‘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
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,
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
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
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.
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.