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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who Are Today's Bad Guys?

One of the problems of living in Russia is that you don't know who anyone is anymore. Or let me put it another way: You don't know who anyone is again. In the old days, you couldn't be sure whether the people you rubbed up against were KGB. Now you can't be sure if they're Mob.


In the famous Long Ago, which was only six years ago, after all, I was told that there were 14 (or was it 11? was it nine?) KGB agents assigned to every foreigner in the city. However many it was, the figure was impressive. And it would have been positively demeaning to believe that you were left out and didn't have your own personal squad. A little paranoia dogged your every footstep. And paranoia was probably an essential governess: The cluck-clucking, finger-wagging teacher of The Right Way to Behave.


At the time guides and interpreters had to report on their package-tour charges; Soviets were supposed to turn in every contact they had with someone from "outside." And traps -- honeyed and otherwise -- were still, well, a distinct possibility. I remember veering away in horror from a man in a Leningrad market who stopped me to say he was a dissident and needed 35mm film. And I always assumed that my wife, when I first met her, had something to do with "the friends" -- until, that is, she mislaid her internal passport and had a far too convincing cross between a panic attack and a nervous breakdown. I argued, perhaps wrongly, that no one who reported to Lubyanka Ploshchad could possibly be concerned over such a trivial matter.


All this, as I've said, was a good deal colored by self-importance. Foreigners were few on the ground then, and they were stars in their own drama: the cynosure, it was only too thrilling to believe, of every KGB eye. All the same -- and even though things were rapidly changing at the time -- we did catch the last whisper, I believe, of a secret-police system that had for generations dominated Russian lives, a system in which nobody could be absolutely sure of who anyone else was. If you doubt this, then you should remember that in mid-1989 -- 18 months after I met the "dissident" in the Leningrad market, and a full year after I met my wife -- the leaders of the Communist Party convened in Moscow to discuss ways of increasing the surveillance of foreign journalists.


My point is that for Soviets -- and, to an extent, for foreigners -- the business of acquaintance and friendship was a kind of lotto. Who you trusted was a game of chance. Anybody could be an informer, a stukach, even among close friends, even in what seemed the unassailable fastness of your kitchen, the place where Soviets really lived. If one of these friends suddenly got a trip abroad, for example or, even more damning, a posting, that was a sure sign that he was in with the right people, and shouldn't be fully trusted. Suspicion was the order of the day.


And suspicion, I'm sad to say, has come right back into vogue today -- on different grounds but for some of exactly the same reasons. What do you say about Vitaly, for example, who a year ago was a humble government bureaucrat? Today he's wearing Armani suits and driving a BMW. What do you say about Marina, who was a teacher at one of the institutes, but is now buying a Finnish kitchen for her newly built dacha and taking her holidays in the Canary Islands and Thailand? Who are these people? How have they changed? What are they doing? Is it safe or dangerous to know them?


The list of suspicions could go on and on. The tax clerk, for example: Is he reporting your earnings, not to the government, but to the protection boys? The policeman: Is he selling the dates of your holiday to thieves? Is your partner in bed with quite the wrong people? Is your subordinate passing on business information to your rivals in Kiev? Who's this one's "roof?" Who's that one's "banker?" It's impossible to know. So, once more we begin the long retreat back into the fastness of our kitchens and the confidence of only longtime friends. Outside used to belong to the spies of the nanny state. Now it belongs to crime.


I don't know what to do about any of this, except perhaps to formulate a version of what I said to myself in the old days when I finally gave up bothering about who was KGB and who wasn't: "What the hell! I don't know anything worth knowing." The new version is: "What the hell! I don't own anything worth stealing." Only complete poverty can keep you above suspicion today. And that -- God and the taxman knows -- is the writer's lot.