Mafia State by Luke Harding

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Mafia State by Luke Harding

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 310 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Guardian Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0852652473

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Luke Harding set himself a difficult task when he took up his post as the Guardian’s main man in Moscow. He had already put his name to a front-page story which appeared in the Guardian in April 2007. This was an account of an interview with the arch-oligarch and Kremlin critic, Boris Berezovsky. Harding was not at the interview but added background to the article from Moscow. However, to be in any way associated with Berezovsky was sufficient to incur the wrath of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB – the successor to the KGB. The offending account was entitled, 'I am plotting a new Russian revolution - London exile Berezovsky says force necessary to bring down President Putin'.

Just four months after his arrival in Russia he was summoned to the FSB's bleak offices in Lefortovo, previously described in Solzhenitsyn's account of the Gulag. This is not a place to which foreign journalists are usually admitted. Here he was subjected to an ominous, intensive and unpleasant interview about his background and, in particular, the Berezovsky article. Harding, an energetic and able young reporter, has covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just prior to this daunting questioning his family, including his children, had been subjected to a furtive and ominous break-in. Such systematic bullying at the hands of security-service personnel, the siloviki, was to continue until his virtual eviction at Domodedovo airport in February of last year.

In just a decade the modern Russian state has mutated many times. It has been termed a postmodernist theatre where power has passed from a dictator to an unstable popular democracy and reformed once again into a fiefdom of oil company barons. At the centre stand Medvedev and Putin exchanging Presidency with Prime Ministerial control. Putin, in particular, extols the dictatorship of the law by which he really means order. Harding quotes reports in Die Welt that his personal assets amount to some forty billion dollars.

Such suggestions are supported by the conversations in the Academy Café, just off Pushkin Square, with Belkovsky, a former associate of Berezovsky, who mentions Putin's wealth makes him about twice as rich as the King of Saudi Arabia; probably the richest man in Europe. The conversation between Belkovsky and Harding is fuelled by more caffeine and material from the wiki-leak cables. Belkovsky makes the claim that controversial Italian ex-Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi is under Putin's influence. Chess champion Garry Kasparov suggests that to understand this mafia state you need to read Mario Puzo and follow the money trail.

Only the courage of crusading journalists like Anna Politkovskkaya or human rights lawyers like Natasha Estemirova have penetrated the gloomy secret machinations of the Russian interventions in Chechnya. As Harding vividly shows, they were forced to pay with their lives. The former was shot outside her Moscow flat; the latter is abducted from her home in Grozny and shot by her kidnappers. The FSB and other state agencies maintain their pressure on Harding reporting these matters to the West; there are still further break-ins at their new Dacha in Sokol, in northwest Moscow.

The background which Harding gives on the struggles between the oligarchs for oil and gas revenues are both intriguing and highly pertinent to understanding current issues. His chapter entitled, Give me your papers is revealing on the control of the media both here and in Russia. The dependence of the population on television - the independent channels having been shut down - does nothing to awaken them from the soporific compliance to the post-Soviet state autocracy. Harding interviews Lebedev, the prosperous owner of four UK newspapers with son Evgeny: the London Evening Standard, The Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the i-newspaper, and encourages his readers to think through the Orwellian implications for both countries. His comments on the amount that is spent providing all of us with Channel 85, Russia Today (RT) would be amusing if we could manage to forget that the $1.4 billion that the Russian government spends on such propaganda is more than their expenditure on defeating unemployment.

The book contains eight pages of quality coloured photographs which supplement the account. These include the author's family in the remarkable landscape of the Caucasian mountains. There is a snap of a most magnificent yurt in Siberia under the peaks where Siberia touches on Mongolia. The wonders of the scenery sharply contrast with the tenure of the ugly politics of the times. In one aside Harding mentions how one proclivity stands 3269 metres above the Sugansky Ridge, near the border with Georgia and is named the Peak of Russian Counterintelligence Agents.

Reviews of Mafia State have rightly concentrated on the orchestrated campaign of intimidation to which Harding and indeed his family were subjected. This is called Zersetsung after a Stasi technique in which Putin appears to have become well versed during his twenties in East Germany. The word means something like 'a process of disruptive breakdown or dissolution'. However, there is an abundance of engaging chapters in this book which repay close attention. For those interested in football, for instance, there is much about the Moscow Dynamos, FIFA and the forthcoming World Cup in 2018.

There is also a devastating account of the increasing inequalities between the new bourgeoisie and the rural population. There has been a tremendous shift into the cities leaving sad villages in the hands of ageing babushkas. The men's lives have all been destroyed by raging alcoholism fuelled by cheap vodka. Harding is relentless in his pursuit of the truth and delineates sharply the social conditions and attitudes in Russia that unfortunately call forth such a response; the dulling and deadening of the senses. In the Mafia State, Harding's style is informed but informal and yet brings into focus contemporary Russia. This vast land blessed with such a magically beautiful countryside and that same country where so many lost their lives in the War, fighting fascism.

Many thanks to Guardian Books for providing the volume.

Further Reading Suggestions:

Falling Off The Edge: Globalization, World Peace and Other Lies by Alex Perry
Nothing but the Truth: Selected Dispatches by Anna Politkovskaya. You might also appreciate Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas by Oscar Goodman and George Anastasia.

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