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Obsessions

Talking, Drinking, and Secrecy are the great Russian obsessions.

The Russians talk incessantly. Unfortunately they find it extremely difficult to walk while talking. Going on a country walk with a Russian is actually an impossibility, because every time they launch into a new theory concerning the meaning of life or the relative merits of Arsenal over Spurs, they stop. This has led some scientific observers to conclude that the bit in a Russian's brain which controls his legs is - uniquely in the human species - connected to his tongue.

As for secrecy, a less polite word for it might be "spying". Throughout Russian history there has been a tendency to keep a systematic eye on foreigners and their technology. Most Russian hotels built during the Soviet period have a so-called "service floor" where all the bugging equipment was housed and manned.

While it is now accepted that the Russians are enjoying a springtime of democracy unknown at any previous period in their history, and that foreigners and their capital are now welcomed, there persists a belief in some circles that the Russian information-gathering machine is hardly likely to have stopped dead in its tracks. On the contrary, its attentions may simply have been re-directed to Western technology.

Many Western firms now boast of the former KGB (Committee for State Security) colonels beavering away in their employ, easing the way through bureaucratic red tape and even providing useful bits of background material on possible business partners.

Due to the purges and mass arrests of the Communist period, many people of otherwise blameless character got to know what the inside of a prison looked like, and because so many people's flats were bugged by the KGB, a whole repertoire of silent gestures and coded messages have percolated into Russian life, the social equivalent of tapping Morse code on the plumbing pipes in prison.

The gesture to indicate silently that the person being talked about is a member of the KGB is pointing with two fingers to a set of notional military stripes along the shoulder. The one that indicates someone is an habitual drunk is a strange stabbing gesture with the index finger of one hand at the side of the neck.

A coded reminder that one's conversation is likely to be overheard is to point to an (if necessary imaginary) overhead chandelier. When Brezhnev was alive, he was referred to silently with both index fingers crooked to indicate eyebrows.

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