20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Russian diaspora is the fourth largest in the world, with 10 million Russians residing abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Kremlin traditionally viewed émigrés with suspicion, targeting those it perceived as a threat to the regime. This attitude changed under Vladimir Putin, who, by introducing the concept of Russkiy Mir, has tried to bring fellow countrymen into the Kremlin’s orbit. 


Andrei Soldatov, co-author, with Irina Borogan, of The Compatriots, at the book presentation at the Harriman Institute in New York. Photo: C-Span. You can watch the entire presentation here.


Stories of Russia’s influence beyond its own borders have become a mainstay of American news since evidence of the Kremlin’s meddling during the 2016 presidential election first emerged three years ago. Kompromat, fake news, and other dark-art terms have entered the public lexicon as Americans and Europeans grapple with how to protect their political systems from malign foreign influence. Yet, as the new book The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés and Agents Abroad (October 2019) points out, much of the Kremlin’s focus internationally has been not on subverting other political systems, but on protecting its own. 

The Compatriots is the third book from Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, following The Red Web (2017) and The New Nobility (2010). The subject matter, focusing on the work of Russia’s security services outside of Russia, feels timely in light of headline-grabbing events such as the arrest of Russian foreign agent Maria Butina and the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The book leverages the authors’ well-established expertise on the security services and uses the stories of a handful of families whose members were intimately involved in the Kremlin’s operations abroad.  

Russia has the fourth largest diaspora in the world—10 million Russians live outside the country, according to the United Nations. Over the course of the twentieth century, waves of Russians were forced out of the country by successive political upheavals: first the Revolution, then the Civil War and World War II, Soviet repressions, anti-Semitic policies, and, finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the Kremlin has traditionally regarded these émigrés with hostility, American policy makers and politicians saw them as potential vehicles for political change.

In The Compatriots, the hunt for émigrés begins almost immediately after the Bolsheviks secure their authority within Russia. Agents are sent to China, Turkey, Mexico, France, and Serbia to surveil and sometimes eliminate Russians. Some of the targeted political émigrés, like members of the Russian All-Military Union and the famous revolutionary Leon Trotsky, are indeed biding their time abroad, hoping to return to Russia to foment political change. Other émigrés simply seem to fall victim to the growing paranoia about Trotskyists within the security services under Stalin. Along the way, the security services develop a toolkit for eliminating the regime’s enemies in which poison is a key and regularly used weapon. Recent poisonings of Russians seem to suggest that the post-Soviet security services have retained many elements of this toolkit.

Even casual observers of Russia will know that the Kremlin is resistant to democracy promotion and foreign funding for civil society, which it suspects of being a ploy to stoke regime change. This suspicion only grew deeper after the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring succeeded in removing several long-ruling autocrats from power. Yet one of the more surprising narratives that emerges from The Compatriots is about how the actors who have had the most impact on Russia operated independently of foreign backers. Ironically, serious efforts by the Americans during the Cold War to fund organizations and agents in order to influence Russian politics proved largely unsuccessful.

Russian-American business people have played a crucial role in economic and political developments within the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The experience of Boris Jordan—an American citizen of Russian ancestry who has been a fierce public defender of Vladimir Putin—in the takeover of the television network NTV is an especially interesting example. Likewise, The Compatriots shows how post-Soviet Russia’s closer integration with the West allowed Russian opposition politicians and activists, such as Boris Nemtsov or Vladimir Kara-Murza, to cultivate supportive political networks in America in order to constrain the Kremlin. This relationship produced measures like the Magnitsky Act.

The book also chronicles the efforts of George Kennan, the CIA, and others to organize Russian émigrés and exiles in the 1950s into a force capable of swaying public opinion in Russia and potentially taking over the political reins in the event that the Cold War turned hot and the Soviet Union was defeated. Most of these efforts proved futile as the Americans discovered that the Russian émigré community—influenced by disparate political ideologies—had little in common and even less interest in working together. Efforts to penetrate the Iron Curtain with information and anti-Soviet propaganda also only ever achieved very modest success.

The book’s pace is not always consistent, as some episodes are described in several chapters and others glossed over quickly. Historical details are also sometimes overly simplified. The Compatriots won’t help readers understand how the Kremlin chooses its targets abroad as the work of the security services, despite the authors’ extraordinary access, remains shrouded in secrecy.

The Compatriots does, however, contribute to a better understanding of modern Russia by explaining how members of the Russian diaspora, who were the target of the Kremlin’s enmity for so long, have been more recently transformed from potential enemy into fellow countrymen. Putin himself has driven this transformation by arguing for closer direct ties between the Russian state and émigrés and advancing the idea of a Russkiy Mir, or Russian World. The notion that the interests of Russian-speaking people living outside the country align with the Russian state is politically useful for the Kremlin. At home it can justify an aggressive foreign policy, and abroad it can mobilize constituencies to pressure Western governments not to take punitive measures against Russia.

One of the last scenes in the book, when the authors find themselves on the New York City subway with women wearing the orange and black Ribbon of Saint George—a symbol commemorating victory in World War II which has become synonymous with Russian patriotism since the annexation of Crimea—will resonate with those who have observed the steady growth of pro-Kremlin sentiments among Russian émigrés. The scene reminded me of a debate between Michael McFaul and Stephen Cohen entitled “The New U.S.-Russia Cold War—Who Is To Blame?” held at Columbia University in 2018. At the event, many people adorned with the orange and black ribbon scoffed loudly as McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, described the harassment by the security services he and his family experienced while stationed in Moscow. The largely émigré audience seemed to have little sympathy for a narrative critical of the Kremlin.


Yana Gorokhovskaia is a political scientist researching civil society and local politics in Russia. From 2016 to 2019, she was a postdoctoral scholar in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.