‘That Alexey Navalny must be quite someone,’ went a joke on the Russian internet, ‘if he has the secret services washing his underpants.’ Earlier this month, the opposition politician prank-called one of his attempted murderers. The FSB man, believing he was talking to a colleague, explained how his team had smeared Novichok on Navalny’s underpants in August, and then picked up the murder knickers after the operation and washed them (twice) to get rid of the evidence. Not only had Navalny, with the help of investigative reporting by Bellingcat and the Insider, managed to find out the names of the FSB goons who had tried to poison him; he also got one to confess to the operation. It took 49 minutes for the FSB officer to ask if it was OK to be talking on an open line. ‘Look how stupid and corrupt the Kremlin’s system is,’ Navalny said on his YouTube channel after the phone call: another reason to get rid of the regime.
The late John le Carré’s world of Soviet superspies, operating silkily in shadows within shadows, has been replaced with a quite different image of Kremlin espionage: bumbling putzes scrubbing a pair of Y-fronts in full view of the world.
The Kremlin may not much mind, however. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, the clever and courageous chroniclers of the ‘new nobility’ of spies who now run Russia, argue that the Kremlin has long moved away from even trying to make its operations covert. In a world where anything is merely a hack and a leak away from being revealed, being relaxed about getting caught is a sensible safeguard. I asked Soldatov if he thought the Navalny phone call would be an embarrassment for the FSB. Someone would get a rollicking, he said, but as the dunce who spoke to Navlany was just ‘technical’ staff, there to help with handling the poison, he didn’t really count as elite FSB.
In any case, the more people know about your readiness to douse poison everywhere from Mayfair to Salisbury to Omsk, the more menacing you appear. We may laugh at the Kremlin’s goons, but it’s uncomfortable laughter. Their cack-handedness doesn’t make anyone feel safer. The Russian dissidents that Soldatov and Borogan interviewed for The Compatriotswere all frightened of being next in line for Novichok: it didn’t help to know that oafs would deliver it. The power of Navalny’s online investigations and YouTube performances has less to do with the corruption and incompetence he reveals (everyone knows about that already) than with his preparedness to talk about them publicly, his astounding refusal to show any fear.
By making the covert overt, the Kremlin (and Navalny) grasp the demands of the age of social media. Le Carré worked not only during the Cold War, but also within the confines of the novel, the fading world of print and the private self. Social media reduce privacy and interiority: there is no place on Instagram for the private, ‘hidden’ self. Secret services need to move with the technological times: what matters, in the words of a recent RAND Corporation analysis, is not whose army wins but ‘whose story wins’.
Along with the Kremlin’s change from covert to overt, from the age of the novel to social media, there has been a shift in tone from high seriousness to low humour. Navalny’s call to his would-be murderer is something out of a Soviet anecdote, the subversive mini-stories that citizens would tell one another to puncture Party propaganda.
Seventeen Moments of Spring was a Soviet television series first broadcast in 1973 (a few years earlier than the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with which it shares a certain melancholy; it’s based on a novel by Yulian Semyonov). The streets of Soviet cities would empty when the show was on. The hero, Shtirlitz, works undercover among the Nazi leadership. Russian spin doctors polling voters in the late 1990s found that Shtirlitz was the nation’s favourite hero, and – according to Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped run both Russian presidents’ campaigns – began to look for a successor to Yeltsin among the secret services, finally alighting on Putin.
But Shtirlitz was also an anti-hero, a frequent target of Soviet anecdotes, which transformed him from an elegant, lonely super-spy to a buffoon who is both ridiculous and reckless, always on the verge of being revealed. If Putin is playing Shtirlitz the movie hero, he is also destined to perform as Shtirlitz the joke, while his regime has become an anecdote about the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Putin’s regime doesn’t profess any ideals that can be subverted, so turning into an anecdote isn’t especially harmful to it. If you don’t claim to aspire to anything, then what can you feel shame for? Isn’t the lack of shame more help than hindrance?
‘All that day Shtirlitz spent in the Reichskanzlei with his zip undone, his red underpants hanging out,’ one Soviet anecdote went. ‘But only he knew that he was actually celebrating the First of May.’