After reading for weeks about the "former FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko" in the Russian media, and an "ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko" in the English language media, one can't help but wonder if Litvinenko was really a "spy". The FSB, the former employer of Litvinenko, is one of the descendants of the KGB. The KGB dealt with both intelligence (or spying) and counterintelligence (catching foreign spies, as well as suppressing dissidents). After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the KGB was split up into several agencies. The intelligence functions (spying) went to the SVR (External Intelligence Service), and counterintelligence, as well as fighting against organized crime, something that wasn't as necessary in the Soviet times, went to what is now known as the FSB (Federal Security Service). This former employer of Litvinenko operates inside the country and is not known to engage in what is commonly understood by the term "espionage" -- that's reserved for the SVR (GRU as well, but that has nothing to do with the former KGB). Therefore, referring to Litvinenko as an "ex-spy" basically misrepresents the work that he did in the Russian special services.
That's what I thought. However, after I cast doubt on the applicability of the term to our ex-FSB agent, a certain commenter proposed to teach me English and proceeded to rant at length, for starters pointing out that the word "spy" means "to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes, to search or look for intensively" [link and definition as provided by the commenter]. Let's forget for a moment that this would be teacher of English confused the verb "to spy" with the noun "spy". Because it gets more interesting. While admitting that the media does not claim that Litvinenko engaged in international espionage against foreign governments, the commenter decided to defend the "spy" label by pointing to examples of industrial espionage, and also claiming that since Litvinenko's work for the KGB involved spying on people, then he was definitely a "spy". And of course, since the KGB was such a secretive organization, how dare I presume to know what Litvinenko did there. Apparently, the irony of this accusation was lost on the commenter, who keeps claiming that Litvinenko was in fact a spy -- I guess the KGB must've been more secretive with me than with her.
So what does the common description of Litvinenko as an "ex-spy" imply about his line of work? That he was a foreign intelligence agent, or at least dealt with such agents, or that he simply "spied" on people? There can really be no two answers about it. The job of "spying" on people is performed by many professions, for example, by police, who gather intelligence on criminals. And even nosy people who pry into their neighbors' lives can be described to be spying. However, no one in their right mind ever refers to policemen or busybodies as "spies" without providing additional context. A description of someone simply as a spy, outside of any context, implies that the person is professionally employed as a spy, and the meaning of "spy" in this case becomes "a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another, usually hostile, country, esp. with reference to military or naval affairs." This is exactly what all the newspaper headlines implied about Litvinenko. This is exactly how it's been construed by the readers.
So who was Litvinenko, really? According to his own widely cited claims (usually lifted verbatim from his book "The FSB Blows up Russia"), he served in the army from 1980 to 1988, when he transferred to the KGB counterintelligence. After the KGB was split up, he ended up in what is now known as the FSB, in a unit specializing in fighting terrorism and organized crime. That's where he received an honorary badge "MUR Veteran" ("MUR" stands for Moscow Criminal Investigation Office). In 1997 he was transferred into allegedly "the most secret unit of the FSB RF" -- Directorate for the Investigation of Criminal Organizations. Such was his alleged history of employment until the famous press conference, where it all went downhill. The story from other sources is a little murkier. The current Defense Minister Ivanov, who also used to be an FSB officer, recalled that Litvinenko came to the FSB from the Interior Ministry's convoy troops -- that is, he had been a glorified prison guard. The KGB connection becomes unclear. His FSB career until 1997 also seems somewhat questionable. The unit he refers to was probably a joint task force set up by the FSB and the Interior Ministry to combat organized crime. Litvinenko himself most likely remained an Interior Ministry employee (that is, a policeman), since otherwise there is no explanation for him being dubbed a "MUR Veteran". FSB officers can hardly be described as veterans of simple criminal police of the Interior Ministry. His official recruitment to the FSB most likely occurred only in 1997, when he became Berezovsky's man. Be it as it may, his career in the special services apparently consisted of guarding prisoners and combating organized crime, as well as stints in Chechnya. None of these activities have any resemblance to espionage implied in newspaper headlines.
So while western newspapers attempt to sell more issues by marketing Litvinenko as a spy straight out of a Cold War spy drama, this causes problems to arise for Litvinenko's friends and family. That's because if he were a spy, he becomes a traitor in the traditions of the Cold War, which can be used to discredit his claims in Russia, and in the West this brings up the terrifying caricature images of the KGB and Litvinenko's possible role in it. Litvinenko's circle was immediately forced to defend him from these allegations. For example, a friend of his, one David Kudykov, complained bitterly on a Chechen separatist propaganda site: "The press calls Sasha [Litvinenko] a spy, and this puts a stain on him, that he worked for the kgb [sic]. But Sasha was an officer fighting against organized crime there, it was his official position, which had absolutely nothing to do with espionage." Litvinenko's wife Marina further commented in an interview with The Sunday Times that "she had decided to speak out after becoming angry at 'completely untrue' reports suggesting her husband was a man of dubious character. She said he had been an honest man, a crime fighter rather than a spy."
Since Litvinenko clearly wasn't a spy, all this talk about "ex-KGB spy" was simply a form of falsification. Was it done deliberately to sell more issues by calling up the mystique of a Cold War spy drama, or was it the result of incompetent journalists hearing the word "KGB" and immediately thinking "spies"? Probably a little of both. Frankly, I don't see this as such a big deal. It was really a harmless lie, even if it frustrated Litvinenko's wife. But I decided this needed to be investigated anyway, just to set the record straight.
Finally, since this is supposed to be a media review blog, not a ranting commenter review blog, let's start naming names of some of the incompetent hacks employed by various newspapers and news agencies, who for some reason thought that Litvinenko had been a spy. After searching through JRL archives, here's a very incomplete list for 2007 only:
Tony Halpin, The Times, 17 Jan
Daniel McGrory, The Times, 17 Jan
Josh Grossberg, Eonline.com, 16 Jan
D'Arcy Doran, Associated Press, 13 Jan
The aforementioned Alexandra Poolos, ABC News, 10 Jan
Phil Stewart, Reuters, 5 Jan
Andrew Osbron, The Independent, 4 Jan
Karen Kaplan, LA Times, 1 Jan
Thomas H. Maugh II, LA Times, 1 Jan
And an honorable mention goes to the commenter who attempted to prove that Litvinenko can be called a spy by implying that, since we don't know what the KGB was doing, he just might've been one.
Note: If anyone has more information on Litvinenko's background with the special services, and the work he performed there, please share it.