Thursday, November 27, 2014

Memories of Москва at Thanksgiving

"Since he was a Diplomat we knew he wasn't going to church."


Webster's International Dictionary defines diplomacy as the work of maintaining good relations between the governments of different countries and skill in dealing with others without causing bad feelings. Last decade in Moscow the definition became obsolete. Mass surveillance of the British Embassy was being planned.

It was 2006 and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had accused four British diplomats of espionage after Russian TV broadcast film of the spies at a dead letter drop. It was a plot worthy of James Bond – a transceiver concealed inside an artificial rock by British agents and placed next to a Russian street in order to steal classified data on missile and rocket technologies. But this was not fiction or far fetched Russian propaganda, this was reality and it was embarrassing -- British intelligence officers from MI6 had been caught bang to rights.



Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the FSB, said: "This is the first time we literally caught them red-handed in the process of contacting their agents here and received evidence that they finance a number of non-governmental organisations."


The Foreign and Commonwealth Office declined to comment.


The hollowed-out rock filled with a transmitter inside to download information onto a PDA handheld computer. This way the informant could store data in the fake rock where it was retrievable by British agents in a high-tech version of the dead letter drop.   


Spying is the second oldest profession in the world. And Britain and Russia have spied on each other ever since the Great Game in 19th Century Afghanistan. According to MI5, Russia now has as many agents based in London as at the height of the Cold War. But in Moscow in 2006, the counter-intelligence goons of the FSB didn't know who all of the players were at the British Embassy, and so they went after everybody. 


British Embassy, Moscow (2013)


One innocuous FCO couple used to discuss, in the privacy of their flat, the "bug problem" in Moscow. Were they talking about covert transmitters and listening devices?  No, they really were complaining about unwanted insect guests. Moscow, at that time, had a huge problem with cockroaches.  Then one day, in broad daylight and not dreaming, the couple from the FCO discovered a huge, neat pile of dead cockroaches heaped on their doormat. The message was loud and clear.  They were under surveillance, and the FSB was on top of Moscow's bug problem.


British intelligence officer caught on film at dead letter drop in Moscow (2006)


Not content with hassling the rank and file of the FCO, the FSB targeted a vegan chick from DFID.  The FSB were investigating Russian NGOs allegedly financed by MI6 via British grants. The girl from DFID was a possible link. They discovered that she didn't like Russia much and was always complaining about the restaurants and supermarkets not catering to her vegan requirements. One evening the girl from DFID returned home to discover a big, smelly lump of meat hanging in her fridge. The poor thing freaked out and soon returned home to the UK. 


The FSB gives chase


Other members of the UK's chief diplomatic mission in Russia were less intimidated. The FSB liked to follow staffers of the Defence Section to-and-from the embassy. One doleful twilight, en masse, the Defence Section left the mission in unison and in the same vehicle.  Jumping lights with diplomatic plates, the wild boys and girls of the Defence Section led the FSB's floating box on a winding chase through Moscow's crosstown traffic to their favorite pub.  The FSB, when they caught up with them, were incandescent.


FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square, Moscow.


Why am I thinking about this old tittle-tattle? Winter is that time of year when Russia comes to mind again. The rouble has fallen by 30% and western sanctions have battered the stagnant Russian economy.  But in America, where I am happily ensconced, western sanctions have angered a paranoid constituency: American gun owners who can't buy an AK-47.  And they smell another Obama conspiracy to disarm them behind economic sanctions on Russia.


"In case I get any mail from VICE, you can send it to Fulton County Jail for a month or so. After that you can send it to Hell!" 


But the woes of corporatist Russia, and the American AK-47 owner, fade as the season moves into Thanksgiving.  Alas, there is no festive cheer to be had at Atlanta HQ. I am on lockdown, in the office and the gym, for the foreseeable and beyond. This is because "the Male Trailing Spouse" is on the up: bags of publicity for my first book and two big interviews on the wireless and the box. Then, quite out of the blue, a contract from VICE the flashest multimedia publisher on the planet. They want me on the books as a contributor. I signed it before they changed their mind.


Webster's International Dictionary defines a blog as a website that contains online personal reflections, comments and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.  I have been slack "blogging" this year (have you seen the ad revenue from this thing?) but I will endeavor to update it weekly with my personal opinions, activities and experiences. 


"Craftiness can solve many a problem, but with hoodlums from the FSB you sometimes need a good, conscientious, hard-working machine gun."


Love and Bullets from Midtown Atlanta


The Male Trailing Spouse