Russians Expect a War

In the old days of the Soviet Union, the taxi driver was one of the few that could be counted on to say what he thought. It always seemed that foreign intelligence services would wisely employ them along with barmen and hairdressers as useful sources of information. Prostitutes have of course always been recruited.  It makes good sense. Some important people seem uninhibited in divulging embarrassing intimacies to complete strangers – as American passengers do on their flights, often just before landing. Strangers are certainly cheaper than psychotherapists. And then I read the biography of the Soviet military intelligence officer “Maisie” who in the 1950s set up a hair-dressing salon in New York to which the wives of the great and the good went to tell their pillow secrets while being washed, dyed and permed. Identified to the Americans by a key traitor in the G.R.U., she escaped to Chicago, heading for Canada. And, when the FBI came for her, she jumped out of the window of her hotel to her certain death.

The conversation Aleksandr Tsipko had with his taxi driver in Moscow is even more sobering. Tsipko, a very senior political analyst, had been an officer in the G.R.U. during the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962). He commanded a radio interception unit with the 108th regiment of the Soviet equivalent to the U.S. National Security Agency. He and his subordinates listened in to American nuclear-armed B-52 bombers as they flew through the Mediterranean in the direction of the Soviet Union, “waiting for the code given by the [U.S. bomber] command to discharge the payload. From the moment the B-52 changed from its regular route, the usually garrulous American pilots fell silent. We too fell silent, expecting the worst. The officers on duty from the regimental staff also fell silent, having come down to us in the interception room.” The fears of an apocalypse were very real and relieved only when the B-52s turned and headed for Turkey before returning to Miami. Only then did the American pilots resume their blather.

From this perspective Tsipko, never a liberal, always a patriot and only in recent years an opponent of Putin, was incensed at being told by his taxi driver that there would be a war despite Tsipko’s best efforts to convince him otherwise. He is appalled at the militarisation of popular consciousness and holds the current régime singularly culpable for its propagation (A. Tsipko, “Prostrannoderzhavnoe myshlenie. Militarizatsiya soznaniya ubivaet instinkt samosokhraneniya i delaet smert’ sarkal’noi”, Nezavisimaya gazeta, 3 July 2019.)