Secret police agents can be a hoot when they are in the right mood, and polite. Moscow is turning out to be a city of surprises.
In June, it looks nothing like the films – all snow and heavy coats – and I will admit one attraction of reporting from here was meant to be having an excuse to wear a big, white fur hat and matching muff, but the weather has been warm. While ‘Peter is a bit north of Aberdeen, Moscow is on a latitude with Berwick-upon-Tweed, without the wind that cuts across the sea there. No hat and muff then. What it has are power and people.
This is the old capital – not airy Enlightenment palaces but the heavy walls of the mediaeval Kremlin, the spider at the heart of Muscovy, and what happens within those walls today can be just as mediaeval.
I see people in British town doing ‘Soviet nostalgia’ as a fashion kick. They really take that fashion seriously here: shortages, queues, and everyone living in fear of being killed or imprisoned for an ill-placed joke.
Interviewing local people out of the way of the police is a challenge. What we are told in the West is untrue: there are many genuine Putin supporters here, and many who hate him too, but whoever they are, they share an underlying understanding. They understand all about the war; they know that the media is controlled by the governing party and they are being lied to, but they must accept the doublethink, to believe what they are told by the screen and the newsprint even when they know it is untrue because otherwise they have nothing. The media is paid for by the government machine, access to material granted or withdrawn at the governors’ whim, leaving them corrupted and compromised, like the CBC in Canada, or BBC Scotland.
It was not long before I spotted them – two men following me. That is not unusual. These two though looked sober, and so they stood out in the crowd. I have learnt a thing or two about ‘the craft’ and managed to give them the slip (do not ask for hints though – I learnt the techniques in confidence and will only say it is not like the films). Even so, after a few more interviews they located me again.
Now, police and FSB agents do not have large expense accounts. They might follow you to a Вкусно – и точка (which is McDonald’s whatever they call it), but then the purse runs out. So I invited them to the White Rabbit on Smolenskaya Square. When your cover is blown, it is blown, so you might as well make the most of it and they weren’t paying. (The black grouse is to be highly recommended. I would gladly eat anything on the menu apart from the raw meat dish.)
Those two made for charming dinner companions when they had had the caviar starter. Whatever their reputation, they all have families, and they were soon showing pictures of their families: wives and girlfriends (don’t ask), a son at school, a son in the army, and some very pretty daughters each was proud of: they are the future and if a nation believes in its children they will want the future to be the best it can be.
Are policemen as cynical of their own government? Of course, and more so having worked within it, creating the myth and living the myth. When they open up, you can see how the system works.
Now RT is off the air in Britain, there is no one reporting from inside Russia with that insider insight from the depths of the Kremlin. I have done what I can. I left my card anyway.
- Unsanctioned in Moscow
- Putin: we’re coming for you
- Putin it like that, no
- The Russian Enigma
- Empire, interrupted
- We Need to Talk About Putin: Why the West gets him wrong, and how to get him right, by Mark Galeotti
- Putin: Russia’s Choice by Chris Hutchins