Mafia State (Review)
“Someone has broken into my flat. Three months after arriving in Russia as the Guardian’s new Moscow bureau chief, I return home from a dinner party. It’s late. I turn the key. At first, everything appears normal … and then I see it. It’s a strange detail. The window of my son’s bedroom is wide open.
I find myself in a new world. It is a place of unknown rules, of thuggish adversaries. Suddenly, it appears we have become the objects of a malign psychological exercise, a dark experiment on the human soul. Our souls. I hug my son close.”
– ‘Prologue: The Break In’ – in Luke Harding, Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia (Guardian Books, 2011)
Luke Harding’s Mafia State intrigued me from its opening line (‘Someone has broken into my flat …’) and when I finished reading his book, I described it as ‘unputdownable’ on Twitter. Perhaps the best testament to the book’s readability though – due, no doubt to a combination of Harding’s incisive and engaging journalistic penmanship, the division of his narrative into a series of short, interlinked chapters and the darkly alluring nature of the subject matter – is the fact that after finishing it, I left Mafia State lying on my coffee table, and returned home a few hours later to find my boyfriend, who, by his own admission ‘never really reads’, was engrossed in it!
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Harding’s book is a rather stereotypical tale of Cold War intrigue. The story sounds familiar: a British journalist arrives in Moscow, uncovers some uncomfortable truths about those in power and, despite attempts to restrict his freedom of movement and speech, starts asking some difficult questions and publishing some critical reports. This quickly marks him out as an ‘enemy of the state’ and he encounters official hostility, becoming the target of an insidious campaign of harassment and intimidation, until one day, he is simply barred from re-entering the country on some small bureaucratic pretext, in a textbook Soviet-style expulsion. What is distinctive about Harding’s case, however, is that the experiences he describes take place, not in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but in Putin’s ‘Neo Soviet Russia’, twenty years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. Harding, who worked as the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian from 2007 until his expulsion in February 2011 (when, on arrival at Moscow airport after a visit to the UK, he was politely informed that ‘For you, Russia is closed’), has now published Mafia State, part sensational expose and part damning indictment into the shadowy underbelly of life in contemporary Russia. His account includes some fascinating (and at times rather frightening) insights into a range of areas that illustrate the corrupt nexus of crime and politics underpinning Russian interests today.
Harding’s journey takes him from the destitution and decay of rural Russia to the extravagant lifestyles of the ‘dollar millionaires’ who have proliferated in the post-communist decades. He witnesses the blatant use of corruption and vote fixing in local elections and the ‘Potemkin villages’ built to impress Olympic inspection teams in advance of 2014, when Russia will host the Winter Olympics. He observes the brutal violence and state-authorised ethnic cleansing in Georgia in the aftermath of the 2008 war and investigates the brutal ‘counter-terrorist’ methods employed in the north Caucasus, creating a spiralling circle of violence and insurgency which, in turn, fuels xenophobia, nationalism and the radicalisation of the far right in contemporary Russia. On an equally sombre note, he highlights the suspected state-authorised assassinations of numerous ‘troublesome elements’ ranging from Russian journalists and human rights activists who criticise the Kremlin to the notorious murder of former FSB officer Litvinenko in London during November 2007.
Mafia State is a timely read for anyone interested in the shadowy workings of contemporary Russia, and seems particularly pertinent in light of more recent developments, such as the mass protests against electoral fraud and Vladimir Putin’s confirmation that he intends to return to the Presidency by standing for a third term in 2012.
I recently wrote a full review of Mafia State which has been published in the latest edition of the journal New Eastern Europe, alongside a range of other excellent articles. If you’re interested in central and east European affairs and you haven’t checked it out yet, then you really should! For more information, go to their website. You can also follow New Eastern Europe on Twitter @NewEastEurope
4 Comments »