Photo: Fedor Savintsev for the Guardian
Beginning in 2007, Luke Harding was The Guardian’s man in Moscow.In his time there he got a good look at the new Russia under Putin, focusing especially on corruption in the country.
Just a few months into his time in Russia, however, Harding began to notice things. His home broken into. Strange phone calls. E-mail hacked.
Harding now believes that with a story he actually played a minor role in, he had gained the attention of the FSB, the feared successor to the KGB.
Harding was eventually expelled from the country earlier this year, making him the first Russian journalist expelled since Soviet times. He’s now written a book about his time in Russia, Mafia State, that looks at the FSB’s influence in modern Russia and seeks to expose both the subtle and unsubtle ways the Russian states goes about intimidating foreign journalists and diplomats.
We’ve included a (lightly edited) Q&A with Harding that explains his motivations for writing the book and his thoughts on Russia’s future. Click on to see…
What prompted you to write the book?
I never thought to right a book on Russia really. What happened about three or four months after arriving we, and by we I mean my wife Celia too, we were unwittingly swept in to this great Cold War drama. If you’ve ever seen the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” it was kind of like that but without the sepia colours. It was just this extraordinary thing and suddenly I became the target of the FSB, the KGB successor agency. These guys were pursuing me with real Cold War enmity.
The problem was, we didn’t know what they were going to do next. They began burgling my flat in Moscow; breaking into our apartment in Moscow and doing lots of sneaky stuff like opening our son’s bedroom window which we’d locked: we lived on the tenth floor with a sheer drop to this frozen Moscow courtyard below. They set the alarm which went off in the middle of the night. This kind of carried on; every time we went out we feared people would nip in and start doing stuff.
Do you have an idea what you did that prompted the interest from the FSB?
The Genesis was an article that two of my colleagues in London did. They did an interview with Berezovsky — who Putin hates. It’s no secret that he hates and loathes him and wants to expedite him back from the UK and put him in jail for a long time like Mikhail Kodorovsky. But my role in that was entirely peripheral, I just phoned the Kremlin’s press box for an answer. But my name was on the story and what happened after that was that the sky fell on my head. I became an FSB target.
In addition to these FSB break ins, these FSB agents in leather jackets would follow me round in a spying fashion. I also got summoned to Lefortovo, the KGB prison, which was a pretty chilling episode. It’s the prison that Alexander Sortinuvsken writes about where he was kept before he fled to Britain in 2000 and where Mikhail Kodoovsky was banged up. It’s like being in a film, it’s still very KGB.
I went in with my lawyer and the reception was sort of silvered mirror so I couldn’t see the person greeting me but he could see me. I handed my passport, my mobile phone and my computer and then we were escorted to a series of shabby anonymous corridors which were being filmed on KGB cameras. Then I had a formal interview with a young FSB major who was asking my actually rather boring pointless questions. I think the whole exercise was really just to freak the hell out of me really.
Did you find hard proof of a bug in your home?
There wasn’t. I mean there was evidence of all the things the FSB
did, but they were rather puerile and banal… At one point there was a book on relationships that had been bookmarked on page 110, talking about orgasms, which I think was some kind of sardonic reference. On one occasion when they came in to my office they just took the phone from its cradle and laid it demonstratively in front of my laptop, the same laptop that had a picture of my family on it as a screensaver. They deleted my family at one point. So, it was clear that the intruders existed.The British Embassy in Moscow was quite helpful. They kept saying, “You’re not crazy or bonkers, this is what they do.” It’s a kind of odd KGB tactic that they use against diplomats. And it was also disturbing when I read the WikiLeaks cable about what the U.S. ambassador complained about when he was in Moscow, it was really the same thing. He said in 2009, the Americans call it home intrusions, he said the home intrusions were becoming far more commonplace and bold. He said that his staff, local Russian hires and American diplomats, are facing much more intrusion — in other words, the Russians are absolutely pounding them.
Can you tell me about your eventual exit from Russia?
I was very lucky. If anyone’s ever read Gogol they’ll understand the diplomatic situation. Basically, it November last year I was summoned back to join some of the secret WikiLeaks team. The New York Times had journalists working on it as well, but the Guardian had its own team in London housed in a secret bunker ploughing through papers on Russia and the former Soviet Union. They had to pay enormous interest because there was piles of stuff in there including this phrase about Russia being a mafia state.
I had a phone call, a mysterious phone call from the Russian foreign ministry with a young diplomat called Nikolai saying, “Mr Hardy you must come see us in Moscow tomorrow 1040 for a meeting.” I said “No, Nikolai I’m sitting in London I can’t come to Moscow tomorrow, I’ll be in touch.”
About a week later I got another call saying “Mr Harding you must come and see us.” Eventually once I’d filed a few stories I flew back and visited the ministry the next day.
They had this great kind of Cold War team with these two unsmiling officials. One of the was Mr Churilov, who said “You have committed violations!” He showed me these two pieces of paper with these basically invented crimes that I was supposed to have committed and told me I wasn’t going to get my extension which also meant no visa, which effectively meant I had to leave the country. So I was being expelled.
Then what happened was the British government got involved and I think the Russian’s realised there was going to be a PR disaster and they postponed from a decision for 6 months. But, at that point, myself and my wife and kids were more or less on a plane out. We were about to fly out, we had our house packed up. So then we decided we’d stay for six months so our kids could finish school and in the meantime I went back to London and was working on a book on WikiLeaks. I then flew back on February 5 despite not having a valid visa until May of this year. I was stopped at passport control and another official came up to me and said “For you, Russia is closed.” He annulled my visa with a big smudgy stamp, escorted me to a cell and then dumped on the flight I’d just come on back to home.
That was the end of my Moscow career. Although they did give me a visa five days later to come back but I had to leave in a matter of weeks, so at that point I just said no, I’m getting out.
Do you think this is a direct consequence of having Putin in power — whether he’s Prime Minister or President?
I think that’s a great question. I mean I never knew, for four years I was wondering, who is behind this? I talked to people who know the FSB. They said he’s a mid-level guy, he’s ambitious. He wants to show that he’s neutralized this British spy before Mi6. But then others said, no, to deport you he’d have to be at the top of the FSB. Others said, well, Putin, he was a mid level spy for the KGB stationed in East Germany and ended up seizing Russian power, so, I never knew.But, Putin sets the tone. He sets the tone and really what we’ve seen in the past 10 years is a roll back in democracy that’s been replaced by shiny zombie propaganda. That all comes from him. What he’s done is restored this classic Russian authoritarian model. So, he’s brought back old KGB habits and one of those habits is sort of spying on journalists. Now, this used to go on all the time in the Soviet Union when the KGB would break into reporters apartments and the New York Times correspondent or the Washington Post correspondent would be chucked out of Soviet Moscow. This has come back, we’ve had a restoration.
Whether he signed my deportation, I doubt that, but the point is this is the state he’s created and it’s kind of like Russia’s become the world’s foremost spy state and these guys are living in an almost fantasy world where everybody, you, me, Western Germans, diplomats are spies or enemies. They’re sort of restarting the Cold War sort of without the ideology but with a lot more resources. So it’s a really sinister combination and I guess I’m one of the victims of it.
There’s been so many reports of intimidation of western diplomats and journalists and outside of Russia so many reports of Chechens being assassinated in Istanbul and stuff like that…
I read a story about the three guys who just got wacked the other day.
Do you think there’s going to be any repercussions for Russia on the world stage?
Well, I think it’s tricky. The stage is split between realists who say, “We have to deal with Russia as it is, we can’t try and offend them because they’re too power and too important we have to engage with them,” and moralists who say, “well Russia’s a signatory to the European Court on Human Rights it’s a member of the council of Europe. It’s signed up to Western institutions and a set of values, if you like European values. They’re coming to the party but they’re not bringing a bottle.”
And the problem is, what Putin has done very cannily is he’s exploited European and trans-Atlantic disunity. So he does deals with Italy and Germany and the French and then he isolates nations who are tough on Russia like the British and the Baltic countries. Meanwhile the Obama administration does this rather pragmatic “reset” with the Kremlin even though it knows the Kremlin has a pretty despicable human rights record. It needs Russia in foreign policy areas that it thinks are important like Afghanistan and Iran and recently in Libya. So, Putin’s got pretty good cards and he plays them brilliantly and I just don’t the West, if there is such a thing as the West, has come up with a coherent response.
Do you have any perspective on the announcement the Putin essentially will be president again and the resignation of the finance minister?
My initially reaction was oh God, I’m not going to be able to go back to Russia for a long time now. I had this kind of fantasy that when the people in power changed I’d be able to go back but it’s going to be a long way off. Unless there is a revolution in Russia, and I think there may be a revolution in Russia, but until then it’s going to be Putin. Six years of Putin to 2018 and then another six years to 2024. It’s a long stint and I think for Russia it’s stagnation it means political stagnation, not just for political Russia but for ordinary people.I think a lot of people are just fed up with corruption and rampant price increases. The elite are pretty fed up too because they have to live in this system and it’s this constant battle inside the elite for positions of influence. There’s also uncertainty because no one knows whether their assets are going to be taken next week. You know, they can make profits in the established markets but there’s terrible uncertainty whether it’s all going to come crashing down and someone’s going to steal their business.
So Russia is a real risky option for investors it’s really only for people with nerves of steel. What are clever Russians doing? Well, clever Russians are leaving the country and if you’re young or talented what do you do? You go to London you go to Paris you go to New York you go to Silicon Valley — you go outside Russia to somewhere where it’s more predictable and more stable and somewhere where you can have a decent life. So Putin’s going to come back, of course he is, but the state that he’s created and he’s perpetuated is a deeply, deeply unappealing one.
Given the way Russia conducts its intimidation, did you have any second thoughts about writing?
Well, yeh, I mean there is a bit of a code of silence about the FSB. There’s a lot of knowledge that privately this going on but no one wants to say it publicly fearing they’ll damage relations. Writing about what the FSB is up to is a sort of whistle blowing exercise. Truth telling is never popular in any country but even more in a country like Russia which is run by a paranoid and secretive oligarchy. So, I did wonder about the repercussions.
I say in the book that I found myself, certainly in the first few months, whenever I heard Russian voices in the street look and just see who was talking and I still actually, whenever I’m discussing anything sensitive about Russia in restaurants or other places, I still do this involuntary look over the shoulder to see who’s watching. I mean the guys have got a huge network of intelligence agents it’s as big in London and the U.S. as it was in the Cold War. There’s a huge oversees spying operation going on. Whether that’s effective I doubt, but I did think about it while doing the book.
But, if I hadn’t done it the FSB tactic would have worked because the idea is to intimidate you and frighten you and stop you writing stuff they don’t like. So I responded by being quite stubborn and publishing the book. I think it’s quite important for letting people know what they’re dealing with and have a frank understanding about a regime that doesn’t actually tell the truth about itself.
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