In the mid-2000s, I finally made good on an old promise I made to my father. Together, we went to the former KGB archives so that we could read the dossier on my great-grandfather—a ‘privilege’ extended to direct family members. From what we knew, my great-grand-dad was an early Bolshevik, a prisoner in the dying days of the Tsar, a Comintern undercover agent in Italy, a founder of one of the Soviet trade unions, a possible Trotskyite, and most definitely an anti-Stalinist lawyer who was ultimately imprisoned in a Gulag camp around 1937. The trumped up charge: allegedly helping to bring Mussolini to power during a stay in Italy. He got twenty years, which was considered lucky. But he never came back, and died somewhere in the Siberian depths.
Even though the reading room in the archives that day was airy, with sunlight streaming in, the general atmosphere was surreal, and suffocating—after all, we were surrounded by other people who were all probably scanning and digesting page after page of documented atrocities.
Father and I read the dossier. We didn’t necessarily understand all of the political allusions and accusations contained therein, but we did recognize something: our family character. In one episode, the record from an interrogation mentioned the detained lunging at the investigator, while decrying innocence.
Some of the dossier pages were glued together, and thus sealed off some of the files’s contents. I asked an officer why—naively I thought this might have been done to hide the names of those who denounced my great-grandfather.
“Names?” the agent smiled wryly. “No, no names, my lady. There are methods”.
Around same time as this visit, an artist, a foreigner, wished to conduct a kind of social experiment in Moscow. Namely, she asked me to find a retired KGB officer. The experiment itself? Well, I cannot really reveal anything about it besides that it was about trust. I can say, though, that I was tasked with finding out if Russian citizens could find a sense of trust with the members of this once powerful, and allegedly defunct organization, the KGB.
For some reason the artist assumed that notions of sin and repentance would be applicable to members of the former KGB officers in relation to their dealings with former Soviet citizens. I had my doubts it would be the case. But I promised to look around, and so I did.
At first, I thought it would be quite easy to find such persons. In Brezhnev’s later years – a sort of strange Soviet belle époque –I was working (if such is the right word) in the Manezh, a former riding-cum-central exhibition hall next door to Kremlin. In the Manezh, we had our own KGB guy, just like all other cultural institutions. His name was Nikolai, and although he was rather stupid, he was a nice guy. Prone to ostentation, Nikolai would parade at vernissages. He would also try to listen in on the conversations of others even though most were so routinely anti-Soviet, and hence banal, they wouldn’t have been of much interest. Nevertheless, he tried to blend in, but would always be betrayed by his double-breasted suit and necktie; mischievously, we didn’t tip him off to the idea of wearing a turtleneck like any decent dissident would do. Nikolai was genuinely interested in art and artists and was probably a bit envious of us. Following procedure, he also placed listening devices in the table where our staff would usually hang out and drink tea, or cheap brandy. Oddly, he planted the bugs right before our very eyes. In any case, we didn’t bother to move elsewhere. Maybe we were just too lazy, or maybe we understood all too well how the fatigued system he represented simply did not work.
During this time, we were guiding tours through all types of shows, as diverse as the different branches of Soviet economy to which they were dedicated – agriculture, heavy industry, river transportation, and so on. In a rare case where an artist was young or maybe Polish or Hungarian (contemporary Western art was never shown), they might have received a bit more license to go aesthetic rather than purely illustrative.
Nobody, including Nikolai, was too interested in what the profoundly bored guides were actually saying to their profoundly bored audiences. To escape boredom, everyone in our collective was exercising his or her own small proselytism; anti-sovietism, Zionism, Trotskyism, then-banned orthodox religious beliefs, or, in my case, orthodox modernist art. I used every opportunity to demonstrate that modernist art was better than nineteenth-century realism (although I’m not so sure of this anymore). In reality though, I did not have many opportunities; the system was not granting individual citizens their freedom, and our tours could only be ordered by schools or factories, or other similar institutions who rarely saw the point of going to shows—they preferred theater in any case. Fittingly, I only dropped in at my so-called ‘full-time’—and indeed fully-paid—workplace just a couple of times a week, each time for no more than an hour. The rest of the time, I would spend my days in the Lenin library, chipping away at my PhD dissertation. During this period, everyone was actually paid by the state to have free time—ostensibly to work for oneself. I guess ‘our’ KGB guy, Nikolai, had other interests in life too, fishing maybe.
But, could I find a ‘Nikolai’ in contemporary Russia? I haven’t seen him since those bygone years, and I never learned his last name. In the wake of the failed 1991 KGB coup, when a furious and rash Boris Yeltsin dismantled that ‘committee’, Nikolai must have been unwisely fired. Did he start a business selling second-hand computers? And was he killed as a result soon after the coup just like thousands of others? If he was shrewd enough, he might have been more inclined to simple theft than wearisome business and as such become a state employee. KGB denunciations never happened in Russia in any case…
Long after the KGB disappeared from the stage of history, I went to an exhibition. Once inside, I discovered my cell phone would not work. This might have been natural considering the thick walls in this old house. But then it came to me that this house was once the home of the Soviet poet Bella Akhmadulina. And it was in this very spot that an elderly neighbor suddenly found his phone line cut off. To fix such a problem, Akhmadullina called the KGB hotline (for informants) and, when someone answered, she said: “Akhmadulina speaking. They say they are repairing the cable in the courtyard, but we here still think it’s you.” Strangely, the gentleman’s phone line immediately worked.
While at the opening, an artist, with whom we were sharing a ‘quality’ bottle of vernissage wine said: “You know, it is not necessary to actually call ‘them’ anymore. Just utter “Putin – Chechnya – bomb” on your dead cell phone, and it will miraculously come to life again.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t even necessary to raise the phone to my ear, as not a minute after she said this, my shabby device immediately caught a signal…
Even though the soviet secret service, the ‘committee’ as it was called in the streets, or the ‘office’ as insiders preferred, does not officially exist anymore, KGB jokes, KGB paranoia, and every form of KGB excitement is still with us. Being followed, or watched, or suspected by the KGB—an experience all Soviet people, especially artists and writers, to some extent had–does give you a sense of importance.
Art and writing were important back then: the first KGB department was set up to target cultural institutions, artists’ and writers’ unions, and research institutes. Everything was political, everything had hidden messages and meanings to be deciphered and (possibly) punished… everything was subject to serious scrutiny.
In 1991, after the failed coup, Yeltsin supposedly dismantled this ideological standoff. From now on, the laws of the free market were to rule. Economic competition was called to replace asymmetrical political struggle. In the context of such a milieu, culture itself had to find its place inside this new form of social engagement — that is, in a context without a KGB exchange. In any case, I began to think that I would never be able to find a former officer in such a vacuum.
But, as it turned out, a former KGB officer can be found sitting at every corner and at every moment today in Russia. I found mine at a clinic while getting a massage for a badly hurt leg. In a moment of divine inspiration, I asked the massage therapist if he knew such persons, and immediately he brought me to another floor. There, the chief of the in-house security had his office. He now became my target.
He and I had a chat. He listened to my story, and then said something rather curious: “First off, there is no such a thing as a ‘former’ KGB officer.”
I had heard this said before, but always thought it expressed a certain state of mind rather than a reality. But, it as it turned out, it was rather more literal.
In the 1990s, discharged KGB officers quickly went into business, but they were often ‘officially’ given orders to do some surveillance work in their new places of work. As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write in their book “The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB”, the KGB could not legally pay their former employees for their new assignments, so in practice they were required to spy in their free time, unpaid. This situation strangely mirrored my own lot during the 1980s when I was stealing time from my bread and butter job to write my PhDd. Stealing time was so much easier back then, though; today, especially when working for a corporation, it’s much easier to steal money than time. But still, my target was a sleeper like many others—maybe a lazy, unmotivated one, but a sleeper nevertheless.
But, all of a sudden, something stirred within him. My target began to ask questions, like what were the political views of the artist who set this search in motion, and whether she is for or against Castro (she was originally from Cuba). That surprised me, and I asked in response if he knew for sure whether Russia was for or against Castro, but he just looked at me as if I was a naïve idiot.
It became gradually clear to me that he saw neither an enemy nor a dangerous dissident in front of him, rather an unreasonable, puerile subject of his mighty sovereignty. And recently, subjects like me were allowed a bit more range; it was even possible to help these subjects to pursue their foolish private interests. As such, the agent radiated a bizarre benevolence; he was not, in my impression, a rich man. He lived by the older and more modest soviet standards, but he was sure that the new Russian fortunes were built with the gracious permission of his ‘office.’.
It was clear he still lived in 1984, a system which (as he said) was a little bit shaken in 1991, but straightened out in time. Today’s hybrid world was simply an adaptation to the prevailing Zeitgeist, and thus oriented towards the free market; however, the power structures stayed constant. The privileged got capitalism with perks, like trips to St. Barths, and St. Moritz; study at Yale replaced caviar and Czechoslovakian furniture. The rest of us, though, got capitalism as an obligation, a civil duty, and moreover, a cross to bear without complaint in the same way one carried the cross of Stalinism. In either system, we endured, and continue to endure, injustice, inequality, nepotism, corruption, rising obscurantism and a lack of actual democracy.
I went out of his ‘office’ strangely relieved. Everything was simple again, and oh so crystal clear. And with this new found clarity, my agonizing inability to articulate what had happened over the last twenty years evaporated. Although irrational, now everything was at least logical.
Staying the course, my agent didn’t agree to go further with my social experiment. He said his method was still in use, so he couldn’t possibly out himself any further.