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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 12:37, June 21, 2005
Cold War spies just 'your ordinary guys'
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The KGB's fearsome reputation will take decades to fade, but Russia's spies are - bit by bit - trying to change their image.

To hear them tell it, they are just ordinary guys, doing a hard job on a tight budget.

A book published last month was the latest step in an operation to present edited highlights of their espionage triumphs hidden during the dark days of the Cold War.

"There are no superheroes. Superheroes are an artificial creation of the quill or the screen," wrote Vladimir Karpov, a highly decorated ex-spy in "The Elite of Russian Intelligence."

"But real espionage work is always more interesting than any inventions," his foreword to the book said.

Books like this, and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) helps publish around a dozen a year, aim to change Russian spies' image from that created by thriller writers such as Ian Fleming or John Le Carre.

"This policy of openness has helped us reduce the number of myths and legends," said Boris Labusov, a former agent who works as spokesman for the SVR and was listed as "scientific consultant" in the book's credits.

"People are always attracted to what they cannot know. And now we have said what the service is, and what it does, well, that is the end," he said in an interview.

Sleek house

He spoke in a light, airy SVR house near Moscow's inner ring road - a far cry from the grim halls of the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters as enshrined in Russian spying legend.

"We have to explain to society why it needs a foreign espionage organ... they pay their taxes, and they have the right to know where their money goes," he said.

He declined to discuss current operations, but kinds of news have made sure that Russian spies are never long out of public interest.

Russia has been through at least six rounds of tit-for-tat diplomat expulsions since Putin's election in 2000.

Commentators say the intelligence services' policy of openness only goes so far.

"The situation has changed, there is not the stand-off there used to be. The Americans probably know more about our security than we do," said Mikhail Lyubimov, a former spy in Britain who became a journalist and writer in the later 1980s.

Shaky service

In the new book, Vladimir Zavershinsky, first deputy head of the SVR, attacks the Russian parliament's attempts to establish control over the spies' activities after the collapse of Soviet rule.

"We got crushed by pointless parliamentary investigations, run by incomprehensible and, believe me, unprofessional commissions," he said in an interview published in the book.

For some, the tentative steps towards openness have gone too far.

"I do not understand why these people talk about spies so much, it is totally wrong," said Valentin Velichko, head of the murky Veterans of Foreign Intelligence organization, which played a key if unexplained role in freeing Dutch hostage Arjan Erkel from captivity in the North Caucasus last year.

"There should be (legislative) control, because espionage is paid for by taxpayers, but the commission should be former agents, professionals who know how things should be," he said.

"You cannot compare then with now. We sense that the state and the president need us. The head of the SVR reports to the leader of the country with intelligence every week, more often if needed," Zavershinsky was quoted as saying.

Source: China Daily

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