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Luke Harding

12 October 2011

Luke Harding had been The Guardian correspondent in Moscow for four years when in February 2011 he found himself deported, becoming the first western journalist to be expelled from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Harding describes his expulsion, and the harassment by the FSB that preceded it, in his new book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became An Enemy Of The Brutal New Russia

Rights in Russia: How did it happen that you were deported? 

Luke Harding: It started four months after I arrived. The spark for all this, the catalyst, was an interview that two colleagues in London did with Boris Berezovsky. In this interview Berezovsky said that he was plotting a Russian revolution and was trying to finance the overthrow of the Putin regime. I had never met him, I scarcely knew who he was, but it was clearly a good story. I phoned the Kremlin and spoke to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesman, and got a quote from him. The interview was published in the Guardian and my name was the third by-line on a front page story. And then, really immediately after that, very strange things started happening and the FSB kind of fell on me really. There were all sorts of surreal encounters. But the most chilling thing was that the FSB broke into my flat in May 2007 for the first time. 

Just after the Berezovsky interview? 

Luke Harding: Yes, basically the next day. And then strange things started happening to my e-mails, someone phoned up saying that they wanted my mobile telephone number and they were from the Presidential administration. A woman turned up at my flat, whom I did not buzz in, but she found her way up to the tenth floor, knocked on the door, looked at me and left. And it was clear that the story had stirred up a kind of anger of the people at the top of the Russian state. But this break-in was the most sinister aspect of it: when I came back one evening, the bedroom window of my son’s bedroom, which we had locked, was open. And then an alarm-clock went off at 4 in the morning, which someone else had set. There was no doubt there had been a break-in. But at that stage I could not quite figure out what was going on. I knew it was the Russian security services, but why they had done that, and what these tactics were all about, I did not know. 

Then two things happened. I complained to the British Embassy and they briefed me and said: “Look, we know about this. This happens a lot. We have a huge number of similar cases involving diplomats or Russian staff. The FSB do these break-ins and the idea is to intimidate you. They move stuff around, they don’t steal stuff. But they won’t kill you; they won’t hurt your children. This is something that happens.” So I discovered this was almost Moscow’s worst kept diplomatic secret. There was a whole army of FSB guys who did these break-ins, but nobody wanted to talk about it. It was like a taboo. 

And the other thing that happened, rather to my surprise, was that the FSB summoned me. We had a phone call, they phoned the Guardian office and said: “You have to come and see us in connection with the Berezovsky story. We have opened a criminal investigation, you are a witness. Get yourself a lawyer.” So we found a criminal lawyer with great difficulty, because no one wanted to have anything to do with this Berezovsky business. And then I found myself going to the FSB interrogation bureau in Lefortovo prison, which again was an extraordinary experience. It was like being plunged back into the cold war. And I had a strange interrogation there with a young major in the FSB who asked me nothing important. And it was only later when I was thinking about it that I realized that the whole idea was to spook me, to scare me. But from that moment on until my expulsion from Moscow, almost four years later, the FSB never really left me alone. 

RiR: Do you know of other instances of things like this happening to other journalists? Has anyone else encountered something similar? 

Luke Harding: Yes, they have. This is a bit of a tricky subject, but I know of four or five other journalists who also suffered break-ins, although no one suffered on the same scale as I did. But I think basically it’s up to each individual to talk about this, if they want to talk about this. If they don’t, they don’t. Other western journalists in Russia know this is going on. And no one likes it. But of course no one really wants to write about it, because they are afraid that there would be worse consequences, if they publicised these facts. It goes on, and it’s still going on. 

RiR: There must be some rules for western journalists in Russia, which you must have broken– what are they? 

Luke Harding: Yes, there are. These are informal rules. They are not written down, they are not codified and they are not binding – in other words, you can ignore them, but if you ignore them, there may be the same consequences as in my case. So I would say there are three principal taboos if you are a reporter either a Russian one, or a western one, which you can break, but it’s dangerous to break. 

One is to write about the assets, “the secret assets”, as WikiLeaks calls them, of Putin and indeed of his team. Not just Putin, but his friends, all of whom –– there’s no great secret here, you should just look at Forbes magazine –– are multi-billionaires. As a journalist you can talk about corruption as a problem, as an abstract, metaphysical issue, but you can’t say that people at the top of the Kremlin are corrupt, or use offshore trusts, or hide their money in Cyprus, or use proxies – all of which we know is the case. So that’s one rule. 

Another informal rule is that you are not allowed to write about the FSB, about their activities, about some of the nasty things they do, about the Alexander Litvinenko murder… I mean the suggestion that the FSB was involved - even though all the evidence says that it was involved - enrages them, and I think, possibly, even embarrasses them, because it is clearly an FSB plot that went badly wrong. It was supposed to be a kind of perfect murder and it turned out sparking this major international scandal that’s still reverberating. 

And the third taboo is definitely the war in southern Russia, in the Caucasus, in the Muslim republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Now you can go there, but the Kremlin prefers you to go on organized press-tours, which I’ve been on, and they are practically a waste of time, because you do not get a real picture. But if you do go there on your own, you risk being detained by the FSB, which is what happened to me in Ingushetia. And then you face problems with accreditation and accusations that you’ve broken the rules. The rules are there not to keep order but to discourage reporters from reporting the real picture. And the real picture is this very serious civil war going on in Russia, which is no longer a regional problem, but it’s actually threatening the whole of Russia, especially European Russia, existentially, as we’ve seen from bomb attacks in the Moscow metro and at Domodedovo airport. This is a huge problem. And basically the Kremlin has no answers to it, other than just using brutal counter-terrorism methods, which I think most sensible people realize are completely counter-productive. 

RiR: Has Novaya gazeta stopped writing about the FSB too? 

Luke Harding: It has, it has. They do write about it a bit. But the point is I don’t condemn any Russian publication – state-owned or independent or quasi-independent - for obeying these rules or even heeding them. Everyone knows what happens, what can happen to a Russian journalist. Everyone knows what happened to Anna Politkovskaya, but there are so many other examples of less famous journalists beaten up, threatened, intimidated or facing all kinds of bureaucratic problems. You know people have to find their own comfort zone about how much they dare to report, how brave they want to be. There are a lot of brilliant, brave, courageous Russian journalists and some western ones operating in Moscow. I salute them. 

RiR: Would you say that your harassment was getting worse over the four years that you were in Moscow? 

Luke Harding: I think so. It was interesting talking to other journalists who had arrived in Moscow a few years before me. They were saying that during the first Putin presidency, none of this happened. But slowly, as Putin squeezed out and squashed sources of dissent and opposition to him - changed the rules on the election of governors, or booted out the last independent candidates from the Duma, - correspondingly the FSB somehow ramped up its efforts, especially after the Orange revolutions in Tbilisi and Kiev in 2003 and 2004 respectively. And after that there was this mood of paranoia inside the Kremlin that the CIA was somehow going to finance a revolution and overthrow the regime. And really, viewed objectively, it was a kind of ludicrous Soviet fantasy, because at that point Putin was still relatively popular. Besides he had all the levers of the state under his control. 

But we know from WikiLeaks cables that John Beyrle, the American ambassador in Moscow in 2009, wrote a pretty frank note to the head of the FBI, Robert Miller, setting out some of the so-called counter-intelligence measures the FSB were taking. These included phoning up American diplomats, telling them that their spouses had been killed, making damaging allegations in the Russian newspapers that US diplomats were paedophiles. It also meant these cleverly deniable, but none the less awful, house intrusions, that’s what Beyrle calls them, which, as he says in this cable, are becoming more commonplace and bold, and the harassment against the US staff and their local Russian employees has reached what he calls “unprecedented levels”. That’s what I write about. It’s created a lot of jobs for a lot of people. The only problem is that these were not real jobs and they are not really in the interests of the Russian state, or the Russians, or anybody. 

RiR: How difficult is it today for a western journalist to talk to ordinary people – how much did you feel that people were not trusting you? 

Luke Harding: Obviously, there are some lingering Soviet habits of thinking that you don’t want to talk to the press and you don’t want to give your name or at least your surname. Maybe the first name and patronymic is OK. But generally I think this sort of thing has gone. Especially among the younger generation. I do not say that Russia is the Soviet Union, of course it isn’t, and my thesis is more complex than that. I think among most Russians, especially among Russians under forty, it’s a different world. They are free to speak their own opinion, even if the state TV is for zombies, there’s Livejournal, there‘s Twitter, there are blogs, there are ways of expressing your opinion, there is free space. But in a way that’s one of the diabolically clever aspects of the system… 

I was reading this week that Putin’s cleverness is that he is the first dictator to realize that you just need to control public space – you do not need to control private space. So people can have affairs, they can sleep with the wrong person, they can do whatever they want, as long as they don’t challenge the state or offer any opposition to the state. That’s a kind of clever post-modern formula. In a way, Russia under Putin has become a clever autocratic post-modern state. It’s deeply cynical, deeply corrupted, does not believe in anything other than hanging on to power and keeping hold of its assets, but its use of technology, its manipulation of TV, its rigging of elections ensures that the system survives.

The question now – especially as Putin is going to come back as President Central-Asian style (he hates being compared to Central Asian dictators, but essentially, that’s what he has become) - is how long will Russian people wear this? Because he is still popular, but he’s less popular than he was. And among my Russian friends there’s a feeling of tremendous frustration that we’ve got the same stagnant system, while the Arab spring is going on, even though the benighted Arab countries have fewer advantages than Russia does. Even they can have revolutions and discover freedom in its loosest sense. Why can’t the Russians? And, you know, I think that at some point they will do. 

RiR: Did you notice the popularity of the government going down during the economic crisis in Russia? Were financial worries one of the things that made people more sceptical about the authorities? 

Luke Harding: I think that’s right. What do Russians care about? They do not care about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or about abstract feelings or things like that. What they care about is the fact that there is rampant inflation in food prices, that prices in the metro keep going up, that communal service charges are increasing, that it’s more and more difficult to get a kindergarten place. You have to pay bribes to everybody to get basic stuff done… And the problem is that this model does not work anymore, because Russia has become so corrupt, that everything is as if walking through treacle or goo - you can’t run any more. 

RiR: You actually were there in Medvedev’s years. Did you notice the effort of the government propaganda to promote Medvedev as a liberal? 

Luke Harding: There was a big effort to promote him as a liberal, as someone more progressive, as someone with no background in Russia’s repressive security services, as a more benign ruler. And the incredible thing is – the Americans bought it! You read their cables, their diplomatic cables and there’s a lot of stuff there about Medvedev and the progressive forces he supposedly represents, and how to make him their primary interlocutor, not by-passing Putin, but focussing all their efforts on Medvedev, and boosting him. And of course, we know now, and I have always thought this and written it, that basically this was all a joke, that Medvedev was… well there are a lot of analogies …You can say he’s a puppet. You can say that he’s Robin to Putin’s Batman, then there’s this joke that there is Medvedev’s camp of liberals, but it’s not clear whether Medvedev is in the Medvedev camp, and so on. But unfortunately all this has turned out to be true. I think he’ll go down in history as the least remarkable of Russia’s leaders. He served his purpose and now he’s gone, but Putin was always in charge, and Putin remains in charge. 

RiR: What reaction do you expect to your book, what consequences do you expect – both here and in Russia? 

Luke Harding: I can’t imagine it’s going to be on Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s bedside table. That he’s going to read it with any enthusiasm. I am sure there they will say that this a “provokatsia”, that it’s a deliberate piece of propaganda against the Russian state. But first of all I would like to say – just to make it very clear - that that is rubbish! I am not a Russophobe, I am a Russophile, I love Russia. I have many Russian friends. In many respects I was very happy there, my wife was happy there and our kids were happy there too, and we did a number of fantastic things. We roamed around, we went to Siberia, Petrozavodsk, the Golden Ring, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Tomsk, and we did art, theatre. My wife has just written a book about Russian walks. To say that I am a Russophobe is stupid. What I am not – I am not a supporter of the Kremlin. And it’s perfectly possible to like Russia, but to take a dim view of its government, which is my position. I think intellectually this is perfectly possible. 

But the reason I wrote the book is because I think it was important to tell the truth about a regime that is basically, fundamentally dishonest and does not speak the truth about itself. It does not want to be a Central Asian dictatorship, it is institutionally part of Europe, the Council of Europe, the Human Rights Convention and so on. But it wants to cheat, and does not want to play by the rules. It is also consumed by these near Soviet fantasies of building a maximum Russia, a Eurasian Russia, whatever. 

It’s clear that I would like Russia to be a strong country. I want Russia to be a force in the world, a force on the international stage. But the way to do that is not by turning the FSB into this enormous unaccountable force, using all sorts of KGB tactics, against enemies, whether it’s neighbouring states or stupid foreign journalists. The way to do it is to build a better and more progressive society, with an accountable government, with real elections, with the rule of law, proper institutions - and you may say we are a million years away from that! But I do hope that at some point in my lifetime this happens and there will be a kind of proper Russia. And also that I can go back there. 

RiR: Do you think that your book might make people in power in the West look at Russia more critically? 

Luke Harding: Well I hope so. There is a big debate in Europe, in the European Union, between the sort of “realists” who say: “This is how the Russians are – we have to do business with them, there’s no point trying to reform them”, and the “moralists” who say: “Hang on a minute! Russia has signed all these European conventions, which are binding, and therefore we should hold them to account, and therefore we should also support democratic forces inside Russia, weak as they may be”. I am afraid, I am with the moralists. 

If you look at Putin, what he has done very cleverly is he has managed to buy off and co-opt a lot of very powerful European politicians, former leaders, people like Gerhardt Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi. We know from WikiLeaks that Berlusconi is on Putin’s payroll. Putin is very good at dividing the EU. I think it is important that we are principled and honest, not because we think that our values are superior, but because these are universal values. Whether we are talking about Burma, or Uzbekistan, or Libya, where I’ve just been, people just want a decent life, they don’t want corruption, they don’t want one ruler to stay in power for a billion years. And they want freedoms. They want more freedom than is currently on offer in Russia, so I think we should be very clear about our values. And I also think, just finally, that Putin respects toughness, there is no point in being weak with Putin or being too accommodating. Actually, deep inside his KGB brain, he would actually rather people were straight talking and firm with him. I think firmness is the only way to go. 

Luke Harding will be talking about his new book at the Frontline Club on 26th October and at Pushkin House on 13th December.