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on 19 June 2016
Since the Russian Revolution Russian Communists have always linked British journalismin Russia: see Arthur Ransome, Sidney Reilly, Malcolm Muggeridge with snooping, and spying, and Luke Harding of the Guardian’s four year term between 2006-10 shows not only that this idea is very much alive in the post Soviet life, but Russian society under Putin is fast becoming a “police state” controlled by the Russian Federation’s successor to the KGB, the FSB.

Harding documents his home in Moscow being broken into, and bugged, with the uninvited guests leaving key clues and reminders that Big Brother is watching. After realising he is not imagining things, that he is being followed, that if he is called to “play” mind games it is time to do what journalists excel in: investigate. He discovers that harassment prevails at the embassy at all levels as in Soviet days, from the UK Ambassador, Tony Brenton by Nashi activists, the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia party, downwards, in particular the local clerical staff, interpreters, and drivers anonymously resigning, driven away in fright. He faced that which critics of the system were experiencing: minus the thuggish beat ups, the bombings, shootings, and deaths of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya or human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, but in order to snoop he needed necessary local contacts, all eager to obtain plausible answers and admissions, especially more on the death in London of former spy Litvinenko by two FSB agents.

Whatever subject of interest covered, one feature became obvious: no official state version seemed sufficient: whether the Chechen victim in a story was a Muslim fundamentalist, or who fired the first round in South Ossetia between Georgians and Russians in August 2008, and why was little being reported on ethnic cleansing? Secondly, he shows the ethnic conflicts in Georgia with partisan Russian “irregulars” or “volunteers” to be part of a long term organized scheme: a template to be repeatedly used to escalate tensions in critical zones: including in 2011 with Russian nationals pressing for the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine – an event which subsequently arose just three years on, in 2014; perhaps being retried in future years in Moldovia over Transnistria, and in the three Baltic states. But most important, since Russian journalism has become the mouthpiece of government, any deviation from the official Russian state line may have been public spirited; it was deemed dangerous, foolhardy, and risked facing the crotchety thoughtless proles and later the middle officers of the security services.

Harding understood he was in a privileged position to present a more balanced truth, but with too much determination he risked expulsion, something which long term BBC correspondents with Russian spouses, and in-laws, were unwilling to risk. Everyone asked, not if former President, now Premier Putin, was aware of the growing dominance of the FSB, but who was giving the orders. Ideas were added to the countless rumours circulating, but no concrete evidence was available until the author’s brief flight back to London in autumn 2010.

His employers, the Guardian, were given the go ahead to shift through Assange’s WikiLeaks. They described clearly that Russia had metastasised itself into a brutal, autocratic kleptocracy, centred on Putin’s leadership, and in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime bosses were bound together to establish a “virtual Mafia state”. It spoke of arms trafficking, money laundering, personal enrichment, protection for gangsters, extortion and kickbacks, suitcases full of money and secret offshore bank accounts in Cyprus and Switzerland: the cables quickly unpicked a dysfunctional political system in which bribery alone totalled $300 bn a year (equal to 18% of Russia’s GDP), and in which it was often hard to distinguish between the activities of government and organised crime.

Other sources confirm links and overlaps between crime, the business and political worlds; that large state corporations such as Gazprom and Rosneft secretly pay in money to a Kremlin slush-fund, kept at VTK bank.

José Grinda Gonzalez, a national court prosecutor, in Spain, in addition, discovered the FSB had over fifteen years been “absorbing” the Russian Mafia to execute state functions, and if necessary to “eliminate” them i.e. criminals were used to monopolize state power and to divert public attention from murky state activities both at home and abroad. This was the proof which the critics had supposed for so long. By reiterating a theory first advanced by Litvinenko, Grinda was also re-opening the reason why Litvinienko had been “eliminated” by the FSB and the Russian authorities. “A virtual Mafia state”? More precisely, Putin’s own Mafia state .

As for the big cheese at the top, in the EU the cables reported that EC Commissioner Chris Patten felt Putin’s family history was a determining factor: “He seems a completely reasonable man when discussing the Middle East or energy policy, but when the conversation shifts to Chechnya or Islamic extremism, Putin’s eyes turn to those of a killer.”

Surprisingly, soon after these revelations the author was given his marching orders to leave Russia, as if his work was hacked into by extremely competent IT boffins, the guardian angels of the Kremlin. After more slip shod embarrassments, this proved to be another favourable opportunity for a dogged sceptical to review his experiences and conclusions from different angles: one, the German term Zersetzung, meaning undermining, subversion, disruption, dissolution and corruption.

Through an academic, Harding, came to the research of Sandra Pingel-Schliemann, who spent years examining the techniques of the defunct East German secret service, the Stasi. Born out of the KGB the Stasi designed covert subtle methods of persecution: intimidation and anonymous harassment, so when victims describe them listeners disbelieve them, treating them solely as symptoms of paranoia to be locked up for their own good. These were the same methods which he and others “enemies of the state” experienced in Russia over the four years.

Incidentally, Putin’s last overseas posting in the 1980s was in Dresden, working close to the Stasi, and it would not be incredible to imagine him importing successfully tried covert tactics back home and reused by the FSB. He was merely doing that which he had always done in his career: to hang onto to power through secret service methods; only now, as leader he had the free ride to re-establish his own dream secret master-servant state of past Soviet days, and by introducing his faithful clones as subordinates to effect total submission. Wherever that criticism was not stamped out they should exert the greatest painful rehabilitation methods which neither Big Brother nor author George Orwell could have dreamt about 1984 A Novel.

Luke Harding realises that just as no totalitarian states cannot survive eternally, neither can the power of all mobsters and boss Mafiosi. Their dream, thus, is to make the greatest profit in the shortest period of time, and then disappear. Vladimir Putin and his poodles are living on borrowed time, and this small but powerful volume is simply another means for others to blow down his house of cards built on shifting sands. A valuable, revealing piece of secret dynamite of the modern real world which Fleming From Russia with Love: James Bond 007 (Vintage Classics), Le Carré The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Penguin Modern Classics), and Rimington The Geneva Trap: A Liz Carlyle novel (Liz Carlyle 7) just imagine developing in their fictional minds. Here fiction meets fact with history.
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on 3 January 2017
I got round to reading this book only in the last couple of weeks, which, given the events of the last 18 months, may not be a bad thing. It proved to me that Harding was right in his assessments of the Putin regime. I was lucky to have experienced life as a student in Moscow in the early 1980s, and what strikes me, is that what we have now is far worse and far more dangerous. I've followed Russian politics since Putin was elected, but underestimated the extent to which the FSB has taken over the country. So the title of the is apposite and comparisons with the Cosa Nostra are not at all off the mark. This book is essential reading for any student of Russian politics. In this post truth world, here we have the evidence we need to make an accurate assessment of present-day Russia, and yet so many people choose to dismiss clear evidence in favour of gut feelings and wishful thinking. It makes our world a very dangerous place. This should also be essential reading for our civil service in the FCO because sometimes they appear clueless on how to deal with Russia.
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on 11 May 2014
This book is a good read, and explains life in Russia for a western reporter. I couldn't put it down but my only disappointment was the ending when LH was surprised he was kicked out of Russia, surely it must have been no surprise. Considering the other crimes that the state commits against people, killings etc I'm not sure why HR dwelt on the fact that his family were disrupted etc. Surely this only detracted from the serious crimes the state commits and not sure why this was included, I almost got the impression these concerns where greater than the killing of people who questioned the state. Very strange ending for me but a very good book all the same.
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on 22 March 2014
I FOUND it hard to put this book down, and reading much of it while on holiday in Russia made it even more powerful.
The fact Mr Putin's fascinating country was also in the process of taking back Crimea at the same time added to this.
It is well-written, quietly dramatic, informative and darkly fascinating.
Even if you have just a basic interest in today's Russia, I think you will love it.
Harding's book on Edward Snowden, which I'm halfway through, is also a great, scary read, but the personal/family aspects of this one really add to its power.
I can't recommend it highly enough, but I still plan future further holidays to Russia!
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on 2 February 2016
A beautifully descriptive and readable book written by someone who really lived in Russia and experienced life as it is there, the good and the bad - not as a highly paid foreigner in a security guarded high-rise flat. A very fair and balanced view of his own experiences. I don't think I've cried at a book before but when you get to the short passage written by his daughter I couldn't stop myself. Excellent!
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on 28 February 2015
No spoilers, but if you want to know why Putin is helping to invade the Ukraine? why there are so many billionaire Russians living in London?, and only yesterday, why a key political figure was gunned down outside the Kremlin and the news headlines suspect Putin may be involved - buy this book.
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on 11 July 2015
Excellent read it brings back what happened in the stalin and hitler era it just shows we havent moved on that much
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on 29 May 2015
Really interesting and eye-opening
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on 6 June 2016
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on 12 January 2017
A very enjoyable book that keeps you reading, just couldn't put it down! My first Luke Harding book but, won't be the last.
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