Several months ago, when talking about the way everyone in Russia faced economic hardship immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time about how it affected him: for several months he had to take work as a taxi driver just to be able to feed his family and pay bills.
Those days of generalized destitution in the Russian population during the early 1990s are long gone. But formerly well placed officers in the Soviet intelligence community and in other branches of the siloviki still turn to taxi driving to make a supplemental income and to fill their days with interesting conversation. I know this from first-hand experience, such as what I am about to share with you.
I observed long ago that for me taxi drivers have always been a major source of information on how people really live here. That goes for our “regulars,” meaning individual drivers who may work for taxi fleets but become attached to us when we are here for several weeks and take us on our longer trips – into downtown Petersburg or out to the dacha. It is all the more true of the drivers sent to us by automated dispatchers of the big fleets when we are out and about in Petersburg. In the context of complete anonymity, given that we will never meet again, these drivers are often especially chatty and informative.
Yesterday was a case in point.
Our driver from the fleet in ‘green livery,’ Taksovichkoff, turned out to be a retired officer of the Soviet/Russian Foreign Intelligence (GRU), as he told us towards the end of the ride. He picked us up during rush hour. The downtown traffic was slowed to a crawl by bottlenecks and we spent close to 40 minutes in his car in a conversation that at least initially was intriguing.
He opened by saying he is very worried that nuclear war is now a real threat and could end civilization. But whether that happens will depend on who strikes first. If the Americans launch first, then truly everything will go to hell globally. But if the Russians strike first, they believe they can contain the risks and humanity will go on. He says that advisers to Putin are urging him to consider a first strike but that the President is holding back. “He does not want to go down in history as the one who did it.” The last point sounds a lot like a line from the conversation in the War Room between Peter Sellars as President of the USA and his senior general in the always relevant film, Dr. Strangelove.
Otherwise, the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was also a topic in our exchange. He maintains contact with former pals in the service and so I take his story with a high degree of trust.
Our GRU officer in retirement said that the first five days of the ‘special military operation’ were a disaster, with heavy loss of life on the Russian side. It was all due, he said, to the incompetence of the major generals in Moscow who were in charge of the invasion. Considering the debacle, he accuses them of treason. In fact, they were removed from command days later and shunted to one side. But our driver insists the whole lot of them should have been shot.
Why were they incompetent? Because they owed their jobs to corruption, not to merit. The major generals were armchair experts, whereas the Russian Armed Forces had plenty of simple generals who had proven themselves in the field of action. Moreover, Intelligence experts were kept out of the operation, which explains its starting out on false premises about the enemy.
I tried to comfort him by noting that incompetence and corruption in the higher ranks of government and military are problems that also exist in many countries, including the USA. He wasn’t listening: “they should all have been shot,” he repeated.
My question how things are going now was met by silence.
After sharing these observations and opinions, our driver decided that it was time to move on and directed the conversation to a totally different topic, his concerns over global warming, telling us that his expert friends in high places believe that climate change is now irreversible whatever we do. The methane emissions from the oceans are rising and will overwhelm mankind’s best efforts to halt the process. Then he turned to speculation on divine intervention that has allegedly gotten Russia out of hopeless situations, including on the battlefield, in the past, going back to the Borodino battle during the war with Napoleon. At this point, I turned off my mental tape recorder.
“Loose lips sink ships” as they used to say in the States. Despite the Terror, in Soviet times Russians blabbed quite a bit. In the Putin era, this has been largely cut off at the source. The Boss takes all the big decisions alone, so that the possibility of leaks is excluded.
The chitchat of taxi drivers can relate what they hear from friends in high places. These elites are, of course, not in full agreement among themselves. But their views set the limits on what the Boss can do either way.
Before closing, I acknowledge that not every taxi driver is a patriot. The other day, a driver from the same ‘green livery fleet’ said just before dropping me off at a hotel: “I really hope the Americans will win in Ukraine.” Perhaps he thought he would engratiate himself with me, an obvious foreigner. Perhaps that is what he truly believes. But I was perplexed to think how his country’s defeat could serve his own interests, financially or otherwise.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022