Big Brother Is Listening

I'll begin on a sad note. An old man I knew well died not long ago. After the funeral, people began to clear out his room. They moved the wardrobe away from the wall and discovered a strange metal box. It had wires going into the wall and out to the street. They were startled. What could it be? A bomb? A specialist was called in. He calmed everyone down, saying it was just an old-fashioned listening device. Such devices are not even made any longer. He checked the bug, and it still worked.

You may wonder what is so surprising in all of this. The existence of bugs is a well-known aspect of Soviet life. But what is particularly odd is that the person on whom the secret services had been eavesdropping for so many years was blind. After losing his vision during the war, he lived a lonely, secluded life, was a history schoolteacher and made friends with people who, like himself, were blind. I don't think a conspiracy of blind people posed much of a national security threat to Russia. Yet our competent intelligence organs saw fit to bug a blind man.

None of those who made the decision to eavesdrop on such a disadvantaged person ever found this immoral. Something like this is possible only in a society with no moral principles. I fear that we are just such a society.

Look at the papers. Eavesdropping has become the norm of political life. At least once a month, Moskovsky Komsomolets, one of Moscow's most popular dailies, publishes the transcript of bugged conversations between the state's highest officials.

It would seem that such revelations should have an explosive effect on society. Yet people are rather calm and apathetic toward this kind of kompromat, or compromising material. People show more emotion over losing a button.

When speaking with journalists, presidential aide Alexander Livshits complains he has to watch what he says over the Kremlin phones. Former presidential chief of staff Sergei Filatov says he often explained matters to his aides with the help of pen and paper. He was wary of eavesdroppers, and wrote down what was most important. Former Security Council secretary Yury Baturin sarcastically called his office a recording studio. And former chief of staff to Viktor Chernomyrdin, Vladimir Kvasov, outdid them all when he said: "Everyone is bugged, even the prime minister."

Could such a thing be possible in a society with a well-developed sense of privacy and moral scruples? Would anyone publish the bugged conversations of British Prime Minister Tony Blair? Would the New York Times publish the transcripts of a taped telephone conversation with U.S. Vice President Al Gore? This would raise a scandal that would echo around the planet.

All this eavesdropping has a particular Russian accent. Here, officials rarely respond to slander and serious accusations of corruption. Moral criteria play such an insignificant role that accusing one another of violating ethical standards is seen as a waste of time. Here, no one believes in the honesty or decency of others; no one believes in integrity, oaths or commitments. Every man secretly thinks to himself: Go ahead and lie, my friend. But you cannot fool me. You're just as much of a scoundrel as I am.

When the former justice minister was recently filmed in a bath house with prostitutes, the story aroused neither anger nor shame, but loud laughter: Look, the minister is naked! Hah, hah, hah.

As a writer, I admit that I am just as concerned by the manner in which our leaders speak in these bugged conversations as by the very fact that they are being eavesdropped on. They use the vilest of words. Their speech is peppered with vulgar expressions. They tell filthy jokes. Perhaps more disturbing is the level of cynicism in their words. This is how criminals speak in brothels, not how ministers should speak.

The recent tell-all memoir by former presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov was an instant sensation. Several editions have already been printed. Much of what he wrote, if true, should have been the basis for several dozen criminal investigations. If he is lying, the officials who have been slandered should take him to court for libel. But officials have kept silent since the publication of the book. None of those affected has said: I took no bribes; I falsified no election results; I built no villa on state funds.

In short, Watergate could never happen in Russia.

Korzhakov's book, like a mirror, reflects the morals of our political elite. It is practically a self-exposure of the powers that be. There are 25 pages of conversations by the prime minister that were recorded by listening devices. Twenty-five pages! Among them, Korzhakov unscrupulously recorded a private, nighttime conversation.

Such passages make a mockery of the right to privacy. Korzhakov's book clearly shows how the nightmarish kompromat mill is making our lives into ground meat.

Here is one last incident. When the president's Kremlin residence was recently renovated, the press did not pick up very much on the announcement that a secret trap door and remaining wires from an old listening device were discovered in Stalin's former office. It means that the tyrant might also have been listened in on. There you have it. I'm sure someone is listening in on President Boris Yeltsin as well. Who is doing so, I don't know. But they're listening.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Eron." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.