Mafia State by Luke Harding

With its love of aberration and misfortune, news always tends to be more bad than good; since it focuses on governments, coverage of a country with a nasty one is liable to be especially grim. When I was a correspondent in Moscow, friends and I often debated whether, with our perpetual stories about expropriations and violence, we might be overdoing it – as our government handlers and some self-interested western financiers claimed. No, we concluded: if anything, the truth was in some ways worse than we reported – because tracing the trails of violence and graft to the satisfaction of English libel law was often impossible.

The importance of Luke Harding’s book lies in its first-hand account of a relatively mild but telling bout of state-sponsored harassment, of a kind that, like much else in Russia, is intentionally opaque and deniable. Shortly after the Guardian sent Harding to Moscow in 2007, the paper published an interview with Boris Berezovsky, a renegade tycoon who fled to London in 2000. Despite Harding’s protests that his role in the article was marginal, it earned him the ire and special attentions of the FSB, the main successor to the KGB, which under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s once-and-future president, has become the real power in its vast land.

The FSB assumed, as it did with most foreign journalists, that Harding was a spy. As is standard, it bugged and followed him; more unusually, its agents repeatedly broke into his home, playing dark practical jokes on him and his family. Finally, the authorities in effect chucked him out earlier this year. Like a yob who starts a fight in a pub by saying you have spilled his pint, the Russians offered pretexts that both parties knew were ludicrous.

Harding conveys how it feels to live in a place where the powerful are subject to few or no rules, and where there is no one to complain to. His description of Andrei Lugovoi, the alleged poisoner of Alexander Litvinenko, is an apt comment on the FSB caste: “Some vital moral part is empty and lacking, as if someone had hacked off his conscience with a pair of giant scissors.”

This personal story is threaded around a thematic account of the last few years of Russian history: the ongoing brutality in Chechnya and the rising, mostly ignored violence elsewhere in the north Caucasus; the Georgian war; the second Khodorkovsky trial; Russia’s awful demography and the post-imperial spasms of its foreign policy; the shaming farce of the Medvedev-Putin double act. Harding reports all this colourfully (though so do many of his Moscow colleagues, whom he needlessly criticises).

In Harding’s familiar but plausible analysis, the Putinistas have two main motives. One is grudge-bearing nationalism, allied to a deep conviction that other countries operate in the same way, even if their rulers suborn courts and elections more neatly. As he notes, those nationalistic instincts don’t stop some senior apparatchiks stashing their assets and in some cases their families in London.

The other, more important motive is personal enrichment. On the face of it, this is a paradox: why pillage a country that you want to flourish? Though Harding doesn’t explore it, the reasoning of the ruling class seems to go like this. In theory, and eventually, Russia must be great (ie, feared by others; the welfare of its citizens is not a big consideration). But this particular Russia, the one we have inherited, is a contemptible mess – and if we don’t plunder it, someone else will.

The title of this book comes from one of the American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and filleted by Harding for the Guardian (the other reason why the FSB had it in for him). In their portrayal of a virtual merger between the Russian state and organised crime, and a system built on kickbacks and extortion, the WikiLeaks files endorse the summary of the fictional Moscow correspondent in my novel, Snowdrops, who says that, in Russia, there are no politics or business stories: “There are only crime stories.”

But while that jaundiced view might have some validity at the level of officialdom, there are lots of other kinds of stories to tell about ordinary Russians, not least concerning their glorious and resilient culture. Other than in the occasional references to long-distance train rides, or the perambulations of Harding’s wife around Moscow’s historic architecture, there is little trace of the glory here – unsurprisingly, perhaps, in a book fuelled by rage against the kleptocrats and spooks.

There is one exception. Harding meets and describes a dauntless group of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists who, being Russian, are not covered by the thugs’ unwritten rule that irritating foreigners can be bullied but not killed. He writes that Natalia Estemirova, who worked in Chechnya for the human rights group Memorial, had an “almost otherworldly courage and moral presence”. She was murdered in 2009. As Harding acknowledges, compared with such fates, his is “VIP treatment”. For as long as it produces heroes and heroines such as Estemirova, Russia still has hope.

AD Miller‘s Snowdrops, published by Atlantic, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize

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