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New York Times
December 14, 2000

A Web Site That Came in From the Cold to Unveil Russian Secrets

By SALLY McGRANE

ANDREI SOLDATOV sits down in the lobby of the Hotel Rossija in Moscow, orders tea, flips open his Sony Vaio laptop and logs on to the Internet to demonstrate his Web site via his wireless modem. A Vaio may not be an exploding pen or an umbrella that doubles as a machine gun, but in modern Russia, a high-tech laptop and wireless modem are about as James Bond as gadgets get. This is appropriate, given that his Mr. Soldatov's Web site, www.agentura.ru, is about Russian espionage.

Mr. Soldatov is a 25-year-old journalist who covered the espionage beat for the newspaper Izvestia from 1996 until last month. He and a dozen journalist friends who wrote about spies and intelligence for Izvestia and other Russian newspapers like Versiya, Segodnya and Kommersant, decided this year that it was time to centralize information about their subject on the Web.

"We decided that now in Russia we have an information vacuum about the secret services," Mr. Soldatov said.

Since its start in September, Agentura.ru (the name means agents, and the ru is the country code for Russia) has been posting newspaper articles about international intelligence organizations, and providing an outline of how the Russian secret services are structured. The site also posts biographies of secret service officers, documents pertaining to the security and intelligence services, book reviews, discussions and Q. and A.'s with secret service officers. It draws material from Russian newspapers and official sources, including Web sites of some espionage agencies. "Information is difficult to find," Mr. Soldatov said. "Agentura helps find it."

Reporting on secret service activities has changed fundamentally since the fall of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, nothing was published about the K.G.B. or foreign services that was not officially approved, according to Mark Kramer, the director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard University. The newspaper articles that were approved, Mr. Kramer said, were "puff pieces, laudatory stuff with no bearing on what the organs did."

Now the quantity and quality of secret service coverage in the Russian press has improved, though access to documents is still far from complete. Agentura's existence marks the degree to which post-Soviet openness regarding the secret service has changed. Ten years ago, there would not have been any content to post.

Mr. Soldatov's father, Alexei Soldatov, who is president of Relcom.ru, one of Russia's leading Internet service providers, told him that Relcom was starting a series of Russian-language content projects. (Relcom pioneered dial-up Internet access in Russia while the Soviet Union still existed, said Mr. Soldatov and to Robert Farish, a research manager at IDC Russia, an international information-technology consultant firm based in Framingham, Mass.)

Mr. Soldatov proposed his idea for Agentura and his father gave the go-ahead. The timing, Mr. Soldatov said, was particularly good because Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, was a K.G.B. official. "Now that we have President Putin from the K.G.B.," Mr. Soldatov said, "people in Russia want more information on the secret service."

Mr. Soldatov said that Agentura was modeled after an American site, the Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Resource Program (www.fas.org/irp). Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the federation, said that although his organization's efforts to make intelligence resources available to the public have attracted a good deal of interest from abroad, Agentura is the first foreign site that has explicitly followed his group's lead. "The world looks to the U.S. to define what's possible in terms of openness and government accountability," Mr. Aftergood said. The existence of a site like Agentura.ru, he added, "has political significance above and beyond anything posted on the site."

Agentura visitors (the English site is www.agentura.ru/english, though many pages are available only in Russian) can find an article about "noiseless pistols" or link to newspaper articles with topics ranging from possible C.I.A. involvement in the sinking of the Kursk submarine to the case of Edmond Pope, the former American naval intelligence officer convicted of espionage last week in Moscow. There are biographies of spy fiction authors like John le Carre and Tom Clancy, and Agentura users can read a letter to the site from David E. Murphy, the former C.I.A. chief of Soviet operations, who points out errors in Agentura's review of a book he helped write, "Battleground Berlin: C.I.A. vs. K.G.B. in the Cold War." Other sections include a Russian translation of the Unabomber's manifesto and articles on the history of intelligence organizations worldwide.

So far, the response from users has been positive, with a few exceptions. "We got one e-mail from a man who works at one of the private security services in another city in Russia," Mr. Soldatov said . "He wrote that it's terrible to publish information about the Russian security service, that those are government secrets."

But, Mr. Soldatov hastened to explain, Agentura is not a Russian-language Drudge Report. "Some people think that this site is for publishing compromising materials," he said. "That's not true." He said that if users send Agentura materials that reflect negatively on the Russian secret services, the site will not post them. However, he added with a smile: "We are journalists. If we can verify the information, then we publish."

The site's content rates very well with Allen Thomson, a former C.I.A. analyst who reads Russian. "I'm impressed," he said. "The site offers a good look at intelligence issues from a Russian perspective. They're keeping up with current issues, they've got a good balance and they can write. This is the best site I've seen coming out of Russia."

The K.G.B. was dissolved in December 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. What had been the K.G.B. is now four organizations: the domestic Federal Security Services, or F.S.B., the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Federal Border Guards and the Federal Government Information and Communications Agency. There is also an intelligence branch the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff that is run by the military.

The F.S.B. has its own Web site (www.fsb.ru) in part, as an effort to give its image a face lift. "The F.S.B.," Professor Kramer said, "isn't releasing documents that show the K.G.B.'s predecessor, the N.K.V.D., and its role in the terror of the 1930's, but it will release documents that show N.K.V.D. agents' heroic actions."

Mr. Thomson lauded Agentura. "It's not obvious propaganda," he said. But the site's evenhandedness has caused problems for Mr. Soldatov. In November, he was fired from Izvestia, which he described as a "pro-Putin" paper. He said that his firing may be linked to his involvement with Agentura.

"I can't relate Agentura and my sacking from Izvestia," he wrote in an e-mail message, "but fact is fact: After I opened Agentura, Izvestia refused to publish my articles about Russian secret services."

Laurent Murawiec, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research group, said the post-Soviet thaw on investigation, research and comment on the secret services has begun to chill again. "One implication," he said, "could be that the site's life expectancy is limited."

Nonetheless, the number of daily visitors mostly specialists to the site has grown from 500 in October to 1,100 last month. To broaden appeal, Mr. Soldatov and his team have added a "Culture 007" section, named after Ian Fleming's renowned secret agent. Why choose the quintessential Western agent to reach out to a Russian audience? The answer judging by Mr. Soldatov's face, is patently obvious: "In Russia, everyone knows Agent 007."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company




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