‘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.