REPORTS
ANALYTICS
INVESTIGATIONS
  • USD89.26
  • EUR96.89
  • OIL82.15
DONATEРусский
  • 991
Confession

Under the watchful eye of “Nikolai Nikolaevich”: How the FSB's surveillance unit monitors journalists and foreigners

FSB officers have a distinctive nickname for the agency’s highly secretive Operative-Search Department (OPU), which they refer to as “Nikolai Nikolaevich.” The moniker is derived from the first letters of the Russian words for “external surveillance” (naruzhnoye nablyudenie). Personnel at the unit are primarily tasked with tracking foreign diplomats, business figures, and journalists. An OPU member who recently resigned spoke to The Insider about the unit’s covert operations in Moscow, the link between “external surveillance” and political assassinations, the expected qualifications of its members, and the department’s response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Content
  • How do you get in to Nikolai Nikolaevich?

  • Nikolai Nikolaevich and his cover stories

  • Nikolai Nikolaevich and his real estate

  • Nikolai Nikolaevich's superiors

  • Nikolai Nikolaevich and political murders

  • Nikolai Nikolaevich and his blunders

  • The current mood at the OPU

In scenes reminiscent of spy movies, members of the FSB Operative-Search Department carry out surveillance at high-profile locations like upscale hotels accommodating foreign visitors, embassies, offices of foreign military attachés, ambassadors' residences, international exhibitions, and festivals — particularly during the visits of foreign leaders.

In the FSB itself, OPU officers are kept apart from everyone else, and their data is strictly classified. They are officially registered as instructors, and their service duration is understated, with one year of service actually amounting to a year and a half. The OPU has dozens of secret mansions on its balance sheet and the largest car fleet in the FSB — hundreds of vehicles, cover documents, spare sets of licence plates, disguises like wigs and false beards, as well as video and photo surveillance equipment. What sets the OPU apart is that nearly half of its personnel are women, and even 70-year-old female operatives kept in the reserve, often assigned to especially crucial missions.

V., a former OPU officer who agreed to talk to The Insider about her work, quit her job as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine. Although she now resides in a relatively secure location, her identity remains confidential by mutual agreement.

How do you get in to Nikolai Nikolaevich?

I graduated from the law faculty of the FSB Academy, worked for a little over two years, then a friend proposed that I serve at “Nikolai Nikolaevich.” I trained in St. Petersburg, at the FSB Institute, where Putin once studied, and returned to Moscow.

The department welcomed me well. At first it wasn't easy, the classes on address orientation in the centre of Moscow were especially difficult. At that time, [Moscow mayor] Yuri Luzhkov was building something [in the city] every week, the city was littered with barriers and stop signs, streets and passages kept changing. It was difficult for me to pass classes on anti-accident training on cars, and driving in a group. I was exhausted after all sorts of classes on the selection of one’s operational wardrobe, control checks, operational games in urban conditions, lessons on physiognomy and counter-surveillance. I was exhausted at first, but then I got the hang of it. I began seeing Russia’s capital with different eyes. My first assignments were drug dealers, then I learnt English, which got me transferred to the “external surveillance” of foreigners, on an order from the FSB’s First Service.

Since Stalin's times, stationary posts have been located at the embassies of the USA, Great Britain, France, and other NATO countries. I worked a lot in hotels, where foreigners were constantly visiting, in restaurants, museums, theatres, and at exhibitions. Our task was to identify diplomats’ circle of communication, to record their meetings, places of permanent stay, and to collect information about their families. Then we compiled reports and passed them on to our analysts, who then passed them on to the client from another [FSB] service. We also passed on photo and video reports. That’s how “external surveillance” works all over the world, but we’re better than others, as we work on all our targets’ connections, make psychological portraits, and few people could get away from our guys.

Journalists, of course, were also watched. There were stationary or temporary surveillance posts on Zoologicheskaya Street (CBS office), on Kutuzovsky Avenue (CNN, NBC, Sky News, FSN, ABC), on Bakhrushina Street (BBC), I can't remember the others... These guys were wiretapped, their mail was read, but personally I liked them. On 12 Sadovo-Samotechnaya Street, where Western journalists live, they used to place our elderly women with apples. Imagine an old lady selling apples, smiling at everyone, and keeping track of people coming and going. These folks have been at it since Soviet times and are real pros. You can say that our main enemy is the sun. Our technicians mess up sometimes — setting up hidden cameras at night, only to have the sun spoil the view during the day or create glare on the lens. Once that happens, it’s over — you can wrap it up.

Now that foreigners are scarce, we've switched to the Chinese and Indians. Or the Turks even — they spy, recruit our scientists and engineers, steal our technical and military developments. There’s a saying that goes: “With friends like these you don't need enemies.” That’s about them.

Nikolai Nikolaevich and his cover stories

In our line of work, looking good isn't a must. People glance at me and forget me right away. The key is comfy shoes, quick thinking, and patience. Plus, you've got to be a bit of a performer.

One major rule: don't lock eyes with your target. They might forget your clothes or hat, but your gaze sticks in their memory. Also, be ready for different scenarios when tailing someone. Imagine your subject suddenly ducks into a busy alley — you've got to signal your team in time. Practice surveillance skills in crowded transport, where you're super close to the person.

As for cover documents — it all depends on the situation. I had a whole set, even a fire inspector's licence and an Emergency Ministry rescuer's licence. Some of the guys had neighbourhood policemen's certificates. As for myself, I got a journalist's licence from some district newspaper, I don't remember now. I bought it for 500 roubles (approximately $5). There were cover documents for every situation — you name it.

Nikolai Nikolaevich and his real estate

- Dozens of buildings and safe houses are on the external” service’s balance sheet. And that’s just in the center of Moscow. Take the former Korovin Revenue House in Starokonyushenny Lane, where apartments cost more than 100 million roubles ($1.08 million). By the way, did you move out of the cell of the former Greek monastery on Nikolskaya Street?

- I've rarely been there. It's not a good place. The Bolsheviks destroyed the temple itself, threw the monks' relics out of the cells and replaced them with offices. In the 1970s, the “external service” moved in. Our guys who used to sit there often got sick. We invited a priest to consecrate the room, but it was all for nothing.

- Are those your people on Malaya Ordynka disguised as travel agents, in Pozharsky Lane, and what about your office on 5th Parkovaya?

- Do you want me to be prosecuted for treason?

The 7th KGB Directorate (in charge of external surveillance) was established in 1954 based on the Directorate of External Surveillance and Protection of the Diplomatic Corps. After 1991, the unit became part of the central apparatus of the MGB-FSC-FSB. In 1993, external surveillance was assigned the military unit No. 52295, and in 2004 it was named the FSB’s 17th Directorate, or FSB OPU. The OPU’s headquarters are located at the following address: Moscow, Myasnitskaya Street, 26, while the special garage is located on Zvezdniy Boulevard, 13.

Gennady Shvetov, part of the inner circle of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, leads the FSB OPU. The oversight of the department falls under the purview of Army General Sergei Korolev, the 1st Deputy Director of the FSB.

  • The Korovin Revenue House on Starokonyushenny Lane in Moscow
  • Building on Malaya Ordynka
  • Building on 5th Parkovaya Street, Moscow
  • Secret building in Pozharsky Lane, Moscow

- What about your branch in Vologda?

- That’s where we have cutting and sewing courses [laughs].

Nikolai Nikolaevich's superiors

- Have you been in touch with the head of the “external service”, General Gennady Shvetov?

- I saw him sometimes. He used to be seconded to the 15th security detachment of the Moscow Department of Internal Affairs. They wear police uniforms at embassies, but they’re actually from our department.

- Who's the most respected general in the “external” service?

- Vladimir Vasilyevich Tumin. He’s our legend, he served in the 7th KGB Directorate. During the Soviet era, the “surveillance” worked under the cover of the “Progress” state enterprise.

- Isn't that General Tumin, the one who allegedly provided protection for the owner of a chain of stores selling American jeans? There are rumors that people were approaching him to establish a connection with the FSB.

- Mikhail Mendoza-Blandon. Well, you shouldn't say that, Mikhail Orlandovich did a lot to help FSB officers. In our clinical hospital, he equipped the Seraphim of Sarov ward with [Orthodox] icons, and treatment was much quicker there.

The 7th KGB Directorate (in charge of external surveillance) was established in 1954 based on the Directorate of External Surveillance and Protection of the Diplomatic Corps. After 1991, the unit became part of the central apparatus of the MGB-FSC-FSB. In 1993, external surveillance was assigned the military unit No. 52295, and in 2004 it was named the FSB’s 17th Directorate, or FSB OPU. The OPU’s headquarters are located at the following address: Moscow, Myasnitskaya Street, 26, while the special garage is located on Zvezdniy Boulevard, 13.

Gennady Shvetov, part of the inner circle of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, leads the FSB OPU. The oversight of the department falls under the purview of Army General Sergei Korolev, the 1st Deputy Director of the FSB.

  • General Vladimir Tumin
  • Mikhail Mendoza-Blandon (left)

Nikolai Nikolaevich and political murders

- How did the “external service” react to Alexander Voevodov, who broke his wife's bones and then filmed her dying on his tablet? Out of habit, so to speak, for reporting purposes.

- What a bastard! He was a good employee, though, until he became a complete drunk. He didn't get enough for his wife's murder, only six years [in prison]. I've seen Katya [Voevodov's wife] at our corporate party before.

The 7th KGB Directorate (in charge of external surveillance) was established in 1954 based on the Directorate of External Surveillance and Protection of the Diplomatic Corps. After 1991, the unit became part of the central apparatus of the MGB-FSC-FSB. In 1993, external surveillance was assigned the military unit No. 52295, and in 2004 it was named the FSB’s 17th Directorate, or FSB OPU. The OPU’s headquarters are located at the following address: Moscow, Myasnitskaya Street, 26, while the special garage is located on Zvezdniy Boulevard, 13.

Gennady Shvetov, part of the inner circle of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, leads the FSB OPU. The oversight of the department falls under the purview of Army General Sergei Korolev, the 1st Deputy Director of the FSB.

Ekaterina Voevodova
Ekaterina Voevodova

- Did Lieutenant Colonel Dmitri Davydkin die of heart failure?

- I don't know, he didn't complain about his heart.

- What about Olga Melkumova, who was swindled into $1,500 during a gypsy magic ceremony, and also got her gold jewelery and her FSB ID card stolen? How did she get into the OPU in the first place? Her husband's on the Internal Affairs Ministry’s special watch list for fraud.

- I think she quit. She was a warrant officer with Section 9. She's just an idiot, that's all I can say. She started telling the cops where she worked and what she did. She's such a moron. I'll tell you more: they hired a pretty girl to our secretariat. She was drunk after a party, and they snatched her purse with her money and ID. Then the cops called: “She's on our special watch list for substance abuse.” She'd been sniffing glue since she was a kid, and then she switched to drugs. Another of our driving instructors was wanted for forging documents.They eventually busted him at a bank where he tried to take out a loan, and our personnel officers missed the whole thing. I'm not surprised at anything anymore.

- Prior to Anna Politkovskaya's assassination, it's reported that not only Chechen assailants were trailing her, but also, according to sources, the “external service.” Didn't they notice the Chechens?

- We have a job description that says in black and white: “Under no circumstances should we reveal ourselves” I once saw someone being taken hostage near the Kremlin while I was on duty. The most I could do was to report to the head of the group.

- Was it the same with Boris Nemtsov? You were following him and somehow didn't notice the killers?

- I wasn't there, but once again, we have no right to reveal secret information!

- Did you do any odd jobs? Like following business rivals, unfaithful wives, mistresses? I have a price list, where the price for surveillance reaches up to 10 thousand dollars a day.

- We have the general's favorites. They don’t participate in operational activities and are engaged in external surveillance on orders from the outside. They get awards and prizes. The most I ever got for a private order was 300 bucks. I was trailing the wife of a government advisor. He thought she was cheating with a man, but she was seeing another woman. The advisor was really excited when they showed him the report.

Nikolai Nikolaevich and his blunders

Surveillance might seem simple at first — just watch, observe, and write reports. But it's a tricky job, and even the most experienced person can mess up. I've had my share of incidents too. Once, I was assigned to monitor a lady from the Polish Embassy. We checked out her friends and the places she visited. Then, she went into a cafe and sat with a respectable man. I joined them, but realized I left my wallet in the car. How was I going to pay later? While they chatted, I rushed to the car, grabbed my wallet, changed my jacket, and threw on a wig. I went back, snapped a few photos on my phone for the report, and they were staring and smiling. I thought I nailed it. When I went to get my partner from the car, he laughed and said, “You put the wig on backward.” That was a blunder.

In this job, when things go sideways, you need to think on your feet and improvise. You can't plan for everything. Once, during a night operation at Savelovsky Railway Station, we were tracking a Chechen connected to Turkish intelligence. He was driving a BMW, with one of our cars in front and the other two behind him. He sped up on the Dmitrovskoe Highway, and we thought he spotted us. But he stopped at the station, dashed towards the doors, realised the station was closed, and ran through the courtyards. I followed him, and when I caught up, he was about to do his business. I jumped right at him, and he unbuttoned his trousers and started relieving himself. Surprised, I sat down too, and he told me, “Don't be scared, do your thing. I'll watch over you.” That was a close call.

Life after Nikolai Nikolaevich

After leaving [the OPU] the generals go to the big banks, state corporations, while operators find openings in private security companies, detective agencies, work as driving instructors — everyone fits in differently. Lena Chichenova started breeding frogs and snails for a French restaurant. She invested all her savings, but quickly lost all her money. [Russians] don't like to eat frogs and snails.

In the past, we used to celebrate March 18, External Service Day, in restaurants: dancing, partying, sometimes the nights ended in fights. Everything was banned after [the annexation of] Crimea]

The current mood at the OPU

- The directive in the confidential guidelines for Soviet external surveillance” employees read: “Employees of external surveillance must exhibit unwavering devotion to the socialist Motherland. In the face of confrontation with the enemy, they must dedicate all their strength and, if required, even their lives to the cause of the Party.” What’s the situation now?

- Nothing. Nobody will die for the party of oligarchs.

- What do your colleagues think about the invasion of Ukraine?

- You can't get into everyone's head. Many people have shut down, but they continue to work. But the moral atmosphere in the department has really changed for the worse. Sometimes I ask myself: “Why did I run all over Moscow? For what?” I divorced my husband, my daughter became estranged.... I have varicose veins now — I walk like a duck in the mornings, [I have] back pain. That's why I didn't renew my contract.

The 7th KGB Directorate (in charge of external surveillance) was established in 1954 based on the Directorate of External Surveillance and Protection of the Diplomatic Corps. After 1991, the unit became part of the central apparatus of the MGB-FSC-FSB. In 1993, external surveillance was assigned the military unit No. 52295, and in 2004 it was named the FSB’s 17th Directorate, or FSB OPU. The OPU’s headquarters are located at the following address: Moscow, Myasnitskaya Street, 26, while the special garage is located on Zvezdniy Boulevard, 13.

Gennady Shvetov, part of the inner circle of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, leads the FSB OPU. The oversight of the department falls under the purview of Army General Sergei Korolev, the 1st Deputy Director of the FSB.

Subscribe to our weekly digest

К сожалению, браузер, которым вы пользуйтесь, устарел и не позволяет корректно отображать сайт. Пожалуйста, установите любой из современных браузеров, например:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari