‘So you’ve got one, right, Chris?’ Lev Lvovich leaned in closer, and his beery breath was warm and damp on my face. ‘It’s all OK,’ he reassured me with a slur. ‘We’re friends. You can tell me!’
It was the middle of the evening, already long dark, and Lev and I were playing a drunken game of chicken to see who might reveal something valuable to the other. I was the BBC Moscow bureau chief, and he was our ‘kurator’ at the Russian foreign ministry, the guy who signed off on accreditations, and who was charged with keeping an eye on what we reported.
‘Got one what?’ I genuinely had no idea what he was talking about.
Lev and I would meet every now and then to pretend we were good mates. I had many other things to do, and he was almost certainly a spook, but it was important to keep up the pretence. If all went well, I might get a few more visas for London-based reporters. In turn, he could report back that he’d nearly found out the Big Thing about me. Whatever that thing might have been.
We were several drinks in and this time it seemed he was very keen indeed to learn something that was bothering him a lot.
The booze this time, just like before, was at a dreary ‘English’ pub near his ministry’s press centre where cars swished through the snow on Moscow’s Garden Ring, the bucolic name for the ugly multi-lane highway encircling the city centre. The pub was called The John Bull. A flat-pack, dark laminate insta-pub in a pseudo-London style. The drinking equivalent of an IKEA ‘Billi’ bookcase. But it was ok – this was before the UK became Moscow’s public enemy number one. Britishness was still fashionable in those days, and Lev liked a warm beer.
He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper: ‘You know what I’m talking about. A vertushka!’
Now at last I understood. Lev was talking about the ultimate emblem of power: a yellowed Bakelite or plastic telephone that squatted on your desk like a blanched toad. Maybe you had more than one, even. The thing was, while each had a handset to answer a call, none had a dial. You couldn’t call back. You could only take incoming orders.
In a typically Soviet inversion, the more such phones you had, the more powerful you were perceived to be. If you’re handling that many incoming orders you must be a pretty big deal. It was the status symbol par excellence for the bureaucrats, the nomenklatura.
Lev Lvovich hoped to reveal me as somebody who had at least one ‘vertushka’. That would convince him that I was part of a ‘power structure’ and therefore worth interrogating further. And as far as Lev was concerned, rather than from callow and irritating producers in London, I was getting my editorial orders from MI6. If only he could prove it…
The abject failure of Russian military communications in Ukraine reminded me of the ‘vertushka’ and the awkward discussion I had with Lev almost twenty years ago. Russian forces apparently don’t have enough sophisticated digital radio systems and some of them it is alleged, have been using easily interceptable Chinese walkie-talkies – the kind you can get on Amazon – alongside regular mobile phones. As well as being a leaky device when it comes to hostile intelligence-gathering, the phone’s signals are easily triangulated, which may explain heavy casualties among senior Russian officers. Seven generals and counting.
It is possible that ahead of the expected assault on eastern Ukraine, soldiers will be properly if belatedly equipped for modern battlefield comms. But the culture that invented the ‘vertushka’ runs deep in Russia. Even with the best radios in the world, you need to be able to give and take feedback. After all, the other reason, it is said, that generals are being killed is because lower ranking officers won’t risk taking responsibility for tactical decisions, which means the senior officers have to get closer to the line of fire.
More damaging for the Russian war effort is that the culture goes right to the very top. In the ten days up to the beginning of the invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941, there were 47 warnings from Soviet intelligence of an imminent assault. Stalin was unwilling to listen.
A similar state of affairs appears to be reflected in Moscow again today. ‘Putin has massively misjudged the situation,’ the head of GCHQ Jeremy Fleming said in a recent and rare public speech. ‘We believe his advisers are afraid to tell him the truth.’
Abbas Gallyamov, a former speech writer for Putin, observed dozens of meetings in the Kremlin. ‘Senior officials were prepared to clarify matters of detail, but nobody was willing to contradict Putin on anything he had already taken a public position on, such as Ukraine. It was much too risky: you could easily be fired, or worse. So Putin in a way became a victim of the situation: his echo chamber was self-reinforcing.’
‘There’s a traditional Russian expression,’ Gallyamov told me. ‘You’re the boss; I’m the idiot. I’m the boss; you’re the idiot’. It’s not just about communications – that’s completely secondary. It’s about decision-making, and a mindset that will neither give nor take criticism. Under Putin, it’s a tradition that has only strengthened.’
It means that the often-posed question of whether or not Putin is in his right mind or not is also second-order: even an entirely rational actor would be unable to make well-informed decisions in such a hall of mirrors.
A former top Kremlin political reporter, Andrei Pertsev, now works in exile for the opposition Meduza website: ‘If in the early days Putin was keen to talk to a variety of political players, over the years he has come to believe the hype about himself: a Tsar-figure, beloved by all Russians, who has a unique vision for the country.
‘But what kind of vision could a middle-ranking ex-KGB officer really have?’ he asks. ‘The problem is that since Putin now believes himself to be the cleverest person in the room, the circle of people he is prepared to listen to has got narrower and narrower.’
Back at the John Bull pub, it was getting late and it was a weekday. Lev leaned back in his chair waiting for my answer. He grinned and had another swig of beer. His shaved bullet head and piggy eyes made him look less like a diplomat and more like a football thug. Unusual for Foreign Ministry staff in those days, who tended to the urbane, but in retrospect a sign of things to come.
‘No, I haven’t got a vertushka,’ I replied at last.
He was visibly disappointed. To be able to report that the BBC bureau chief had an incoming-only phone would have been worth the morning’s hangover. But without one, Lev must have concluded I was a far more trivial personality than he had thought.
‘What about you? Have you got a vertushka, Lev?’ I asked, as we got up to leave.
‘Several!’ he smiled.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.