The Russian Diaspora, a “Battlefield”?

In his recent interview with Desk Russie, the academic Sergei Medvedev pointed out that “the Kremlin is actively working with emigration” and considers it “a battlefield”. At the same time, some segments of the Russian diaspora, or rather of the Russian diasporas, are trying to organize themselves in Berlin, Prague, New York or Vilnius, in order to better oppose the Kremlin’s actions. What is going on among these Russian emigrants?

The book that the Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan recently wrote on the relations between the Kremlin and the diaspora from the 1920s to nowadays provides some answers to this question. This book, not yet translated into French, was first published in English in 2019 under the title The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Emigrants, and Agents Abroad, and then in Russian in 2021 (Свои среди чужих. Политические эмигранты и Кремль: Соотечественики, агенты и враги режима). The authors are known for their two previous books, also published first in English and then in Russian: one on the return of the secret services to positions of power in Russia — The New Nobility (translated into French for François Bourin publisher: Les Héritiers du KGB. Enquête sur les nouveaux boyards, 2011) —, and the other on the Kremlin’s attempts to control the Internet and therefore also information in Russia — The Red Web.

By multiplying very concrete examples, portraits and fascinating lifestories, Soldatov and Borogan demonstrate that the Soviet, and then Russian, power has considered the presence of “Russians” in Western countries as both “its biggest threat and its biggest opportunity”, so that it “sought for years to use the Russian émigré community to achieve [its] own goals” [ebook, p. 6/365]. It therefore monitored and instrumentalized the diaspora, where it recruited agents and infiltrated its collaborators, kidnapped and executed opponents.

Let us remember that several waves of emigration came from the Russian Empire, the USSR and the post-Soviet space to the West. After those of the late nineteenth century began what is considered to be the “first wave” of the twentieth century: Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. From the mid-1920s, leaving the USSR became impossible, so that the “second wave” is that of Soviets who left the USSR during the Second World War or were then deported and did not want to return. The “third wave” from the 1960s to the second half of the 1980s was small in number and consisted of dissidents threatened with arrest and Jews who were allowed to leave. The fourth wave began in the early 1990s and was primarily economic, earning its nickname of “sausage emigration”. The number of departures from Russia then increased, and to the migration of the poor were added the settlements of the rich and privileged and, under Putin, those of educated and cultured Russians who chose to settle in the West, without claiming to be emigrating, nor breaking ties with their country of origin, but who more and more often put forward political motivations.

Consequently, the “Russian” diaspora is, quantitatively, the third largest in the world, while the population of the Russian Federation represents only a little more than twice the French population. This diaspora includes quite disparate communities, within which the relationship to Russia, to Putin’s power, and even to the Russian language and culture, varies greatly. And, yes, “the Kremlin works actively with emigration” — confirms Soldatov’s and Borogan’s work.

Their book is divided into four parts. The first part is devoted to the Soviet period, when the USSR secret services developed techniques to control and use emigrants. The life paths of the secret agents Vasily Zarubin and Nahum Eitingon are particularly developed: the latter will become one of the killers of these services, and will supervise Trotsky’s murder in Mexico. Indeed, the Soviet secret services already wanted both to eliminate individuals they perceived as threats, and to recruit collaborators. They also spread fake news and rumors, so as to create and maintain an atmosphere of distrust among these emigrants.

The second part of the book, which focuses on the 1990s, examines how new opportunities were exploited, when the Russian borders opened, for people, but also for capital, including money to launder. Soldatov and Borogan assure that, when Russian oligarchs were investing billions in the West, “Russian foreign intelligence was never far behind” [Ibid., p. 150/365]. On the other hand, Boris Yeltsin was convinced to rely on the diaspora, and a first Congress of Compatriots was therefore organized in Moscow in August 1991. The Russian president then called on the descendants of émigrés to help build a democratic Russia, but he did not continue his efforts in this direction.

The 5th congress of “Russian compatriots” in Moscow, November 2015. Photo :

Putin perceived the interest of this diaspora differently, as explained in parts 3 and 4. A World Congress of Compatriots was organized in Moscow in October 2001 and, according to Soldatov and Borogan, the new president’s speech showed that he “saw the huge Russian diaspora as something the Russian state could use to advance its interests” [Ibid., p. 175/365], to “advance Russia’s positions beyond its border”” [Ibid., p. 176/365]. It was in this speech that Vladimir Putin used for the first time the nominal group “Russky mir” (“Russian World”), which Russia’s neighbors now perceive as the justification for possible territorial claims. As for the word “compatriots”, it is supposed to express a community of identity uniting Russians, born in Russia, and the descendants of distant emigrants.

The Kremlin has therefore launched and financed an agency which, under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is responsible for supervising and mobilizing the diaspora: Rossotrudnichestvo. This agency oversees “a collection of foundations” that support “compatriots” and provide funds to Russian-speaking media. As for the “Russian cultural centers”, they continue to be “a disguise for intelligence operations” [Ibid., p. 176/365], in the tradition, Soldatov and Borogan remind us, of the procedures used by the USSR to seduce the diaspora and recruit agents there. In fact, the two authors emphasize, “it looked like the old KGB system”, set up in the 1970s to “prevent ‘subversive activities’ by émigrés and […] to recruit them, had been restored and expanded” [Ibid., p. 287/365].

At the same time, Vladimir Putin and his teams once again force some Russians into exile and have developed “ways to signal to those who had left that Moscow’s hand could reach them anywhere and everywhere” [Ibid., p. 7/365]. In particular, the Kremlin’s secret services killed and are killing Russians abroad, and Soldatov and Borogan explicitly link the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 to Nahum Eitingon’s practices.

Let us add that these practices are also used on Russian soil, as Navalny’s attempted poisoning demonstrates, and this has led to new departures and desires to leave. Motivations may be diverse, but, according to a survey published in June 2021 by the Levada Center, 22% of Russian citizens would like to emigrate — the highest percentage since 2011-2013 —, this desire is particularly high among young people aged 18-24 (48%), and 10% of respondents say they are taking steps in this direction. It is therefore important that Westerners understand what is at stake in and with the Russian diaspora.

Political scientist, historian, Slavic studies specialist, professor at the University of Rennes II, director of the Russian department at Rennes II, and researcher at CERCLE (Nancy II). She primarily focuses on power-society-culture relations in 20th and 21st-century Russia and issues of influence from 1920 to the present. Her recent works include Le Clan Mikhalkov. Culture et pouvoirs en Russie (1917-2017) published by Presses universitaires de Rennes in 2019, Les Réseaux du Kremlin en France published by Les Petits Matins in 2016, and La Fabrique de l’homme nouveau après Staline. Les arts et la culture dans le projet soviétique published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes in 2016.

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