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Only A Bit of Hell

FOR A GOOD three centuries now, the British have been at once fascinated and repulsed by Russia. A letter by the sixteenth-century English merchant Richard Chancellor makes reference to the “barbarous and rude Russe,” comparing the Slavs’ hardy constitution favorably to “the daintiness and niceness of our captains.” Even as contact between the two empires increased, the bemusement never quite abated. Certainly, a similar attitude was evident in Churchill’s narrow-eyed suspicion of Stalin’s Soviet Union, which he famously called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Recently the English have had the chance to witness that enigma up close, as London has become the de-facto refuge of oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. The latter is the owner of the Chelsea football club, whose recent Champions League victory will surely allay some fans’ concern that Abramovich is a carpetbagger for whom the team is yet another acquisition, not altogether different from a new yacht. At the same time, British investors have set up shop in Moscow, as have their brethren journalists for whom the exploits of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin have provided the kind of fodder one is unlikely to encounter in, say, Angela Merkel’s Berlin.

Luke Harding was one such journalist—with an emphasis on the past tense. In 2011, The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent was asked (very politely, one imagines) to return to London and never come back. As reported by his colleague Dan Sabbagh, “The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent has been expelled from Russia, in what is believed to be the first removal of a British staff journalist from the country since the end of the Cold War.” Harding’s forced departure came after the newspaper’s reporting of the WikiLeaks cables (you surely remember Julian Assange, erstwhile hero of information libertarians), where he reported on allegations that Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin had become a “virtual mafia state.”

Harding’s new book is called Expelled: A Journalist’s Descent into the Russian Mafia State, but the title is not entirely accurate. In fact, many of the problems with the book are inherent in its name. Harding was refused return to Russia after he published his account of the cables with their unflattering State Department portrayal of Putin, Inc. But “expelled” is a word suggesting coercion, whereas no force was used on Harding, unless one wants to describe bureaucratic travails with greater weight than they merit. Then there is “descent.” If you are looking for sordid accounts of suitcase nukes trafficked by businessmen with Caucasian accents in dim Moscow strip clubs, then I suggest you look elsewhere—to David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, perhaps. Though Harding is a fine journalist, he rarely seems to venture beyond the mid-level power brokers who are plentiful in Moscow, and who have plenty of scores to settle. To be sure, he does his due diligence as a journalist, venturing to Dagestan and Ossetia when conflicts erupt. But he never really goes native.

As for “mafia state,” that is an old saw—one that was indeed used by American diplomats in the Wikileaks documents, but whose existence has been known for a good decade now. Harding seems to have been the victim of some mild thuggery when his apartment was routinely ransacked, potentially by government goons working under the auspices of the FSB (which is really just the KGB with a slightly different acronym). But he was not jailed, beaten, shot, or even extorted. In other words, he was treated with all the privileges afforded to a Westerner—and you would be a fool to think that even in Russia those privileges don’t exist. Were he a muckraker from Tajikistan, this would be a different story.

A more accurate, if less captivating, title would have been Written: Stories I Filed for The Guardian From Moscow. Much—far too much—of Expelled has Harding going through the mundane motions of being a journalist. For example: “I resolve to write a story for The Guardian...” and “...the list makes compelling reading.” A passage two pages long has sentences that begin in the following manner: “I later discover ... I examine ... I discover ... I attend ... I learn.” One imagines a descent into the underworld to be slightly more perilous than that. Then there is “obscure,” used twice in two consequent paragraphs. If such laziness has set in by page 9, we are in for an Aerolflot flight of a read.

Maybe it is that Harding hugged the sidelines a little too closely. He nearly says so himself when he admits to having spent “less time than I would wish reporting on the country’s social problems.” Given that Russia makes Syria look like an orderly, open society, this would have been a better idea than rehashing old tales of Putin’s wealth and corruption.

Nor is it impossible for a Western journalist to gain access to real Russia, real Russians, and what the Russian spirit is really like. Andrew Meier did it masterfully in Black Earth, which had him getting drunk with Russian soldiers in the frozen hinterlands, who after several bouts of vodka proceed to punch each other. You cannot get much more of a descent than that. Meanwhile, the notion that Russia’s security services have colluded with organized crime to create a functional kleptocracy is nothing new—and hasn’t been for years. Peter Baker wrote about it well in Kremlin Rising. Anna Politkovskaya wrote about it even better, for which she was rewarded with a bullet through the head.

This is all just to say that when, on page 235, Harding, having perused the Wikileaks documents, concludes that Russia is one of the “virtual ‘mafia states,’” the reader feels rather as if he has been told that communism wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. As he is leaving Moscow, Harding is informed by a dissident that he is indeed being harassed by the security services. “It’s clear my articles have infuriated the FSB,” Harding writes in a subtly self-laudatory statement. But this is wishful thinking. Annoyed, probably, but that is all. Fury takes much greater courage.

Alexander Nazaryan is the editor of Page Views, the book blog of the New York Daily News. He has just completed his first novel.