What’s going on with Russia? Yesterday, the country celebrated independence (from itself), the opposition marchers defied the new draconian laws without any reply from the police, football fans roughed up Warsaw before a draw with Poland, maybe some attack helicopters were sold to Assad. Stocks are up.
Several Western observers have attempted to make some sense of some of this.
Are corrupt Russians, encouraged by the Kremlin, about to take over the West and destroy it from the inside, as warns Edward Lucas in Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes the West? Or is the UK itself slowly turning into a kind of Russian oligarchy, as muses Ferdinant Mount in The New Few, or A Very British Oligarchy.
Then, by chance, Palgrave-Macmillan kindly sent FPA Russia Blog a copy of another book broadly in this series: Expelled: A Journalist’s Descent into the Russian Mafia State (or Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, as it is titled in the UK), by the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding, who found himself thrown out of the country last year.
In Expelled, Harding focuses on the seamier side of Russia’s contemporary politics and if not the country’s broader relationship with the West, then at least its specific relationship with one Western journalist. Expelled is a serviceable, pretty standard overview of Putin’s decade–oligarchic excess, erosion of personal freedom, oil-fuelled consumerism, extraordinary corruption, and creeping political authoritarianism.
What is different about it though is a note of bitterness about having been personally tarnished with all this unsavouriness: Harding had his flat broken into by the FSB and his family intimidated until his visa was eventually revoked. In all this, Harding seems both somewhat paranoid – he even (half-jokingly) accuses the FSB of stealing his hat in a Moscow sauna–and also more than a little upset that he got posted to Putin’s Russia and not Communist East Germany.
“The similarities between Honecker’s Germany and Putin’s Russia strike me as overwhelming,” Harding strains to declare. “Both are, in effect, sophisticated modern dictatorships.”
This sort of statement only sounds ridiculous if we take it as face value. Of course, Russia, with its uncensored internet, open borders, and capitalist economy is nothing like the GDR. But given the confessional nature of the book, it can be read as an example of the writer coming to terms with his career as a solidly middling Russia correspondent in a field of truly eminent forebears, whose names appear like Freudian signposts throughout the text. If only Putin’s Russia were East Germany or even Communist Romania, goes the logic, then Luke Harding might have ended up another Timothy Garton Ash!
Maybe Harding would like to think of himself as a dissident, but there’s a huge difference between iconoclastically speaking truth to power and criticising a foreign country against which your own government and most of your countrymen are already generally badly predisposed. No wonder the FSB didn’t bother to do him any serious harm. “Bullied” is the word one of his interviewees uses to characterise the kind of psychological pressure Harding underwent at the hands of the secret services. There is no doubt that Harding suffered: as anyone who has experienced bullying knows too well, it is incredibly traumatizing–a violation. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that, placed in the pantheon of abuse suffered by journalists in Russia over the last 20 years–murder, near-fatal beatings, suspicious plane crashes, disappearances–Harding’s victimization was a decidedly mild experience, almost adolescent in scope by comparison. That’s actually quite appropriate, for Harding frequently comes across as a boy yearning to be with the big men of his genre, but unwilling to take the intellectual, not to say personal risks, that such a rite, as well as right, of passage requires.
What are those risks? Good journalism, particularly about a place like Russia or any country with exotic, orientalist or “enemy” baggage, or one that is viewed with suspicion and ignorance in the West, requires a certain amount of “going native.” What distinguishes the best writers from the middling ones is largely the extent to which they immerse themselves, and even came to identify with, the land they are covering; they start defending it, debunking the old myths about it from back home to the point of becoming grumpy, pedantic, misanthropic.
You become so personally affronted by the prejudices and misconceptions carried by your own countrymen about the country you write from that you do your best to keep your pieces from fanning those old clichés. It is a fine line between blind love and objective love, and treading it takes a passion and commitment, internal strife, identity conflict, and introspection verging on lunacy.
It’s not surprising that so many people who have really tried to cover Russia (or the Middle East) faithfully, who have really given themselves to understanding and interpreting a “strange” country and rescuing it from prejudices and myths, have ended up going a little bit mad doing it. Think John Reed, or Colin Thubron in “Among the Russians,” Stephen Cohen in “Survivor’s History” or “Failed Crusade: America and The Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia,” or Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi in “The Exile.” For the Middle East, think Robert Fisk of “Pity the Nation.” Whether or not you like their politics or their personalities, these people pushed themselves all the way to the edge of the precipice.
All of them got so tangled up in the place they were covering that it eventually consumed them. Even the very titles of these books are emotionally charged, ambivalent, yearning. “Exile,” “pity,” “among,” “tragedy”–these words carry empathy, identification, anger, passion. Compare that to Harding’s book’s British title–Mafia State: How One Reporter Became the Enemy of The Brutal New Russia. “Mafia,” “enemy,” “brutal:” these are not the words of an empathetic observer, or even a spurned lover.
Foreign reporting, like good travel writing, demands all of you. Superficially, you are exploring and explaining other people in another country. But what you are really doing is scrutinising yourself, and your own. When you come back “home,” you are no longer the same person, and it is no longer the same home. You have left part of your heart somewhere else, and it is no longer even the same heart. That is real journalism. It hurts, it can drive you crazy, it can take you on a terrifying trip into your own psyche, it will leave you always unsettled; no wonder so few have fully taken it on and pulled it off.
The most frustrating thing about all this is that Harding–an intelligent, educated man, with an Oxford degree, who must have beat out thousands of similarly bright young things to join the staff of one of the best English-language papers–might actually have even been able to pull if off. But he doesn’t seem to have even bothered.
Expelled/Mafia State is breezily told and nicely observed, but never once does it challenge our preconceptions–or even his own, perhaps–of Russia as a corrupt, decaying, bellicose, oligarchic, decadent, insecure, nationalist empire full of obscene consumerism and gross inequality, where a small group of good liberals and truth tellers wage a dangerous daily battle against the bad old KGB guys in the Kremlin. All of that is true, to a point, like most stereotypes and preconceived notions are largely true on a superficial level. But Harding never goes “behind the headlines,” to use the sickening CNN jargon, never makes us really understand why that might be.
I imagine that the sort of person who might buy the book is someone who already thinks Russia is a “Mafia State,” and will come away satisfied to have that uncomplicated worldview happily confirmed, rather than challenged.
All the clichés are there in Expelled/Mafia State–spies, strongmen, yachts and real estate mafiosos; straight down to a 26 year old Irina who wants to marry an oligarch “with a big personality.” I’d love to think of this book as a kind of performance art, as Harding’s way of making a quick buck off of people’s conventional wisdom, but unfortunately, (even after years in Russia) he seems much less cynical than that.
The real reason Expelled/Mafia State is such a thin, conventional, complacent book is simply that Luke Harding never went mad. Never went native. He never caught the bug. Because to do that, you must let go of your stereotypes, your buffer of superiority, and I get the sense that Harding never really “got down” with the people of Russia. He comes across more as a level-headed expat businessman temporarily stationed abroad: excited about the adventure, glad to have dipped his feet in, even to have been stung by an “authentic experience” he could recount at a dinner party (and maybe even make a few bucks from), but all the while yearning to finally get home, back to “ civilization.”
As he points out:
When I return to the house [in England], the white patio doors–bolted when I left–are still bolted. Household objects remain where we left them. The window of my son’s new bedroom is not a warning, a gesture or a dark hint–it’s just a window.
Here is how Harding, in the epilogue, describes his return home to “normal” England, to his “mini-Eden” in Hertfordshire:
After a Moscow winter, an English spring. From the window of my study in Hertfordshire, I can see a Scots pine and a wayfaring tree, flowering white. Daffodils and primroses carpet the neighbouring gardens…In Moscow, there are blizzards and snowfalls, but here is warmth–it is 66F in April–and birdsong”.
It is one of the few passages in the book with a real emotional twang, a sentimental feel of love. Harding’s sense of relief to be back in his English garden is so palpable, it begs the question: why didn’t he just stay home?