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Luke Harding On The Mafia State

On Friday, Luke Harding published a lengthy article detailing some of his experiences as the Guardian’s correspondent in Russia, which culminated in his deportation in February of this year.  His involvement in covering the Litvinenko case, the war in Georgia and the exile of Bors Berezovsky made himself and his family the victims of an insidious long-term persecution campaign by the FSB.  He has now written a book, “Mafia State: How One Reporter Became An Enemy Of The Brutal New Russia” which comes out this week.  The article makes for fascinating, if not deeply disturbing reading on the perils of pursuing investigative journalism in Russia.  Below is just a brief extract:

The FSB’s invisible presence continued; the agency became an intangible part of my Moscow life – sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly, with someone in a back room clearly turning the volume of minor persecution up and down. That someone listened to my phone calls was made clear most days. FSB agents cut the line whenever my conversation strayed into sensitive areas. Saying words such as “Berezovsky” or “Litvinenko” meant the immediate end of any call. (For a while, I substituted the word “banana” for Berezovsky. Amazingly, this appeared to work.) Discussions of Kremlin politics also ended badly, with the frustrating beep-beep of a disconnected line.

In early December 2007, I arranged a meeting with Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russia’s foremost expert on Kremlin elites and a researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the Academy of Sciences. Sitting in her living room, clad in a pair of her guest slippers, I asked about the FSB’s methods. They maintained a listening station somewhere in Podmoskovi – Moscow’s suburbs – she said. Its existence was a state secret. The FSB had its own special department for spying on foreign diplomats, she added; it probably had one for watching foreign journalists as well. The listeners were told whom they had to listen to. Wasn’t this rather boring work? “The thing that keeps them going is the idea that they are serving their country and defeating its enemies,” she said. Those who had worked in intelligence gathering – including Putin and Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s hawkish former defence minister – tended to be brighter and more flexible. The most fanatical hardliners came from counter-intelligence, she suggested, characterising them as zombies. “These people were brought up in the Soviet Union. They were super-isolationist. They didn’t know anything about the west. They were fed zombie propaganda and ended up as orthodox fanatics.”

Membership of this most secret of clubs offered certain benefits – benefits that compensated for the relatively derisory level of pay. “If you work for the FSB, you don’t have to worry about the law. You can kill someone and nothing will happen,” Kryshtanovskaya said. I asked about the murder of Litvinenko. Senior officers in the FSB had privately admitted to her that his assassination must have been an FSB operation, she said. They had no regrets about the target – a traitor to Russia and someone who deserved to be murdered – but were unimpressed about the bungling and messy way his assassination had been carried out.

On her doorstep, I gave her back the guest slippers. She gave me a word of advice. “Take care,” she said. Why? “Because you are an enemy of Putin,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

Read all here.