Luke Harding represents the epitome of hack journalism. And despite being an ad hominum attack, it is one based in fact. An interesting thing happened on August 20 2007, when the daily he works for (the Guardian) was forced to apologize for Hardings blatant plagiarism of a popular and well respected alternative weekly the Exile. The article in question was entitled 'The richer they come', which serves as doubly ironic in Hardings case. Firstly, the Exiled was actually targeted by the Russian Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage and shut down the following year. Secondly, Hardings plagiarism of the Exile is less indicative of his dishonesty than it was an example of laziness on Hardings part.
You see, Harding is of the trickle down school of foreign correspondents. That is to say, being an individual with a poor grasp of Russian, he fed off of the regurgitated bits of news that had first passed through the Russian press, only to be translated by the English language press operating in Russia. Harding was three steps removed from every story he wrote, so he became a cut and paste warrior. That is to say, Harding needed google to do his job, living in Russia was superfluous in real terms. Except of course, for the refried turd of a book with its tabloid-esque title and its megalomaniacal blurb about becoming an enemy of the Russian state. In that sense, this book is a complete work of fiction. To save myself the effort of doing what Richard de Lacy already brilliantly did in his article for Spiked-online entitled 'Face it, the FSB is just not that into you," I'll quote de Lacy at length to discuss the paranoid fantasy Harding engaged in:
"For example, one very common `welcome to Russia' phenomenon which often does drive us expats mad (albeit usually only figuratively) is returning to your rented flat to find that the landlady has charged in uninvited to nose about, rearrange something, theatrically move the ashtray outside to the balcony, etc. Fortunately, mine always telephoned the day before to give advanced warning, but I can sympathise with Harding when in 2007, after just three months in Russia, he came home to find someone had been in his tenth-floor flat. His reaction, however, invites comment. `Everything appeared normal... And then I saw it. The window of my son's bedroom was wide open... almost provocatively, defiantly so... The dark symbolism of the open window in the children's bedroom was not hard to decipher: take care, or your kids might just fall out.'
So his first thought is not of some overly fastidious landlady wanting some air in her flat, but of a threat from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to throw his children to their deaths. And why does he think the FSB, the KGB's successor organisation, would be after him? Because his paper, the Guardian, had carried an interview earlier that year with Russian fugitive oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
Thankfully, it was only Harding's grip on reality which went hurtling out of the window.
Soon after, he says, `a middle-aged woman, casually dressed and with - I noted - a rather bad 1970s-ish haircut, appeared outside my front door at 7am. When I opened it, she just examined me and left.' Now most of us would assume it was a typically brusque Russian lady looking for someone, and deciding against having a tricky early-morning conversation with an obvious foreigner. But no, Harding is convinced it's the evil FSB.
Then, after - sorry, because of - the Guardian's Berezovsky scoop, Harding even believes he is being targeted at the airport on his way to London. That is, a man slaps his shoulder and tells him there is something wrong with his jacket. This behaviour is familiar to everyone living in Russia. Whether it is a shoelace undone, stitching falling apart, ladders in ladies' tights, dust or dirt, the Russians cannot help pointing it out.
Harding, however, claims that the man's leather jacket is `the unmistakable uniform of the KGB spook'. In that dull, boring real world that the rest of us inhabit, leather jackets are as common in Russia as Manchester United shirts are in Surrey. But this is when Harding really loses the plot: `After takeoff, I made my way to the loo. I took off my jacket and shirt. There was nothing on them. But then, I wouldn't actually know what a bugging device looked like, I reflected.' Well, as a former radio engineer, I can help him here: it needs an aerial, a power source, and you cannot place it invisibly on a target by slapping it on to their shoulder.
There is a lot more of this manic conspiracy theorising in Harding's piece. When his screensaver at work is changed, it is the FSB. When his press accreditation is withdrawn, it is part of the FSB plot - despite his admission that he had broken the terms. When the Russians show leniency and extend his visa to enable his children to finish school, he reflects that this `was always part of the (FSB) plan'. Like the BBC attributing all possible weather conditions to climate change, one wonders what combination of events would not constitute an FSB plot.
One side-effect of Harding's paranoia seems to be an aversion to facts. He launches into a lengthy rant about the nature and recent history of the FSB, but does not even know the name of the organisation behind his torment, calling them the Federal Security Bureau instead of Service (FSB is a transliteration from Russian, with the B standing for Bezopasnosti, or security).
There are other inaccuracies in Harding's piece. He says Russia's media covered the 2008 war in South Ossetia as a `peacekeeping operation' when in reality they covered it, incessantly, as a genocide of innocent Ossetians by Georgians. I am told Harding does not know Russian, which could explain a lot of his confusions. Less forgivable is his claim that many subjects - `corruption in the Kremlin, activities of Russia's intelligence agencies... human rights abuses by federal security forces... speculation about Putin's personal wealth' - are taboo in the Russian media. He may not be aware that such issues are frequently covered in Russian, but he should at least know that the state-owned English language newspaper, the Moscow News, regularly touches on these themes, since his wife was a regular contributor to the paper."
All in all, this is what I will say about Harding, he is a second-rate writer who pretends to be a fifth-tier journalist. He has no interest in reporting the facts, rather he wants to tell a story, especially if he can put himself at the center of that story. He came to Russia, did zero real investigative journalism that could have shed a fractured beam of light on this dark corner of the human experiment we call Russia, and then went home after a few years to sell snake oil and wolf tickets in the form of a spy thriller that he never lived. In fact, in a February 22 2012 article called 'Confessions of a KGB Spy', Harding finishes as such:
"We part in Hyde Park. No one appears to have been tailing us. There are no figures skulking behind the trees. But I find myself glancing over my shoulder, just in case."
Harding is turning the mundane into the strange through the power of his imagination. If this is your idea of journalism, God be with you. But to those who have something new to say without egotistically putting themselves at the center of a paranoid fairytale, Mafia state is little more than a pathetic joke on the reader. Harding doesn't deserve to make a cent off of this thing, unless he rightly moves it to where it belongs: the fiction section.
P.S. The first reviewer Kevin O'Flynn writes for the second stage in Hardings trickle down process, The Moscow Times.