This is my review of Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia by Luke Harding.
After mastering Russian with impressive speed, Luke Harding spent about four years based in Moscow as a foreign correspondent for "The Guardian". Making the most of opportunities to travel which he clearly found fascinating, Harding was more energetic and courageous than many of his colleagues, in reporting on the growth of corruption and undemocratic "vertical power" under Putin, crushing the opportunities opened up by Gorbachev's "perestroika". He describes unflinchingly how former KGB agents (siloviki) have gained key positions in the Kremlin, with the recently formed FSB (Federal Security Service) as insidious as the KGB and if anything even more of a law unto itself.
Regular readers of the "quality press" will already know how journalists like Anna Politkovskaya have been shot in broad daylight for investigating and writing about the truth, how Litvinenko was poisoned in London by Russians who brought polonium into the UK to put in his tea, and how the "oligarchs" who made vast fortunes out of Russian privatisation are now salting away their wealth in places like London. Harding builds on all this to explain how Russia is hardening back into an authoritarian state in which senior politicians enrich themselves, links with international organised crime grow, freedom of speech is crushed and the gaps between rich and poor widen.
Harding's outspoken stance attracted adverse attention from the FSB from the outset. He repeatedly found evidence of his flat being entered – not to steal anything, but leaving a window open next to his son's bed in a high rise flat, tampering with a computer screen, even following the old trick of placing a sex manual beside his own bed – weird signals to unnerve him and his family. Eventually, he was told he would have to leave because of some irregularity in his paperwork, a convenient and overused charge, and he was refused entry, his visa stamped "annulled" on a return flight to Moscow. Perhaps Harding's cardinal sin in the eyes of Putin and his henchmen was the journalist's inevitable association with the US embassy cables critical of Russia published as "Wikileaks" in "The Guardian".
"Mafia state" is written with the air of breathless haste of an article written to meet a deadline, but, as a book, requires more careful editing. Passages often seem disjointed, and although the chapters are themed, they tend to dodge back and forth in time rather confusingly, with continual use of the present tense for past events an added distraction. Harding's courage may include a touch of foolhardiness, and his apparent surprise at being thrown out of the country appears a little naive.
In the interests of balance, he could have shown a greater understanding of the fear, ignorance, insecurity or conditioning which may explain the lack of democracy and suppression of freedom in the Former Soviet Union. Also, perhaps we are not quite as politically and even morally superior as we like to assume.
I would have liked a bit less on Harding's family members (details no doubt included to bring home the reality of the harassment they suffered in Russia) and more on the background to some of the issues covered, in particular the political upheavals in the various outlying republics. A few more maps would have been invaluable. In fact, I found some good ones on Google images which increased my grasp of the geopolitics a good deal.
Overall, this is an important record of some alarming trends of which we need to be aware, even as our leaders are in the invidious position of turning a blind eye because of the perceived need to work with Russia on the world stage, and Harding has done us a service in putting himself on the line to expose the truth. I also have him to thank for introducing me to the wonderful "Peredvizhniki" painters who captured the beauty of C19 rural Russia.