In 2007 Luke Harding was posted to Russia as the Guardian newspaper’s new Moscow bureau chief. Taking his wife and two young children with him, they were subjected to intimidation and harassment over the course of the next four years at the hands of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). In February 2011, while entering Russia, he was arrested at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and subsequently deported, making him the first western journalist to be expelled since the end of the Cold War. Luke Harding talks to Hayden Berry from New Eastern Europe and is taken from the autumn 2012 issue of New Eastern Europe.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: How did you first become interested in Russia?
LUKE HARDING: Well, I had always been interested in Russia and read Russian novels, but I’d never actually been there. But if I’m honest, my going to Russia was down to chance. There are two groups of journalists who come to Russia: those who studied at university and who are passionately engaged with it, sometimes with a Russian girlfriend or wife, and there are others who are sent there as foreign correspondents; which is what happened with me. In 2006 I was the Guardian’s correspondent in Berlin covering Germany and other places, when my boss came out to visit and basically said: “You know what, Luke. I think you need a bigger canvas. How about Moscow?” and I said, “Great, but I don’t speak Russian,” which, although I spoke German, was true at that point. And she said, “Russian, German, they’re all the same!” So the next day I started learning Russian and immersing myself in Russian history and language.
In the autumn of 2006, I had a fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford where I started going to the language laboratory. I found a tutor in Summertown, who I went to with my wife, and started learning conversational Russian including words about how to get through passport control, which turned out to be ironic given what happened subsequently, as well as other useful nouns like tusovka which means “party”. When we arrived in Moscow in January 2007, it was a blank page for us: I knew that Russia wasn’t Germany; I knew that it was a country in transition; I knew about Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika and the 1990s, but before I got there I rather naively thought that Russia was a semi-democracy. This turned out not to be case.
How did your family react when you were posted to Moscow?
Phoebe, my wife, is very robust and adaptable, and she has tremendous appetite for life and novelty, so she embraced it. In fact we both did. Unfortunately, the kids had no choice. Tilly at that point was nine years old, and Ruskin, our son, was seven. So they came along too. And between us, Phoebe and I had the full Moscow experience. She did the light and I did the dark. She wrote for the Moscow News (Russia’s oldest English-language publication newspaper – editor’s note) as a journalist, and has just completed a series of Moscow walking guides in Russian and English. She would do all the nice stuff. She would go to forgotten villages and wonderful monasteries in the greater Moscow area that no tourist had ever been to before. She would go and see the bearskin that Leo Tolstoy shot and visit Anton Chekhov’s house.
And while she was doing that, I was doing the dark side, trying to make sense of impenetrable Kremlin politics, writing stories about the ugly Anglo-Russian estrangement – the Litvinenko case – which happened just before I got there. I really arrived at the worst moment for a new British correspondent to arrive in Moscow. I was dealing with the state and she was dealing with the people, and between us, I think we managed to get the whole picture. Frankly, any half-rational regime would have kept us there because we were very productive. However, it wasn’t to be. It lasted four years and then I got kicked out.
Did the fact that your wife working for Moscow News, which is partially owned by the state-controlled news agency RIA-Novosti, cause any personal conflicts of interest?
We used to tease each other domestically sometimes. I would call her “stoogey” for a joke, and she would joke about me. But the reality was that Phoebe’s job had nothing to do with politics. It was to do with culture, literature and history. She still goes back and forth, and her walking guides have been tremendously successful. She also reviews Russian fiction in translation. There’s a lot of good stuff being written in Russia which just isn’t finding an audience in the West. There are so many wonderful aspects about Russia which we can celebrate, and my problem was never with the Russian people.
My problem was with the Russian state, under Vladimir Putin in particular, and the Federal Security Service (FSB). The idea that if you oppose the Kremlin or are critical of the Kremlin’s human rights record, you are anti-Russia, is clearly nonsense. Intellectually, it is perfectly possible to like Russia and have Russian friends, to rejoice in Russian culture, to go and see Chekhov, and at the same time dislike what the Putin regime is doing in areas such as politics, human rights and freedom of speech. But the problem is that there is this army of paid Kremlin bloggers out there who as soon as you say anything critical, immediately say that you’re a Russophobe, or a pathological Russophobe; you can’t just be a Russophobe, you always have to be a pathological one.
Were you involved with Russia Today, the English-language television channel, in any way?
I’m afraid that’s where I draw the line. Writing about culture for a Russian state organisation is fine. But writing for Russia Today (RT), which is very much a voice piece of the Putin state, is not really acceptable; not if you want to be classified as a real journalist. It’s not that states can’t have their own broadcasters, but what I don’t like about RT is the fakery. If you look at the BBC on the Syrian or Palestinian conflicts for example, you’ll have one person saying one thing and another person saying another to counterbalance it. RT has all the grammar of modern television news, but has one person saying one thing and another person repeating the same thing in a different modulated way.
There’s an intellectual dishonesty about that. All authoritarian regimes do this mirroring these days and there’s this phenomenon, which has become rampant in the last few years, of “what-about-ism”. As soon as you say that Russia has no freedom of speech and is clamping down on human rights activists, and so on, RT will say: “What about the war in Iraq? What about Tony Blair? What about, what about, what about?” as if somehow we live in a zero-sum universe where one misdeed cancels out another misdeed. And of course it doesn’t. It’s quite possible to not be a fan of the current British government and also be against what Putin is doing in Russia.
To me it doesn’t seem difficult, but RT stridently uses this argument to the point where it says nothing about what’s happening in Russia at all. And that’s the great irony of RT. It’s silent about Russia’s own failures while denigrating the West as being this place of double-dealing and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, there’s an infantile, left-wing section of the population in the West who are prone to conspiracy, who think that RT is a great thing because it exposes the unfairness of western society. Just move to Moscow and start writing critically about Putin and see how far you get.
With respect to the intimidation and harassment you experienced at the hands of the FSB, which has been well-documented in your book, Mafia State, was there any one tactic that you found particularly intimidating?
I would like to preface this question with the fact that the perception of the book has generally been fantastic and positive, although one or two reviewers in the United States have complained that I exaggerated my experiences in Russia and that I’m self-obsessed. But what I want to make clear is that I don’t consider myself in any way heroic and the true heroes in this gloomy Russian drama are the Russian human rights activists and journalists, some of who have been beaten up, intimidated and even murdered for seeking to tell the truth in a very difficult environment.
Everybody knows that the rules for Russians are different from the rules for westerners. If you’re a Russian journalist, all sorts of sanctions, including the ultimate sanction, can be wheeled out against you depending on which particular lieutenant-colonel signs which particular piece of paper, and at what level. The rule for foreign journalists is that they can be harassed, bullied and intimidated, but to get rid of them, all they need to do is deport them, which is what happened to me. So there are two games going on and mine was the lesser game.
The reason I wrote the book, however, was because I thought it was instructive and emblematic of what’s happening in Russia at the present time, and how under Putin’s second-term we saw a resurgence of sinister KGB methods, which go back to the 1970s, of psychological tactics to intimidate and spook people who were regarded as state irritants, and make them desist from what they were doing. As far as my family and I were concerned, the FSB bugged us, surveilled us, they read my emails, and listened to our phone calls, which is all pretty standard for any American or British correspondent.
Where they went slightly further with me were the repeated house break-ins and moving stuff around in our apartment. I have subsequently met a few ex-KGB guys who talked me through the process, explaining exactly what they do. The idea is to violate your personal space to make you feel unhappy, under pressure and to induce feelings of paranoia. It’s an extremely successful tactic, especially with women or people who live on their own, for example.
What I resented and still resent most of all, however, was the implied threat that something might happen to my children. We knew from the British embassy that the FSB actually wouldn’t do anything to kids and that it was all just a scare tactic, but there was an incident in which I returned home with my very small son to our flat on the tenth floor of this tower block in Voykovskaya in north-west Moscow, and discovered a window, which was always locked because it was a very low window right next to my son’s bed, wide open. It was a strange detail. Clearly someone had been in the flat and opened the window. My son and I peered down at the 30-metre drop. If you fell out of the window you would die. The message was clear: “Watch out or something might happen to your kids.”
And although in some ways it was an empty threat, it still speaks of the thuggishness of this regime. The idea that it happened in 2007 and it’s still happening in 2012 is ridiculous. The Cold War finished a long time ago. We’re living in the era of Twitter, social networks, and of amazing connectivity, and yet the Putin regime which is bankrupt on so many levels, especially in terms of ideas, is simply wheeling out the old KGB tactics. The same manual that Putin himself studied in the 1970s is probably being used by his FSB recruits, who unlike the KGB are generally of a much lower calibre, as if it’s 1983. And although it’s absurd, it’s still quite scary.
How did you react to this perceived threat against your family?
Well, it’s a primal thing when you think that your children are at risk in some way. And the reason why the FSB use this tactic is because they know it’s effective. How did we react? Humour. We made lots of jokes about the FSB, often in our living room, often quite drunkenly when we had dinner party guests around. The FSB also left a book about love, sex and relationships at the side of our bed, written in Russian, which was easy to spot because all the other novels were in English. They had bookmarked it to a page which gave advice on orgasms. So we passed the book round at dinner parties and laughed about it. We hung a humorous, Putin-Medvedev clock by the front door so that when the FSB broke in, the first thing they would see was the tsar looking down at them.
Although the whole idea was to make us leave through our lives being unbearable in Moscow, a kind of stubbornness kicked in on my part which, if I’m honest, probably meant that the kind of articles I wrote about the Russian government were tougher than they otherwise might have been. I was party to private information and was aware of how the Russian state behaved privately. The gap between the public rhetoric, such as “Russia is a democracy” and “Political parties are allowed” and the reality of this increasingly oppressive state, which everyone can see has run out of steam, was huge. Russia is a sophisticated autocracy which uses post-modern methods, has unlimited resources, can spend as much money as it wants on anything and is adept at PR and propaganda. So in some respects it’s an extremely smart regime.
The FSB harassment aside, did you and your family enjoy living in Moscow?
Yes, up to a point. My son was never a great fan, my daughter more so; but they did have plenty of Russian friends. Phoebe was on this marvellous cultural adventure and enjoying what she was doing. And I enjoyed it too. We really had a great time. I loved learning Russian and I was very fond of my Russian teacher, Vika, and the aesthetic, intellectual pleasure from getting better at Russian. Reading Chekhov’s short stories and then Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov, and some of the Soviet émigré writers of the 1960s and 70s, people like Sergei Dovlatov, who I’d never heard of, was great. And the theatre was wonderful: much cheaper than in London, Paris or Berlin, but of a fantastic standard. We also had some tremendous holidays. We roamed around on trains with the kids. We went to Karelia on the Finnish border. And when I had an inkling that things were about to go horribly wrong we took the Trans-Siberian railway and went to Omsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk. It was a wonderful experience for the kids. We went to the Altai Mountains, stayed in a yurt and swam in the streams. We went rafting while drinking vodka, which would never be allowed in the UK because of health and safety.
What did it feel like to be expelled and deported from Russia?
The worst aspect was speaking to my son who I hadn’t seen for a month. My wife, Phoebe, was hysterical. That aspect was utterly miserable. But in some other respects it was quite cathartic because we’d had this private drama of harassment going on for almost four years, which the British government knew and complained about to the Russian Foreign Ministry at various levels on our behalf, and it hadn’t really done anything. The Guardian decided that we wouldn’t go public with the harassment because they thought that this would just aggravate the situation while I was still in the country. And so while I was sitting in a police cell at the airport about to be put back on the same plane I’d just flown in on, talking to a bunch of guys from Central Asia, who were also waiting to be deported back to Tajikistan, I had this feeling of: “So, this is how it all ends.”
Because, in fact, I hadn’t known how it was going to end. I’d already been summoned by the Russian Foreign Ministry in the November prior to my deportation in February 2011, and was told: “We don’t like you. You have to leave. You’ve got four weeks.” And then the British Foreign Office mediated and we were able to stay for a further six months. If I’d been Belgian or German, this would never have happened. It was to do with my fairly uncompromising reporting, plus the fact that I was a British correspondent at a time of great mutual suspicion between London and Moscow. And although all the FSB had to do was to log on to the Guardian website to see what I was writing, they were obviously convinced that I was a spy. These are Soviet habits of thought which the people at the top of national administration still very much have. And it seems to me that since Putin has come back, the Russian administration is moving further and further away from any fact-based reality, which is shown both in Russia’s international partnerships and its role on the world stage.
Time magazine has called the popular opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Do you think he offers any credible alternative to Putin’s regime?
I think this is extremely complicated. The Russian opposition is still weak. I’ve met Navalny and I like him. He’s an interesting and clever guy. But whether he’s the answer, I really don’t know. It’s not the opposition’s fault that they’re not more coherent or that there’s not a stand-out leader who can take on Putin, because Russian civic space has been completely squashed over the past 12 years to the point where Russia’s political system is just a piece of political fakery. There are pretend elections, pretend political parties, pretend legislation, and it’s really hard to see how anything credible can emerge from this space. However, it’s clear that educated, middle-class people in Moscow are fed up. And although it might not be the same in the provinces, once Putin loses control of Moscow he loses control of Russia.
Since Putin came back, we’ve seen an unravelling of the quasi-liberal measures introduced by Dmitry Medvedev. This shows panic on the part of the authorities because they don’t know how to behave. There are two routes: liberalisation or oppression, and you don’t have to be a seasoned gambler to work out which of these two routes Putin feels more comfortable with. He’s completely detached from reality and lives in this world of KGB conspiracy and fantasy, where anybody who demonstrates against him, who doesn’t support him or who actively opposes him, is an agent of the West. It’s reflexive and comes from somewhere deep inside him. However, the problem is that Russia will never move on as a country and can never modernise or diversify its economy until there is a generational change, until a real post-KGB leader takes over. When will that be? I don’t know. All that stuff about the Russian Spring and Putin being gone by Christmas all turned out to be wishful thinking.
With the protest movement against Vladimir Putin seemingly weakening, how do you see the future of his third-term presidency?
It’s ridiculous to speculate that Putin’s presidency will last for two, four or even six years, because the problem for the protesters is that there is no link between street protests by middle-class hipsters and the demise of the regime. The regime is worth billions and the elite are not going to say: “The game’s up. You’ve written a witty slogan. Here, have my dacha. I’ll resign from being a general.” It’s not going to work like that. They’re going to fight to hang onto their power.
Putin’s system is completely corrupt and were he to step down and give way to a real successor, he would be jailed or even worse. There would be law enforcement prosecutions and embezzlement cases opened against him for the deals which have been going on. So he doesn’t really have any perspective: stay in power or what? I don’t see how he could carry on with a real successor in place, and all the people around him are invested in keeping the regime going. Russia is going through a period of increasing oppression and Brezhnevian stagnation. It’s not going anywhere, and there’s a lot of emigration of people who are very talented. The young are voting with their feet by leaving because they can’t vote in real elections.
Do you think you would still be enjoying living in Moscow had you not been expelled?
My idea was to work in Moscow until Putin’s re-election in March 2012 and to see the cycle through. As far as I know I can’t go back to Russia at the moment, but I have this fantasy in my head that at some stage in the future I will be able to “zimmer” back when I’m older to read my case file. It will be a kind of 1991 East Berlin Stasi moment.
Being a western correspondent in Moscow is very tough and the Moscow posting has become one of the hardest postings in the world. You have almost no genuine information from inside the Russian state, you have a paranoid secret service who is convinced that all western correspondents are spies and you have the lack of sun and the long winters which afflict everybody. But I think Moscow needs foreign correspondents and needs people to tell Russia’s story.
This interview is taken from the autumn 2012 issue of New Eastern Europe.
Luke Harding is a British journalist with the Guardian newspaper. In 2007, Harding was posted to Russia as the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief. In February 2011, while entering Russia, he was arrested at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and subsequently deported, making him the first western journalist to be expelled since the end of the Cold War. He is currently based in London. His latest book Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia is available from Guardian books.