Blacked-out Volgas & the KGB: A modern Russian ‘spy story’

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Blacked-out Volgas & the KGB: A modern Russian ‘spy story’
At this stage, there is a case to be made for awarding an annual prize to the most paranoid Western journalist reporting from Moscow. A suitable title would be the "Luke Harding Award." And we have a live contender for the first gong.

In 2011, The Guardian hack released an equally hyped and ridiculed book outlining supposed intimidation he received at the hands of Moscow’s security services. As I was only in my second year in Russia, and still naive enough to trust Western media coverage of the country, I read it.

From the outset, Harding’s tale seemed implausible. For instance his loss-making newspaper isn’t especially influential, selling about a tenth of the rival Daily Mail. And why would the FSB have wanted to target him specifically? As opposed to correspondents from the likes of the Washington Post, New York Times or Times of London. Or popular TV networks, from BBC to CNN. All of which boast far greater significance to their respective establishments.

It was also telling that the newspaper itself chose professional Russia-basher Edward Lucas, a figure who wouldn’t be let within an asses-roar of The Guardian under normal circumstances, to review the book. This was presumably because they couldn't find anyone remotely credible to shovel praise on Harding’s ravings.

A New Hero

Anyway, the purpose here is not to again trawl over Harding’s folly but instead to welcome a possible successor to his tiara. Step forward, Mary Louise Kelly (henceforth MLK, with apologies to the great Martin) of America’s National Public Radio. Which is a state-funded broadcaster so dull that I’m not sure even the media-obsessed Donald Trump listens to it.

Anyway, MLK, the subject of a very self-important Wikipedia entry, was in Moscow recently and out-Luked herself. It started like this, before running the full gamut of common sense from A to B. "They'll be tracking you from the moment you land," my CIA sources back in Washington had warned, as I prepared for a reporting trip to Russia. "For God's sake, don't log on to your regular email accounts from there." And note the "CIA sources," bit. Because MLK wants you to know she's got a hotline to Langley.

Next up. “One evening, typing away in NPR's Moscow bureau, the cursor began to jump around on its own. Words moved. I raised my hands from the keyboard and watched in wonder as the screen went black.” Now a rational person might think their laptop is in a bit of bother. Especially when after plugging into a different power source, my computer revived. All seemed well.”

These ramblings followed a talk Kelly gave the previous month, before she visited Russia. A conversation which betrays the fact she may have hoped the Moscow sojourn would help her make a bit of a name for herself.

Here’s a taster. “As a reporter, all journalists are aware you may well be monitored by Russian intelligence from the second you get off a plane, someone with my beat in particular.” Well, I know literally dozens of foreign journalists in Russia. And many are personal friends. None seem overly burdened by these kind of concerns. Bar one, working for a very high-profile outlet, who has experienced harassment in the provinces - not in Moscow - while covering local stories.

Possibly because, in the back end of beyond, FSB agents have a bit of time on their hands. But in uber-busy Moscow, even if they wanted to, there simply aren't enough to follow foreign journalists on their adventures from posh hotels to hipster bars and the like.

Spooky Scenes

And in the next part, MLK warns how “there is a couple of things that US intelligence says Russia did – one is actual hacking – trying to get inside computer databases, and what they did with our information in terms of making it public through WikiLeaks and other platforms, the other one is the fake news question and there are armies of people turning out fake news that overwhelms social media sites.”

So her early May talk seems to be an attempt to portend what she claims to have experienced in Moscow. There is mention of meddling with databases and of being closely observed. Thus, it appear MLK is quite the Nostradamus. Able to outline things she may experience in Russia a few weeks before going there. And thats’s a very special kind of skill. One that seems to have eluded even Luke Harding.

Nevertheless, the icing on the cake comes at the tail end of the post-visit blog. You see, MLK wrote to RT to request an interview with the chief editor, Margarita Simonyan. Which incidentally was granted to her colleague, David Greene, around the same time.

And the network’s press office replied as follows: “Thank you for your request to meet. We have been informed, via our red phone straight to the Kremlin, that the officers who have tracked you since you landed sense that your mind is already made-up on this issue, and so meeting to discuss the baseless accusations made against RT would be fruitless. We politely refer you to the man in the blacked-out Volga parked outside your hotel for further explanation."

It’s probably fair to say that, to any sensible reader, the answer is a little bit of fun. Especially in light of MLK’s May comments where she exposed her prejudices toward Russia.

But our hero perhaps takes it a little bit too seriously. “So was the note a joke? Was it a threat? Or something in between: a little hint of both mischief and menace, just to remind you that someone might be watching?,” she asks. Before adding: “You tell me. Or you could ask the guy parked outside. You know, the one in the blacked-out Volga.”

The whole business reads like a cry for attention. Russia has long been associated with conspiracy theories. From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 19th century to the Zinoviev letter of the 1920’s and the 'Trump-Putin' nonsense of today. Of course, unscrupulous journalists have always tried to use embedded anti-Russian stereotypes to enhance their own profiles. Meanwhile, in the real world, the FSB probably has better things to be doing than stalking minor hacks from relatively inconsequential Western news outlets.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.