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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 22 May 2017
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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 27 April 2012
Luke Harding's Mafia State is the most compelling book about today's Russia I have read. Harding writes with understated passion for the country he has come to love during his four years there as a Moscow Guardian correspondent. His account of break-ins into his family home, harassment, and deportation, all orchestrated by the FSB, should be an embarrassment to all involved into this, and similar cases in Russian self-proclaimed democracy.

What makes this book stand out is the personal element, and a touching honesty with which the author writes about his family and their Russian experience.
The book is well structured, and Harding's excellent journalistic skills make it an easy read even when he writes about complex political issues. I recommend this book to anyone who interested in trying to understand what political and social forces move within Russia today and how they affect the lives of its own citizens and those in the world at large.
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on 18 March 2012
This is by far the best English-language book on the nature of both the Russian state and Russian society during the disastrous period of Putin's (mis)rule. As it is very likely that Putin will remain in power for at least several more years, this volume is a 'must' read for those interested in and worried about the dire impact that the Russian mafiosi are having on their own country and, inevitably, on the rest of the world. Unlike most Westerners, Harding perceives the very essence of many of those in power in Moscow - their shady past, their criminal mentality, their selfish preoccupations, their professional incompetence and, perhaps most important and dangerous, their brilliant ability to lie and to deceive so many of their fellow-citizens as well as naive and poorly informed foreigners. It's astonishing that the author saw through this pretence (sometimes known as Potemkin villages) so quickly. Moreover, he writes stylishly and vividly. Essential reading. I'm so glad it's now available in paperback!
Martin Dewhirst, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Glasgow, Scotland
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on 16 July 2016
The final chapter of this book concentrates on the methods of the Stasi, the secret service of the defunct German Democratic Republic. I skip to this point because I have often felt that there is a preoccupation with German history solely between 1933 and 1945, a preoccupation that often causes one to miss the story of the two postwar German states. A period of breathtaking change. And so it is with modern Russia. Preoccupied as we have sometimes been with our "victory" in the cold war, we have missed the subtle rise of the new Russia, Putin, Oligarchs and all and in doing so missed the fact that the cold war is back, the paranoia, the suspicion and spy craft. The only difference this time is that the Russians have more expensive tastes and more than enough cash to indulge them.

Luke Harding was the Moscow Correspondent for the Guardian. This entertaining work covers him time there from 2007 onwards and details the subtle forms of harassment employed by the successor to the KGB, the FSB against him and his family. Most chillingly of all, the frequent flat and house break ins designed to install fear into him, lest he become an ardent critic of the regime.

This is set against a backdrop of how and why Russia has become what it is today, with Putin's "vertical power structure" explained in great detail. Harding goes on to explain that Russia is widely viewed in diplomatic circles as a rogue mafia state where law and order and power are commodities that can be purchased like any other. Harding charts the resurgence of Russian chauvinism, Russia's claims of exclusive diplomatic and hard power influence over its neighbours and the increasingly state sponsored paranoia of the West. He also touches on the human rights abuses in Russia and the Caucasus and the suspions of state terrorism.

Inevitably this brings Harding into conflict with Kremlin and his press accreditation is withdrawn. The way the Kremlin go about orchestrating this causes maximum distress to his wife and children who are forced to remain behind in Moscow whilst he is refused re-entry to Russia on a return flight from London.

Anybody who wants an understanding of modern day Russia could do far worse than start here. A thoroughly entertaining and informative journey, if not for the author and his family.

Michael Evans
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 April 2012
After mastering Russian with impressive speed, Luke Harding spent about four years based in Moscow as a foreign correspondent for "The Guardian". Making the most of opportunities to travel which he clearly found fascinating, Harding was more energetic and courageous than many of his colleagues, in reporting on the growth of corruption and undemocratic "vertical power" under Putin, crushing the opportunities opened up by Gorbachev's "perestroika". He describes unflinchingly how former KGB agents (siloviki) have gained key positions in the Kremlin, with the recently formed FSB (Federal Security Service) as insidious as the KGB and if anything even more of a law unto itself.

Regular readers of the "quality press" will already know how journalists like Anna Politkovskaya have been shot in broad daylight for investigating and writing about the truth, how Litvinenko was poisoned in London by Russians who brought polonium into the UK to put in his tea, and how the "oligarchs" who made vast fortunes out of Russian privatisation are now salting away their wealth in places like London. Harding builds on all this to explain how Russia is hardening back into an authoritarian state in which senior politicians enrich themselves, links with international organised crime grow, freedom of speech is crushed and the gaps between rich and poor widen.

Harding's outspoken stance attracted adverse attention from the FSB from the outset. He repeatedly found evidence of his flat being entered - not to steal anything, but leaving a window open next to his son's bed in a high rise flat, tampering with a computer screen, even following the old trick of placing a sex manual beside his own bed - weird signals to unnerve him and his family. Eventually, he was told he would have to leave because of some irregularity in his paperwork, a convenient and overused charge, and he was refused entry, his visa stamped "annulled" on a return flight to Moscow. Perhaps Harding's cardinal sin in the eyes of Putin and his henchmen was the journalist's inevitable association with the US embassy cables critical of Russia published as "Wikileaks" in "The Guardian".

"Mafia state" is written with the air of breathless haste of an article written to meet a deadline, but, as a book, requires more careful editing. Passages often seem disjointed, and although the chapters are themed, they tend to dodge back and forth in time rather confusingly, with continual use of the present tense for past events an added distraction. Harding's courage may include a touch of foolhardiness, and his apparent surprise at being thrown out of the country appears a little naive.

In the interests of balance, he could have shown a greater understanding of the fear, ignorance, insecurity or conditioning which may explain the lack of democracy and suppression of freedom in the Former Soviet Union. Also, perhaps we are not quite as politically and even morally superior as we like to assume.

I would have liked a bit less on Harding's family members (details no doubt included to bring home the reality of the harassment they suffered in Russia) and more on the background to some of the issues covered, in particular the political upheavals in the various outlying republics. A few more maps would have been invaluable. In fact, I found some good ones on Google images which increased my grasp of the geopolitics a good deal.

Overall, this is an important record of some alarming trends of which we need to be aware, even as our leaders are in the invidious position of turning a blind eye because of the perceived need to work with Russia on the world stage, and Harding has done us a service in putting himself on the line to expose the truth. I also have him to thank for introducing me to the wonderful "Peredvizhniki" painters who captured the beauty of C19 rural Russia.
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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 26 March 2016
Luke Harding's highly personal investigative journalism covering all things Russia - where he worked for four years as the Guardian's Moscow correspondent - is a pulsating, intelligent and comprehensive account of the 'Mafia State' that has taken over Russia.

Harding illustrates how all aspects of Russian life have shifted back to the Soviet Union and even Czarist times, with money replacing ideology. He goes through a lot of material - Litvenienko, investigative journalist murders (3rd worst in the world), massive corruption of the state, the fallen media, the constant FSB spying on him and his family - and lays it right at the door of Vlad the Putin. Whatever should we expect from Russia, with the FSB man at the top? It is a catalogue of horrors, and for the most part, very well told.

Harding is very focussed on the effect all this had on his own life - as the first British journalist thrown out of Russian since the end of the Cold War. This is both the strength and weakness of the account - you really get a strong emotional engagement - but you also get a certain tinge of hubris from Harding that's just a tad uncomfortable. He has the Wikileaks stuff on Russia to thank for his expulsion. It makes you wonder what he thinks of Edward Snowden seeking refuge in Russia.

Very well worth reading, up there with Masha Gessen's 'Man Without a Face' (more Putin truth telling).
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on 10 December 2013
First of all I want to say that I know little about modern day Russia and her politics, as my interest has always been more historical. I think that perhaps in order to enjoy this book more, it would be wise to familiarise oneself with some of the political events in Russia over the last 20 years, and to gain a basic understanding of the system of rule. Whilst I knew of course about major stories such as the alleged assassination of Litvinenko, other major political events were brushed over in this book with an expectation that the reader would know the details, rendering them rather ineffective as part of the story. A familiarity with the remit and publications of Wikileaks would also be advisable.

So, perhaps I was at a disadvantage from the start, as I have spent far more time learning about the history than the modern day Eastern Europe. I had hoped that this book would improve my knowledge on how Russia is run during the modern era, from a uniquely personal account of someone who was intent on revealing the truth and hounded as a result.
Instead, what I feel I read was an undisguised attack on Russia's political system, and particularly Putin, the man at the head of it. I don't deny that a negative account of this side of Russia, and indeed Putin, is likely justified, but I would have preferred to be presented with facts from both sides and allowed to make my own decision. Perhaps in that regard I chose the book badly, after all the author was unjustly persecuted and therefore unlikely to leave Russia with feelings of endearment.
On that note however, I have to raise similar questions to some of my fellow reviewers. If the author's experience in Russia was so abhorrent, why return again and again, not alone but with his family? Knowing that the authorities thought nothing of breaking in to the family home, playing psychological mind games and other such antics, would you choose to make this your family's home whilst publicly speaking out against the regime? It seems an unnecessary and dangerous risk, one the author admits he was warned of more than once. The most damning report of all was made public by the author when he was barred from entering Russia, and his wife and two young children were in Moscow alone... and he writes that a three day delay on publication was out of courtesy to allow the Russian government time to reply, not to seek the safe removal of his family, who remained there whilst publication went ahead. An interesting decision for someone who apparently believes, as do many, that the people he was baiting were capable of more than just psychological games, but of murder.

Despite all this the book gets 2 stars, simply because it cannot be denied that it is eye-opening. I haven't been left feeling it necessary to wholly dismiss the author's opinions, despite obvious inconsistencies, because I do believe a lot of what he has reported. But strongly biased as it appears to be, it would be a shame if it were to be the sole source of many people's desire to understand modern day Russia. The historical knowledge of the vast and at times confusing nature of Russia that I do have, perhaps allows me to understand that there is far more behind modern day Russia than one man, as the author may like to have us believe. He is simply a product of Russia's history, the legacy of which is to create autocratic, power-hungry and financially driven rulers.
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