Unchanged

Recent news from the Russian Federation suggests that in spite of evidence of superficial change, life in Russia remains at bottom much the same as ever – not only as it was in Soviet times, but even longer ago. For one thing, there are the same sudden anomalies of behaviour in a government which on the face of it seems mind-crushingly authoritarian, yet occasionally makes room for flamboyant, incongruous forays into the denunciation of past wrongs. Such, for example, is the recent visit of President Dmitry Medvedev to the remote Magadan region on Russia’s Pacific coast, where he laid flowers at a memorial built to commemorate the victims of the Soviet Gulag prison camps, and described the whole era of Stalin’s deportations and purges as “a tragic page in our country’s history”.

Only a couple of days later, the United Kingdom’s outgoing Moscow ambassador Tony Brenton was describing to a British newspaper how he was personally made the target of a nightmarish, Gogolian campaign of intimidation when his car was

tailgated at high speed through the streets of the Russian capital by militant members of Nashi, Vladimir Putin’s zealous youth movement, who went on to harass him in shops and restaurants and intimidate his family.

In the long interview, Ambassador Brenton says thatduring his period of tenure the British Embassy “has come under a greater barrage of bugging and espionage from the Russian secret service than at any time since the end of the Cold War.” Describing some of the bugging methods used, he alludes to some curious details:

Sir Tony – who will next week be replaced by Anne Pringle, Britain’s first female Ambassador to Russia – denied rumours in Moscow that his two cats were regularly checked for bugging devices. The suggestion may seem fanciful, but the Soviet KGB once successfully implanted a listening device into a US ambassador’s dog.

It’s the promotion – even in theory – of cats and dogs to the rank of intelligence officers that is so quintessentially Russian. I would submit that in no other country of the world could one expect to discover such things.

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