Andrew Osborn








Russians revel in spy rock scandal

27th January 2006 17:14

by Andrew Osborn in Moscow

First there was laughter, then came indignation, and

finally a sense of Cold War style-triumphalism. 

Allegations that four British diplomats have been

spying on Russia have generated huge interest in a

country steeped in intrigue, plotting and spy stories.

Russians love a good conspiracy theory and TV

programmes and films about the feared Soviet KGB and

its modern counterpart the FSB are enormously popular.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a

former spook (he worked as an agent in the then east

Germany before going on to head the FSB) served to

increase the ‘us against them’ factor.

Few Russians haven't heard of James Bond and in the

Communist era the authorities encouraged the view that

the Soviet Union was encircled by foreign spies.

Indeed today many Russians are genuinely convinced

that they are surrounded by hostile forces hell bent

on ensuring that Russia does not rise from the ashes

of the Soviet Union.

News that British spies had apparently been

communicating with local agents through a James Bond

style transmitter fake rock in Moscow appeared,

therefore, to confirm what they had known all along:

that the West is out to get them.

That the same ‘spies’ had been apparently pouring

money into human rights organisations was also

confirmation, as Mr Putin put it, of “foreign


At the same time many ordinary people found it hard to

take the rock business seriously laughing aloud as

they watched grainy footage of the purported spies

picking up the thing and furtively making it off with


The broadcast media, which is overwhelmingly

state-controlled, dutifully regurgitated the salient

points without humour.

The printed media was a good deal more sceptical,

however, with famously liberal Novaya Gazeta running a

report doubting the “stupid” scandal’s authenticity

under the headline “Her Majesty’s Cobble Stone.” 

Like many other liberal media it suggested the scandal

had been dreamt up by the Kremlin as a way of

rebuffing Western criticism of a restrictive new law

clamping down on foreign and domestic human rights


Mr Putin sounded suitably outraged though even he

couldn’t hold back a thin smile or a sarcastic joke.

“If we send these spies out maybe smarter ones will

come in and we’ll tie ourselves up in knots trying to

catch them,” he quipped.

Some of the more fringe nationalist elements in the

Russian parliament demanded that the UK be sent a

compensation bill for 100m USD and that the KGB be


The FSB, whose counter-intelligence agents caught the

‘spies,’ was naturally keen to play up the

sophistication of its old Cold War adversaries in

order to make itself look good.

Comically this seemed to mainly involve praising the

quality of the transmitter rock that it had seized.

“It’s a miracle of technology,” an FSB spokesman


"It's a piece of space-age technology, a machine that

can withstand a fall from nine floors up and prolonged

submersion in water."

When asked where the British had tripped up he gave a

one word answer: “Arrogance.”

The human rights groups accused of taking Her

Majesty’s shilling were less cheery; they claimed that

the row was fabricated to smear their good name as a

prelude to closing them down. 

Some of the most prominent groups signed a statement

saying that the incident reminded them of a Soviet

‘provocation ‘ against dissidents.

"It is deplorable that journalists and state officials

are discussing the financing of NGOs by British

intelligence as a proven fact," the statement said.

"Frequent repetition does not make a lie the truth."

Since the scandal erupted there have been two other

worrying signs that the Kremlin has declared war on

NGOs and indeed foreign interference.

A fiscal investigation into the British Council’s St

Petersburg’s branch has been unexpectedly reopened and

a major Russian human rights umbrella organisation has

been threatened with closure on procedural grounds.

It may not happen overnight but bets are on that the

famous rock may now join other wacky exhibits at the

KGB’s extraordinary museum in the basement of its

central Moscow headquarters.

It wouldn’t look out of place.

Other real-life exhibits include glasses with suicide

poison hidden in the frames; a copy of National

Geographic with coded messages hidden in the print and

a radio receiver disguised as a tree trunk, planted

near a Moscow airport designed to pick up air traffic

control transmissions.

It all seems like a bit of a joke but the consequences

for Russian NGOs and civil society in the world’s

largest country could be far from hilarious.