Out of Russia: The telephone guide to who's in and who's out

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The office, off a corridor on the second floor of the Russian parliament building, was deserted, dusty and dark. It was big enough for a good game of tennis. The only furniture was a wooden conference table, marooned without chairs on a great expanse of grubby brown carpet.

The lights had been switched off and the blinds drawn. But there was still enough sickly winter sunlight seeping in through the window to spot what I was looking for: a telephone.

I had just finished an interview down the hall and was running late. I needed to make a quick call. My escort, a parliamentary clerk, gestured to the corner of the room. There, lined up on a dirty shelf like forgotten museum pieces, stood a row of six telephones. I moved to pick up the receiver of a clunky white one.

My escort flipped. 'No,' he shouted, a note of pure panic in his voice. 'Not that one.' No one, he explained, was allowed to touch the white one. Why not? 'It rings on Boris Yeltsin's desk.' It all sounded a bit farfetched and I was tempted to test it. But what would I do if Mr Yeltsin really did answer? Probably say sorry and hang up. It hardly seemed worth the trouble.

A more intriguing question, though, is what happens when President Yeltsin tries to ring out of the Kremlin on the same line. A year ago, he would have got his Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi. The phone I had wanted to try is his; or was his until he moved offices. So who answers President Yeltsin's calls now? Perhaps no one. Or he may get a recorded message telling him the number has been changed.

Under Communism, it was all much simpler. The phone system, at least that of the apparat, operated like the party - obsessively hierarchical, rigidly centralised and, in comparision with almost everything else in Russia, uncommonly efficient.

Even such simple certainties are beginning to wobble. Like other old structures of Communist authority, the special phone lines are all still in place. The problem now, though, is whether anyone will answer - and, if someone does, will they listen?

A few weeks ago I was in the office of Igor Golembiovsky, editor-in-chief of Izvestia. It has all the usual trappings of authority - wood panelling, a conference table, padded double doors to muffle sound and no fewer than nine antique telephones: black, white, red, with dials, without dials. He inherited the whole range from his predecessors.

The most important was the white one. Every day it would ring. And every day the chairman of the Supreme Soviet would be on the line telling the editor what to do. He always did it.

The phone is still there. It has been silent for over a year. The Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union no longer exists; its last boss, Anatoly Lukyanov, is about to stand trial for treason. 'I asked them to take it out,' said Mr Golembiovsky, 'but the Kremlin communications service refuses. They don't like having their old habits disrupted.'

Telephones in Russia are a very serious matter. Every official worth his salt, in Moscow or the back of beyond, has a row of them stacked by his desk. The phone is a trophy to be displayed.

More than the Zil limousines, the country dachas, the health spas and other treats reserved for Russian rulers, they are the ultimate status symbol. Not just ordinary phones, of course. Nearly everyone has those, and they often do not work. Nor the portable ones carried by a new class of capitalist hustlers and criminal conmen. Anyone with money can get one of those.

The phones that matter are different - hooked into special exchanges designed to transmit not merely voices but power. They rarely have dials: just pick them up and you're connected. When they stop working, something is seriously wrong, as Mikhail Gorbachev discovered at his Crimean dacha on the first morning of the August 1991 coup.

'I picked up the telephone but it wasn't working. I picked up a second, a third, a fourth, but none of them worked,' he told his first press conference after the putsch fizzled and he returned to Moscow. 'I picked up an internal phone but everything was cut off. I didn't need additional information. I saw this was a very serious situation.'

It was a predicament that every official in the land could identify with: the horror of a dead phone line. It was their worst nightmare come true. Whether all the phones in Mr Gorbachev's dacha really were cut is now open to question. It promises to be one of the more intriguing aspects of a trial set for April of the 12 men accused of staging the putsch. Many think Mr Gorbachev made up the story to hide his own involvement - and to win sympathy from horrified apparatchiks cringing at the prospect of ever losing their own special phones.

Mr Yeltsin's predicament is different. No one has cut his phone. He can still call out from the Kremlin. Whenever he leaves his office a massive hearse-like car with curtained windows and stuffed with radio telephones goes with him. He can always get a line. Whether he can make his voice heard, though, is a different matter. He has inherited a formidable apparatus; the power that made it work, though, has withered.