Last week, two friends—one a former parliamentarian, the other a current lawmaker and former colonel in Russia’s spy service—met up at a café popular among members of Russia’s Parliament. The café, Akademiya, is situated a few blocks away from the Kremlin. There the men—Vladimir Ryzhkov and Gennady Gudkov—had what they thought was a private conversation.
But someone was secretly filming the conversation. On Monday, that someone posted 10 minutes of the film on YouTube. No one seemed to notice. But on Wednesday, the website of a pro-Kremlin tabloid, Lifenews.ru, posted a two-and-a-half-minute segment of the film that featured the two politicians discussing how they would “topple” other opposition leaders.
As a former spy in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor of the legendary Soviet spy agency, the KGB, Gudkov recognized the tricks of his former employer’s trade immediately when he saw the clip.
“There must have been around six people involved in the operation including most probably a girl listening to our phone chats and a brigade of four to six people to follow us around and install the video-recording equipment and directed microphones 15 minutes before we arrived,” Gudkov said, estimating the cost of the operation at more than $300,000. “The question is, why would they spend so much of the state’s money? We did not plot a terror attack, a coup; we just discussed a legal opposition protest scheduled for Feb. 4.”
For years, Russian opposition leaders and human-rights activists have demanded that authorities investigate who it was who was ordering their phone conversations tapped and videos made of ostensibly compromising moments in their private lives. Now, Gudkov says, it’s clear who’s responsible. “The Kremlin let the genie out of the bottle,” Gudkov said. “Now not only the FSB but any of six to seven other special services in Russia have permission to spy on the opposition.”
Gudkov sounded furious when he spoke of the posting on the Internet a few weeks ago of private phone conversations of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. If in the Soviet Union it was a dark part of the culture to spy on a neighbor through a keyhole and then inform the KGB on what one had seen, in today’s Russia smear campaigns against the opposition and civil society are the dominant tool of the FSB and other spy services. “I will not allow this dirty accident to rest in peace and will seek criminal charges,” Gudkov promised, referring to his own own case.
A member of Parliament like Gudkov might have enough authority to push for an investigation. For victims of Russia’s civil society, however, there is little recourse to the law.
Nadira Isayeva, a Muslim, said she had lost her job as the editor in chief of the newspaper Chernovik and had to leave her hometown of Makhachkala after a recording of a sexually explicit phone conversations spread on the Internet. Isayeva calls the websites that publish the smears “a garbage dump sucking in any dirty news.” Another victim effectively silenced was popular satirist and journalist Victor Shenderovish, who had to cancel theater performances after a video intended to embarrass him was released on the Internet.
“Tapping phone conversations is a wide practice all around former Soviet countries. The methods remained the same as the KGB, except that the technologies for listening to people or taking videos of people’s private lives have improved,” said Tatyana Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s office in Moscow. Dubious transcripts and recordings of phone conversations were spread virally on the Internet in Georgia during the war in 2008, Lokshina recalled. “In places like Uzbekistan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, or Chechnya, it is quiet dangerous to agree with people about a meeting on the phone—the special services immediately call or come to people whose rights we defend, practically preventing us from organizing our work in the region in advance,” said Lokshina, referring to a number of times she had experienced this sort of interference from spy agencies in Central Asia and the North Caucuses.
“Whether you like it or not, the train has gone and it is too late to change anything,” said Robert Schlegel, a parliamentarian responsible for information policy. “Nobody should be expecting any privacy, even in their own bedroom.” The only solution, he said, is to “always mind your behavior and the things you say.”