Red-letter day Russia reverts to type

In defence of whistleblowers: protesters in Berlin hold masks of Edward Snowden (left) and Bradley Manning.  Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

In defence of whistleblowers: protesters in Berlin hold masks of Edward Snowden (left) and Bradley Manning. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters


William Faulkner’s famous line often rings true in today’s Russia: the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

In his 13 years as Russia’s prime minister and then president, Vladimir Putin has revived some powerful symbols of the Soviet Union: the old national anthem rings out once more, albeit with new lyrics, as parades of soldiers and tanks rumble again across Red Square; and a new generation of workers can now dream of receiving the restored Hero of Labour medal from their leader.

Could there also be a whiff of nostalgia in a decision, by the agency that protects Putin and other top Russian officials, such as the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to spend €11,500 on typewriters to create secret documents, rather than entrusting them to newfangled computers?

A source at the Federal Protection Service (FSO told Izvestia newspaper: “After scandals over the distribution of secret documents by WikiLeaks, the revelations of Edward Snowden, and reports about Dmitry Medvedev being bugged during his visit to the [2009] G20 summit in London, it has been decided to expand the practice of creating paper documents.”

The unnamed official said typewriters were already used in the ministry of defence, the emergencies ministry and the special services, and for preparing “briefings and secret reports for the defence minister and supreme commander”, namely Putin.

The activities of Snowden, who is now holed up in a Moscow airport, and other US whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning, have shaken governments and intelligence agencies worldwide. As a former KGB agent who has restored huge power to Russia’s special services, Putin must be appalled at the damage done by angry young men with flash drives and access to state secrets.

For the FSO, which includes a unit similar to the National Security Agency, where Snowden worked, the typewriters should protect information from online hackers and make it harder for potential whistle-blowers to copy and remove reams of documents; those brave enough may even have to steal real paper documents, just like during the Cold War.

Not that Putin’s secret services are stuck in a time-warp. Anything but.

The recent trial of two Russian agents who lived undetected in Germany for more than 20 years revealed how the couple used a state-of-the-art satellite transmitter to contact Moscow and passed messages to their Russian spymasters through coded comments placed under YouTube videos.

But Putin is aware of the dangers inherent in new technology and of the internet’s power to destabilise otherwise tightly managed regimes and countries; in a Russia where almost all mainstream media are controlled or cowed by the state, criticism of and jokes about Putin flourish online. So in some ways Putin may indeed miss the old days, perhaps even the clack of the typewriter when he worked in Dresden for the KGB. After all, which are the FSO’s typewriters of choice? The Triumph Adler Twen 180 and Olympia Comfort – both classics, made in Germany.

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