People who had served on the courts and in prosecutor’s offices simply remained in their jobs. Psychiatrists who had help send dissidents off for compulsory "medical treatment" continued to work at Moscow’s notorious Serbsky Institute.

One such classic example, says Makarov, is Judge Vyacheslav Lebedev. In the 1980s, as a judge on the Moscow City Court, Lebedev was involved in sentencing Elena Sannikova and Felix Svetov for "anti-Soviet activities," which was a criminal offense. But in 1989 Lebedev was appointed chief justice of the Russian Supreme Court, a post he holds to this day.

The Supreme Court itself has undergone a complete revolution over the past thirty years, says Makarov.

"Take, for example, Yuri Orlov, founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group. He was arrested in 1976 for his human rights work, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years in exile in the spring of 1977. In 1988, he petitioned the court to exonerate. He had been convicted of ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,' per Article 70 of the Soviet criminal code, and two years later, in the autumn of 1991, all those convicted on this charge would be exonerated. But 1988, the Supreme Court rejected his petition, ruling that he had rightly been convicted for being ‘anti-Soviet.' Literally half a year passed, and these same judges (who, by the way, had previously been involved in the appeals process in Orlov’s case, in 1978) said that yes, indeed, he had just been voicing his point of view, and they would exonerate him. Twenty years have passed, and judges are once again handing down political sentences. They are just cogs in the machine, turning now this way now that way as the state changes direction."
Nikita Petrov
“They are just cogs in the machine”
Photo: Dmitry Borko
Makarov recalls another problem that all new political regimes face.

"Okay, they dismiss judges who were implicated in political cases. But then who will sit on the bench? This is what reformers often face when they have an old staff who are not showboats, who do what they are now told to do, who have a certain competency, who are professionals, more or less. The reformers don’t have any other staff, but the state needs to function."

If we recall Vladimir Putin’s own KGB past, however, should such people be allowed to run the country?

"At a minimum, we have to take into account that, in the late 1990s, it was not widely known that Putin had worked on the ideological front in the KGB, and not only as an intelligence officer," replies Makarov. "On the other hand, there were terrorist attacks, the desire for a ‘strong hand,' and so on. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, very few people opposed Putin, including with the argument that he was a KGB veteran. It didn’t matter very much to most of society."

Was the KGB not regarded as a criminal organization?

"Generally, no, it wasn’t, and here’s why not," says Makarov. "Because this is not only a question about the KGB—it is a question, first of all, about the CPSU. Was it a criminal organization or not? What if you had been a rank-and-file member of the CPSU and, for example, had skipped all the meetings at which mattes were put to a vote, and had joined the Party, for example, at the front during the war? Society could not accept the idea that they and their relatives had been living and working for a criminal state for decades."

The chance to assess the CPSU’s historical role appeared in 1991−92, when the Constitutional Court considered a lawsuit by Communists, who asked the Court to rescind Boris Yeltsin’s decrees dissolving the Party and confiscating its property. Nikita Petrov and his colleagues at Memorial were tasked with writing an expert opinion for the Constitutional Court.

"Our job was to open the eyes of society and prove that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been criminal throughout its history," says Petrov.

In its final ruling, dated 30 November 1992, the Constitutional Court acknowledged that "the CPSU’s leadership were the initiators, and its local organizations were often the agents of a policy of repression against millions of Soviet people, including the deported peoples." However, the Court did not consider the constitutionality of the Party itself, since the CPSU had already ceased to exist by that time, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation had not yet been registered. The half-hearted ruling disappointed the supporters of vetting.

"The Court simply argued that the authorities had relied on violence and the violation of human rights and committed crimes against the population of the country. So, I would say, the theoretical, qualitative case had been made. It was another matter that it later proved to be all for nought," says Petrov.

Economic reforms soon became the focus of attention, and the question of the KGB’s role in society took a back seat. Both Makarov and Petrov agree that Russia had practically no chance of implementing vetting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "They were unable to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps," argues Petrov.

"It's not a matter here of vetting per se," he continues. "Even if vetting were carried out in the most correct and ideal manner, the danger of society’s backsliding and the danger of the old regime’s restoration would still exist. We have to look at the state of society itself, at its wants and needs. We can talk at length about what we left behind and where we arrived, but I cannot talk about vetting as a panacea, although I am an ardent supporter of it. Because here we are dealing with what are called the rudimentary foundations of social existence: people who were trained to doublethink for seventy years, to say one thing and think another, had a very hard time refashioning themselves. Generational change under a democratic system would have to occur for this to become a thing of the past."

Does this mean we cannot say that if vetting had taken place Putin would not have become president and we would not be at war?

"It wouldn’t have changed anything for one simple reason," replies Petrov. "Vetting is not a lifelong professional ban, and many retired KGB officers no longer worked in the KGB in the 1990s. What vetting did they face? So, vetting in this case is a good tool for morally purifying society, of course, but it is not a panacea against possible relapses."

Does Nikita Petrov still think that vetting was needed?

"I think it was necessary, of course," he says. "Maybe it would have laid the groundwork for stronger democratic foundations. It was even needed as a kind of moral compensation for those who suffered under the Soviet system. It was another matter that it could not have cured all problems. In five to ten years the same people who had been vetted and ousted could have come back to power, and what would we have done about that? It was the rupture that was needed in this case, declaring the Soviet system criminal and disavowing Soviet policies. By not breaking with the Soviet legacy—and vetting would have helped us break with it—we have ended up replicating [Soviet] practices."

"If we talk about civil society, it has other things on its mind now: it is busy either helping Ukrainian nationals, or surviving at home in Russia or abroad," says Alexei Makarov. "In part, this is a generational story. It will be easier for the new generation to deal with this, on the one hand. On the other hand, the question is whether there will be a need to deal with it."

"I am not a supporter of simplified approaches, but many see vetting as a panacea, as a chance at leaping into a happy future in a single bound," argues Yan Rachinsky. "A mandatory prerequisite for vetting is a fundamental break with the previous period, at least on one specific point. There should be a clear criterion. This is quite difficult to imagine in the near future. It is worth talking, rather, about recertifying all government officials, security services officers, and judges. In any case, it should be a matter of personal culpability, not class affiliation. A deputy voted for a criminal resolution, and so now he is prevented from continuing his legislative career. A judge handed down an illegal sentence, and now he is looking for another job. Vetting should be based only on specific actions: we should not get too carried away with purging people."
“It’s not a panacea for relapses”