The Second Most Powerful Man In Russia

Nikolai Patrushev, current secretary of Russia’s Security Council, is one of a dwindling group of hawks the leader listens to. But who is he?

The Second Most Powerful Man In Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev / Dec 19, 2017 / Yuri Kochetkov / AFP via Getty Images

“Their concrete goal is to destroy the Russian Federation,” a tall, bony man with a wrinkled, forgettable face said in a high-pitched, nasal voice while Russian President Vladimir Putin listened attentively. It was Feb. 21, and Putin had gathered Russia’s political and military elite in the glamorous St. Catherine’s Hall in the Kremlin to rubber-stamp his decision to recognize the two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine — Luhansk and Donetsk — as sovereign states.

The man in question, looking self-confidently at the audience of the heads of Russia’s power ministries, spent little time talking about Ukraine; he had the U.S. in his sights. He had already warned in an earlier speech that Russia would hold the U.S. accountable for all its troubles. He channeled his decades of KGB training. For him, the glavniy protivnik, the main adversary, never went away.

The camera quickly zoomed in on Putin’s unblinking eyes. That look spoke more than a thousand words. He agreed with the speaker, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, Russia’s top national security body, who has never been more than a heartbeat away since Putin moved into the Kremlin more than two decades ago.

Patrushev was born in June 1951, just a few months before Putin, and came from a military family. His parents had lived through the Nazi blockade and decided to build a new life in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) after the war was over. Unlike Putin, who grew up as an only child, Patrushev had an older brother who was born in 1945 and named Victor to fit the occasion. The family lived in a communal apartment just a few blocks away from the Yusupov Palace where disgruntled czarist officers first poisoned and then shot Grigory Rasputin, the monk-turned-healer who commanded the tsarina’s attention. The young Patrushev’s Soviet childhood was haunted by the echoes of Russia’s scandalous imperial past.

The high school Patrushev attended — Leningrad High School Number No. 211 — became a place of note in the later biographies of Putin’s top associates. Among his classmates were Boris Gryzlov, a former minister of internal affairs and the speaker of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, and Sergey Smirnov, the longtime principal deputy director of the FSB, Russia’s federal security service. Gryzlov continues to play an important role in Russia’s foreign policy decision-making as the current ambassador to Belarus and a member of Russia’s delegation in the ongoing negotiations with Ukraine.

Perhaps influenced by his father’s career in the Soviet navy, Patrushev graduated from the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute with a diploma in engineering, a certification he shares with Russia’s current chiefs of the state security and intelligence services: Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, and Sergey Naryshkin, director of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Was it a great loss to Soviet engineering that they all became KGB officers? Their motivation is not difficult to explain — becoming a KGB officer was a ticket to a privileged lifestyle in the Soviet system.

Unlike Bortnikov, Naryshkin and Putin, Patrushev did not make it to the Higher School of the KGB in Moscow, the premier educational institution of the security services. Instead, after being recruited by the KGB in Leningrad, he was sent to the KGB school in Minsk, the Soviet Union’s second best. Why this was the case still remains a mystery. Patrushev’s family background was solid for Soviet state security standards, so something else must have been involved. Was it something he did or said at the university? In any case, his later KGB career seems not to have suffered from the fact that he was not a Moscow KGB school graduate.

Although not a classmate of Putin, Bortnikov or Naryshkin, he met the “unholy trio” (villains in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”) sometime later, probably in one of the large-windowed offices in the “Big House,” the KGB’s Leningrad headquarters, which was within walking distance of his childhood apartment.

Oleg Kalugin, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former KGB general-turned-critic, was once well acquainted with Patrushev. “I knew him really well for a long time. He was my assistant in Leningrad,” Kalugin said in a 2012 interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon. “He was different from other KGB officers in that he never blindly followed the orders of his superiors.” According to Kalugin, Patrushev approached his work with a kind of “humanitarian concern” for everybody involved. He was not a rigid enforcer of Communist rules.

In his memoir “Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West,” Kalugin included a story involving Patrushev. When one of the Communist Party bosses in Leningrad accused a certain individual of “anti-Soviet agitation” and demanded that the KGB put him under surveillance, Kalugin recounted how he advised Patrushev: “Why don’t you invite [this individual] to your office, talk to him, and point out his errors and inconsistencies? Tell him to be careful. That way we can close the case without an arrest.” Patrushev complied, unafraid of bending KGB standard operating procedures. Kalugin was pleased that his advice was followed and that the individual avoided potentially devastating consequences for speaking his mind.

That Patrushev was not a dogmatic Communist may come down to his strong religious beliefs. Much later, when he became the director of the FSB, he was instrumental in supporting the renovation and reconsecration of Sophia, the Wisdom of God Orthodox Church, which is next to the FSB Lubyanka headquarters. It is said that before embarking on special missions, many FSB officers would stop in this church to say their prayers. Patrushev also proudly supported the construction of the statue of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker near one of Russia’s northernmost border posts on the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arkhangelsk region.

Shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union, in 1992, Patrushev transferred from St. Petersburg to the regional branch of state security in the neighboring region of Karelia. Those were the days when, amid general uncertainty about the future, many Russian regions developed autonomous institutions strongly resembling embryonic independent states. Karelia was no exception, and its historical links to Finland influenced its post-Soviet character. Patrushev became Karelia’s minister of state security, tasked with restraining and neutralizing any independence-oriented tendencies.

Karelia was the region where Yuri Andropov, later the all-powerful chair of the KGB and then the successor to Leonid Brezhnev as the Soviet leader, began his political career in the 1930s. The Karelian KGB nurtured an almost cultish allegiance to Andropov for decades. While in Karelia, Patrushev appears to have imbibed many elements of the Andropov myth. It seems as if he had “a conversion moment” and began seeing himself as another Andropov, the kind of person who would bring state security personnel into the Kremlin, the pinnacle of Russia’s power, just as Andropov had done.

Patrushev wrote about the profound influence Andropov had on his view of state security and the political system in the preface of former Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev’s biography of Andropov, published in 2006. Medvedev’s book was awarded first prize in the FSB annual literary competition and became a bestseller in Russian state security circles in large part thanks to Patrushev’s preface.

Patrushev must have done a good job in Karelia because, just two years later, in 1994, he was offered a position in Moscow. His official title was head of the internal security directorate at the Lubyanka headquarters. He was one of a dozen high-level state security officers who began working on strengthening FSB influence in Russian politics at the federal level.

Patrushev’s position allowed him to survey the human resource potential in the FSB ranks and direct its flow. He was instrumental in bringing his former KGB colleagues from the St. Petersburg regional directorate to Moscow. One of these colleagues was none other than Putin.

It could very well be that it was Patrushev who “discovered” Putin. From the very beginning of his political career, Putin has acknowledged Patrushev’s high status in the Kremlin hierarchy of power. Over time, he appointed Patrushev to positions that are effectively second-in-command roles.

For instance, when then President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister in 1999, Putin recommended Patrushev to succeed him as FSB director. Announcing Patrushev’s appointment at a press conference on Aug. 18, 1999, Putin joked, “Colonel Putin gives up the post,” to which Patrushev, somewhat uncomfortably, replied, “Colonel General Patrushev receives the post.” Putin also remarked at the time that “he will make the state security service even more powerful.”

Putin’s words were soon tested following a series of horrific explosions in September 1999 at apartment buildings in Moscow and two provincial cities, which left more than 300 dead and 1,000 wounded. Putin and Patrushev were quick to blame Chechen separatist leaders, though many questions remain unresolved to this day.

Former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who fled to the United Kingdom in 2000, accused the FSB of being behind the bombings. Together with historian Yuri Felshtinsky, he published a detailed insider’s account in “Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within.” The book was quickly added to Russia’s Federal List of Extremist Materials and banned. Some of the copies that made it to Russia were confiscated and destroyed. In 2006 Litvinenko was famously poisoned in London by individuals who, according to British investigative and judicial authorities, worked under the instructions of the FSB. An official inquiry by British officials found that the assassination was “probably approved” by Putin.

Putin’s government used the apartment bombings as a pretext to reopen the conflict in Chechnya, leading to the radical escalation of violence in the breakaway republic and the neighboring regions. This was Russia’s second Chechen war in less than a decade. However, in contrast to the first one, this time the Russian military and state security special forces, including the FSB, achieved their major objectives. The war helped restore the reputational prestige of the FSB, and Patrushev was hailed by Russian state media as the resolute administrator whose decisions and policies made Russia safer.

Patrushev took advantage of the media spotlight placing FSB officers on a pedestal as the “new nobility” tasked with governing Russia in the spirit of self-sacrifice and for the sake of the country’s greater glory. In a Dec. 20, 2000, interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda timed to coincide with the Day of the Chekist, commemorating the creation of the Soviet Union’s first security organization, the Cheka, Patrushev waxed lyrical about the FSB officers nominated to receive the highest state awards. “High-brow intellectual analysts, broad-shouldered, seasoned special forces soldiers, silent bomb technicians, disciplined investigators, calm counterintelligence officers … outwardly they are different, but there is one important trait that unites them all — they are the people who want to serve [their homeland]. If you will, [they are] modern ‘new nobility.’”

The idea that FSB officers represent a new nobility became the guiding thesis of Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s seminal book “The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security Services and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB.” Though published more than 10 years ago, this book remains the most informative account on the genesis and development of the post-Soviet Russian state security architecture.

Notwithstanding the lofty-sounding rhetoric and the state media praise heaped on Patrushev in the early 2000s, the FSB was far from able to secure Russia’s territory from sudden and massive terror attacks. The disastrous handling of the Moscow Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis in October 2002 and the Beslan school siege in September 2004, which led to hundreds of potentially avoidable civilian deaths, demonstrated the sizable gap between Patrushev’s words and the FSB’s actions.

Patrushev’s star, however, continued to rise on Russia’s political horizon. Though there were impassioned calls for his resignation by the relatives of victims from the Beslan siege, Patrushev had Putin’s blessing to remain at the helm of the FSB.

When Putin was unable to run for a third consecutive presidential term in 2008 (because of constitutional restrictions in place at the time), rumors that Patrushev was being groomed to become his successor intensified as efforts were made to familiarize the Russian public with Patrushev’s accomplishments. The Russian state TV Channel One produced an hourlong documentary about Patrushev’s life, including interviews with his wife, his older brother and his high school classmate Smirnov, who was his principal deputy in the FSB. Footage of Patrushev and Putin together in a military helicopter flying to a crisis flashpoint was featured prominently. And Patrushev was shown visiting various Russian border posts from the Central Asian steppes to the Arctic, a special nod to Patrushev’s integration of the Border Service with the FSB in 2003.

And yet, Patrushev’s highly anticipated position as the head of state was not to be. Putin instead chose Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, and in May 2008 Patrushev was offered what seemed at the time to be a consolation prize: secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

With Putin as the prime minister, however, the fulcrum of power was no longer in the presidency. Though Medvedev was nominally the president of the country from 2008 until 2012, most decisions were still being made by Putin in coordination with Patrushev. The state security apparatus, which since the early 2000s has become a veritable “state within the state,” had the final say on everything that went on in Russia. It also managed and directed Russian intelligence and other resources outside Russian borders.

While Medvedev was only a one-term president, Patrushev has remained head of the Security Council. He has turned the vast Security Council apparatus into his power base and has been able to steer high-level political decisions in the direction of his conspiracist, anti-American understanding of world events that he had cultivated from his KGB idol, Andropov.

Patrushev’s ideological influence on Putin has become more evident over time. While Putin still espoused some elements of a liberal worldview in the mid-2000s, Patrushev clearly signaled his preference for what he called “traditional values” as early as 2000. These values are premised on the creation of an anti-liberal, “multipolar” world in which Russia’s sphere of influence would expand dramatically, which Patrushev has referred to in numerous interviews with Russian state media over the years.

In a 2015 interview, Patrushev claimed that “the formation of a multipolar world” was the only way to restrain what he perceived as the liberal hegemony of the West. He proudly stressed that Russia was the main antagonist to the Western liberal world order and warned that Russia would leave nothing off the table when pushing for its geopolitical interests abroad.

Patrushev has used his frequent contacts with non-Western counterparts to spread his anti-Western gospel. His December 2021 visit to Indonesia and Cambodia was his most recent trip tailored for this purpose.

The culmination of Patrushev’s decadeslong public and behind-the-scenes agitation against the Western world is Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

In the months preceding the invasion, Patrushev amplified his anti-American conspiracy theories to its highest pitch, attempting to provide justification for Russia’s activities. In September 2021, on state-run Radio Sputnik, he asserted that the U.S. was conducting covert biowarfare against the citizens of the former Soviet republics. “The biological laboratories opened by Washington … are a threat to the health of tens of millions of people.”

In November 2021, he stated that “the appearance of deadly viruses and pandemics is caused by lab experiments with pathogens,” implying that the Western laboratories he had mentioned in September were to blame. According to Patrushev, some of these laboratories were operating in Ukraine, and he appeared to suggest that their work had to be stopped no matter what the cost.

At the same time, Patrushev also launched a conspiracy theory against the use of renewable energy, which Western nations view as fundamental to sustainable and climate-friendly economic and environmental policies in the decades to come. Patrushev claimed that these sources are “not fully safe for the environment and, in some cases, have a negative impact on nature itself.” The healthiest choice for the world, Patrushev asserts, is to keep buying Russian oil and gas.

Moreover, Patrushev made a series of sensationalist geopolitical claims designed to misinform international audiences about the global balance of power. In September 2021, he said that we are witnessing the resurgence of the British Empire. “Under the concept of ‘Global Britain,’ ” he declared, “the British want to rebuild their empire using their ‘old’ methods.” Patrushev also insisted that the group of seven leading industrial nations has lost “its significance” and is now only “a discussion club.” Perhaps the most bizarre of all Patrushev’s recent conspiracy theories was his accusation that the West is making Ukrainians “poor and disempowered.” Given the ongoing events in Ukraine, this sounds like a particularly brutal denial of truth.

Patrushev’s Feb. 21 claim that the U.S. wants to bring about Russia’s collapse was echoed by Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Naryshkin on March 3, a week after the invasion began. “The West does not only want to encircle Russia with a new Iron Curtain but to destroy it completely,” he said in a statement originally published on the official website of the SVR.

This has become the core belief among Putin’s KGB cohort in the Kremlin. They believe they are fighting for their survival. Radicalized to the core by Patrushev’s anti-Western conspiracy theories, they will stop at nothing to achieve their goal of remaking not only Ukraine but also Europe and the rest of the world, according to their “traditional” values of radical control, perpetual surveillance and toxic masculinity.

The West needs to take Patrushev at his word and prepare to counteract his worst KGB impulses. This will require thinking outside of the box. It may not only be Russia’s survival at stake.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy