The Wild East: Moscow 1993 - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 18. The Wild East: Moscow 1993

The Berlin Wall is down. Mikhail Gorbachev, after a rollercoaster ride that saw him one minute under house arrest in the Crimea and the next restored to power in the Kremlin, has been supplanted by his long-time enemy Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Communist Party is suspended, its Moscow headquarters closed. Leningrad is once more St Petersburg, Stalingrad is Volgograd. Organized crime has gone viral. Justice is nowhere. Unpaid soldiers returned from the ill-starred Soviet campaign in Afghanistan roam the country and are everywhere for hire. Civil society does not exist, and Yeltsin is unwilling or unable to impose it. All this I knew before I left for Moscow in the summer of 1993. So what possessed me to take my twenty-year-old undergraduate son along with me, I’ll never know. But come along he did, and happily, and we muddled through without a mishap or a cross word.

The purpose of our journey was clear to me, or so I tell myself now. I wanted to get a taste of the new order. Were the new crime bosses the old ones in new clothes? Was the KGB really being disbanded by Yeltsin, or had it been, as so often in the past, merely reconstituted under another name? In Hamburg, our starting-out point, I solemnly set about stocking up with the same essential supplies that I had taken to the Russia of 1987: give-away soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, Cadbury’s chocolate biscuits, Scotch whisky, German toys. Yet already at Sheremetyevo airport, where we passed through on the nod, there was an air of garish materialism. Perhaps the most improbable to my unready eye: for a deposit of fifty dollars you could rent a cellphone from the kiosk at the exit.

As to our hotel: forget the Minsk. This was a glittering, marbled palace with wide, curling staircases, chandeliers big enough to light an opera house and a bevy of smart, conspicuously unattached girls dawdling in the lobby. Our bedrooms reeked of fresh paint, air purifier and plumbing. One glance at the shop fronts as we drove through the city had said it all: gone was the fabled state-run shopping emporium GUM, and in its place, Estée Lauder.

This time my Russian publisher does not embrace me. He does not joyously whisk a bottle of vodka from his desk drawer and toss the cap into the wastepaper basket. First he eyes me through the peephole in his steel door, unfastens a battery of locks, shuffles me through and fastens them again. In a low voice he apologizes for being the only one in the office to greet me. Since the insurance company came, he says, his staff won’t come in.

Insurance company?

Men in suits with briefcases. Selling insurance against fire, theft and flooding, mostly fire. The neighbourhood is very high-risk following a spate of arson attacks. So the premiums have to be high too, which is only natural. A fire could break out any time. Better sign up straight away, and here’s a pen. Because otherwise certain people they know will firebomb the place, then what will happen to all those old files and manuscripts we see lying about?

And the police, I ask?

Advise you to pay up and shut up. They’re part of the racket.

So will you pay?

Maybe. He’ll see. He won’t give up without a fight. He used to know influential people. But they’re not influential any more.

I ask a former KGB friend how I can meet a top mafia chief. He calls me back. Be at the so-and-so nightclub at 1.00 on Thursday morning, and Dima will receive you. Your son? Bring him along, he’ll be welcome, and if he’s got a girl, bring her too. It’s Dima’s nightclub. He owns it. Nice customers, good music. Very safe. Our indispensable bodyguard is Pusya, the all-Abkhazia wrestling champion and adviser on all matters relating to his people’s struggle for liberation. He is as squat and broad as the Michelin Man, a polymath, linguist, scholar and paradoxically the most peaceable fellow you are likely to meet. He is also by way of being a national celebrity, which is a kind of protection in itself.

Fit young men with submachine guns line the way to the nightclub entrance. While Pusya looks on benignly, they frisk us. Benches of scarlet plush surround a circular dance floor. Couples dance sedately to sixties music. Mr Dima will be with you shortly, the manager informs Pusya as he ushers us to a banquette. Driving us here in his car, Pusya has already provided us with an example of his powers of peaceful intervention. The street is blocked. A small car and a large car are intertwined. The drivers are about to come to blows. An eager crowd is taking sides. Pusya opens his door and strolls over to the belligerents, I assume with the intention of separating or quelling them. Instead he takes hold of the smaller car by its rear bumper, disentangles it from the larger car and, to the raucous applause of the crowd, delicately parks it at the side of the road.

We drink our soft drinks. Mr Dima may be late, the manager warns us. Mr Dima may have business to attend to, business being the new Russian catchword for impenetrable transactions. Sounds of circumstance in the corridor alert us to a royal arrival. The music swells in greeting, then stops dead. First to enter are two fit young men with close-cropped hair and tight, blue-black Italian suits. Spetsnaz, Pusya tells me in a murmur. For Moscow’s new rich, former Special Forces soldiers are the bodyguard of choice. With bird-like jerks of the head, the two men case the room by sections. Spotting Pusya, they hold the stare. Pusya smiles benignly in return. They take a step backwards, one to each side of the entrance. A pause, then enter - as if by popular demand - Kojak of the New York Police Department, alias Dima, followed by a retinue of pretty girls and more young men.

If you have seen the Kojak television series the comparison is ridiculously apt, right down to the Ray-Ban shades: shiny bald head, very big shoulders, rolling walk, single-breasted suit, arms lifted ape-style from the sides. A bulbous, clean-shaven face, frozen in a half-sneer. Kojak is a big hit in the new Russia just now. Is Dima deliberately styling himself after him? He wouldn’t be the first crime boss to think he’s the star of his own movie.

The front row of the stalls is evidently the family pew. Dima sits himself at the centre. His people sidle in beside him. To his right, an extremely pretty girl in jewels; to his left, an expressionless, pock-faced man: think consigliere.The nightclub manager brings a tray of soft drinks. Dima abjures alcohol, says Pusya, who abjures it himself.

‘Mr Dima will speak to you now, please.’

Pusya sits tight. With my Russian interpreter I pick my way across the dance floor. Dima extends a hand; I shake it, and it’s as soft as my own. I kneel down in front of him on the dance floor. My interpreter kneels beside me. It’s hardly the best of postures, but there’s no space for us to do anything else. Dima and his people are peering at us over the balustrade. I have been warned that Dima has no language but Russian. I have no Russian.

‘Mr Dima says, what do you want?’ my interpreter bellows into my right ear. The music is so loud that I haven’t heard Dima speak, but my interpreter has, which is what matters, and his mouth is four inches from my right ear. Our kneeling position seems to call for a moment of bravado, so I say I would like the music turned down, and would Dima be kind enough to remove his dark glasses because it’s difficult to have a conversation with a pair of blacked-out eyes? Dima orders the music down, then testily removes his dark glasses, leaving his eyes naked and pig-like. He is still waiting to know what I want. Come to think of it, so am I.

‘I understand you’re a gangster,’ I say. ‘Is that correct?’

I can’t know how my interpreter translates this question, but I have a suspicion that he has watered it down because Dima seems remarkably at ease with it.

‘Mr Dima says, in this country everyone is gangster. Everything is rotten, all businessmen are gangsters, all businesses are crime syndicates.’

‘Then may I enquire of Mr Dima what line of business he is actually engaged in?’

‘Mr Dima is engaged in import-export,’ my interpreter begs me in a don’t-go-there voice.

But I have nowhere else to go.

‘Please ask him what type of import and export. Just ask him.’

‘It is not convenient.’

‘All right, then. Ask him what he’s worth. Can we say he’s worth five million dollars?’

Reluctantly, my interpreter must have asked the question, or something like it, because Dima’s people are sniggering and Dima has responded with a contemptuous shrug. Never mind. I think I see where I’m heading now.

‘All right. It’s a hundred million, it’s two hundred, it’s whatever. Let’s agree that it’s pretty easy to make a lot of money in Russia just now. And if things stay as they are, we can assume that in a couple of years Dima will be a very rich man indeed. Mega-rich. Just put that to him, please. It’s a simple point.’

And presumably my interpreter puts it to Dima, because I get a kind of smirk of agreement from the lower part of his bald face.

‘Has Dima got children?’ I enquire, reckless now.

He has.

‘Grandchildren?’

‘It is immaterial.’

Dima has replaced his Ray-Bans, as if to say the conversation is over, but for me it isn’t. I’ve blundered too far down the road to stop.

‘Here’s my point. In the United States, as I’m sure Dima knows, the great robber barons of olden days made their fortunes by what we may call informal methods.’

I am pleased to detect a flicker of interest from behind the Ray-Bans.

‘But as the robber barons grew older and looked at their children and grandchildren, they got all idealistic and decided they needed to create a brighter, kinder world than the one they had ripped off.’

The blacked-out eyes remain fixed on me as the interpreter conveys whatever he conveys.

‘So my question of Dima is this. Could he imagine, as he grows older - let’s say in ten, fifteen years from now - could Dima see a time coming when he might start building hospitals and schools and art museums? As an act of philanthropy? I’m serious. Just ask him. As a way of giving something back to the Russian people he’s - well - robbed, actually?’

There’s a standard joke in old movie comedies when people talk to each other through an interpreter. A question is put. It is interpreted. The person for whom it is intended listens intently, then flings his arms around and orates for two long minutes of movie time, and the interpreter, after a stage pause, says: ‘No.’ Or ‘Yes.’ Or ‘Maybe.’ Dima doesn’t fling his arms around. He speaks a measured Russian. The supporters’ club starts to giggle. The shorthaired sentries at the door giggle. But Dima goes on talking. Satisfied at last, he puts his hands together and waits for our interpreter to relay his message.

‘Mr David, I regret to tell you, Mr Dima says fuck off.’

Seated under the crystal chandelier in the lobby of our glitzy Moscow hotel, a slender, shy man of thirty in a grey suit and spectacles, sips at his orange fizz while he explains the code of conduct of the thieves’ brotherhood or vory, of which he is a made member. I have been told he is one of Dima’s soldiers. Perhaps he is one of the suited men selling fire insurance to my publisher. By his careful choice of words he puts me in mind of a Foreign Office spokesman.

‘Have the vory changed much since the collapse of Soviet communism?’

‘I would say the vory have expanded. Owing to greater freedom of movement in the post-communist era, and better communications, one may say the vory have extended their influence in many countries.’

‘And which countries might those be, in particular?’

It is better, he would say, to speak of towns rather than countries. Warsaw, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, London, Naples, New York are all favourable to vory activities.

‘And here in Russia?’

‘I would say that social chaos in Russia has benefited many vory activities.’

‘Such as?’

‘Please?’

‘Such as what activities?’

‘I would say here in Russia, drugs are profitable. Also many new businesses cannot function without extortion. Also we have gambling houses and many clubs.’

‘Whorehouses?’

‘Whorehouses are not necessary to the vory. Better we own the women and arrange hotels for them. Sometimes we own the hotels also.’

‘Is ethnicity a criterion?’

‘Please?’

‘Are vory brotherhoods drawn from specific regions?’

‘I would say, today we are composed of many thieves who are not ethnic Russians.’

‘Such as?’

‘Abkhaz, Armenian, Slavs. Also Jews.’

‘Chechen?’

‘With Chechen, I would say it is different.’

‘Is there racial discrimination within the vory?’

‘If a vor is good thief and obeys the rules, vory are equal.’

‘Do you have many rules?’

‘We do not have many rules but they are severe.’

‘Kindly give me an example of your rules.’

He seems happy to. A vor must not work for authority. The state is authority, therefore he must not work for the state, or fight for the state, or serve the state in any way. He must not pay taxes to the state.

‘Do the vory love God?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can a vor go into politics?’

‘If a vor’s purpose in going into politics is to extend the influence of the vory and not to assist authority, he may go into politics.’

‘And if he becomes politically prominent? Popular even? Successful? He can remain a vor at heart?’

‘It is possible.’

‘Does one vor kill another for breaking vory law?’

‘If it is ordered by the council.’

‘You would kill your best friend?’

‘If it is necessary.’

‘Have you personally killed many people?’

‘It is possible.’

‘Have you ever thought of being a lawyer?’

‘No.’

‘Can a vor marry?’

‘He must be a man above women. He may have many women, but he must not submit to them because they are not relevant.’

‘So better not to marry?’

‘It is a rule that a vor may not marry.’

‘But some do?’

‘It is a rule.’

‘May a vor have children?’

‘No.’

‘But some do?’

‘I would say it is possible. It is not desirable. Better is to help other thieves and submit to the vory council.’

‘How about the mothers and fathers of vory? Are they acceptable?’

‘Parents are not desirable. It is better to abandon them.’

‘Because they’re authority?’

‘It is not permitted to show emotions and remain within the thieves’ law.’

‘But some vory love their mothers?’

‘It is possible.’

‘Have you abandoned your own parents?’

‘A little. Maybe not enough.’

‘Have you ever fallen in love with a woman?’

‘It is not appropriate.’

‘Not appropriate to ask the question or not appropriate to fall in love?’

‘It is not appropriate,’ he repeats.

But by then he is blushing and laughing like a schoolboy, and my interpreter is laughing too. Then all three of us are laughing. And I am pondering, as a humble reader of Dostoevsky, where the morality, pride and humanity are to be found in the contemporary Russian criminal soul, because I have a character in my head who needs to know.

In fact, it turns out, I have several. They are spread over the two rather unresolved novels I eventually wrote about the new Russia in the immediate post-communist aftermath, Our Game and Single & Single. Both took me to Russia, Georgia and the Western Caucasus. Both attempted to address the scale of criminal corruption in Russia and its continuing wars on its own Muslim south. A decade later, in Our Kind of Traitor, I wrote a third novel about what was by then arguably Russia’s greatest export, second only to energy: dirty money by the billion, stolen from Russia’s own coffers.

And always close at hand, but never too close, Pusya, our all-Abkhazia wrestling champion. Once only did I fear we might have to call on his more physical services.

This time the nightclub is in Petersburg. Like Dima’s, it is owned by a rising man of business named Karl, who has a lawyer called Ilya who seldom leaves his side. We have been driven there in an armoured minibus with an armoured Land Rover for a chase car. At the entrance, which lies at the end of a stone footpath decked with paper lanterns, we encounter the usual platoon of armed men, who in addition to submachine guns sport hand grenades hanging from polished brass hooks on their ammunition belts. Inside the club, girls of the house dance languidly with each other to deafening rock music while they wait for the punters to show up.

But there aren’t any punters, and it has gone half-past eleven.

‘Petersburg wakes up late,’ Karl explains with a knowing smile, guiding us to a long dining table that has been set in our honour among the plush seats. He is beaky, donnish-looking and young, with old manners. The lumbering Ilya at his side seems too crude for him. Ilya’s blonde wife wears a sable coat although it is mid-summer. We are escorted to the top row of a steep ring of seats. The dance floor below us doubles as a boxing ring, says Ilya proudly, but tonight there is no boxing. Pusya sits to my left, son Nick to my right. Ilya, at his master’s side, mumbles into a cellphone, one call after another in an emotionless flow.

Still no punters have arrived. With empty benches all round us, rock music blaring for attention and bored girls dutifully gyrating on the dance floor, the small talk at our table is getting less easy. It’s the traffic, Karl explains, talking across Ilya’s bulk. It’s the new prosperity. With everyone owning a car these days, evening traffic in Petersburg is getting to be a scandal.

Another hour passes.

It’s because it’s Thursday, Karl explains. On Thursdays, Petersburg’s glitterati go partying first and nightclubbing afterwards. I don’t believe him, and I don’t think Pusya does, and we exchange worried glances. Too many bad scenarios are running through my head, and I assume Pusya’s also. Do the Petersburg glitterati know something we don’t? Has Karl fallen foul of a business rival, and are we sitting here waiting to be blown up or shot to smithereens? Or - shades of those hand grenades hanging from their brass hooks - have we already been taken hostage, hence Ilya’s mumbled negotiations on his cellphone?

Putting a finger to his lips, Pusya heads for the men’s room, then veers into the darkness. A couple of minutes later he is back, smiling more benignly than ever. Our host, Karl, has made a false economy, he explains softly beneath the music. The bodyguards with grenades on their belts are Chechen. In Petersburg society, Chechen bodyguards are a bridge too far. Nobody who is anybody in Petersburg, says Pusya, wants to be seen in a nightclub protected by Chechen.

And Dima? It took another year, but unusually for the times he was actually called to account by the Moscow police, either on orders from one of his rivals or - if he hadn’t been paying his dues - the Kremlin. When last heard of, he was in prison, trying to explain why he had two very damaged fellow businessmen chained to a wall in his cellar. In my novel called Our Kind of Traitor, I eventually had my own Dima, but only in name. He was a hardened gangster who, unlike his original, really might have stumped up for the odd school, hospital and art museum.