“This is a Soviet habit,” says Andrei Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on the Russian surveillance state. “Nothing can beat it out of us.”
In Putin’s case, though probably not in my grandmother’s, the Kremlin devotes massive resources to keeping conversations private. The Russian school of cryptography, says Soldatov, has a long track record of standing up to Western spies. Most recently in 2009, both American and British spy agencies reportedly attempted to tap the communications of Dmitri Medvedev, who was then serving as Russia’s President, during a summit of world leaders in London. According to documents provided to the Guardian newspaper by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, they bugged the phones, but they could not break the Kremlin’s encryption, says Soldatov. “Our special services may not be great. But when the task is to protect the data of just a few top people, they can manage.”
Putin, a former spymaster himself, makes that as easy for them as possible. During one of the rare instances when state TV showed him using what appeared to be a cell phone in 2010, it was not the type of smartphone that the NSA has proved so adept at tapping. It was a bricklike device, black and clunky, which Putin held to his ear while standing in a forest of birch. Whatever that gadget was, it earned him a lot of ridicule from the snarky Russian blogosphere.