Review: Mafia State, by Luke Harding
About three months after Luke Harding arrived in Moscow to take up his post as the Guardian’s bureau chief, he returned home late one evening to find a window open in his flat. This seemingly innocuous event was actually something rather disturbing.
It was the window of his son’s bedroom and it was wide open. Harding was certain it hadn’t been open when he left with his two children five hours earlier. They were living on the 10th floor of an apartment block in a Moscow suburb and the windows were always kept shut due to the danger of a child falling out. The window could only have been opened from the inside. Elsewhere in the flat a cassette tape was mysteriously hissing in a music player. It hadn’t been there when they left. Then at 4.10 in the morning an alarm clock went off. He hadn’t set it.
Clearly someone had entered the flat but this was no ordinary burglary. Nothing had been stolen, not even several thousand dollars clumsily concealed in a kitchen drawer.
Harding became convinced (how and why is described in his book) that the perpetrators of this unusual crime were actually members of Russia’s Federal Security Services, or FSB, the main successor agency of the KGB. The “logic” seemed to be that two weeks before the break-in the London-based Russian oligarch and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky had given an interview to the Guardian in which he advocated the overthrow of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Although Harding had been only minimally involved with the front-page story, his name appeared along with those of two other journalists. As it happened, he was called in for questioning by the Russian authorities and although nothing came of it as such, the incident led to a long series of psychologically intimidating events – windows would again be found open, batteries would be removed from appliances, the heating system was once dismantled, the phone would ring but when answered no one was on the other end of the line or there would be a knock at the door and when opened an unknown visitor would simply walk away without a word. The “message” seemed to be: “We have our eye on you and it might be best if you left Russia as soon as possible.”
Exposing the underbelly
The problem for the Kremlin wasn’t simply the Berezovsky affair. During his period as the Guardian’s correspondent in the country, Harding consistently reported about the darker side of Russian politics and society – corruption, absence of the rule of law, financial manipulation, restrictions on the media, injustices committed during military campaigns on Russia’s periphery, and attacks on and even sometimes assassinations of journalists, lawyers and human-rights activists perceived to be opponents of those in authority.
He records all this in his book. It makes for a depressing and sometimes terrifying read, giving a very negative picture of some aspects of today’s Russia. It even puts his own troubles into perspective. They were, compared to the difficulties of others, minor hassles, irritating but not life-threatening. How he and his family coped is another strand to the book. It’s a personal story that adds interest and a certain lightness to an otherwise rather gloomy story of – in the words of the sub-title – “How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia”.
Buy the book
By Luke Harding
Paperback, Illustrated, 310 pages
Guardian Books, 2011