When you start packing for a reporting trip to Russia, you get a lot of advice.
Take a clean phone, advised my journalist friends in Moscow. Take a clean laptop. That means one that has been wiped and re-imaged and from which I’ve never logged on with my usual user accounts and passwords. The reason? Russian intelligence will be monitoring you from the moment you land, they said.
“Really?” I replied. “You think they’ll be that interested in a random American reporter flying in?”
I took the warnings with a grain of salt until I got there and started collecting stories from reporters, dissidents and human rights activists. Stories of being harassed by Russian spies, particularly those in the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB. Some of the tales sound like they were ripped from the pages of a badly written spy novel. Some, frankly, were terrifying.
Take the experience of Luke Harding, who served as Moscow bureau chief for Britain’sGuardian newspaper.
He says he was tailed through the streets by menacing guys with recording devices. The harassment escalated every time Harding filed a story on a sensitive topic, like President Vladimir Putin’s finances.
A book in the bedroom
Harding’s apartment, where he lived with his wife and young children, was broken into repeatedly. One time, they came home from vacation to find a strange object on the bedside table.
“In among the English novels — you know, the Steinbecks and the Philip Roths — I found a new book in Russian introduced. Which was a kind of — it was basically a sex manual,” Harding says.
That’s right. A sex manual. In his bedroom. And, Harding adds, it was thoughtfully bookmarked.
“You know, what are the KGB trying to tell me? It was clearly some kind of message,” he says.
To their credit, Harding and his wife, Phoebe, retained a sense of humor.
“We would show this thing off at dinner parties,” he says. “We would make jokes about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. We went out and bought a Putin wall clock, and we hung it above the front door. So when these secret agents broke in, the first thing they’d see is the boss, staring down at them.”
It was funny for a while, Harding says. But it became less funny, even frightening.
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Featured Image – The Lenin Mausoleum at night – Moscow, Wikimedia Commons