MOSCOW — Last fall, when Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov learned that he was up for another prize, part of him wished he could politely decline. It's not that the award was a Razzie, the annual Hollywood prize for the worst in film, or anything like that. It was just the first time he stood to receive an FSB Award -- known here in Moscow, irony fully intended, as the Oscars of the KGB -- and he knew that some of his peers would whisper if he accepted an honor handed out by the secret police. "But whether you like it or not," said Shakhnazarov, "that is a very influential organization." So when the ceremony rolled around in late November, he dusted off his tuxedo and prepared a little speech about the need for the state and the movie business to work together. This is Russia after all; it went over very well.
The Federal Security Service, the KGB successor known as the FSB, has been ascendant in Russian society ever since its former director, Vladimir Putin, became president in 2000. Since then, the agency has been obsessed with finding ways to bring Russian movies and TV under its patronage. As early as 2001, the agency began financing Russian whodunits and spy thrillers; in 2006, it handed out the first FSB Awards -- glass statuettes embossed with its sword-and-shield insignia -- to the filmmakers, actors, and novelists who had "most accurately" portrayed the warriors of the secret front. The galas had all the pomp of a Western awards ceremony, except they were held at the FSB's notorious headquarters on Lubyanka Square, inside the hulking mass of orange stone that many Russians still associate with the KGB's interrogation chambers. That, of course, meant no paparazzi, red carpets, or pesky independent journalists -- just a few hundred Russian cinematic insiders packed into an auditorium with the country's top spies. By the time the sixth one was held in January 2012, the agency's mouthpiece newspaper, Granitsa Rossii, proclaimed that the ceremony had become a "platform for creative dialogue" between the art world and the security services.
In itself, collaboration between spy agencies and the silver screen is nothing new. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, was himself a British naval intelligence officer; even in the United States, it's not uncommon for Langley and Hollywood to team up. Former spooks often spice up their retirements with work as on-set movie consultants, and the CIA in the 1990s even established a liaison program for the entertainment industry to influence how its agents get portrayed on screen, according to Tricia Jenkins, author of The CIA in Hollywood. Claire Danes, in preparing for her starring role in the television series Homeland, was helped along by a CIA officer who took her on a tour of Langley, and the screenwriter for the film Zero Dark Thirty met with multiple CIA officers, including the analyst who helped track down Osama bin Laden and was the model for the film's lead character, Maya.
But ever since Putin came to power, the FSB has taken this type of cooperation in a new direction -- or, rather, one not seen in Russia since the days of the KGB. The awards today are actually a revival of the KGB honors bestowed on Soviet authors and filmmakers from 1978 to 1988. And just like its Cold War-era predecessor, the FSB has started financing and producing films from start to finish. "These have been attempts to rewrite reality, to cast the FSB brass in the role of comic book heroes like Batman and Robin," says Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the security services at Memorial, Russia's leading human rights organization.
The most egregious is, fittingly, also the FSB's most ambitious artistic project to date: the 2004 feature film Personal Number, which offers a reinterpretation of the controversial and macabre real-life siege of a Moscow theater two years earlier. In 2002, Chechen terrorists took some 850 hostages during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost; when special-operations forces stormed the building, about 130 of those hostages were killed by an incapacitating gas used by the FSB to subdue the hostage-takers. In the cinematic version of the events, the theater is replaced by a circus, and when the FSB raids the building, all the hostages are triumphantly saved. The terrorists in the film are meanwhile revealed to have links to foreign intelligence services and a shady Russian oligarch living in London -- the latter a crude nod to Boris Berezovsky, one of Putin's staunchest enemies. "This pretty picture is not made out of a love for art," says Cherkasov, "but with a totally practical goal: to justify the [FSB's] crimes, those of the past and those yet to be committed."
According to Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and historian of the Russian security services, the FSB spent $7 million on the production of Personal Number, but that's just a taste of the movies and television shows it's financing. The Special Department, a detective series that aired in 2001, tells the story of an FSB agent descended from St. Petersburg's blue-blooded intelligentsia who tracks down art thieves while defending the treasures of the Hermitage. The agent was the first favorable protagonist from the secret police to gain attention on Russian television since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the show played into the notion of Putin's long-serving security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, that the FSB should be treated as a "new nobility" in Russia. Four years later came Secret Watch, a popular TV show about the agency's modern-day surveillance practices that showed FSB officers nabbing terrorists and protecting innocent Muscovites. In 2007, a 16-part TV series, Special Group, depicted FSB agents in Moscow foiling attacks and tracking financial swindlers.