When the secret police came for Osip Mandelstam in 1938, the one book that this century's greatest Russian poet managed to take with him on his lonely road to Siberian exile and death was Dante's Inferno.
With the Soviet secret police, Mandelstam knew where he was headed. Who wouldn't? Few organizations in modern history have inspired as much fear, caused more pain, or managed to remain shrouded more completely in mystery. Until now.
This month, in an attempt to be modern, sophisticated, reasonable and _ above all, it seems _ hip, the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Service, will release six choice hours of its history on CD-ROM, making its long role as enforcer of evil for Soviet dictators available to anyone with the ability to click on an icon.
"We released this on CD-ROM because that is a modern way to communicate with people," said Gen. Yuri Kobaladze, the glib, eloquent spokesman for the security service. "We want to be modern. Even in this sphere we still want to be better than everyone else. Now let the British make a CD-ROM about their intelligence service, and then let the Americans do it. But we will always be first."
They will indeed, although even the slick new agency seems to realize that CD-ROM is not the forum for major new revelations. Partly, that is because the agency's officials are so ambivalent about their role in the new Russia.
The disk, with 60 interviews, is essentially a historian's curiosity, filled with interesting narratives about the importance of the Russian attempt to develop the atomic bomb, for example, as well as evidence of Khrushchev's vacillation during the Cuban missile crisis. But for viewers desperate to divine new meaning from Moscow, the earth is unlikely to move.
That hardly means this CD-ROM is a gimmick, though. Far from it. Five years ago, when people like Kobaladze starting discussing this project, many in the agency were outraged.
"We cannot concern ourselves with how to present history, that is not our task," Kobaladze said. "But I notice that the whole of Russia is struggling with this question. So why can't we in the intelligence services? Part of why we wanted to make this product is to show that we are not so different from the society we serve."
This CD-ROM will be available to anyone with $60, and it comes in an English and a Russian version.
It opens magically with the viewer sitting in a (virtual) black car as it swings through the gates of Yasenevo, the secret base of covert activities just outside Moscow that is to the KGB what Langley, Va., is to the CIA. As the music swells (Tchaikovsky, of course) the black sedan swings past buildings that until recently could have been conjured only in the imaginings of John Le Carre.
The faces of Russian spies flash across the screen as the music plays. (Not famous spies of course; the only famous Russian spies are the ones that got away. They don't seem to make much of an appearance in this production.) There are a series of categories the user can click on: chronology (birth of the Soviet state, the "unpleasant" Stalin period, the hot war, the Cold War and perestroika); personality; geography (Cuba, Afghanistan, etc.). Each section is filled with film clips, sound bites, archival material and plenty of good, old-fashioned text.
The people who produced this history are not suggesting it will strip the mystique from the spy agency. They are, in fact, hoping it does the opposite.
"In your country, the FBI and CIA openly recruit for employees at the best universities," Kobaladze said. "I want us to be able to do that, too. I want young Russians to be proud to serve, and to consider this agency worthy of service."