‘For you Russia is closed’. One can imagine the satisfaction with which a border control official pronounced these words to the Guardian correspondent, Luke Harding, who had just flown back to Moscow after a visit to London last February. Harding, who had been covering Russia for nearly four years, became the first foreign journalist to be expelled from the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Later, after an international row at governmental level, he was allowed back, but soon felt it was best to leave for good.
His new book Mafia State deals with many aspects of Russian life, from
the Russian-Georgian war to the rise of the far Right, from Putin’s wealth to rural poverty. His reports are clear, precise and up-to-the-minute. This is one strand of the book.
Another is the secret cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, which more often than not back up Harding’s own conclusions. The definition of Russia as a ‘virtual mafia state’ comes in fact from one of these:
The cable offers persuasive evidence of what critics of the Russian regime have long been saying: that under Putin, the government,
FSB [Federal Security Service] and criminal elements have melded together to run
The book’s third strand, no less shocking than his depiction of recent developments in Russia as a whole, is Harding’s account of how he himself was harassed by the FSB before his expulsion.
He describes break-ins at his flat and office, when the intruders took nothing, but went out of their way to leave signs of their visit — an open window in the
children’s room, an alarm clock going off in the middle of the night, a screensaver picture deleted. This was followed by an inter-rogation in the notorious Lefortovo prison; bugged telephone conversations; official warnings and a brief detention in the Caucasus. All seems to have had only one aim, to intimidate him. But a journalist with an eye for detail can’t help seeing things even when he is not meant to — for example, during his interrogation in Lefortovo prison in May 2007:
On the table stands fizzy mineral water and three glasses — engraved with ЧК-ОГПУ-КГБ-ФСБ, the initials of Russia’s secret spy organisations, beginning with ‘Cheka’, the communists’ first secret police force. The initials suggest a sort of secret brotherhood, it strikes me — and a continuity of mentality and methods. Despite the fall of communism, the FSB clearly sees itself carrying
out the same holy mission as its KGB predecessor: to protect the state and to smite its enemies.
It is startling to receive this confirmation of the ‘continuity’ of the Russian secret services’ work straight from the FSB itself. This is particularly ironic in view of the readiness of many western pundits to rebuke critics of modern Russia for reverting to ‘Cold War stereotypes’. What is especially striking, though, is that the Guardian’s reporter gets treatment usually reserved for those whom the FSB considers enemies of the state. According to Harding:
This means Russia’s tiny and demoralised band of opposition politicians. It means human rights activists; workers for foreign NGOs; and ambitious billionaire tycoons like Khodorkovsky, who fail to observe the Putin regime’s rules — obey and stay out of politics. It means foreign diplomats, especially American and British ones. And it also appears to mean troublesome western journalists.
Control of the media has always been one of Putin’s priorities. Since the clamp-down on independent television at the beginning of his presidency in 2000, Russia has become notorious for suppressing its own journalists: they have been forced into silence, beaten up, poisoned and assassinated.
More sophisticated methods had to be adopted for their western counterparts. Some were denied visas from the start; others were invited to ‘Valdai Club’ discussions, where meetings with the president and a sense that they were hobnobbing with the Russian elite proved enough to direct the slant of their reports. Others only needed the very gentlest reminder of the existence of red lines that should not be stepped over. By refusing to obey the rules imposed by the FSB, Harding brought on himself the anger of the Russian state, which used all its methods — from intimidation to expulsion — to prevent him from bringing a true picture of Russia to his readers.
Arriving in Chechnya three days after the courageous human rights activist Natalia Estemirova had been abducted from her street in the capital, Grozny, and murdered in neighbouring Ingushetia, Harding expected to see a throng of journalists at her house. But he was the only one. Just as the people who witnessed the abduction were so paralysed by fear that they made no attempt to alert others to what they had seen, journalists, constrained by the ‘rules’, evidently did not consider it their job to rush to Grozny to report the details.
Harding, of course, may have been guided on this and other occasions, not just by his sense of professional duty, but by sympathy for Natalia, and compassion for Russia, violated yet again by a brutal regime. In any case, he was expelled. His colleagues in Russia continue to work under the watchful eye of the FSB, while the Kremlin carries on creating, as Harding puts it, ‘its own rival information reality’.