Google, Skype, Hotmail & the FSB: Russia’s hidden heart

Very interesting city, Ekaterinburg. It’s known for a number of reasons, all of which are to do with its somewhat shadowy, secretive character. It was the scene of the Romanov family’s assassination by the Bolsheviks, and the fount of the whole Anastasia controversy/red herring. During World War II, the Russian government created a secret second HQ in Ekaterinburg – now known as Sverdlovsk – in case Moscow, further West in ‘European’ Russia, should fall to the advancing Wehrmacht. The treasures of the St Petersburg Hermitage museum were stored in underground bunkers here too, just in case. Through the post-war Soviet years, the Sverdlovskaya region became the heart of Russia’s ‘nuclear archipelago’ – a chain of sites that housed the USSR’s weapons powerhouses, from warheads to supergerms aand chemicals to spy factories. It’s an interesting place. Even Russians weren’t allowed there most of the time in those days. Lots of blanks on maps. An anthrax leak from a secret bio-warfare facility in the suburbs killed dozens in the 1970s. Rather than treat them, the authorities claimed they were sick from eating iffy meat and let them die. Then a radiation leak – the world’s worst before Chernobyl – exacted its price in secrecy too. To this day, the Lonely Planet guide to Russia advises backpackers that radiation levels around some of the lakes will kill a man within an hour. Gary Powers’ U2 spyplane got shot down here. In the 1990s, renamed (again) Ekateerinburg, the city became the Russian mafiya wars’ ground zero. People disappear a lot here; the airmen in Outlaws Inc – men who make their living being non-existent – happen to call Ekaterinburg home. To this day, in the informal forgers’ shops and stalls around the city, you can buy a whole new ID for a few dollars. I came back with seven, five of which carried the names Vladimir Putin, Roman Abramovich, V.I. Lenin, Boris Berezhovsky and Osama bin Laden.

So why am I telling you all this? Because I thought of it today, when I saw the reports on the newswires that Russia had overturned a bid by the FSB – the KGB’s all-powerful successor agency – to have encrypted digital communications like Hotmail, Skype and Gmail banned or monitored in Russia. Fair enough, and all good. But what got reported less widely was this January 13th news that the FSB had already succeeded in winning approval for the motion in the Sverdlovskaya region, of which the capital is… Ekaterinburg.

What makes you think it’s not me, officer?

No, officer, I haven't been drinking

Just a small post today, happy memories of shopping for fake driving licences in the Urals while out there researching the book in 2007. Though it’s fair to say this one is not the best likeness of me, it certainly seemed to work whenever I flashed it at hotel reception check-ins. Serious question, though. This was a £5 readymade. I also bought Russian PM Vladimir Putin’s (clean licence, St Petersburg citizen, currently a Moscow resident – and Roman Abramovich’s. Others were bespoke, with the correct picture and whatever else ($10). If you really had a problem and needed to disappear – let’s even say you were someone like the guy on the licence – how hard would it be? It might cost more that $5… but not that much more.

The lighter side of Moscow’s customs officials

Tha Cu$tom$ Posse at Domodedovo, yesterday

News from today’s Moscow Times suggests all that glaring and journalist-deporting Russian customs and border officials have been doing recently may just be a front to disguise their real fun-loving side. What other conclusion can we possibly draw from this video, showing a group of Moscow customs men and the mime-along pop video they made in their downtime? Except they actually went and posed with all ‘their’ confiscated goods. Coming only a matter of weeks after the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Prime Minister Putin is said not to be pleased. That’s the thing with music. Timing.

Parental advisory: contains ladies, moderate pimpin’ styles and mild scenes of an R’n’B nature.