Putin Hazed Me: How I Was Stalked, Harassed and Surveilled by Kremlin Stooges

 In Politics

In the fall of 2012, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, it became clear that my family and I were being followed. I had been in Moscow as ambassador then for less than a year. As I wrote to the head of our security team on October 7, “My guards informed me that I was followed today while attending my son’s soccer game. And they then kept with us as we went to McDonald’s.” My head of security replied that if we saw them, it was because they wanted us to see them.

A few weeks later, agents from Russia’s security service FSB, or so we assumed, sat in the pew behind us in church, which truly unnerved my wife. They followed us on the streets, and closely tailed our Cadillac. On one occasion, one of my drivers overreacted to being followed. With my family in the car, he began driving faster and more erratically, weaving through Russia’s crazy traffic until I finally intervened and urged him to relax. After all, our situation was not like in the movies. We could never lose them for good. They knew where we lived.

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The car chase episode scared me, as it illustrated that the Russian intelligence officers were succeeding in getting under our collective skin. It also was getting dangerous.

During my first year as ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, the Russian authorities conducted a ground campaign of harassment against my colleagues at the embassy, myself and, from time to time, even my family. I was the architect of the Reset plan to improve relations between the United States and Russia, and here I was, witnessing firsthand just how deeply and how quickly the relationship was deteriorating—and how little anyone could do to stop it.

In my first week in Moscow, Nashi, the Kremlin-created “youth group” that sometimes acted as stunt journalists or street protesters in the government’s service, threatened to organize a demonstration outside our residence. As the regional security officer circulated emails in red ink urging embassy employees to stay away from my new home, Spaso House, I wondered what I was supposed to do, as my family was at the residence at the time and I was at the embassy. The red-letter email turned out to be a false alarm. All we saw were some grandmothers walking their dogs in the park in front of our house. The experience, however, kept us on alert that day and for the rest of our time in Moscow, just as our hosts desired.

Outside the American Embassy, the Russian government authorities also made their presence known. Formally, the Russian police officers posted at the gates of our compound were deployed to protect us, even though we had our own Marine guard just inside the gates. In reality, the Russian officers’ main assignment in this new era of confrontation was to harass and subject to surveillance everyone entering the embassy. Even our American employees often had to stand helplessly in the cold, waiting for the Russian officers to take and then inspect their passports and record their data before being allowed to proceed. They even detained my wife from time to time. As one embassy report on harassment in the spring of 2012 documented, “January 27: Donna Norton, the Ambassador’s spouse. Harassed and held by police at South Gate in sub-zero weather.” Surely Russian intelligence was good enough to know who my wife was and that she was from Southern California!

This level of police harassment at the American Embassy and Spaso House was new. No one could remember a time even during the Soviet era when our hosts were so aggressive. More than once, we delivered formal letters of complaint to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the behavior, noting that we did not station police outside the Russian Embassy in Washington. Nothing changed.

When we could have used these Russian guards, however, they suddenly seemed unable to act. One day early in my tenure, on February 10, 2012, a group of several hundred demonstrators strangely attired in white plastic lay down on the street in front of the main embassy gate, blocking all traffic from leaving or entering the compound. (I’m assuming the plastic jumpsuits were to protect the demonstrators’ clothing.) My car pulled up to the embassy just after the group arrived; it was a strange feeling being denied access to the American Embassy, which is sovereign territory of the United States. I also worried about the embassy children, including two of my own, who were on their way back home from school at the time. Were they going to have to sit on the bus outside the gates of the compound, where their homes were located? We asked the police at our gate to clear the street, but they pleaded that they had no authority to break up a public demonstration. Of course, the irony was that Russian law made it illegal to convene a public demonstration without a permit, but the Russian authorities didn’t seem too anxious to enforce their laws against these particular demonstrators.

Our security cameras later revealed that Nashi leader Tikhon Chumakov had organized the demonstration. Chumakov and his Kremlin-backed comrades were above the law. One of my very frustrated embassy colleagues suggested that the demonstration violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. If so, the convention wasn’t doing us much good that afternoon. Eventually the protesters dispersed, but the exposed feeling we all endured that day lingered long thereafter. What if they had tried to enter our compound? The low brick wall surrounding our embassy office buildings and townhouses, after all, was easily scalable. What would we do then? Our security team started making contingency plans. None of our options provided much reassurance.

Not long afterward, I encountered Chumakov face-to-face during a visit to the CEO of Rusnano, Anatoly Chubais, at his company’s headquarters. It was a routine courtesy call. Rusnano is a giant state-owned Russian company that invests in high-tech companies all over the world, including in the United States. Why Nashi operatives would want to harass me outside this office building was unclear. As I opened my car door, they sprang—Chumakov and two or three others with video cameras. My meeting with Chubais was not a public event, so it was clear they had obtained access to my calendar—perhaps electronically, perhaps from a Russian informant working at the embassy. They bombarded me with questions about supporting the opposition—a widespread rumor that Nashi and other state-aligned activist groups, often posing as journalists, had been spreading about me since the beginning of my time as ambassador. Against the judgment of my bodyguards, I decided to answer, in Russian.

I reconfirmed that the United States provided no financial support to the Russian opposition. After a short exchange, I finally recognized Chumakov. I recalled that he had previously been assigned to follow and harass the former British ambassador, Anthony Brenton. Nashi encounters with Ambassador Brenton were aggressive and sometimes violent; he had even been attacked in the driveway of his residence. During our chat outside of Rusnano, Chumakov threatened me with similar treatment, promising that his group would chase me out of the country just as they had with Brenton. How pleasant, I thought. Welcome to Moscow!

My run-in with these Nashi agents at Rusnano ended uneventfully. None of the tape from the “interview” ever aired, because I hadn’t said anything useful to them. And my bodyguards thankfully avoided physical contact with these “youth leaders” (yes, that’s polite diplospeak), even though they were quite aggressive with me. But the event reminded me that I was under constant surveillance. How did Chumakov know that I was coming to Rusnano that day? Who was helping him obtain such information? Should I expect such a greeting party everywhere I visited?

We eventually learned to expect them. The Nashi posse did not meet me at the entrance of every meeting I attended. They never showed up, for instance, outside the gates of the Kremlin or in the parking lot at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But they showed up frequently enough that we planned for encounters.

As per guidance from our security team, I also had to assume that every phone call I made, every email I sent (on the unclassified system), every website I visited, every conversation I had, and even every movement I made inside Spaso House was being monitored by the Russian government. All the large apartment buildings next to Spaso House in downtown Moscow had for rent signs hanging in them, yet no one ever moved in. In our first security briefing upon arrival, Donna and I were told that we should use one of our secure rooms at the embassy if we ever needed to have a serious argument. (Thankfully, we never needed to use that service!) The technological advances in cyber surveillance over the last decade, as well as voice and video monitoring, are mind-boggling. We had to operate in Russia as if we were being monitored all the time. I had adjusted to a life with minimal privacy as a White House official. Living in Russia, I had no privacy at all.

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