Meet Russian Spy Boss Sergey Naryshkin
The SVR chief pegs his rise to a chance meeting with Putin in the bowels of the KGB’s Leningrad Office
On a cool October day in Moscow in 2017, Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, stepped up to the microphone at an outdoor ceremony to unveil a statue honoring a notable predecessor.
"The name of Pavel Fitin is returning to our history," Naryshkin said of the man who ran the Soviet Union's foreign spying apparatus during World War Two. A heroic bronze version of the wartime Fitin, winter coat draped over his shoulders, loomed over Naryshkin and other dignitaries. Fitin had filed dozens of intelligence reports warning Josef Stalin again and again of Nazi Germany’s plan to invade the Soviet Union (to no avail, it must be said, a fact that went unmentioned in Russian news accounts of the ceremony).
Five years later, Naryishkin, a trim 67-year-old who favors nicely tailored business suits and understated ties, has the Nazis on his mind again—at least as a useful Kremlin propaganda line. In January, echoing a constant Russian theme, the SVR boss compared the government of Ukraine to the Nazis who invaded and occupied much of Russia during 1941-1945. Given that the Nazis are equated in Russian minds with absolute evil, Naryshkin’s metaphor sounded like an alarming call to all Russians to defeat another looming fascist invasion.
Ukraine is squarely in Naryshkin’s close-in crosshairs today. Along with the FSB, Russia’s ruthless domestic security and counterintelligence service, the SVR has long been running spies and double agents in Ukraine and around the world, while overseeing global disinformation operations related to the conflict, according to well informed sources. Just last month the U.S. and Britain sanctioned four Ukrainians, including two members of its parliament, for allegedly acting as FSB agents. It is likely that the GRU, Russia’s lethal military intelligence service, would be chiefly responsible for staging so-called “false flag” incidents that the U.S. and U.K. allege the Russians have been preparing to justify an attack on Ukraine, the sources say.
However it sorts out, Naryshkin is no doubt a leading player in Russia’s attempt to intimidate the U.S. and Europeans into rolling back their support of Ukraine and NATO’s advances in the post-Soviet era. And for that, Naryshkin has Vladimir Putin to thank.
There can be little doubt that the most defining moment of Sergey Naryshkin’s life took place some 40 years ago, when he encountered Vladimir Putin in the dark and eerie corridors of the KGB’s regional headquarters in Leningrad, known as the Big House. It was a time, under party chairman Leonid Brezhnev, when the Soviet Union was sinking into a stagnant quagmire of unrealized growth and military decline. Naryshkin had just graduated from one of Moscow’s most prestigious institutions, the Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB. Putin was already working in the foreign intelligence department of the Leningrad KGB when Naryshkin bumped into him.
“That’s how we met,” Naryshkin said with a bashful smile on a Russian TV program in 2018. He “already worked there. And so the acquaintance happened." Naryshkin also implied he’d gone skydiving with the future president after they were sent to the Red Banner Institute, now known as the Academy of Foreign Intelligence Service. "The parachute jump made a very good impression on me ... “ he said. “I liked it, I liked it very much.”
The future looked bright for both, despite the grim outlook for Mother Russia.
They had a lot of things in common, especially the traumas of losing close family members during the Nazi blockade of the city. Both also had parents who did not belong to the Communist elite. They grew up outside party ruling circles and had to confront the challenges of adulthood on their own. Driven by personal ambition to climb up the social ladder, they decided that a job in the KGB, perhas the most powerful Soviet institution outside the Commuist Party, would enable them to make their mark on the world. And they were not mistaken.
But they would take diferent paths to prominence. Putin, for instance, obtained a law degree. Naryshkin, two years younger, felt an attraction to science and technology. He graduated from the Leningrad Mechanical Institute with the diploma of an “engineer radio mechanic.” It was there he met his future wife Tatyana, a fellow student. They later had two children, Andrey and Veronica. Today, according to Russian media accounts, he is a grandfather.
For a 67-year old, Naryshkin looks very fit. He likes to begin his mornings with a swim. In a TV interview, he also spoke of his recent fascination with golf. And just like Putin, he seems to enjoy the company of oligarchs, especially when their wealth is at his service. His swim routine recently sparked a controversy when it was discovered that he frequents a pool owned by the controversial Azeri billionaire God Nisanov.
There are no public records of Naryshkin’s work and assignments in the Leningrad KGB. But like Putin, he must have come to the attention of his superiors as a promising young Chekist, as the secret police cadre are known. Only the best, and most trusted, are selected for foreign intelligence training.
Putin and Naryshkin, codenamed Comrades Platov and Naumov at the Red Banner Institute, spent a year learning the essentials of spy craft from veteran foreign intelligence officers. And there was also foreign language training. For Putin, it was German, for Naryshkin, French. Interestingly, neither was part of the powerful group of Middle East specialists (known as the Middle Eastern “mafia”) that came to dominate the higher rungs of the KGB’s foreign intelligence arm in the late 1980s and in the SVR after the collapse of the USSR.
When they received their first foreign assignments, Naryshkin’s turned out to be more prestigious than Putin’s. Was it because he was a better student, or more of a teacher’s pet? Or because of his specific language training and technical expertise? Or perhaps both? In any case, while Putin was sent by the KGB to Dresden in East Germany under cover as a lowly translator, Naryshkin was dispatched as a diplomat to Brussels, home to NATO and several European multilateral institutions, making it a key espionage battleground between East and West. By day a functionary in the embassy’s economic section, by night Naryshkin plied his real profession, recruiting spies to steal Western science and technology secrets for the Soviet military-industrial complex. With the USSR on the verge of an economic collapse in the mid-to-late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s KGB had put technical secrets at the top of its espionage agenda, even higher than political intelligence.
It is not known whether Naryshkin had any success recruiting spies in Brussels. But it is known, thanks to his own admission, that his spy-running career suffered a premature ending. A fellow intelligence officer from the Soviet embassy defected to the CIA and burned him as well as two others. A pro-government Russian media resource identified the defector as Igor Cherpinsky, a Ukrainian-born KGB officer who worked under the cover of a cultural attaché. In early March 1990, he “vanished,” together with his wife and small child. His current whereabouts (and identity) are unknown.
His personal experience of betrayal might be what drives Naryshkin to emphasize the concepts of honor and loyalty in many of his official statements. He can come off as urbane and soft spoken, far more diplomatic than his boss, Vladimir Putin, who’s given to using the language of street thugs, such as in 2010, when he publicly warned both real and potential defectors that, “traitors will kick the bucket, trust me.” But Naryshkin’s surface gloss cannot entirely disguise an inner fury that emerges in TV interviews when he’s asked about the premature end of his spy career.
Just like Putin, Naryshkin quit the Russian intelligence service after the USSR’s 1991 demise and wrangled a job in the St. Petersburg city government. He got involved in economic development and foreign investments and, typical of city officials there in the mid-1990s, including Putin, seamlessly toggled between his government job and his business interests. From 1996 to 2004, for example, he had a seat on the board of Philip Morris Izhora, the Russian affiliate of the American tobacco giant, while at the same time working for the city government. There’s no doubt he became a rich man by mingling his government and business positions.
Naryshkin also used this time to improve his educational credentials—with decidedly mixed results.
His 2004 PhD dissertation, “Foreign Investments in Russia as a Factor of Economic Development'' —no doubt written for him by sloppy research assistants—was panned by the investigative organization “Dissernet” as a serious case of plagiarism. Fully 40 percent of it, they said, was lifted from other sources without any attribution. A second, higher-level dissertation (called a habilitation) conferred by the Russian government’s Institute for Legislation and Comparative Legal Studies in 2010, had similar issues.
Naryshkin’s “professorial” status in economics seemed like an odd credential for his appointment as president of the Historical Truth Commision from 2009 to 2012, when it was dissolved—until one learns that its function was to crush criticisms of Soviet behavior from Ukraine and other former republics and Warsaw Pact states.
Naryshkin’s rise in the Kremlin proper began in 2004 when, coinciding with the beginning of Putin’s second term as president, he was appointed to the position of a deputy chief of the economic directorate in the president’s administration. Very soon after, he was promoted again, acquiring the rank of a minister. And then in 2007, he rose again, selected by Putin to be a deputy prime minister.
When Dmitry Medvedev became the president of Russia in May 2008 (and Putin rotated to the position of prime minister), Naryshkin was appointed to the top position in the new administration: Medvedev’s chief of staff. His real job was to “keep an eye” on Medvedev for Putin, the Financial Times’ Charles Clover wrote at the time.
Putin must have highly valued his old KGB colleague’s efforts. Naryshkin was tapped as a candidate of the government’s United Russia party in the December 2011 elections for the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. His election was a sure thing, but to some surprise, he not only won office but was elected Speaker, despite no prior parliamentary experience. Moving sideways from a top government executive perch to the leadership of the Duma, alas, is common in Russia, where people from the same political clan hold all the positions of power and can exchange one position for another without any checks and balances. In today’s Russia, they’re known as “siloviki, the former officers—security men, soldiers and spies—who have flooded into state structures on the coat tails of Vladimir Putin,” Clover wrote.
Naryshkin’s tenure as Speaker was marked by the dramatic escalation of Russian foreign policy assertiveness and geopolitical revisionism, in which he played a major role. After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in March 2014, he was included on the list of Russian officials sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. Just like other members of Putin’s inner circle, however, he accepted the sanction as a badge of honor and never tired of claiming that the Russian activities were justified by the political developments in Ukraine.
In 2016, Naryshkin was running for reelection, but Putin had other plans for him: running his revamped old outfit, the SVR. In television and other public appearances, Naryshkin, at 62, appeared to relish his return to the spy business.
Under his leadership, the SVR doubled down on its p.r. campaign to shape its new image as powerful but professional, a KGB with better manners. Its website was updated and expanded. Books by KGB veterans, and pro-regime journalists who were given special access to sensitive material, proliferated. Documentary TV series and films were generously funded and promoted. The SVR’s annual award ceremony was expanded to honor personalities from Russian cultural life, including sculptors and musicians. A group of seven veteran KGB “illegals,” who had operated abroad under false identity and with no official cover, were publicly declassified for the first time and feted as heroes. One of them, Mikhail Vasenkov, aka Juan Lazaro, had been arrested by the FBI in Operation Ghost Stories in June 2010 and later exchanged, together with other SVR illegals, in a spy swap in Vienna.
The intensive focus on public relations reached a peak during the SVR’s 2020 centenary celebration. Despite the fact that Tsar Nicholas II’s regime had operated a well-developed and fairly successful foreign intelligence network, the SVR insisted its origins lay in the Bolshevik Cheka’s International Department, or INO, established by Felix Dzerzhinsky in December 1920. Evidently, the legacy of the Soviets—and “Iron Felix”—continue to find favor among those running Yasenevo, the SVR headquarters near Moscow. In 2018, they added the name of Yuri Andropov, the KGB chairman who crushed the Prague Spring and hounded dissidents in the 1960s and ‘70s, to the official name of the SVR Academy. It had been removed in the early 1990s.
There is no doubt that Naryshkin is the driving force behind the ongoing myth-making about Soviet intelligence operations and personalities. With the possible exception of the SVR’s founding father Yevgeny Primakov, no other post-Soviet Russian spy chief has made such a significant mark of the SVR presence in the public sphere.
In parallel with the SVR’s p.r. campaign (designed in part to attract new recruits, especially from the class of highly educated, well off young Russians who’ve been the “winners” of the post-Communist transition), the number of SVR operations abroad has increased as well. Naryshkin has publicly boasted of certain “friends” around the world, who he says sympathize with the emerging Russian challenge to America’s global hegemony and are willing to help with covert assistance. He’s even hinted that at some point in the distant future, the world will learn of a powerful Russian spy network in the West, something akin to the notorious “Cambridge Five” recruited by Moscow in the mid-1930s. Of course, Naryshkin has offered no evidence for any of these claims.
Retired career CIA operations officer Douglas London casts doubt on such a claim, saying it’s the FSB that benefited most from the post-Soviet breakup of the KGB and reorganization of Russian intelligence, not the SVR.
“The FSB received more power, turf and talent,” London tells SpyTalk. “We’ve witnessed [the SVR’s] focus and success in cyber, but we haven’t seen evidence they’re otherwise as potent abroad [as the old KGB] in recruiting spies.”
Nostalgic for Pompeo
However, there is evidence that Naryshkin has been more successful than his predecessors in forging cooperation with foreign intelligence services, including the CIA under Mike Pompeo. In his TV interviews, Naryshkin mentions with a hint of nostalgia his “long” phone conversations with Pompeo as well as personal meetings with him, two of which are known.
As President Donald Trump’s CIA chief, Pompeo first visited Moscow in May 2017. Later, when he became secretary of state, the visits continued. In January 2018, Naryshkin, together with the chiefs of Russia’s other main security and intelligence agencies—Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB (domestic security and counterintelligence), and Igor Korobov, then-head of the GRU—visited Washington at Pompeo’s invitation. This, despite the fact that Naryshkin and Korobov had been sanctioned by the U.S. over the Crimea annexation. (Bortnikov was added later in response to the poisoning of the Russian opposition activist Aleksey Navalny.) The visit sparked controversy and its rationale remains unclear.
According to Naryshkin, the “warming” relations with the CIA stopped abruptly when Gina Haspel became CIA director in May 2018. There were no more in-person meetings or even phone calls, he said. Last November, however, with Russia ramping up troops on Ukraine’s border, CIA director William Burns broke the ice, so to speak, with a visit to his SVR counterpart in Moscow.
While today Naryshkin frequently imputes all kinds of nefarious intentions to the CIA (although always leaving room open for cooperation on counterterrorism matters), he is publicly full of praise for his Chinese counterpart. The two have a similar geopolitical outlook on “the emerging threats to global stability” (read: America), he claims, and even share analytical reports and information. He also says he’s proud of his friendly relations with counterparts in other countries—some 20 of which he’s visited—and enjoys being one of the main hosts of the annual Moscow Security Conference, which brings together defense and spy chiefs or their deputies from dozens of countries around the world.
In his public appearances with officials and diplomats, Naryshkin comes off as calm, with a smiling willingness to listen. To great effect, the pace of his utterances often slows to a trickle, which seems to charm and disarm his interlocutors. To an unpracticed eye, Naryshkin might seem like a rather ordinary, even nice and considerate fellow, somebody who’s ready to accommodate contrary views. What gives him away, though, is the apparent absence of any sense of humor: He hardly ever laughs, or cracks even the smallest joke or pun. Behind the mask, in the depth of his steely eyes, is the personality of a stone cold KGB agent.
Just like other top Russian officials, Naryshkin also has the habit of using coarse and demeaning expressions in response to critics of his patron Putin. He routinely calls Alexey Navalny “the Berlin patient,” a sarcastic reference to Navalny’s hospitalization in Germany after he was poisoned. He almost seems annoyed that Navalny recovered at all. To apparently hasten his demise, the opposition leader was arrested upon his return to Russia, on charges of parole violations, and sentenced last February to two years and eight months in prison.
Also last year there were well-founded rumors that Naryshkin would replace Sergey Lavrov as foreign minister. Lavrov is over 70 now, which, until recent changes, was the legal retirement age for government officials. There was talk that Lavrov was going to be appointed to the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament. His old friend Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the U.S. who came under investigation by the FBI as one of the main protagonists in the Kremlin’s 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign interference, is already there as a senator and could show him the ropes.
Lavrov, however, shows no signs of desiring retirement. And it also increasingly appears that Naryshkin, forged by the KGB, prefers to remain in the world of shadows—unless, or until, Putin, who made him who he is, changes his mind.
Originally from Montenegro, Dr. Filip Kovacevic teaches at the University of San Francisco. He is a board member of the International Association for Intelligence Education & Director of Outreach for the North American Society for Intelligence History.