This essay originally appeared in Monocle’s yearly publication The Forecast. You can hear its radio version here.

My grandfather, the spy

When I was in my third year at Moscow State University, like most other male students in the faculty, I got a telephone call from a state security officer; some colonel. In a mildly coaxing tone, he inquired after my health and grades and then went straight to the point: would I rather continue serving foreign interests with my part-time job at a US-funded NGO (a job I might lose any time, he emphasised) or do my bit for the motherland like the fine upstanding fellow that I was? The kind of knowledge I was getting at the university would be put to good use, he went on, and given my abilities I could be confident of a long and prosperous career.

This was all baffling to me, if not entirely unexpected: in Russia, the “organs” – the secret police, basically – are always lurking around the corner. Just when the colonel rang, I was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and its heady mix of factionalism, betrayal and heavenly retribution suddenly became worryingly relevant. Until then, unwanted attention, let alone a job offer, from the security services was a feared impossibility; something from a book or film, not something that would happen in real life.

Not only did the colonel know about my work, he was also apparently in possession of my medical record (I’m imagining a print-out of a Word 95 file, or a really bad scan of another scan laid out before him on one of those monstrous wooden desks with a glass top and a tiny withered Russian flag on it; the military seems to be decidedly low-tech). You’re not cut out to be a paratrooper, he laughed down the line (I have poor eyesight and the slight frame of an intellectual), but not to worry, there are people ready and willing to do that; what we have got in store for you is more up your alley: translation, infiltration and reconnaissance. For the good of the country, eh? Let’s show these Americans together!

In truth, this had been coming. A few weeks previously, the security police descended on a student in the year below, a radical left-wing activist. He was an underprivileged provincial heavily dependent on the university for board and lodging; the officers threatened to evict him from the student dorm and cut off his measly stipend unless he stopped his political work. He was smart enough to record the exchange and went to the press. A minor scandal ensued, a couple of higher-ranking officers were laid off or disciplined and he was left alone for the time being. So was that call from the colonel part of some not-so-devious stratagem to pre-empt a student revolt (and secure a few recruits in the meantime)? This was in 2007, with Vladimir Putin in his final year as president after a two-term constitutional maximum, so perhaps they needed to ensure a smooth transition to his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, unclouded by any horseplay. Universities are, after all, where all subversive politics begins.

It had been coming for another reason, too. My grandfather was a spy. Until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the telephones in our apartment in northern Moscow were almost certainly tapped. When I was in my teens, I liked to think that unseen agents with red-rimmed eyes were still carefully eavesdropping on the daily tribulations of our domestic life and every so often I would speak up and say something manifestly subversive (it felt silly and exciting in equal measure – would the doorbell ring now?) or pick up the telephone when they - if they were there at all - least expected it and say, in the steeliest voice possible: “Well, hello”.

In Soviet times, people preferred to keep their own company and only opened up with their closest circle. Increasingly, this secretiveness is returning to modern Russia. One of my best friends habitually turns off his mobile phone when we meet for drinks in Moscow, or takes me outside to talk against the street din when the conversation turns to risky subjects. Our shouty, argumentative, boozy discussions are growing less so – unless, of course, they take place at the kitchen table, the traditional place for bad-mouthing the authorities throughout Russian history. Doing this in the open today can get you into trouble. The NGO I worked at when I got that call has since been denounced and shut down, its director now seeking refuge in Western Europe: a person’s life – their life’s work – is still worth very little in Russia.

To that colonel, I said a resounding no. To sell out to a regime that took over from, and was increasingly taking after one that killed millions of people just because they thought and acted differently, or were born into the wrong family?

Strangely enough, I have never felt any vicarious guilt for whatever my grandfather did, or might have done, in service to this system. He was a lifelong communist and I doubt he did anything spectacularly evil even if he wanted to – he was active at the height of Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw and not in Moscow but in Vienna. And I guess he did what the colonel offered me: translation, infiltration and reconnaissance.

I imagine both of them would be amused by the curious twist of fate that has flung me to the Austrian capital, bearing the same name as my grandfather, and doing something similar, really, but altogether less secret: journalism.

I have recently discovered a stash of photographs he took during his time here (which he most certainly was not allowed to by his superiors). He spoke little and mostly about the war (he was a private on a torpedo boat) but never about his other persona. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions; perhaps he was still under oath; or maybe he just didn’t consider it important or interesting enough. When he died, in addition to the photographs we also found an unopened letter from the KGB among his effects. It remains unopened to this day – not for fear of finding out some ghastly truth; it’s just more fun that way.

Even so, I have been preoccupied with shedding some light on Alexei Korolyov’s doings on Austrian soil: was it here that he developed his love for alcohol that eventually led to his demise, for instance? But this has proved to be an insurmountable task. I never bothered asking for his file at the FSB, the successor to the KGB, as it’s not due for disclosure for another 20 or so years. When I made some tentative inquiries in Vienna, a fellow journalist said he knew the head special officer at the Russian embassy and proposed putting me in touch. My answer was, once again, a resounding no. Why give them the satisfaction of meeting me in person when they know all they need to know about me already? My grandfather would be proud of me, I believe: isn’t it one of the rules never to make any direct contact? Still, I would have made a terrible spy. Unlike my grandfather, I like to talk.

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