The figure of the traitor in the chekist cosmology

Authored by: Julie Fedor

The Routledge International Handbook of Universities, Security and Intelligence Studies

Print publication date:  October  2019
Online publication date:  October  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138572416
eBook ISBN: 9780203702086
Adobe ISBN:


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In December 2017, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Aleksandr Bortnikov looked back on a century’s history of the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian security apparatus, in a high-profile interview with the newspaper Rossiiskaia gazeta. Bortnikov was criticized roundly in the oppositional media for a series of erroneous, misleading, and offensive statements made in the interview, including his suggestion that the Stalin-era Great Terror was a justified response to real conspiracies, and for his stubborn defense of the title of ‘chekist’—the generic term derived from the title of the original VChK 2 or Cheka created in December 1917, and still in use today to designate the staff of the present-day Russian security apparatus (see New Times 2017; Petrov 2018; Ponomarev 2017). Bortnikov’s interview illustrates the deep-seated ambivalence and denial that continue to characterize official attitudes toward the heavy historical baggage of this institution’s violent past. It highlights the ways in which today’s chekists, the self-proclaimed successors to the Soviet security and intelligence services, continue to perpetuate and update elements of the chekist worldview in contemporary Russia. We might think of this worldview as based on a distinctive cosmology, a moral universe with its own values, categories, tenets, and taboos (see Fedor 2011a). While the Soviet and Russian security and intelligence organs have usually been studied from a social science perspective, this article brings a humanities perspective to bear on this topic. A cultural history approach focused on the chekist cosmology and its historical roots can provide a fresh angle on the current and emerging ideological landscape in Russia, at a time when, in important ways, reconstituted chekist discourses and enemy images are shaping and sharpening the definitions of self/other and of political and national belonging in Russian public life.

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