Friday, July 30, 2010

Flashback Friday: The Russians are listening!

Due to our impending trans-Atlantic travel, here is a refried Flashback Friday for you. Originally published September 26, 2008.

The US Embassy (on the right). It's not quite like it was in The Saint, is it?

A lot of people have a hard time believing this when we tell them, but it is a fact that we were spied on by the Russians while we worked in the embassy in Moscow. At the very least, it was a fact that the embassy security people (I've forgotten their official name already - although they could be called, informally, "the people in charge of scaring the crap out of you and turning you into a highly distrustful, suspicious, paranoid person) told us we were spied on. All the time, everywhere, we had to be on our guard. Including in our own apartment, because it was bugged, as well as entered and searched on a regular basis.

But we didn't need anybody to tell us that, because it was obvious. On one of our first few days in the country, we came home in the evening to find a book missing from our bookshelf. Which book? A Chechen-English dictionary. In retrospect, that was probably not the best book to bring along from home on a diplomatic assignment, but we were new. And we got the message.

Our apartment.

It's amazing how quickly you can get used to the idea of someone listening in to your daily life, going through your stuff when you're not there, and possibly following you around when you're walking in the city. After a few months, we had trained ourselves so well as to what we could and couldn't talk about at home that it was almost second nature. The unspoken (literally) rule was simply: we pretend we don't know you're listening/watching/following, and you pretend you don't know we know you're listening/watching/following.

There were a few slip-ups, though. One afternoon, we were sitting on the couch talking when we noticed that a newspaper article we had hanging up on the wall was suddenly gone. We had put it on the wall just because it quoted a friend of ours (it was this article, and it's good reading), and a few of our favorite parts were highlighted. Apparently, this attracted the attention of our minders because the article was gone from the wall. Without thinking, I said, "hey, where's that article?" Before I even got to the end of the sentence, I realized it was probably better to just pretend not to notice.

The next day, the article was back on the wall.

Jeremy with his embassy badges on his last day of work.

It wasn't all bad. The place we lived provided minimal maid service: they cleaned our bathroom, wiped down the kitchen sink, and supplied us with toilet paper. They consistently didn't give us enough TP, however, and we must have complained aloud about it a lot because soon afterward, we came home to find a huge pile of TP rolls waiting for us in the bathroom. Thanks!

There were a few other times when we got what we wanted without ever asking. In fact, eventually we were tempted to start complaining how thirsty we were, and how a few cold drinks now and then would really hit the spot, but we decided not to push our luck.

So you see, being spied on is not all bad, though it did take some time to get ourselves back to normal once we were in America again. Sometimes I feel bad for whoever was assigned to us in Moscow because we must have seemed like the most boring people on earth. Except for when they got to read that Daily Universe article - those were fun times, I'm sure.


Liz Johnson said...

Wow, Jeremy looks SO YOUNG in that picture!!

Were you speaking in English or Russian when you talked about the TP/article?!

JosephJ said...

I find myself retelling your stories in our lunchroom routinely at work. This one has come up more than once in the last year. What can I say? We have discussions about the oddities and curiosities of international (and domestic) politics/religion/culture. It's fun to have your well-documented experiences as a well to draw from.

So thank you.

Jennifer said...

Yes, Jeremy looks young! :)

The fact that the article came back amazes me.

Great re-post!

Crys said...

I'm with Liz...he looks about 15!

Sherwood family said...

I have to chime in; Jeremy does look young! But there's nothing like two children to age a man, right? Brandon has claimed that our apartment is bugged too, but I'm not sure I believe him. I think that's too technologically advanced for the Egyptian government.

Bridget said...

We were speaking in English, Liz.

Joe, this is one of my favorite stories, too. I didn't even include the part where we complained about our freezer being frosted up and when we came back home one day it was defrosted. Our minders must have liked us for some reason.


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