- - Tuesday, June 12, 2012


By Luke Harding
Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 304 pages

On the international release date of Luke Harding’s compelling account of Russia’s modern security state and the Russian Security Service (FSB), the German website for the book unexpectedly became inaccessible, and Google searches redirected users to a Russian site that also didn’t work. Mr. Harding suspected foul play and took to Twitter to declare his prime suspects: pro-Kremlin Russian hackers.

Injudicious? Paranoid? Maybe, but Mr. Harding can be forgiven for his conspiratorial instincts. As “Expelled: A Journalist’s Descent Into the Russian Mafia State” details, Mr. Harding was the Moscow correspondent for the United Kingdom’s Guardian for four years - until his refusal to allow the security service to set the parameters of his investigative reporting made him the first British staff reporter to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War. But before deporting him, the Russians tormented him. Mr. Harding was visited repeatedly by what he calls “ghosts” - agents from the FSB who would break into his flat, leaving behind subtle but unsettling traces of their presence.

On their first visit, the agents leave Mr. Harding’s son’s bedroom window, 10 floors up, wide open. Mr. Harding has no trouble interpreting the “dark symbolism” of it, and it would not be the last time the FSB would threaten his family. During his tenure in Russia, the ghosts also hack his email, follow him around Moscow and record his conversations. Mr. Harding’s office and home are repeated targets, and during one break-in, his intruders leave a sex manual next to his bed. He even is summoned for questioning in the infamous Lefortovo prison, a once-terrifying relic of Soviet tyranny.

Some of this Mr. Harding finds amusing - like the sex manual - and some he finds menacing, which is his tormentors’ intent. Mr. Harding’s experiences dovetail with this newspaper’s reporting, which broke the news in August 2011 that throughout the preceding four years - exactly the same time Mr. Harding was in Russia - the FSB stepped up its “dirty tricks” campaign against American officials and diplomats.

Mr. Harding’s mistreatment prompts him to delve into Soviet-era KGB tactics, and he finds that the FSB is replicating them. (Even the sex-manual prank is an old KGB trick.) Mr. Harding also spends a chapter discussing the research he conducted into the psychological manipulation of dissidents and journalists by 20th-century communist regimes. Here, too, it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin has resuscitated the old playbook.

But the question of why nags at Mr. Harding. When he finds the answer, its simplicity is illuminating. Mr. Harding travels to Berlin to meet with Jochen Girke, a former high-ranking “operational psychology” official of the East German Stasi. If old Berliners like Mr. Girke have moved on, why hasn’t Mr. Putin? “Wladimir Putin macht was er kennt,” Mr. Girke tells Mr. Harding. “Vladimir Putin does what he knows.”

And what he knows, as a former KGB and FSB man, is a world surrounded by rivals and spies. These imaginary enemies are, perversely, the source of Mr. Putin’s hold on power. He has bolstered the FSB beyond even the reach of the KGB, and thanks to the “power vertical,” the agency answers only to Mr. Putin. He feeds the FSB’s paranoia with his own, which breeds loyalty to him. “No enemies means no KGB,” Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia’s top experts on the Kremlin, tells Mr. Harding.

And the enemies are everywhere. They are inside the country, such as the Western nongovernmental organizations subjected to the FSB’s intimidation tactics and the Russian journalists and brave human rights activists who are murdered for their work - all depicted in gripping detail by Mr. Harding. And they are outside the country, too.

Some of Mr. Harding’s best reporting in the book consists of his account of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Russia’s invasion, ostensibly to defend the pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia, was swift and successful. But the end of the war didn’t end Russian military aggression. Mr. Harding writes that after the two countries agreed to the terms of the cease-fire, he noticed “Russia’s mighty war machine trundling serenely through the Georgian countryside,” replete with Chechen “irregulars.”

Tens of thousands of Georgian villagers between South Ossetia and Gori are on the move, trying desperately to outrun the Russian militias murdering defenseless Georgian civilians before setting their villages alight. Mr. Harding asks one militia commander about the ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Russian side. “We did perform some cleaning operations, yes,” he responds casually. Mr. Harding’s descriptions of the atrocities are chilling. Unabashed, the Kremlin follows those atrocities by conducting a victory concert in South Ossetia.

Mr. Harding’s chapter on WikiLeaks is essential. His description of the effect of the FSB’s psychological torment on his children is heartbreaking. His reporting on neo-Nazi-inspired nationalists is worrisome, and his coverage of human rights activists and lawyers risking their lives to set Russia right is uplifting.

It turns out that setting Russia right has suddenly become a national priority. Moscow saw thousands of protesters in the streets after Mr. Putin’s party rigged the December parliamentary elections. Thousands more showed up again in February, as temperatures hit zero. Then upward of 70,000 hit the streets again in May to protest Mr. Putin’s inauguration after his own sham election returned him to the presidency.

In early 2011, after four years in Moscow, Mr. Harding finally is expelled from Russia, on the explicit orders of the FSB. As Mr. Harding adjusts to life back in London, he finds himself looking over his shoulder, following Russian voices, always deadbolting the front door. Slowly, he begins to shed his hard-earned fear. He is, he admits, “unlearn[ing] Moscow rules.” Back in Moscow, Russians may be doing the same. Mr. Harding’s book is a good primer on what they hope to leave behind.

Seth Mandel is assistant editor of Commentary magazine.

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