It must have been months, if not years, since most Western journalists had attended a routine Tuesday afternoon briefing at the Foreign Ministry. In Soviet times, when the witty Gennady Gerasimov was spokesman there, we hung on his every word because the press conference was often our only source of news on events inside this closed country. But since reforms, we have had access to information of all kinds. The briefing was packed again yesterday, however.
The new spokesman, Grigory Karasin, remarked slyly: "It must be the warm spring sunshine that has brought you all out." In good old Soviet style, he then proceeded to drone on about Moscow's view of affairs in Bosnia, Yemen, Cameroon, Guatemala and Burundi before coming to the matter in which, as he knew perfectly well, we were all chiefly interested.
This was that the British ambassador,Sir Andrew Wood, had been summoned by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Krylov, to receive a "strong protest" about the activities of some of his diplomats. Mr Karasin refused to confirm Russian news reports, quoting the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB), that nine British diplomats would be packing their bags.
The row is one of the worst since Mikhail Gorbachev melted the international ice with his policies of "perestroika" and "glasnost" in the late 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 finally brought the Cold War to an end. Before that, "tit-for-tat" was a game played regularly between East and West and expulsion as an alleged spy was an occupational hazard for any foreigner.
Veteran journalists at the briefing were slightly nervous because they knew that if the latest row widened, correspondents as well as diplomats could be declared personae non grata and ordered out.
That nightmare befell Alan Philps, now correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, back in 1985. He had just started a posting for Reuters news agency, when the Russian traitor, Oleg Gordievsky, defected to Britain and exposed a network of Soviet spies, prompting the expulsion of 25 Russians from London. Moscow retaliated by expelling the same number of British representatives here.
"I was called to the embassy and they showed me a list," said Mr Philps. "There were 25 names of diplomats, businessmen and journalists, and mine was one of them. I was given three weeks to leave because the Russians had been given the same. We packed up and went out through Finland. Interdean [a firm of international removers] was very busy."
Explusion can ruin the career of someone who has spent years learning the language so as to specialise in Russian affairs. Mr Philps said he regretted having missed the Gorbachev years. Russian officials acknowledged to him in private that he was innocent and he was allowed back to Moscow on a trip in 1990 and permanently in 1994.
Under President Boris Yeltsin, diplomats, journalists and businessmen have breathed more easily. Once confined to Moscow, unless they gave advance notice of travel plans, and followed and bugged relentlessly by the KGB, they now move about freely and make open contacts with Russians in all walks of life.
The KGB was split up after the failed coup of August 1991 into the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which deals with domestic security. The FSB now concentrates on fighting organised crime and terrorism rather than persecuting dissidents and watching foreigners, as the KGB did.
However, although the statue of the founder of the KGB, Felix Dzherzhinsky, has been removed from outside the Lubyanka, Russian liberals fear that if dictatorship returned to their country, it would not be difficult for the secret police to revert to all their old methods.Reuse content