“If you need to talk business in your hotel room, be sure that there are no ‘bugs’ in the walls, or in the telephone, or in the lights, or in the electric switches! Just be very careful and quiet in your conversations in your room!”
Sounds like a dialogue from a grade “b” spy movie filmed in the 1950’s during the height of the cold war. We tend to forget that the surveillance business has been part of every government since ancient times. In fact, in the biblical Book of Numbers, “…Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain …” (Number 13:17). The art and science of surveillance has come a long way since the days of Moses, and some countries just happen to be more adept at it than others.
However, bugs in the chandelier was a very serious game of political intrigue.
“The United States Embassy in Moscow was bugged during its construction in the 1970s by Soviet agents posing as laborers. When discovered in the early 1980s, it was found that even the concrete columns were so riddled with bugs that the building eventually had to be torn down and replaced with a new one, built with U.S. materials and labor. For a time, until the new building was completed, embassy workers had to communicate in conference rooms in writing, using children’s “Mystic Writing Tablets”. (“Covert Listening Device”, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
Warnings about active “bugs’ were conveyed to any number of bright, young business executives travelling into Moscow for the first time. The stories of intrigue and humor, spread throughout Russia, are many. They are still being passed on today. Many of them are funny but perhaps stretched a bit to render them believable; yes and even unbelievable.
We were told, and read about, spy stories before our move to Russia. At times we would laugh with the person relating the story and wondered about its authenticity since it seemed quite bizarre. However, since living in Russia, we no longer simply dismiss the stories. Some have verification behind them, and some do not.
Eavesdropping on the populace was an ever-present reality
Foreign executives conducting business in Russia were made aware that “electronic snooping” device, planted carefully and sometimes “sloppily”, could be in the room in which the business executive was spending his evening.
In the middle nineties, the Berlin wall had been down for just a short time, Romania had “taken down” their dictator, Lithuanian’s were learning about their “new freedoms”, and some people in Russia were dreaming about Russia becoming a capitalist haven. The KGB had not yet moved into oblivion, the Mafia was still operating openly and violently, and apartments, hotels, schools, businesses and homes still contained “Big Brothers Listening Devices”. Eavesdropping on the populace was not an element of the past, but an ever-present and sometimes humorous reality.
In the days of the cold war, the normally quiet Russian civilian, if desiring a private conversation, would often leave the “privacy” of the home, office or schoolroom and walk into the local park to carry on a business transaction. One never knew if filming or recording by agents of the KGB was taking place. There may have been nothing in the conversation that contained “vital political information”, however, the KGB was well-known for having recorded a conversation and turning it into a prison sentence by claiming the citizen was discussing vital information. Privacy was not private in the turmoil-filled world of Russian politics! Many private or family talks, were used as evidence against the person, because recorded words were twisted, re-recorded and inserted into parts of another conversation. No one trusted any one!
Citizens, not being cautious in their conversations, never got home from work or school. Some did not get back to work the next day or see their families again because the information that was heard or reported was deemed “anti-government”.
In the 1980’s, only major political players were allowed to travel into the Soviet Union. Usually that ‘trip” was punctuated with endless hours of flying time, red tape, cautionary warnings and strange experiences. These travelers were not just everyday common folks who decided to take a trip into the heart of the darkness of the Soviet regime. The roster included people like Mr. Bill Henkel, special assistant to the president and director of the Presidential Advance office. Mr. Joseph Petro, Secret Service Agent in charge of the White House Corps. Mr. Mark Weinberg, Assistant Press Secretary. Major Casey Bower, Military aid to the President. Ms. Jeannie Bull from the State Department. The list often included a national Security advisor, and the Air Force One pilot, some White House staff members and chefs for preparing meals for the President for a total of 42 people. That number was the amount of individuals who could actually be seated in Air Force One #26000, the official plane of the President of the United States.
The trips, always planned with many things to accomplish when they touched down in some obscure place in the Soviet Union, did not give the team much “down-time”. The relief from take-off from Andrews Air Force Base until they landed, came from some of the “war stories” those travelers would spin to each other, stories filled with humor and laughter and just plain silly talk.
A Secret Serviceman’s Tale
Joseph Petro, one of President Ronald Reagan’s close and intimate secret service agents, related the following story out of one of his excursions into Moscow in the 1980’s.
He stated that the trip out of Andrew’s Air Force Base was uneventful, arriving at the Sherevemonov Airport in Moscow. The nip in the air, accompanied by the cold stares of the young military guards with their AK47’s, brought a slight shudder to his spine. It was usually very quiet, and the only smiles were on the faces of the few, select Westerners who had made that long trip across the pond. The people who made Russia their home had not yet learned that smiling was OK.
Once the team worked their way through the lines, the paperwork, the red tape, the expressionless faces and the suspicion of the people at “Passport Control”, they traveled through downtown Moscow. Shortly, the Kremlin came into view, then the “White House” and the Bogdan Khmeinitsky Bridge crossing the Moskva River which snaked its way past the Kremlin. They were able to view the Borodinsky Bridge and the beautiful St. Basil’s Orthodox Cathedral off Red Square, near Lenin’s Tomb.
Once they were in the Kremlin, agent Petro continued, Mr. Bill Henkel told the team about his trip into Moscow with President Richard Nixon. They were staying in the guest quarters at the Kremlin. Jeannie Bull was on that trip and she confirmed Bill’s story. They all agreed that those were not the “good old days” in Moscow!
One night after work, a small group of them got together in one of the Kremlin’s rooms for a “nightcap” accompanied by discussion and laughter. Their conversation soon ventured into the “supposed privacy” of the Kremlin. Perhaps, they reasoned, there may be “electronic devices” planted in the rooms in which they were staying. It did not take long before this group of the President’s adventurous White House staff members actually started to look around the room. Would it not be exciting if they could find the “sinister device”, which had gotten so many people into trouble with the Russian KGB authorities, the very authorities who had invariably planted the devices somewhere nearby?
They looked under the lamps and under the tables, all the while excited at the thought and remembering the warning of “Be careful of listening devices” flooding back into their minds.
As one of this group walked across the rug, having relaxed enough to remove his shoes, he stepped on something hard, under the rug. It was not just the hard floor. This had a different feel to it. The team went to the edge of the rug, moved the chair, rolled back the rug and there was a brass plate, held in place by nuts and bolts.
Could this metal plate contain the bug for which they were searching? It would not take long as they started the process of removing the nuts from the bolts that held the plate. What was under the lid of this electronic box? Was it still operating? Were people recording the noise as they were removing the nuts with the small pair of pliers? Would they soon hear knocking on the door by a sinister looking KGB agent questioning what they were doing? It was too late to stop their evening adventure into the Russian underworld of electronic snooping, so with a quick twist of the pliars, the lid gave way.
The next sounds they heard startled them. It was the sound of something being pulled through the floor, followed by an enormous crash. The noise stopped. They took a deep breath, which seemed to help in slowing their pounding hearts. They looked at each other then turned their gaze toward the ceiling where they saw a large, antique chandelier, hanging from the ceiling.
Unfortunately for all of us, the story ends right there.
I have no idea if Mr. Petro, or Ms. Bull or Mr. Henkel were questioned by the KGB and charged with the destruction of Russian property.
I do not know if the Kremlin guestroom housekeepers made comments to the austere leader of this presidential staff regarding their needless horseplay and childishness.
To my knowledge, there was no “tax-bill” presented to the taxpayers of America to replace a very expensive, antique chandelier.
Mr. Petro did not clarify this information in his comments.
I am certain, though, that this was one quiet, nervous group of Americans, who were in a big hurry to finish their work in the Kremlin in Moscow and get back to the good old United States of America!
This story was related to the Emert’s before their trip to Russia by a gentleman who had taken a “secret trip”, sponsored by the U.S. Government to check out some “necessary” information regarding the world of electronics in Russia during the era of the “cold war”. The name of the person who told the original story and took the trip is purposely omitted for privacy. Chuck could not verify the story for writing until the book by Joseph Petro came out.
The names of the people in this recorded story, were taken from chapter two “On the Road” as recorded in “Standing Next to History”. An agent’s life inside the secret service, by Joseph Petro, (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2005) page 33. Adapted and expanded by Chuck.