The New Nobility: the Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB

Several recent books have claimed to expose the secrets of a newly expansionist Kremlin. As a former Moscow correspondent myself, I've read them all, but the suggestion of a great stand-off between Russia and the west does not strike me as persuasive.

The notion of a monolithic Russia has always made me suspicious, as it doesn't fit with the chaotic country I knew when living there. I have never tried to analyse those suspicions methodically, however, and so I'm grateful to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan for doing it for me. Drawing on extensive investigations, the two journalists have written a gripping ­account of how veterans of the KGB seized ­control of the Russian state.

In 1991, after the then KGB head, Vladimir Kryuchkov, backed the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin resolved to weaken the Lubyanka's grip on power. He created half a dozen distinct security services out of the sprawling mass of the old KGB. These new services squabbled among themselves, as well as with outsiders. Top employees went to work for private companies, while other companies hired units from the new services to work on their behalf.

But amid this disintegration, Soldatov and Borogan argue, the services gained a new power. Although the KGB was stronger than any of the bodies that replaced it, it was nonetheless controlled from top to bottom by the Communist Party. Now that the party is gone, the FSB - as the most powerful of the ­successors to the KGB is known - is subject to no checks at all.

In some ways the FSB most closely resembles the mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world: devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted, and unopposed to employing brutal methods.

That may seem alarmist, but the book is anything but. It shows methodically how FSB employees dominate the state and describes the culture of paranoia they have sown. Soldatov and Borogan's clear-eyed analysis is all the more remarkable considering that they were colleagues of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist whose assassination in 2006 is still unsolved. They know all too well the dangers involved in uncovering the secrets of the powerful.

Soldatov and Borogan wrote the book in English, but it is permeated nevertheless by a sardonic Russian humour. Their account is often hilariously and lugubriously downbeat. For example, at one point they observe with lethal sarcasm that "extrajudicial killing would seem to be at odds with the law". It is also to their credit that they avoid the wilder conspiracy theories favoured by certain of their western colleagues. By dismissing the claim that the FSB, looking for a pretext to restart the Chechen war, killed more than 200 people by bombing four Moscow apartment blocks in 1999, they make other disturbing allegations seem altogether more plausible.

Their analysis of the way the FSB restored the might of the KGB after Putin's election to the presidency in 2000 is particularly impressive. Lacking resources, the FSB simply arrested people who had contacts with foreigners, manufactured evidence and - in at least one case - appears to have packed a jury in order to ensure a conviction.

The examples assembled by Soldatov and Borogan reminded me of a time, in 2004, when I was reporting on the case of a group of Chechen doctors who had been accused of planning suicide attacks - just because their names were on the books of a western charity.

I was interrogated at a checkpoint in neighbouring Ingushetia for more than two hours by an FSB officer. On leaving, I was tailed by two cars, each containing four agents. They stuck to me all evening, standing behind me while I ­carried out such suspicious tasks as changing money, buying a plane ticket and eating supper.

I mention this because, just a few weeks later, a group of militants drove out of Ingushetia and took over a school in Beslan. Some 336 people, including 186 children, died in the siege. Perhaps those eight agents could have helped to prevent the tragedy if they hadn't wasted so much time bullying insignificant people such as me.

According to Soldatov and Borogan, though such incompetence is widespread, the FSB continues to expand its power base. As the attacks in Beslan, Moscow and elsewhere show, ordinary Russians are still far from safe, despite the assault on civil liberties launched by their government in the name of "security". Putin's new nobility has all the arrogance of the aristocrats swept away in 1917, and more powerful weapons. This book paints a chilling picture of a country dominated by a power-hungry clique. Anyone who wants to understand Putin's brave new Russia should read it.

Oliver Bullough was a Reuters Moscow correspondent and is the author of "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus" (Allen Lane, £25)

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle