It occurred to me several years ago [back in the 1990’s] that Stalinist Russia would have been an impossibility without the telephone. A call is made, a man arrested. Another call is made, the man is shot. Bureaucratic terror emanating via phone lines. There were mailed instructions, of course, and couriers, and telegrams. But a phone added a voice. You hear Beria on the phone and you respond instantly. The phone gave immediacy, extending Stalin’s absolute power the length and breadth of Russia because he could order–or his minions could order–an arrest or execution instantly and personally. There could be no delay. No dissembling. No shuffling of papers or death sentences lost in the mail. Not that things weren’t shuffled or lost in the mail. But doing so risked the wrath of someone higher up and a phone call. A phone call to you. Or a phone call to someone about you. Death and terror whisked across the Soviet Union in fractions of a second. I wonder if, during the height of Stalin’s purges in the 1930’s (when a million at least were shot, and ten million sent to the Gulag), people stared in dread at a ringing telephone, knowing they had to answer, and if it would be the last time.
But now I wonder if such a vast purge would have been an impossibility with the answering machine. I mean, if no one is there to hear the command, will it be obeyed? Stalin’s calls would be answered, of course. And Beria’s. But down the line, an assistant of an assistant of an assistant people’s director of security, would their calls be answered? Arrests and executions piling up unheard on feebly blinking answering machines, or perhaps heard but unacknowledged, allowing warnings and escapes. Oh how we hate leaving messages. Imagine then Stalin, leaving a message after the tone.