Moscow at night by nikita Karimov

Tale 1 – Telephone law

Many of the characters in my books are composites of people I have met. They had to be, primarily because their real life activities were so interesting and introduced me to a world of which I was wholly ignorant until I began working as a commercial lawyer in USSR/Russia. I have been reading Russian literature and about Russian culture all my life, but nothing in my studies prepared me for the realities I faced on the streets of Moscow. To date, it has been the most fascinating period of my life.

My personal and business trips there since the 1980s have blessed me with a veritable treasure trove of information and experiences, and it is some of these personal experiences that I would like to share with you in the next few blogs.

“Telephone law” was perhaps my most chilling experience, bearing in mind the horrific stories I had read about Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s.

Moscow Bound is the first book in my Puppet Meisters trilogy. The prologue opens with a scene of disconcerting, if not frightening, fiction. The story, however, is based on fact.

In the book, good guy General Pravda of military intelligence is summoned to his superior’s office, where he’s ordered to deliver up a “special patient” that he has removed from the secret city of Arzamas for medical reasons. The office is in a former Soviet Ministry building off Staropanksy Street, behind the Supreme Court, a few minutes’ walk from the Kremlin.

Moscow city centre in the 1950s – courtesy Douglas Smith

My description of the office is summarised as follows: a 22-seater redwood table in the middle, ten chairs either side, a large map of the world on one wall; two of the other walls clad with brown wood panelling and the fourth wall comprising a line of windows with their blinds permanently closed and a threadbare green carpet resembling a relic from the days of Catherine the Great.

This was based on a real office I visited in the last year of the USSR in 1991, also located off Staropansky Street. It was occupied by a Soviet Ministry bureaucrat who’d accepted that the days of communism were over; hence it was not too difficult for me to gain access, with the right connections and sufficient dollars in my pocket – no aspiring “ex-Soviet entrepreneur” could be bribed with roubles at that time.

An example of a Soviet phone

The main difference between the fictional and factual offices, however, was that in the real room there were 15 antiquated red telephones (one for each Soviet republic) on a desk at the far end of the table. The bureaucrat told me they were used during Stalin’s 1930 show trials, when the concept of “telephone law” was implemented. This was the system by which the rule of law was ignored and high-ranking Kremlin members would call judges during trials to instruct them on what verdict and sentence to pronounce – as generally  ordered by Stalin himself.

In the most important cases, Stalin would personally call the court and order the death penalty for some hapless person. Soviet apologists deny this ever happened, but there is plenty of authoritative literature that establishes the contrary. I had read about telephone law in my early Soviet studies, but that didn’t stop me from freezing when I saw these 15 instruments, innocuously arranged on the table – waiting to convey their messages of death.

Stalin’s funeral procession on its way to Red Square on 9 March 1953 – courtesy Douglas Smith

I hope you enjoyed this blog and it has whet your appetite for the next tale: “Two Degrees of Separation from President John F Kennedy”.