Putin's Russia

In Putin’s Russia, the Walls Still Have Ears

During the Soviet era, many Russians feared that the KGB was spying on them. Today, they worry their bosses are, too—and perhaps with good reason.


More than a decade ago, many among Russia’s middle class embraced the Web, hoping that advances in Internet technology would foster a more open and democratic society, that their memories of the dreaded clicking sound on the telephone—a sign that the KGB was listening—would soon be a relic of the past.

Today, however, many middle-class Russians still fear that the walls have ears. What’s changed, however, is who they think is listening. Indeed, a recent survey by HeadHunter, a Moscow-based Internet recruitment company, found that more than half of Russian employees with salaries of more than $6,600 a month—a solidly middle-class income—are afraid that their employers often read their emails, Google chats, Facebook posts, or personal notes on Twitter. The wealthier and more senior-level an employee is, according to the survey, the more likely that he or she believes the boss is a snoop.

Of the more than 7,000 respondents, 12 percent believe that their employers had read their personal blogs, which may have contained negative comments about their managers. Nearly 50 percent said that they were reprimanded after being caught peeking around online for better jobs during work hours. More than 60 percent of those who believed they were being spied on said that they were called into a boss’s office for an unpleasant conversation, and 8 percent admitted they had been fired as a result of what their employers saw as their computer misbehavior.

“In the old days only the internal-affairs ministry and the KGB had license to video and tape-record private conversations,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer and now an opposition member in Parliament.

“Now, any private company’s security service can read your personal e-mail, transcripts of your cellphone conversations, or videotape you,” because the technology is accessible.

It’s difficult to ascertain just how common Russian employers spy on their employees. A large part of the perception may be a testament to the KGB’s long and harrowing history. But part of this belief also has to do with more-current events: unseen since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent crackdown on dissent in the lead-up to the election of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, who for years has had de facto control of the country.

“The very public spectacle of surveillance of political opposition leaders cannot but heighten people’s awareness,” said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

At least some employers do justify the practice. “The Internet made people too relaxed,” said the director of an Italian shoe company, who asked not be named for fear of a backlash. “We employers have a full right to keep an eye on what our employees write on corporate computers.”

Ivan Tyutyundzhi, a spokesperson for HeadHunter, said that some managers use software programs that allow them to follow every keystroke a worker makes without the employee’s knowledge. “I often see top businessmen sit on top of their cellphones or take the SIM cards out, so nobody could listen to their negotiations,” said Natalya Borisova, a business consultant.

And whereas in the 1990s. companies used their own security services to spy on employees, said Gudkov, the former KGB officer, now some have realized that it’s cheaper to corrupt police and add a few cellphone numbers to the list of people already being investigated.

The spying phenomenon, analysts say, goes well beyond employers simply trying to make sure their employees are being productive; it speaks to a larger phenomenon in Russian society. Unlike in Great Britain or the United States, where paparazzi aim mostly at celebrities, Russia’s most famous scandals over the past two years pertained to opposition figures and independent journalists.

This spring, a secretly filmed video appeared on the Internet of Gudkov in a restaurant using obscenities in a conversation with another politician. Apparently, it was meant to be discrediting. “The genie has been let out of the bottle,” said Gudkov. “The Kremlin has given the green light to an ugly practice of all Russians spying on each other.”

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Case in point: in 2010, several Web sites published a video of Mikhail Fishman, then the editor in chief of the Russian edition of Newsweek in his underwear with a naked woman. “Before that day, I had no idea that I had enemies. Now I know that I need to be more careful,” said Fishman. “In Russia, there is no ethical barrier for those who plot, as they know that there will be no legal punishment for their action.”

Fishman’s video appeared in a series along with videos of several opposition figures filmed having sex in the same apartment. Rather than the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, most observers blamed a pro-government youth group.

The idea of being watched or listened to is troublesome to many Russians, especially after these high-profile incidents. But it doesn’t seem to surprise them. “Not much has changed [from the Soviet era],” said Zoya Svetova, a journalist and human-rights activist, whose dissident parents were banished to the gulag in the mid 1980s. “We traditionally try to talk in puzzles when we discuss sensitive subjects of state corruption or court lawlessness.”

Andrei Soldatov, a reporter for Agentura.ru, a community of Russian, American, and British journalists who write about intelligence agencies, agreed. “There is a very [little] public interest ... about the privacy issue,” he said. “The idea that everybody spies on each other has ... become a part of Russian character.”