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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Joyrides on the Bureaucrats' Secret Hot-Line

VORONEZH, Central Russia -- A telephone can be so many things in Russia -- a status symbol on a bureaucrat's desk, a way to keep the unwanted interlocutor away, or, in the wrong hands, the instrument of one's undoing.

But a Russian telephone is never a simple communication tool.

This point hits home every day for foreigners working in Russia, where the average phone encounter with the person you need to reach goes something like this: In the morning, no one picks up; at lunch time, the line is steadily busy; and for the rest of the day calls are answered by a phalanx of laconic secretaries who drop ambiguous hints as to when Ivan Ivanovich might be free. But then night falls and that time never comes.

I was stuck in this holding pattern recently in Voronezh, a slightly backward provincial capital 532 kilometers south of Moscow, when a local newspaper editor offered the use of his newspaper's vertushka, the special phone line that connects officials with officials. When the vertushka rings, the editor explained, they have to pick up. It might be President Boris Yeltsin calling.

The editor demonstrated how the vertushka worked by dialing the mayor of Olkhovatko, a village 242 kilometers south of Voronezh. The mayor was being investigated for his role in a scandal over a shipment of bulls intended for sale in regional markets that had somehow ended up in Lebanon. He wasn't picking up his ordinary phone, but he told all to the editor via vertushka.

I decided to give it a try and dialed the three-digit number of the mayor of Voronezh, Anatoly Goltz, a cantankerous former army colonel who until now had refused an interview. Goltz picked up the phone. "Let's meet today," I said, doing my best Yeltsin impersonation. He answered in an uncertain voice: "Would 15 minutes from now be all right for you?"

Jackpot. Next up after Goltz was the tight-lipped chief of police, whose secretary had been screening calls and putting off requests for interviews. When the vertushka rang, the chief himself picked up, and we spoke at length. Before hanging up, he asked in the same uncertain voice as Goltz: "How did you get this number?"

Catching these people off guard is only one of the attractions of the vertushka. Normally, you have to order a phone call from Voronezh to Olkhovatko, but on the vertushka you just dial direct. You never have to yell into the mouthpiece, as with ordinary Russian phone connections, nor does the connection suddenly break off.

Russian cities don't have phone books, but they do have a vertushka book, with a list of top officials, factory directors, bureaucrats and newspaper editors. You can tell how important a Russian official is by the vertushkas on his desk. Mid-level regional officials have the local vertushka. Mayors of major cities and regional governors have the PM-Svyaz, a special line for conversations with Moscow. Russian government ministers chat on ATS-1. Only a select few top officials have the coveted ATS-V, which has a connection right to Yeltsin's Kremlin office.

You can't hail Yeltsin on the vertushka at the Voronezh Courier. But it comes in very handy when you need to reserve a bedroom in a Voronezh hotel, all of which are permanently booked for mere mortals with ordinary phones.

After a few days, I was on a pleasant roll. Just one last call to that mayor in Olkhovatko, and then back to Moscow. Maybe we could have a vertushka surreptitisiously installed in our bureau.

That's when I found out about the downside of the vertushka.

When I called the mayor didn't answer. His former deputy, the new acting mayor, did.

"You remember that talk he had with the editor the other day," said the cautious new mayor. "Well, the investigators were listening in, and he was sacked."

If there is a moral to this story, then it is this: Use the vertushka to call mom. Save the serious stuff for those ordinary phones with the bad connections.