Welcome back to the USSR!

British diplomat Tony Brenton reveals the true horror of life in Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet state in the Daily Mail:

Should you get home to find the door to your flat unlocked from the inside, that’s just the FSB (the KGB’s successor) letting you know they called. If you pick up the phone to hear your voice played back, as I have, someone is recording your conversations. Such was my life in Russia during my time as a senior official and then as British Ambassador from 2004 to 2008.

Occasionally the surveillance and harassment were merely funny, such as when a female colleague spotted a handsome man three times in the course of the same day before realising this was the FSB trailing her. More often it ranged from the depressing to the actively nasty. Relations with Russia have always been difficult.

Life is far from straightforward for British diplomats or journalists in Moscow.

Criticism of the state is possible but carefully watched, and the heavy machinery of state security is all too visible. There is much unfinished business between our nations. Our public opinions are mutually suspicious – which explains the cautious tone of exchanges during Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to London last week.

During my time in Moscow, relations were probably at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. We were under pressure in all sorts of ways apart from surveillance. After I incurred disapproval with a speech on human rights, thugs in the Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi followed me around. They set up a permanent picket outside my house and tried to break up public meetings I addressed.

I vividly remember the bemused looks of fellow customers as banner-waving Nashi members followed me round a supermarket where I was buying cat food. This Nashi harassment lasted several months and it was only after the strongest diplomatic protests that they backed off.

The 2006 poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko gave things a further twist. There was strong suspicion of Russian involvement – the suspected murderer, a former KGB agent, is now a member of Russia’s parliament.

We had to burn some Embassy furniture because of feared radioactive contamination after a visit from someone who may have been involved in Litvinenko’s death. And the political upshot was a spate of diplomatic expulsions.

The Russians then used opaque ‘technical problems’ to drive the BBC Russian Service off the air. They seem to have taken a particular aversion to our cultural arm, the British Council, whose offices were invaded by tax inspectors (a standard technique used on those they dislike). They tried to stop Tony Blair opening a new Council office by having it fail a fire inspection and backed down only when we said he would, if necessary, give his speech on the pavement. They eventually made us close all the Council’s provincial offices by threatening its Russian employees with the attention of the FSB, and tried to frame a British employee on a drink-driving charge.

If that’s how they treat foreigners, how do Russia’s people fare?

They certainly don’t enjoy the freedoms we do. Observers report elections are neither free nor fair. Indeed, a brave young Russian mathematician has published an analysis showing how implausible the published results are.

The broadcast media are firmly in the state’s pocket. Journalists who step out of line are leant on. I know one who had drugs planted on him. Others are killed. The legal system is regularly bent to the state’s purposes. A leading opposition figure, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was recently convicted on charges that even members of the regime found hard to credit.

Repression allows corruption to thrive. Russia tops the world league table for corruption. On a recent trip there, my car was pulled over for speeding and my driver was astonished not to be asked for a bribe. Those who probe too closely face the fate of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky: incarceration without charge, and death in custody.

But this dark view is not the whole picture. After decades of communist repression, creating an open society was never going to be easy. The pressures of political and economic transformation, not to mention security threats, would be demanding for any society. It was always too optimistic to expect Russia to make a transition to democracy in 20 years when it took us centuries.

Some good things are happening. Economic growth is bringing a better way of life to more and more ordinary Russians. The old women I saw outside the Kievskaya metro station in the Nineties selling their few pitiful possessions are gone. Moscow’s legendary traffic jams testify to fast-rising car ownership. Russians travel or study abroad in their millions and bring home the experience of freedom. Unlike in China, the internet is entirely free, growing fast and already a source of popular pressure on the authorities.

No less a figure than President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken out against corruption and called for more openness and rule of law. His views have so far had little effect but that he asserts them at all signals a changing atmosphere.

Above all, Russia is full of brave people determined to change it. I recall with admiration journalists I knew who risked their lives to expose brutality in the North Caucasus. A senior cultural official courageously spoke out for the British Council, and lost his job. The custodian of a museum in Norilsk, a former Gulag town, has, despite official opposition, organised an exhibition on the horrors there under Stalin. A leading opposition politician friend of mine has been arrested so often he is on first-name terms with the police. And there are the lawyers, like Magnitsky, who take terrible risks to defend what they know is right.

Foreign minister Lavrov’s visit to London marks a great improvement in relations since I was in Moscow. There is a lot to work together on: we are both trying to stop Iran getting the bomb; Russia is quietly supporting our efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. The talks will also have furthered trade and investment – important for British jobs, but also because it is economic growth above all that will ease Russia through its present authoritarian bottleneck.

But there is one foreign policy issue on which I think Lavrov will not have seen eye to eye with Britain:  Egypt’s revolution has disturbing implications for Russia. There are huge differences between the two countries but the comparisons are still unsettling for Russia’s elite.

Long ago I was a young diplomat in Cairo, and the cynicism I heard from Egypt’s politically aware classes is almost exactly mirrored in Moscow now. Both countries have run ‘guided’ democracies, dominated by electorally impregnable ‘parties of power’ and untouchable security establishments. The elites find it hard to give up power; those who do are more likely to face corruption charges than honourable retirement. Events in Egypt have already produced echoes in some of Russia’s client states: Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

They are a timely reminder to the Russian establishment that the demand for freedom is universal, and will sooner or later have to be met.

19 responses to “Welcome back to the USSR!

  1. Poor liberal creature awaiting for liberation of Islamist s and Russian nazies from the dictatorship of Western Capital!

    • Come on Benjamin,

      Why stop at “dictatorship of Western Capital!”? without giving an actual example or for that matter examples. And furthermore whilst on the subject, why not also tell us all about your beloved USSR and the “Poor liberal creature”.

      Your talking in riddles, be good enough to be more specific. Thanks.

  2. It all started with the success in Iraq which surprised everyone. It is not going to stop.

    • The war in Iraq was a Crusade that resulted in deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslim people. Whether this constitutes success depends on your view on Crusades.

      • 109,000 according to independent estimates and that of the Iraqi government. From a population of 31,494,287, quite light really, though tragic none the less.

        Compare this to the slaughter of civilians in Chechnya, where 250,000 from a population of around 1,400,000 in 1994, by Russians.

      • An overwhelming majority of those victims in Iraq were killed by other Iraqis. Foreign forces did not commit suicide bombings. If those barbarians think it’s a good idea to engage in internecine fights and to kill each other, that’s their problem.

        And how exactly do the Crusades come into play? From what I remember I was taught in high school, Crusaders wanted to liberate Jerusalem (or what they called “the Lord’s coffin”) from the Islamic control. Is Jerusalem a part of Iraq now?

        • http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1184546/Donald-Rumsfelds-holy-war-How-President-Bushs-Iraq-briefings-came-quotes-Bible.html

          Donald Rumsfeld’s holy war: How President Bush’s Iraq briefings came with quotes from the Bible

          The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was sold as a fight for freedom against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.

          But for former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his elite Pentagon strategists, it was more like a religious crusade.

          The daily briefings about the progress of the war that Mr Rumsfeld gave to President George W Bush were illustrated with victorious quotes from the Bible and gung-ho photographs of U.S. troops, it has emerged.

          And I pity you, RV, for not knowing that the original Crusades were limited to Jerusalem. Of course not. They raped, murdered and pillaged people all over the place, including fellow Christians:


          The Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders

          Probably the most telling event which displayed the decline of the
          crusader ideal was the capture and pillage of the Christian bastion of
          Constantinople by the members of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The
          subsequent dismemberment of the Byzantine Empire weakened Christendom in the Near East and created an animosity between Catholics and Orthodox which has lasted into the 20th century.

          No one was without a share in the grief. In the alleys, in the
          streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping, lamentations, grief, the
          groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the
          separation of those most closely united. All places everywhere were filled full of all kinds of crime. Oh, immortal God, how great the afflictions of the men, how great the distress !



          “murder, rape, cannibalism, incest, torture, and bloodshed – All in
          The Name of “Christ”

          “The Crusaders were also granted a plenary indulgence from sin by the Pope; and at the voice of their pastor, the robber, the incendiary,
          the homicide, arose by thousands to redeem their souls by repeating on the infidels the same deeds which they had exercised against their Christian brethren.”

          “The First Crusade (1095 – 1101)
          Four great armies as well as many small groups went forth, ill–equipped but ready to fight for God, and they would kill Jews, pillage and plunder along the way.”

          The Jews were the first victims of the Crusaders plunder. In Bavaria
          alone twelve thousand Jews were massacred, and many thousands more in the other provinces of Germany.”

  3. The shocking fact is that Bush pulled it off and now everybody thinks they want to vote in their own riff-raff. If Iraq can do it anybody and I mean anybody at all can do it.

    • Yes, Ron, it is indeed very easy to destroy a country and a nation:


      There are more than 4.7 million refugees of Iraq, more than 16.3% of the population. Two million fled Iraq while approximately 2.7 million are internally displaced people.[13]

      Roughly 40% of Iraq’s middle class is believed to have fled, the U.N. said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return.[17] All kinds of people, from university professors to bakers, have been targeted by militias, insurgents and criminals. An estimated 331 school teachers were slain in the first four months of 2006, according to Human Rights Watch, and at least 2,000 Iraqi doctors have been murdered and 250 kidnapped since the 2003 U.S. invasion.[18] Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan live in impoverished communities with little international attention to their plight and little legal protection.[19][20] Many of the Iraqi women fleeing the war in Iraq are turning to prostitution.[21]

      Although Christians represent less than 5% of the total Iraqi population, they make up 40% of the refugees now living in nearby countries, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.[22][23] UNHCR estimates that Christians comprise 24% of Iraqis currently seeking asylum in Syria.[24][25] The census in 1987 counted 1.4 million Christians, however since the 2003 invasion radicalized Iraqi culture, the total number of Christians dropped to about 500,000, half of which live in Baghdad.[26][27][28][29]

      On December 15, 2007 a conference dedicated to orphans in Iraq was held in Baghdad. Iraq’s anti-corruption board reported that official government statistics revealed that five million (or 35%) of Iraqi children were orphans.

      On January 21, 2008 the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs released a report estimating that there were 4.5 millions Iraqi orphans, with 500,000 living on the streets without any home or family care.

      On December 14, 2008, a New York Times article by James Glanz and T. Christian Miller discussed the pending release of a report that criticizes the Bush administration for failing to effectively plan for post-combat operations in Iraq. The 513-page report was authored by US Republican Party lawyer Stuart Bowen, who is the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. According to the article, the report “depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.” The report was to have been officially presented on February 2, 2008 but was apparently leaked by civilians working reconstruction activities in Iraq.[1]

      In a report entitled “Civilians without Protection: The Ever-Worsening Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq”, produced well after the stepped-up US-led military operations in Baghdad began on February 14, 2007, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement said that millions of Iraqis are in a disastrous situation that is getting worse, with medical professionals fleeing the country after their colleagues were killed or abducted. Mothers are appealing for someone to pick up the bodies on the street so their children will be spared the horror of looking at them on their way to school. Red Cross Director of Operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl said that hospitals and other key services are desperately short of staff, with more than half the doctors said to have already left the country.[2]

      According to an anonymous Iraqi government official, 1,944 civilians and at least 174 soldiers and policemen were killed in May, 2007, a 29% increase in civilian deaths over April. The Iraqi government’s estimate of the number of civilian deaths has always been much lower than reports from independent researchers, such as the Lancet surveys of Iraq War casualties. Mortar attacks in the capital are becoming deadlier.[3]

      Iraq’s health has deteriorated to a level not seen since the 1950s, said Joseph Chamie, former director of the U.N. Population Division and an Iraq specialist. “They were at the forefront”, he said, referring to health care just before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “Now they’re looking more and more like a country in sub-Saharan Africa.”[5] Malnutrition rates have risen from 19% before the US-led invasion to a national average of 28% four years later.[6] Some 60-70% of Iraqi children are suffering from psychological problems.[7] 68% of Iraqis have no access to safe drinking water. A cholera outbreak in northern Iraq is thought to be the result of poor water quality.[8] As many as half of Iraqi doctors have left the country since 2003.[9]

  4. Brave cmmentators are evidently symposize the anti-Putin author but for to be on the safe side they are talking about Iraq, as in the anecdote about condemning Reigan on the Red Square. Jewish-Russian Maimonides even talk about Crusades that is just in line with the Orthodox church-Judaism attitude!

  5. Hilarious stuff Mamoinides or whatever your name is. Holding up the mirror to the right wing Russophobes pretty nicely.

    Also, pretty hilarious how LaRussophobe usually blames Russians for “pointing out other’s problems when confronted about their own” yet posts an article to Tony Brenton’s inane ramblings about problems elsewhere without noticing problems in his own backyard.

    Even more hilarious, the 4 comments to the article on the daily mail website below:

    “A leading opposition figure, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was recently convicted on charges that even members of the regime found hard to credit”. Quite. So maybe now we can also be informed of just how much BP was helped to get the latest deal involving the company that has simply stolen the assets of Khodorkovsky, whose palms were greased and what information was passed on from the “diplomats” to those in the need to know? Criticism of Russia in this article is fully justifiable. Yes, it’s a nasty place to live, especially if you’re a foreigner. But that is only half the story. The other half is what British companies are prepared to ignore in the name of business. None of what goes on in Russia is news to corporations like BP, but they don’t mind it, as long as they get their share of the oil pie.
    – M.Oliver, Tel Aviv, 20/2/2011 08:16

    in Britain we have a different type of corruption. Its called the banking sector and is endorsed by the other thieves in law called the government.
    – alanb, clitheroe UK, 20/2/2011 09:30

    The author Tony Brenton is a senior (British government) official and a British ambassador …. holding a public meeting? A bit unconventional. Other than that, he is so clearly anti-Russia and mischevious I would be surprised if he wasn’t kept an eye on. Brenton has a problem with Russia and boy does it show. Do we have to share it?
    – Jack Tar, Liverpool , 20/2/2011 05:04

    Bugs, bribes and burglary: When Tony Brenton became Our Man In Moscow, he discovered just how far Russia’s paranoid rulers would go to keep power……….And you’re telling me this DOESN’T happen here in Communist Britain?????…..At Least Russia is trying to move AWAY from Communism!! We in contrast are looking more and more like it every day!!!
    – cindy, I’m not always right but I this is MY thoughts, 20/2/2011 02:39

    Thank god there are other people left on this planet than can see the world beyond the right wing extremist glasses. I’m sure they exist in Russia as well.

    Shame on you, LR

    • You are an incredible jackass, one of the stupidest people who has ever commented on this blog.

      Mr. Brenton LIVED IN RUSSIA, you idiot, and he is talking ABOUT PROBLEMS IN RUSSIA. He is ATTACKING Russia, not defending Britain. If he were defending Britain against attacks by Russians by saying that other countries did things as bad as Britain or worse, then he would be in error.

      Your “comment” makes absolutely no sense. Please don’t drink and post.

      • Hmm, some of those comments seem a little dense, like the one saying it was unconventional for an ambassador to hold a public meeting, they do that all the time, regardless of which country they work for or are stationed in, its called being an ambassador.

        And the last one was a right wing comment you retard.

  6. Excellent and informative article. As for the other comments, I wonder how the subject matter got turned into a debate about Iraq when the article is about life in Soviet Russia?

    • Because Maimonides/Ostap the Bender is unable to argue the facts.

      Funnily enough he supports Russian genocide in the Caucasus however, both in the North Caucasus, and the actions amounting to genocide undertaken by Russia in Georgia.

  7. Matvey Ganapolsky: Kremlin’s approach making disorders in Russia ‘inevitable’

    Feb 28 at 23:47 | Paul Goble

    Indeed, Ganapolsky says, the situation in Russia has deteriorated to the point that today Russians “do not curse the Kremlin, they laugh about it, and in the Internet, the leaders are recalled only with foul language” – and that is because no one believes that those in power can do anything they promise.

    In this situation, those in power may be able to hold on for a time, Ganapolsky says, but they will not be able to do so forever – and they know it. The powers that be “understand that this business is coming to an end, but power is too sweet to give it up.” But by holding on in the way they are, he suggests, those in power now are only making the future of the country worse.

    By failing to open up the political system, by reducing the citizenry to the status of “slaves,” and by simply clinging to power and control over the country’s wealth, Ganapolsky says, “the suicides in the Kremlin are leading the country precisely to the ‘senseless and pitiless’ revolt” so many have warned about for so long.

    This “Russian revolt” is be “a revolt because there will not be an alternative force which would organize the crowd – the Kremlin has devoted all its efforts in order to declare any alternative to be madness,” apparently convinced that this is “some kind of amulet against disorders.”

    “But this is a profound misconception,” Ganapolsky says, something leaders often do not recognize until the crowds have stormed the television station and the leaders themselves have fled abroad, “bitterly reflecting about their own ungrateful people and about Saakashvili who apparently has organized this revolt.”

    Ganapolsky’s words may strike many as extreme, but in fact, they reflect a large and growing trend among commentators in the Russian capital, and their arguments and conclusions are being picked up ever more frequently by mainstream publications, itself an indication of some of the problems that the Ekho Moskvy host points to.

    Read more:


  8. The problem of opposition: the lack of constructive ideas in economics.For example:Liberal economist E.Yasin once offered to rise the pension`s age above the life expectancy. The Soviet heritage of enormous enterprises and raw materials production have inevitably created the ‘oligarchs” and state capitalism.Having no economic formulas the opposition demand(justifiably) the democracy in society but it is not the article of prime necessity in Russia.

  9. For those who wonder about comments on Iraq. Iraq is where it all started. If even a low level democratic system can work in Iraq, it can work anywhere (even in Russia). The long, slow trial and eventual execution of Sadam was an amazing beginning. Islam and other dictatorial systems are now under great pressure. The story of a truck load of soldiers whistling at girls in Iraq shows the depth of the effort by the Bush administration. An officer ran up to the truck and yelled at the soldiers to stop. He said, “We are an institution.” “We do not whistle at girls.”

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