A Short Review of ‘Expelled: a journalist’s descent into the Russian mafia state’ by Luke Harding

It shouldn’t be so, I know, but when – as in this case – a publisher reaches out to offer me a review copy, I can’t help feeling there’s an implicit social contract that I’ll speak well of it. What can I say, then? Well, Harding, who was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent 2007-11 before his expulsion, was in some interesting places and spoke to some interesting people, from Lugovoi to Lebedev. His account of an interview inside the infamous Lefortovo prison shed some light on how much has changed there since Soviet times – nothing at all – and his tales of intimidation by the FSB shows how much has changed in the tactics of Russian state security – very little.

All that said, though, this is a rather insubstantial and superficial book, alas. In some ways, the title says it all, with its emphasis on Harding’s personal travails and this handy but dangerous ‘mafia state’ caricature. (Indeed, the book was originally published in the UK as Mafia State.) Compared with the insights of so many other past and present Moscow correspondents (I’ll spare the blushes of current incumbents, but even if we just look at the Guardian’s former correspondents, Jonathan Steele and Martin Walker were superior observers, writers and analysts by an order of magnitude), Harding demonstrates a distinctly limited finesse and subtlety. To take one example, he asserts that Putin “created a pastiche neo-Soviet Russia” (8). Sure, we get what he means, but for all the parallels with the USSR, Putin’s Russia is dramatically different, not least in the absence of any Party or formal state ideology, let alone the levels of personal freedom and that tiny little matter of the market economy. This tendency to go for the quick and dramatic soundbite is hardly unique to Harding (I’ve done it myself), but my feeling is that this is not just a writing choice but that he doesn’t realize the complexities he is choosing to ignore.

To quote Stephen Holmes in the London Review of Books,

“‘Eight decades on,’ Harding writes, ‘not much has changed’: ‘Kremlinology is back’; Russia ‘has become the world’s foremost spy-state’; ‘KGB habits of secrecy’ have returned; ‘Russia’s state media are still stuck in Cold War battle mode.’ And so on. Harding is not alone in this view. But it’s wrong. Putin doesn’t represent a return to Soviet ways; it’s something very different and more anarchic.”

This kind of analytic clumsiness becomes more understandable when one looks a little more deeply into the sources on which Harding seems to draw the most. There are some interviews with the usual suspects, but his single largest source seems to be WikiLeaks. Is it really good writing or journalism to spend much of your time simply recounting the views found in diplomatic cables? These cables are often very fine, but they reflect particular interests and perspectives and tend towards being brief. Maybe this explains some of the lack of discrimination he shows. When talking about the spate of killings of Chechens outside Russia, for example, he ascribes them all to Ramzan Kadyrov, without addressing the way that in fact the killings seem to follow two different patterns: the cruder ones such as the plot against Israilov in Vienna, which prosecutors have linked to Kadyrov, and more professional ones such as Yamadaev’s murder, which was found to have been a GRU, military intelligence hit. More recent killings in Istanbul likewise bear the fingerprints of the GRU. This is not just nitpicking, it shows very different processes at work, and this kind of broad-brush carelessness is characteristic of this book.

There is a classic genre of the former correspondent’s quick and personal account of their lives and labors, and this follows the conventions of the genre: a mix of quick social-political insight and quirky home life details. Harding’s account of the way the FSB appear to have targeted him with break-ins, phone disconnections and all kinds of random acts of malice and whimsy is interesting in that respect; most correspondents in Moscow face this to some degree, and diplomats often even more so, but rarely has it been laid out in such a detailed manner.

Overall, though, and while it’s perhaps unfair, I was left wondering quite why the Russian authorities chose Harding to expel. He was no great friend of the Kremlin, of course, but there are much more outspoken critics. Likewise, he was hardly the most deep-digging of Western journalists and although his name was on an interview with Berezovsky – seemingly the first real casus belli for the Kremlin – he had nothing to do with it. He went to Georgia, but lots of other people did too, and saw and reported more. He has some nice insights into the Nashi camp at Seliger, but in the main piggy-backs on the ideas of others. Indeed, it is perhaps unfortunate in light of the resurgent allegations of distorted primary sources and bad scholarship in the work of Orlando Figes, that this book prominently carries an endorsement from him on the cover. After all, Harding was caught plagiarizing from The Exile back in 2007, and this does not seem to have been a one-off.

Having read this pretty clumsy book, which feels as if it was hammered out without too much thought or editing, I suppose it would be flippant to suggest, tongue in cheek, that he was expelled on literary grounds.

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