17 October, 2011Issue 17.1EuropePolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Under Eastern Eyes

Maria Pasholok

Mafia StateLuke Harding
Mafia State
Guardian Books, 2011
320 Pages
ISBN 978-0852652473


If every journalist had the same luck as Luke Harding, they would have two options when covering the Russian mafia: write that it’s all lies and that the mafia are actually a kind and misunderstood people, or tell the truth and never set foot in Russia again. Unfortunately, when Luke Harding went to work in Russia as a correspondent for the Guardian, he chose the second option, and ended up in the special security room of the Moscow airport Domodedovo with an invalid visa in his passport and the idea of Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia in his head.

Back to London, Luke Harding wrote Mafia State in just five months, specifically, as he says in one interview, in order to describe his three-year experience and to show others what to expect when working and living in the “brutal new Russia”. His previous book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy shows how the Russian state functions at the top level (WikiLeaks is also where Mafia State gets its title—this having been how the country was referred to in one of the leaked documents). Mafia State, instead, reveals how Russian politics works on a lower level: inside the private apartments, bedrooms, and personal computers of Mr Harding.

The book starts as a detective story, with the author describing every detail of his flat after the first intrusion of the FSB. Indeed, years spent in Russia taught Mr Harding that every detail matters: from now on he had to remember which windows of his flat were closed and which ones opened, in which position the kids had left the toys on the floor and which book he read last in bed. Having once returned from an evening out, he found windows wide open and by the bed a sexual manual on marital relationships, carefully opened to the most interesting page by an anonymous intruder.

For those familiar with Russian cultural history, this room becomes just another one in the gallery of Soviet haunted houses. In 1921, Anna Akhmatova—a Russian female poet whose husband was killed and son imprisoned, and who herself was not allowed to write for decades—published a poem that, surprisingly, describes almost the same setting: an intruded room, open windows, the strange position of things, and a strong sense of fear. Later, Boris Pasternak—another Russian author persecuted by the state—would remember how he developed a habit of saying “Hello” to every empty room he entered, as he knew the “walls had ears”. Calling himself an enemy of the state, Luke Harding gets into the enviable company of Soviet enemies of the people (“vrag naroda”)—of which he is perfectly aware—giving many references to “public enemies” in his book and confessing he learned how “to love Russia’s tragic lyricism”. And indeed, there is a certain strange romanticism in being called the “enemy of Russia”, the strapline of the book, which will probably catch many readers’ eyes.

However, Luke Harding is not Doctor Zhivago, but just “one reporter” trying to do his job without reflecting too much on the future of Russia’s “tragic lyricism”. If in 2010 his colleague Andrei Soldatov gave a deep historical account on the work of the KGB in The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (2010), building up a holistic system to understand its social and political mechanisms, Luke Harding presents a very journalistic, day-to-day account. He describes the Russian new bourgeoisie and new “brutal life” here and now. But having had a chance to become a fresh look by a foreigner, his book instead runs into clichés.

Being new in its topic (Luke Harding is so far the only journalist publicly expelled from Russia since the Cold War), Mafia State is full of all possible clichés concerning Russian life: “arbitrariness, hypocrisy, lying, rapacity, treachery and vacuity”, to use the formula of the 19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shedrin that Luke Harding quotes in his book. However, the sex manual left by a KGB agent in Luke Harding’s bedroom in order to “demoralise him” gives the author a right to say (and a reader a reason to believe) that these clichés are still true.

As now, in democratic Russia, with Mr Putin almost certainly back in power (did he ever leave?) for at least 12 years, it has become even clearer that those who write about unacceptable topics are in serious danger. They could lose their lives like Russian journalists Anna Politkovskaia and Natalia Estemirova; lose their jobs like the dozens of journalists of Russian newspapers which closed in the recent year; or get sent out of the country like many reporters from the British and American presses whose articles have blighted their visa chances, and finally like Mr Harding himself, and—potentially—all the reviewers of his new book. But at least they know now exactly what to expect.

Maria Pasholok is reading for a DPhil in Modern and Medieval Languages at Magdalen College, Oxford.