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.