Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe: U.S. Helsinki Commission
Dispatches from Moscow: Luke Harding’s Chilling Tale of KGB Harassment
The Briefing was Held at 2:00 p.m.
in 210 Cannon House Office Building , Washington, D.C.,
Kyle Parker, Policy Adviser, Helsinki Commission, Moderating
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Federal News Service
KYLE PARKER: (Inaudible) – 2 o’clock. My name is Kyle Parker from the
Helsinki Commission. And on behalf of Chairman Smith, Co-chairman Cardin and
the entire commission, I welcome you all to today’s discussion to be a part in.
And Mr. Harding, we’re particularly grateful that you traveled across the ocean
to share your experience with us. We who covered distant countries can get
tired of the same old expertise Washington offers. We’re always excited to
hear something new from someone’s who been there. Mr. Harding’s bio is on the
table outside. But here’s a quick summary of his bona fides – educated at
Oxford, joined the Guardian in 1996, a veteran war correspondent, covered the
wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia’s invasion of Georgia. While I’m sure he
has many anecdotes to share on his wider experience, today’s talk will focus on
his time as a Moscow correspondent during a period of relative peace. I read
his recent book “Mafia State,” which is as entertaining as it is disturbing,
but I’ll leave the details to the author himself.
With unprecedented protests across Russia and presidential elections less than
two weeks away, Russia’s on many minds here in Washington and around the world.
The Helsinki Commission’s focus is always on the human dimension and
commitments agreed to by the participating states of the OSCE. Russia’s not
only a participating state, but the idea for a pan-European security conference
that ultimately became the OSCE was theirs. I expect this briefing will touch
a variety of themes, including free media, corruption, xenophobic violence,
and, of course, aggressive counterintelligence tactics – and that’s putting it
mildly. The discussion is on the record, and we’ll produce an official U.S.
I recognize many of you in the audience – some USG, some Russian government,
NGOs, media, and Hill staff. There’s rich experience here today. And we will
entertain public questions, and take pride in probing controversial issues and
enjoying frank discussion. So please keep that in mind when we listen to Luke.
And with that, I give you Luke Harding.
LUKE HARDING: Thank you.
Well, thank you very much. It’s a delight to be here. Thank you to Kyle
Parker and to the U.S. Helsinki committee for having me here. As Kyle was
saying, I was until last year the Moscow correspondent to the Guardian
newspaper. And I recently worked out that I’m actually the only Guardian
correspondent to have reported from Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution back
And my predecessors were a pretty distinguished bunch. The first Guardian
reporter was Arthur Ransome, who’s better known in England for his stories for
children. Ransome shared a flat with a member of the Politburo, Karl Radek.
He played chess with Lenin. And he had a passionate affair with Leon Trotsky’s
secretary whom he actually married and carted off back to England.
And there was an – (inaudible) – then the second Guardian correspondent – back
then of course it was the Manchester Guardian – was someone called Malcolm
Muggeridge. He – (inaudible). He lived in Moscow in 1932 and 1933. And kind
of reflecting on my rather unhappy experiences in Moscow, I thought of
Muggeridge. He was the son of a socialist British MP and a writer for a
well-respected British newspaper.
And he might have been expected, when he arrived in Russia, to have given a
sort of sympathetic account of the brave new world being forged by the Soviets.
But instead, Muggeridge was really pretty immediately appalled by what he
found – tyranny, censorship, hypocrisy, brutality, poverty. And what Andre
Gide, writing after the war – one of my sort of favorite group of essays, “The
God That Failed,” written by disillusioned ex-communists, called the extent of
the bluff – the extent of the bluff.
And Muggeridge was pretty scornful about some of the Western journalists who
were in Moscow at the time, who he believed were colluding in the great deceit,
sending propagandas to dispatchers from Russia and downplaying or even ignoring
the horrors that they knew to be taking place under Stalin.
Muggeridge’s own career was brief but distinguished. He traveled to the
Ukraine and North Caucasus, and he wrote articles about the genocide taking
place there against Soviet peasants, about 40 million of whom died. And he
smuggled his reports – he evaded censorship and he smuggled his reports back to
the Guardian by a British diplomatic bag.
Now, my newspaper punished him somewhat reluctantly, not entirely believing
them to be true. And there was a furious response in the West. Muggeridge was
accused of being a liar. He found it impossible to get a job for a while as a
journalist. And he resigned from the Guardian. And he was also unable to
return to the Soviet Union.
But after his tour, Muggeridge wrote a wonderful satirical novel called,
“Winter in Moscow,” which is long out of print. And this is sort of – it’s
sort of satirical fiction about the Western journalists who ignored Stalin’s
famines. And it’s a kind of savage attack on left-wing intellectuals who
allowed themselves for various reasons to be duped. And back in London, having
been kicked out last year, I have re-read this. And I was struck, essentially,
by how many of the methods used by Moscow to exert pressure on foreign
journalists have scarcely changed over the kind of intervening eight decades
since Muggeridge’s time.
Now, in the preface to this novel, Muggeridge writes about the position of
foreign journalists in Russia and the manner in which news about Russia reaches
the outside. And he said – and this is in 1934 – he says: There was stiff
censorship, of course, but it is not generally known that foreign journalists
in Moscow work under the perpetual threat of losing their visas and therefore
And Muggeridge also notes what he calls the “thorough behavior” of the OGPU.
Now, I’m sure many of you know the OGPU was Stalin’s secret police, the
forerunner of the KGB and, of course, of today’s FSB or Federal Security
Service. Now, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister – and I think we can
probably safely say future president – is, of course, the FSB’s former boss.
So I arrived in Moscow in January of 2007 to be the Guardian’s correspondent.
And I was somewhat surprised to discover that the self-censorship that
Muggeridge wrote about back in the 1930s still existed – not, I think, in the
kind of overtly kind of tyrannical form that he experienced in the dark years
of Stalinism, but I quickly kind of realized that there were certain (feeds ?)
when reporting from Russia and living inside Russia that it was better to avoid
or prudent to avoid. Now and in the 12 years since Vladimir Putin came to
power in 2000, the Russian press has, I think, instinctively kind of, you know,
learned the rules of the game about what can and can’t be reported to the point
where this system of self-censorship generally works without any kind of great
effort from the Kremlin.
Now, as you all know, the Russian media landscape is mixed. It’s heterodox.
But TV, which is the main source of information, especially political
information for ordinary Russians, is essentially under state control with
opposition politicians and critics, until very recently when these
extraordinary protests started, blacklisted. Additionally, most newspapers are
under the Kremlin’s (thumb ?). I mean, there are clear exceptions to this –
Novaya Kazeta, which I’m sure you all know about.
But – and back when I was a correspondent in Moscow, sitting a rather kind of
rubbish – (inaudible) – office next to or close to – (inaudible) – railway
station, I would read Commersant, which is still a good newspaper. And I
listened to Ekho Moskvy, the Echo of Moscow, which is a progressive opposition
radio station and a source of news for Russia’s frustrated liberals. But – and
then of course there’s the Internet which – as the campaign of Alexey Navalny,
the anti-corruption campaigner, shows – is an absolutely vibrant outlet for
discussion. It’s the kind of locus of these current protests, where the
conversation is taking place.
But when I arrived, I mean, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya had just happened
in 2006. And I think that made really clear to all of us that there were
certain taboo issues you report from Russia at your peril. And I think it’s
worth mentioning three of them. The first one is corruption in high places.
Now, it’s absolutely possible to talk about corruption, as President Dmitry
Medvedev frequently does, as a kind of abstract problem, a kind of – you know,
a metaphysical conundrum that can be solved through, you know, reform and
modernization itself. But it isn’t possible or at least it’s not advisable to
talk about corruption in connection with named senior figures inside the
Russian government. Now this is especially true of Prime Minister Putin, whose
alleged vast wealth is an open secret within the Russian elite.
Secondly, it’s not advisable to write about the FSB, Russia’s all-powerful and
murky domestic counterintelligence agency. Now, the rise of the FSB over the
past decade has been well-documented by two friends of mine, Andrei Soldatov
and Irina Borogan, in their book, “The New Nobility,” which I recommend. But I
think suffice it to say the British prosecutors are convinced that there’s a
clear FSB dimension to the murder in 2006 in London of Alexander Litvinenko,
using radioactive polonium.
Thirdly, it’s extremely dangerous – probably most dangerous of all – to
criticize Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya and a close ally of Mr.
Putin. It’s also clear to me as well as correspondents doing the Moscow beat
that the Kremlin prefer journalists to cover the North Caucasus from the
comfort of their offices in Moscow. The FSB is deliberately placing increasing
restrictions on the movements of foreign correspondents in Muslim republics
like Dagestan and Ingushetia. Now these republics were in the grip of a
vicious, low-level war essentially between Islamist rebels and local and
federal security forces. But I think this war in Russia has stopped being
simply a regional conflict and now – (inaudible) – as a sort of serious
existential threat to Europe and Russia, with attacks on the Moscow subway and
airports in 2010 and 2011. And there are human rights abuses on both sides.
But I think it’s absolutely legitimate to ask whether Moscow’s strategy in the
North Caucasus is counterproductive.
Now I’m a kind of stubborn guy. And during my four years in Moscow, I think I
repeatedly busted all of these taboos. In December 2007, I wrote about an
article about war between various Kremlin clans in the run-up to Mr. Putin’s
departure from the Kremlin – (his ?) departure and what turned out, of course,
to be a rather cynical (and costly move ?) into the prime minister’s office and
then back into the Kremlin and his old job. And against this feuding backdrop,
there were sources deep inside the presidential administration who were
alleging that Mr. Putin was in fact the richest man in Europe, if not the
world, with substantial but undeclared stakes – and meaning stakes in private
oil and gas companies, some of them held by a series of proxies. Now the
Kremlin refused to comment on my story despite my best efforts to get some kind
Additionally, I traveled several times to North Caucasus, visiting Ingushetia
and Dagestan as well as Chechnya, including after the murder in the summer of
2009 of the wonderful and brave human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. Her
colleagues in the human rights group Memorial blamed her killing on President
Kadyrov. And then in November of 2010, I was part of the Guardian team who,
together with The New York Times and other major international newspapers, we
examined leaked diplomatic reports (sleuthed ?) out by WikiLeaks. Now these
WikiLeaks cables paint an unbelievably grim picture of Russia as a brutal and
despairing kleptocracy, in which the activities of the mafia, the Russian
government, and the FSB have kind of melded and become virtually synonymous –
with one investigator in Spain who spent 10 years investigating this – done in
Russia under Vladimir Putin as a virtual mafia state, which gave me the title
for my book.
Now it was clear to me that my kind of inadvertent knack for truth-telling was
never going to be very popular with official Russia. But what I was unprepared
for was the extraordinary campaign of harassment against me by the FSB, the
Federal Security Service. This campaign began within just over four months of
my arrival in Moscow in 2007.
Now I think to a certain extent my story is untypical in that I suffered more
at the hands of the FSB than any other recent Western correspondent. But I
think it also needs to be acknowledged on the record that these same insidious
methods have been used against other people, against reporters, against
American and British diplomats who’ve been the subject of lies and smears,
including recently the new American ambassador in Moscow, (spatters of ?)
diplomats, human rights activists, and especially Russian local staffers
working for Western embassies in Moscow.
Now the trigger in my case was rather ridiculous. It was essentially two of my
colleagues in London interviewed Boris Berezovsky. Now, for those of you who
don’t know, Berezovsky is the sort of former kind of Yeltsin-era puppet master,
an oligarch who fell out with Mr. Putin and sought asylum in London. Now
Berezovsky told my colleagues that he was plotting nothing less than the
overthrow of the Putin regime. And I think a more laidback administration or
government would have – would have dismissed this as the kind of distant
rantings of a sort of frustrated exile. And my role was simply to phone Dmitry
Peskov, the Kremlin’s sort of smooth English-speaking press spokesman, and see
if he would give me a quote, which he did somewhat reluctantly. And the
following day, my name appears as the third byline on the Guardian’s front page
story, “I am plotting Russian revolution, says Boris Berezovsky.”
And really from then on, the sort of – the sort of sky fell on my head. And
the FSB took – I think it would be an understatement to say – a keen interest
in me. And they’re scrutiny had many forms. But the most sort of outwardly
intimidating was a summons from the FSB, which (fell in ?) my office, over the
criminal inquiry into the Berezovsky story and insisted I attend an interview
with a lawyer at Lefortovo prison, which is the notorious former KGB jail in
Moscow. And so three weeks after the story was published, I found myself
outside Lefortovo, which is a kind of drab yellow three-story building lined
with spiraling razor bar – razor wire and a rather – (inaudible) – courtyard.
And it’s clear this is a place that journalists are not normally admitted. And
so I went in with – (inaudible) – into the waiting room. And – but I could
actually almost sort of reconstruct this kind of – (word inaudible). The
waiting room – if you imagine a room of this size where you’re all sitting, but
no table and chairs – nothing at all. So immediately you’re standing. There
was nowhere to kind of sit, no magazines, no – (inaudible) – like that. And
then I had to hand over my passport and phone. And there was this sort of
silvered mirror that – where the FSB guy can see me, but I couldn’t see him.
And I just noted the hand was rather hairy, since hairy hand took my phone.
And then we proceeded kind of old, sort of (red/green ?) sort of carpeted
corridor. And there were – there were old-fashioned sort of KGB cameras which
kind of followed us around as we were moving along past a series of enormous
wooden doors. And it just sort of struck me that there was this sort of
atmosphere of shabby menace. And it (forcefully ?) reminded me of the Berlin
headquarters of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. And I think there are
interesting parallels between the two regimes – both anxious to kind of
maintain their international respectability while at the same time very eager
to use covert methods against their so-called enemies. And if anything in the
– (inaudible) – changed since Soviet times, I couldn’t identify it.
And so I arrived at room 306, I knocked on the door, and there was Major A.V.
Kuzmin, who was the young FSB major who’d summoned us to see him. And he
invited us inside. And on the table – and this was about that (half ?) size –
were – there was some fizzy mineral water and three glasses which had the
initials Cheka, OGPU, KGB and FSB. And for those of you who don’t know, these
are the initials of Russian secret spy organizations, beginning with the Cheka,
the communists’ first secret police founded in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky.
And for me it was kind of a revelation moment, and it just seemed that the FSB
saw itself – despite the fact the Cold War was supposed to have ended, and
communism was finished two decades ago – as part of this kind of conspiratorial
Chekist tradition. Mr. Kuzmin basically asked me a series of banal and
pointless questions, like what was my name, where did I go to university and so
on. And I think really the purpose of the whole – this whole badly scripted
sort of encounter was to make me think twice before writing anything
displeasing of the Russian regime.
But in addition to this kind of public – (inaudible) – summons, the FSB broke
into my flat – something the agency would do repeatedly over a period of almost
four years. And I lately discovered that American and British diplomats have
also suffered greatly from these house intrusions, as the FSB’s clandestine
domestic operations – (inaudible). John Beyrle, former U.S. ambassador of
Moscow, describes them well, reporting in 2009 how – and I quote – “harassing
activity against U.S. embassy personnel has spiked to record levels, together
with slanderous personal attacks in the Russian media and with home intrusions
becoming more commonplace and bold.” He is clear, unequivocal, that this
activity originates with the FSB.
Beyrle gives – I mean, Beyrle is a sort of – (inaudible) – man. He gives
several explanations for why the FSB is still – (inaudible) – out the KGB
handbook. And he mentions prevalent paranoia at the prospect of an Orange
Revolution following pro-democracy uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and
2004. And he talks about the Cold War mentality of the pragmatic hardliners
who run Russia’s power agencies – security agencies. And this paranoia of
course has kind of, you know, gone viral since both the Arab Spring and the
revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – and also of course the recent (street
protests ?) in Moscow.
Now Beyrle talks about these hardliners’ lack of personal contact with the West
as well. But whatever the reasons, I found these house intrusions – which also
took place at the Guardian’s Moscow office – to be unpleasant. In each of
these break-ins, nothing was stolen. I mean, no one took my TV or anything
like that. I mean, nothing was burglarized. But instead it was clear the aim
was to induce feelings of anxiety and psychological distress – and, quite
simply, really just to kind of annoy us.
Our central heating was disconnected from a Moscow dacha in the – in the middle
of a Moscow winter. Windows were opened, including the window to my son’s
bedroom, when we lived on the 10th floor of an apartment block and there was a
sheer plunge 50 feet below. Strange alarm clocks went off in the middle of the
night, which didn’t belong to us and we couldn’t locate. We had a burglar
alarm, but I came home one day to discover all 14 batteries had been removed
from every single point in the house. And after that we didn’t bother setting
it, because it clearly wasn’t much deterrent.
At work, sometimes my emails disappeared. The office Internet modem was pulled
out. The window was opened to our office. The phone on my desk was left off
the hook. And if you look at – there’s a little image of that there. I mean,
this is sort of on the press release which some of you may have, which is a
sort of classic indication of what you get. You come into work and you see
someone’s been sort of – you know, it’s like the three bears. Someone’s been
in there and left the phone off the hook. And then you can see it’s – this is
the date, it’s – (inaudible, background noise) – since four in the morning.
And, as well as this kind of constant surveillance – bugging your telephone
calls, disruption of mobile conversation – and once or twice very unpromising,
pimply young men in leather jackets with brown shoes who would – who would
follow me into – (inaudible, background noise) – and sit right next to me –
there was kind of – there was sort of harassment as well. So if Olga and I
were making phone calls to London, and I would say the word “Berezovsky” or
“Putin” or “corruption” or “Litvinenko,” that the line would immediately be
cut, and I’d hear a kind of beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. So I tried an
experiment at one point, and I decided to substitute “Berezovsky” with the word
“banana.” (Laughter.) And amazingly this worked. (Laughter.) I could have a
phone call about “banana” to London without interruption.
And then really, the most – the most surreal part of this was, one day I came
home from work to discover that someone had left a book on sex and
relationships by the side of my bed; there were a whole series of middle-class
– (inaudible) – English; and then suddenly – (inaudible). And more than that,
someone had actually bookmarked it to page 110. So I turned to see what page
110 was. And it was – it was advice on orgasms, how to have a better orgasm,
which just set off a whole chain of thoughts in my head about, maybe I was
doing something wrong. I don’t know. (Laughter.)
But anyway – (chuckles) – but actually I subsequently discovered this was an
old KGB tactic which had been wheeled out by the Stasi as well in East Germany:
leaving pornography by a target’s bed. And after I went and got kicked out
from Moscow, I actually went to Berlin and I met with a former Stasi officer,
someone called Joachim Gerke (ph), who was the professor of operational
psychology at the Stasi’s training academy. And he basically said that the KGB
and Stasi used these same methods, which are called “zersetzend.” It’s a
German word which means corrosion or undermining or subversion.
And he said that his – (inaudible) – Stasi did routine break-ins into flats of
their targets in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then typically it was dissidents or
members of church groups or people who wanted to flee to West Germany. But the
idea essentially was to move objects around, to play God with people, and to
demoralize and try to psychologically undermine them. And you know, he sort of
said – (in German accent) – yes, the idea came from the Russians, but we
Germans – we did it better. (Chuckles, laughter.) And, you know, of course
(the second you think you can ?) – because I’m sure you know who was stationed
in Dresden in communist East Germany back in the late 1980s – a young,
ambitious (Robert Grey ?), the very focused KGB officer called Vladimir Putin.
So this insidious, undeniable secret war against diplomats, against foreign
correspondents, didn’t and doesn’t just involve the kind of more thuggish
elements from the FSB. Russia’s foreign ministry also plays its part. And in
the wake of the 2000 war in Georgia, which Kyle mentioned, the official mood
when I came back from reporting from the front line in Georgia was toward
Western – (inaudible) – was extremely angry and vengeful. And the cycle of
harassment, which kind of was like stop-start, really escalated a lot, to the
point where something was happening every day.
And when I went to go and see – (inaudible) – from the Russian foreign
ministry, he dropped very heavy hints that something unpleasant would happen to
me if I stayed in Russia. He didn’t say what, but – so – and then in 2010, I
discovered that what Malcolm Muggeridge mentioned back in the 1930s about the
perpetual threat to correspondents of losing their visas and therefore their
jobs was still very much a reality.
In November of that year, I traveled back to London to examine the (media ?)
schedules to go with the Guardian’s international partners, The New York Times
and others. And while I was there, sitting in the Guardian’s rather pathetic
secret bunker on the fourth floor in London – which was an overheated room with
a – with a coffee machine that served rather mediocre coffee, and not much else
– my phone rang. And it was a call from an official – (inaudible) – the
Russian foreign ministry, summoning me to an urgent meeting. And he refused to
say what it was about.
And then on November the 16th, back in Moscow, I turned up to my appointment,
thinking I was going to be given a sort of official story but nothing else.
But instead I met Oleg Vitroniv (ph), who was a sort of official there, who
began by talking about the weather and saying how unseasonably warm it was.
And then I immediately knew this was quite serious. (Chuckles.) So – and
after an excruciating preamble lasting about 20 minutes, he finally got to the
point and told me that the Russian government wasn’t renewing my visa and was
in effect expelling me from Russia.
Now the – we didn’t go public with this at all at this point. We talked to the
British foreign office and the British embassy in Moscow. And they protested,
and they succeeded in having my expulsion postponed for six months so that – so
that – I was there with my wife Phoebe and our two kids – so that the kids
could finish their academic year. I picked up a new visa valid until May 2011.
And then I went back to London and wrote a book with my colleague David Leigh.
And then in February – February the 5th – of last year, I flew back to Moscow
to rejoin my family, whom I hadn’t seen for a month and I was missing. And I
made it as far as the passport control at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. And
when – for those of you who’ve been there, you’ll know what that’s like. But I
handed my passport over to the woman – young woman at passport control. She
tapped in my numbers, and then she sort of went like this, and then she passed
it to another guy. It was funneled to someone else, young official called
Nikolai (sp), and he disappeared into a side room. And then he re-emerged
after about six or seven minutes.
And he said – for those of you who speak Russian, he said – (in Russian) – so,
to you, Russia is closed. And so I said, OK, Nikolai (sp), you know – (in
Russian) – why? (Laughter.) And he said – (in Russian) – I don’t know. (In
Russian) – you know, did you do something? And I said – (in Russian) –
(laughter) – I didn’t do anything. And that was it. And – but basically he
seemed completely mystified by the decision to deport me, which had clearly
been made by the FSB. And, you know, I don’t – I still don’t know why –
despite the fact that I had a valid visa – the – (inaudible) – border agency,
which is a part of the FSB – (inaudible) – decided to put me on a stop list.
But anyway, so Nikolai (sp) then escorted me with my passport to a deportation
cell. And he was very kind, but – you know, he was very sort of polite. But
he basically – he locked me in. And I found – I found a bunch of forlorn kind
of lost souls – Tajiks, Central Asians – who were also about to be deported and
waiting; they had been there quite a long time. And they looked at me as if I
were some visitor from Venus. You know, I was prosperous – a bit of a, you
know, scruffy European – but being deported as well. And it was – it was
rather surreal. But it was clear to me that the FSB was essentially
indifferent to the kind of small international scandal that this incident
caused. And I was telling everybody I knew. I was telling my friends at The
New York Times; I was telling – (inaudible) – and so on.
And I was basically funneled back onto the plane where I’d just arrived on; it
was the same plane. The door was still open. And then my phone rang, and it
was Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian. And I thought he was
going to tell me that the British foreign secretary, William Hague, was sending
in the SAS, or there was some kind of rescue imminent. And he – Alan
Rusbridger – he merely said, they really don’t like you, do they? And I said,
no, they really don’t. (Laughter.) The plane door shut – (chuckles) – and
that was it. You know, I sort of settled down to re-watch “The Social
Network,” and my career effectively as a Moscow correspondent was over after
So, I mean, just to – just to wind up my formal presentation, I mean, as a – as
a correspondent in Moscow, the favorite parlor game was – among journalists and
diplomats, was to kind of ponder what the – what the nature of the –
(inaudible) – relationship was between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin; and
whether the differences between them were stylistic – both kind of – Medvedev
the liberal ying, and Putin the hawkish yang; or whether actually they kind of
represented something else, that Medvedev meant to genuinely move away from the
old KGB – (lugubrious ?) KGB way of doing business, towards a sort of more
modern, savvy, Internet-based, law-based Russia.
And I think it’s true to say that, for me, and indeed for everybody – you know,
journalists, diplomats – given the absolutely opaque nature of Russian
politics, it was very hard to give a definitive answer to this question.
(Inaudible) – one of my – there were many jokes doing the rounds, but my
favorite one was – you know, said that there was a Medvedev camp and a camp –
and a Putin camp inside the Russian government, but there were serious doubts
that Medvedev was actually in the Medvedev camp.
And I think now we know what the answer to that question is, that – (inaudible)
– relationship. And – meaning no disrespect, but I think – speaking plainly, I
think it’s fair to say that the very well-meaning attempts by the U.S.
administration and other European governments – Western governments – to engage
with Medvedev and the supposedly progressive forces that he was supposed to
represent were, regrettably, a complete waste of time.
And I also think they were the product of a false premise, that there was an
ideological battle going on inside the Kremlin between the – (inaudible) – the
so-called power guys, who favored always sort of strong state control, and the
so-called liberals, who wanted innovation and modernization and a more kind of
Western track. But I think in reality, these (vital ?) influence groups inside
Russia’s kind of giant bureaucratic machine don’t have any major ideological
differences. I think essentially it’s all about personal assets, their
personal fortunes, their money abroad, and hanging onto that money at all cost,
keeping their position and making sure that they can dodge any potential law
But I think, when talking about Russia, we have to be clear that what we’re
talking about is in essence a classic kleptocracy, in which, as I said, the
overriding concern of the elites is to hang onto their assets and to stay rich.
And I think this actually explains Putin’s decision to return to the
presidency for a third time, prompting huge demonstrations in Moscow – none of
which, I hasten to say, I think will prevent his victory in next month’s
presidential election and his return to the Kremlin and the diplomatic stage
(from May ?).
The point is that Putin’s own personal prospects, once out of office, were
extremely bleak. There was quite an amusing video doing the rounds where Mr.
Putin’s face had been superimposed on that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the (jailed
?) oligarch, with a voiceover saying that, you know, the prime minister is –
has been charged with various crimes, embezzlement and so on. And – but more
than 2 million people logged onto – logged onto this and saw it within 24
hours. But I think the logic of this system of total corruption which he’s
constructed was that he has to carry on in power forever, regardless of whether
the Russian people want him there or not.
And just finally, all these opposition protests – and we can discuss them now
in the question-and-answer session – but I – you know, I want to think that
these protests will lead to some regime change. But I think we should all be
realistic about what’s going on. And I think I’m ready to be pessimistic that
this – there’ll be any kind of change of leadership or power in Russia for a
while – principally because there’s no correlation between street protests and
Putin’s putative exit from the Kremlin. There’s no institution which can
remove him. The election system in Russia is essentially fake. It’s a kind of
pretend election system with pretend democracy, pretend political parties.
It’s not – it’s not real. There’s no genuine pluralism, or not much.
And so at the moment I cannot see a scenario in which Putin would leave office.
(Inaudible) – he’s showing no signs of doing so voluntarily. But I’d just
like to say, by way of conclusion, that, you know, I really adored Russia. You
know, I liked Russia. I’m not a Russophobe; I’m not James Bond; I’m not a
North Korean spy – all of which have been hurled at me over the past few months.
But, you know, I think Russia is a wonderful and great country with a resilient
culture, with a fantastic literature, with a – with a marvelous, if infuriating
to learn – language. And I think I want – I think many of us want – what
protesters want, which is Russia to – still to be Russia; it doesn’t have to
turn into Switzerland or anywhere else – but just to have different leadership,
better leadership – (inaudible) – leadership. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MR. PARKER: Thank you, Luke. We now have time for a discussion. And we’re
out of session this week; we can be pretty informal. I hope we’ll have good
back-and-forth. We have a microphone there, and it would be convenient if you
would come and identify yourself and affiliation, just so the transcribers have
it all properly for the record.
I don’t even know where to start, Luke. A lot of impressions I had reading
your book, a lot of notes I made – for me it was very – you know, it was – it
was certainly entertaining. To say that, though, obviously doesn’t do it
justice, because after all, it’s not – it’s not fiction. (Chuckles.) These
are – these are people’s lives we’re reading about. As someone who’s covered
Russia here in Washington since, I guess, 1998, it was really fascinating to go
back and visit and re-remember a lot of these events from a – from a slightly
different perspective. Obviously, I read your reporting when it came across –
it was in the news, it was in the – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: Sure.
MR. PARKER: – various places. But to see – to see sort of the backstory – you
know, I’ve lately been rather fascinated by the tweets of a lot of the Moscow
press corps, because of course they make very clear that this is not an –
(inaudible) – in some of the – in so much the more interesting news –
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: – because you really get to hear, you know – (inaudible) – opinion
or something that hasn’t been vetted through the FT’s process or a number of
others – Miriam Elder, Kathy Lally, you know, a number of names that are
familiar to many of us.
The stories are really something. And I hope we can get into some of them –
you know, some of the stuff that stood out – well, you know, I guess one point
is, you know, we titled this, your sort of chilling experience, right?
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: And in a sense, we can laugh and a lot of it sort of strikes us as
amusing. And I think to the hardened and cynical, we sort of just think it was
absolutely normal. Of course, the FSB breaks into your house and does these
things and everybody knows. And well, in fact, maybe that’s not the case
outside our insular world where we sort of follow Russia very closely. And it
is actually something that’s worthy of a little more discussion and thought.
And I’m thinking that perhaps – it strikes me that, OK, you know, so things are
placed out of place or so you’re getting phones off the hook, a window’s open –
as disturbing as it was, you know, speaking with little children. But perhaps
the most insidious part of it is in getting what you had gotten in mentioning
this – (inaudible) – which is excellent.
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: Is – you know, so how did it – it erodes – you know, because these
are things that nobody’s going to laud you as a hero for having suffered
through these things. And you’re sort of denied, in a sense, the vindication –
MR. HARDING: Yeah. I would have to say, you make a very good point. I mean –
MR. HARDING: – I mean, I described it in the book as kind of smart (overture
?) or subtle (overture ?). And I think what’s interesting is that the
efficient East Germans who perfected this, as I sort of said, that Erich
Honecker realized about the mid-1970s that the era when you could kind of cart
anyone off to the gulags or arrest people, you know, and be a respectable of
the international community was over. And therefore something else was called
for, which was kind of more denial.
But the point is although – I mean, sure, it kind of sounds a bit silly. I
think what you have to bear in mind is the kind of cumulative fact that if
you’re living in a situation where you’re basically under total surveillance,
even though actually it’s a waste of time and the FSB hasn’t been logged on to
the Guardian to see what I was doing every day; they didn’t need to break into
But the problem, I think – the problem’s the bigger problem is actually – it’s
a failure by this administration, by Vladimir Putin, who very much sets the
tone, to come up with anything new. There’s a great review by Stephen Holmes
on my book, which is in the London Review of Books. And he talks about
“hapless spooks” who are – who are playing a part in a kind of Cold War drama,
which unknown to them was actually mothballed two decades ago.
And this is the problem. No one has come up with a new handbook. So even
though it’s 2012, even though everybody’s using Twitter, even though the world
has moved on from these kind of Cold War clichés, the FSB is still stuck in
this kind of protocol of housebreaking and what’s called in Russian – (in
Russian). And the – (inaudible) – Stasi shows that the – that people – some
people – women in particular who are exposed to this, some of them have
psychological breakdowns, some of them, you know, collapse mentally. And it’s
clever. It’s the kind of – it’s kind of torture. And I think it kind of
epitomizes the way that this regime says one thing rhetorically, but under the
table it’s doing a whole series of other zillion things.
MR. PARKER: Yeah. I – in a sense, it sort of struck me as somewhat of a – you
could sort of use something like this as a – you know, it’s like a cookbook of
how to deal with your opponents, you know, in a – how to deal with some pesky
journalist as a member of the Council of Europe, as a, you know, an OSCE
participating state. I mean, it places certain limits on what you can –
MR. HARDING: I do feel like I quite have it myself now. I’ve never seen it.
MR. PARKER: Right.
And speaking of book reviews, it was something I had wanted to ask you about
from a review here. And it starts – I’ll just read it into the record here:
With its love of aberration and misfortune, news always tends to be more bad
than good; since it focuses on governments, coverage of a country with nasty
leaders is liable to be especially grim. When I was a correspondent in Moscow,
friends and I often debated whether our perpetual stories about expropriations
and violence, we might be overdoing it – as our government handlers and some
self-interested Western financiers claimed. No, we concluded: if anything,
the truth was in some ways worse than we reported – because tracing the trails
of violence and graft to the satisfaction of English libel law was often
I was wondering if you could speak to just how much are we – the public reader
– missing out, because of not necessarily the self-censorship that is imposed
by fear inside the country –
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: – but something like British libel law, which I understand that
there is some efforts at reform to, you know, addressing libel – (inaudible) –
of what – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: Yeah. I mean, I think the problem is – I think it’s no secret,
as I said in my address, that the people at the top of the Russian state are
extremely rich indeed. I mean, possibly some of the richest people in the
planet. And it’s very hard as a journalist to track this, because the
mechanisms which have been in place since the 1990s and the fall of the Soviet
Union are very complex, involving offshore bank accounts, involving third party
entities, involving a whole series of proxies – they’re very often extremely
rich people. Government officials and – (inaudible) – will not own anything in
their name, but they’ll use proxies to conceal their wealth and assets.
So in a way, as a journalist, you know, even if I had, you know, a hundred top
accountants, a hundred investigative journalists, a hundred years to go (to ?),
you probably wouldn’t get a definitive answer. So what you do is you just kind
of follow the money. You walk around the streets of London where I live –
Belgravia and so on – where much of the elite property has been – has been
bought by very wealthy Russians. And these people are not Bill Gates. They’re
government – you know, they’re not great entrepreneurs. They’re government
servants whose salaries are officially very low and who are earning – who are
owning vast properties.
And there was another story I tried to do as well which involves Gunvor, which
is basically a Swiss-based oil trading company run by a friend of Vladimir
Putin’s called Gennady Timchenko who features in the Forbes list. And his
company is based in – (inaudible) – in Switzerland and currently exports a
third of Russia’s seaborne oil. Now why is a third of Russian oil going
through a small village address – (inaudible) – in Switzerland?
I mean – I mean – and so these are the kinds of story I was trying to pursue.
I mean, I think – I think Russia at the moment is probably the greatest
corruption story in human history. And I think other journalists are trying to
do it too. But the problem is having pursued those kinds of stories, I’m now
sitting in Washington rather than Moscow. (Laughter.)
MR. PARKER: (Inaudible) – the Finnish citizen in Moscow. I – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: That’s correct. I mean, I –
MR. PARKER: – born in Russia, right?
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: And I believe he was also behind – had sued The Economist for a
piece, must be unsuccessfully. I can remember some sort of a –
MR. HARDING: There was a mutual settlement.
MR PARKER: – a settlement. And also had read some press this summer that he
may have been behind some exit visa ban or something on Boris Nemtsov –
MR. HARDING: (Inaudible) – yeah. But the point being that –
MR. PARKER: – and that was quickly walked back, which I know many of us sort
of saw that in Washington with some shock, thinking, well, you know, they’ve
been telling us that Jackson-Vanik and the freedom to emigrate is already OBE
(ph) and yet, you know, sort of a bad optic as one is looking towards –
(inaudible) – you know, making the case that this freedom to emigrate is
absolute now. It – the decision was, I think, ultimately walked back in a day
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: – but it seemed to be a particularly ridiculous optic.
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
MR. PARKER: I have a lot of stuff here, but I don’t want to monopolize the
conversation. Do we have questions from the audience?
Please – if you don’t mind using the microphone.
Sure. (Inaudible) – right up here. Yeah. And I think it’s on.
Q: Hi. Sergei Veshtev (ph), Russian Academy of Science.
Q: And I think how does this – the correlation between all these citizens’
demonstrations and the future regime change in Russia, because I think there
are – (inaudible) – some changes.
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
Q: For instance, current president, Medvedev, introduced a law to return
Russian gubernatorial elections – (inaudible) – as you may know, the council
several years ago. And now we are going to have the right to elect our
governors again. So –
MR. HARDING: (Totally ?).
Q: Yes, so I think there are some changes, since the demonstrations do – are
able to change at least the Russian – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: OK. Well, I mean, I think basically the thought behind this sort
of Kremlin’s secretive red walls, I think it’s been a real mood of panic over
the last few months with no one quite – first of all, I don’t think anyone
quite predicted that these mass protests – I mean, when I – when I was covering
the Russian beat I was going – (inaudible) – demonstrations. And they were
normally about sort of 300 people there, including about 100 journalists. And
it was the same 200 people. It was students and it was like these really
tough, hard old ladies, you know, who’ve seen everything and who were
demonstrating, but no one else.
And it’s almost as if the sort of – Russia’s sort of previously atomized middle
class has kind of woken up from a long slumber all at once and sort of
discovered itself. And I think – I think the reasons for this – I think there
are several reasons for this. I think essentially people were just fed up with
the kind of cheating and lying and sort of feudal disdain of their political
leaders. They’ve had it for a long time, and finally they’ve had enough. I
mean, the flagrant – the blatant fraud in the general elections on December 5th
was just kind of insulting. Plus the fact that we discovered that Putin and
Medvedev had always had an agreement that Putin would come back – I mean, it’s
just kind of insulting to a – to a country which supposedly has an electorate.
So Russians are demonstrating.
But as I said in my – in my address, I’m just – I think the things you
mentioned, the gubernatorial elections, I think – I think it’s not for real. I
think it’s a regime trying to adapt, to send out sort of, you know, a few –
(inaudible) – signals, but I think also to regain power. It’s to hang on to
power and hope these demonstrators eventually get bored and go away. I don’t
think there’s any serious attempt to make Russia more plural, to have a –
(inaudible) – election – which would be a – you know, if that happened, that
would be a real change – or to cede any kind of power to the local opposition.
And just look at what Vladimir Putin says rather than what Dmitry Medvedev
says. And when he was asked about these demonstrators on TV in December, he
said that they were American students being paid by the U.S. government
essentially to demonstrate, which I think even Mr. Putin realized was kind of
And so I don’t see any kind of change of heart. I see a regime which is
determined to stay in power, but one which is increasingly illegitimate,
because if we see mass fraud again on the March 4th election, then what is
Putin? Because he’s no longer a democratically-elected leader. He’s something
MR. PARKER: Please. (Inaudible.)
Q: Winsome Packer with the Helsinki Commission. And again, I’d like to thank
you for that. (Inaudible.)
MR. HARDING: Thank you.
Q: And when I asked Kyle earlier whether – (inaudible) – at this stage, he
said, “Ask provocative questions.”
MR. HARDING: (Chuckles.) OK.
Q: He – (inaudible) – and so I – (inaudible) – have to say that it’s – I have
a couple of observations –
MR. HARDING: OK.
Q: – and a question. As I was reading your book, several of the issues you
raised, particularly corruption and the lack of accountability – (inaudible) –
public officials resonated with me. I – it was educational, but it was also
sort of sobering, because from where I sit, I see many of this – these problems
in this – in our society, except that I think that the U.S. and Western
countries in general are not as scrutinized as Russia is.
MR. HARDING: Right.
Q: And in fact, when you speak of the insidious methods, I think the ordinary
American would be shocked if they were made aware of the kind of just gross
criminal, corrupt fraudulent behavior that goes on. And it’s perpetrated and
supported by our government and infrastructure, including within Congress. And
I – (inaudible). Having been on the receiving end of the kind of insidious
psychological stress that you described for the last four years, I would like
to ask you to – since you have – (inaudible) – sort of free time on your hands
to take a look at a committee within this Congress called the Committee of
Official Standards and Conduct. And I think you’ll find ample material for
your next book. So I’d like to ask – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: Sure.
Q: – have you ever looked at corruption in – to the degree that Russia’s
scrutinized – in the U.S., at our institutions and our officials and the
infrastructure that hides and protects the perpetrators? Thank you.
MR. HARDING: Sure. OK.
Well, I mean, you know, the U.S. isn’t my beat. And the premise of this book
wasn’t to say that the – you know, Russia’s evil and the Western world is
perfect. On the contrary, it’s meaningless – you know, as a veteran
correspondent, I’ve reported in various countries – New Delhi and Berlin, most
recently from Moscow. And my job is simply – you know, I don’t have a dog in
the fight. My job is simply to report a realistic picture of what’s going on.
And I think the problem with Russia is not that Russia gets more scrutiny. I
just think the gap between what the Russian regime says about itself and the
actual reality is much bigger than in any other country I’ve worked in. I
mean, the rhetoric and the – (inaudible) – this is a picture of kleptocracy and
total corruption (a long way apart ?).
And in a sense, I think there is a big misunderstanding in Russia about how the
Western press works, with the assumptions that we’re all – first of all – we’re
all spies. And secondly, we – (inaudible) – trying to sort of denigrate Russia
and so on. And in fact, you know, that the bad publicity that Russia sometimes
gets, the fact that it has a poor international image is not due to conspiracy
involving Western journalists; it’s to do with the fact – (inaudible).
And I also always try to bring back to my – to my Russian friends – to look at
how Westerners are treated by their own press. I mean – I mean, poor Gordon
Brown. Does anyone remember him? The British prime minister. I mean, he was
basically, you know, hounded out of office by the press. We have British
newspapers calling Jacques Chirac a worm. I mean, it’s just full of kind of
abuse for everybody. And so my job wasn’t to, you know, make a comparative
study of corruption; it was merely to give an active portrait of what’s
happening in Russia now. And for that, I was booted out.
MR. PARKER: I think you can – didn’t you cover the expense scandal in the
MR. HARDING: No, I haven’t. But I read a book about a certain – (inaudible) –
MP who was – who was jailed for –
MR. PARKER: Didn’t you – (inaudible) – counts – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: Oh. Oh, yeah. We had a little joke about – (inaudible) – we had
a party and the British expenses scandal was there at the time. And yeah, we –
MR. PARKER: Well, this is the one where some MP is like – it’s this invoice
for – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: Absolutely. There’s definitely – (inaudible). There’s
definitely corruption. There’s corruption in Britain. There’s corruption in
the U.S. and – (inaudible). (Inaudible) – the British expenses scandal, there
were MPs who were being busted for crediting a pizza or a Twix bar, you know,
this kind of thing, which is, I think, relatively trivial.
But I think the thing about Russia is – you know, Russia is the biggest
exporter of oil. It’s the biggest exporter of gas. It has massive –
(inaudible) – coming in. I mean, it’s – if you drive around in Russia, as soon
as you leave the metros and Moscow, the infrastructure is – you know, there
isn’t any infrastructure in spite of this huge amount of money. (Inaudible) –
are kind of medieval; there’re places of absolute poverty and alcoholism and so
And so the question is where is this money going? And the answer is much of
this money is being stolen.
MR. PARKER: (Inaudible.)
Q: My name is Sergei (sp) – (inaudible). I’m from Russian embassy, and I have
something to ask Mr. Harding. You were talking about massive corruption and
saying that the leaders of the Russian Federation are embezzling a lot of
money. And also you were talking about elections and massive fraud during the
last elections of this year.
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
Q: So do you have any serious evidence of the money – of the corruption and of
the election rigging, except for the – Mrs. Clinton’s – what Mrs. Clinton told
after the elections were over?
MR. HARDING: Well, I mean – look, Sergei (sp), thank you very much for coming
and thank you for your – (inaudible).
On the elections, I mean, you can probably address the same question to the
hundreds of thousands of Russians who are demonstrating in streets of Moscow,
because, you know, I think that as a kind of clever and experienced diplomat,
you recognize that these elections were not perfectly fair. I mean, you only
need to go on YouTube, you only need to read blogs, you only need to compare
protocols – protocol tallies of what the actual count was and what the Central
Election Commission said the count was to see there is widespread fraud. I
mean, I don’t think anyone is seriously denying that. I mean, if that wasn’t
the case, then why are we seeing the biggest protest in Russia since before the
And the protesters – their demands are impeccably reasonable. I mean, they’re
not – they don’t want the abolition of capitalism. They simply want a rerun of
the Duma elections, which were fraudulent. They want Vladimir Churov, the head
of the Central Election Commission – he’s a kind of bearded magician, almost –
to be fired for his role in all this. And they just want – you – they just
want a sense that – they want their voices to be heard. They want a – you
know, they want a sort of – a proper pluralistic system where the regime
changes, and the elite changes, and it’s not the same people who stay in power
forever. And so –
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. HARDING: – that’s the election. As far as the corruption goes, as I said
in my address, it’s extremely hard to prove. I don’t know how much money
Vladimir Putin has. I suspect Vladimir Putin doesn’t know how much money he
has. But when I was a journalist, I tried very hard to write about this story.
I mean, the story I did in 2007, which was based upon what a political analyst
called Stanislav Belkovsky was saying – Belkovsky – alleged – he wrote a book
about Putin’s finances that in reality, various companies, in particular
Gunvor, belonged to him, or were essentially – they were his companies.
And I tried very hard to get a response from the Russian government to these
allegations. I must have sent – before I wrote my story, which the Guardian
ran on its front page, I must have sent 17 emails to Dmitry Peskov, but he
wouldn’t reply. And there was no reply on the story for two months. And
sadly, I think the reason why is because everybody knows this is how the system
works. I mean, if you drive around Moscow – you’ve been around Moscow – you
can get stopped by a traffic cop, right, for some imaginary violation. And he
will ask you for 500 rubles, you know, or – and maybe it’s not that; maybe it’s
less – (inaudible) –
MR.: Never happened to me. (Chuckles.)
MR. HARDING: That’s never happened to you? Well, maybe – I don’t know if you
had a blue light or whether you were lucky or if you had the right cop –
(laughter) – but I think that kind of – you know, that happens to everybody.
And this chain of corruption stretches upward. So if the guy on the street is
demanding 300 or 500, and he then has to pass probably 60 (percent), 70 percent
to his boss, and it goes up the chain.
Now, you asked for proof. The U.S. State Department, their own WikiLeaks
cables – it’s the title of my book, “Mafia State,” it comes from a State
Department document. I mean, the – Washington may be wrong. The U.S. may have
got it wrong; the ambassadors may be idiots. But their assessment, when I read
it – when I was reading these cables – was remarkably similar to mine: that
essentially, for better or for worse, Russia has become a kleptocracy.
And the Russian elite is extremely rich. There are some very, very wealthy
bureaucrats. There’s a fascinating cable about corruption in Moscow – which I
urge you to read if you haven’t read it – read it already – about Yuri Luzhkov,
who was mayor of Moscow for a very long time – the money he’s accumulated. I
mean, there is – you know, we never saw top secret – I don’t know what people’s
bank account numbers are. You know, it’s extremely hard to prove. But I think
– I think the overall portrait is regrettably correct.
Q: But that – you consider that serious evidence of, I mean, election rigging
MR. HARDING: I do. I think both these things are real.
Q: Yes, because – in the referring to the police officers stopping people for
alleged violations, I can tell you one thing. I have – I’ve been driving since
2000. I am hundred percent sure I’ve been never stopped for nothing. If I was
stopped, I was never – (inaudible).
MR. HARDING: (Inaudible) – with respect, you are a rather special person, so –
MR. PARKER: You know, sort – so I guess sort of on this topic, there are a
couple – a couple – a couple things I’d like to read into the record. They
seem to me rather appropriate as we look at – again, proof of these things is
difficult. Russia’s a murky environment. It’s hard to fully understand. One
of the things I thought – when you were talking in your speech, you were
talking about the North Caucasus and the strategy – and I’m thinking, well, who
really knows what’s going on in the North Caucasus ? I mean, it’s really a
very difficult place to penetrate. So many of the journalists who tried are
dead. And this extends beyond journalists; it extends to human rights workers
You know, and again, when you look at sort of evidence and concrete proof and –
Russia has been described by some as sort of, you know, a privatized state, you
know, and a variety of – you know, not even a unitary state: a variety of
competing interests, all of which that, you know, have some trappings of
sovereignty – some ability to use the court system, to take advantage of
Russia’s membership in organizations like Interpol, to seek mutual legal
And I thought this was a – an interesting quote to sort of ponder. And this is
Nikolai Krylenko, commissar of justice of the Soviet Union in the 1930s: “A
club is a primitive weapon. A rifle is a more efficient one. The most
efficient is the court.” And also sort of along that vein – it’s just a
paragraph from an editorial that Senator Cardin had in The Washington Post this
summer: “We must be willing to see beyond the veil of sovereignty that corrupt
officials often hide behind. They use courts, prosecutors, police, and
international instruments such as Interpol or mutual legal assistance treaties
as weapons of intimidation, hoping that outsiders are given pause by their
trappings of office and lack of criminal records. We must also protect our
financial system from those who would use it to launder ill-gotten gains.”
Along those lines I might add that – you know, the particularly bizarre
confluence of events a week or so ago, when Russian interior ministry
officials, moving forward in the posthumous prosecution of Sergei Magnitsky –
the story is well-known – during the same week, Russia’s minister of justice,
Konovalov, was in Washington discussing rule-of-law issues with us. And not
the greatest week to be discussing such issues – and don’t know if he had read
the news or just has, you know, a lot of temerity, audacity, to press the issue
of an extradition treaty with the United States.
Perhaps – again, perhaps they give some people some sort of things to chew on
and think about. But these are some of the issues we come up – you know,
again, I’m struck, in reading your book or reading the newspaper or whatever,
the – sort of the debasement of certain terms and language; the use of the word
“investigation,” “investigator” – (in Russian) – you know, sort of has a
specific meaning, and it – and it’s – you know, it strikes me as a clever foil
to use against Western rule-of-law-based societies that are somehow given pause
because, well, after all, there is an ongoing investigation.
MR. HARDING: Yeah. Can I speak to that?
MR. PARKER: And – yes. How is one to sort of penetrate that and move beyond
and understand that we know what your investigation means. We know what it
means when your president says he’ll look into it. In fact, we shudder at what
it means, and who might be investigating.
MR. HARDING: Yeah. But I think we have to be very clear that this – you know,
this whole (value of ? ) this conversation, that it’s not the case of the West
– Britain, the U.S. – imposing our values on Russia. I mean, the – we need to
be clear that these values are Russian values. These are the values enshrined
in the constitution – as you said, in Russia’s membership in the European Court
of Human Rights – freedom of assembly and so on. I mean, these are Russian
values. The people on the streets of Moscow protesting don’t want, you know,
American values and whatever. They want their own values, but to be fairly
imposed, and not have a system where basically – if you’re a member of the
elite or you’ve got the right person’s mobile phone number – you can – you can
do whatever you like, that the law – (inaudible) –
And one of the – one of the chapters in the book is, I cover the second
prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oligarch. Now this was – I
mean, this was a kind of – it was – his court case was a sort of gruesome farce
– again, which had been really badly written. It was clear that the verdict
had been decided in advance. There’s strong evidence that the judge was
nobbled so that the sentence was increased at the last minute – well, this is –
this at least according to a woman who worked for the court. And what was so
depressing about this trial, and also quite funny, was that the prosecutor
didn’t understand it. So the guy who’s reading the case very often stumbled.
He didn’t get the maths.
I mean, the whole thing was bumbling, and just a kind of punitive tableau which
I think – there’s quite an interesting book coming out by Masha Gessen called
“The Man Without a Face,” about Vladimir Putin, which is a sort of biography.
And it’s a good book, and worth reading. But I think one of his less pleasant
traits is this real vindictiveness towards people who he thinks have crossed
him in some way or disrespected him. And the problem is that the legal system,
as Kyle says, essentially is politically susceptible. It’s also criminally
susceptible as well.
So another reason, I think, that there are demonstrations is because there’s no
kind of protection in Russia. You can build a successful business up, and
someone – if they’re well-connected – can take it away from you. You can – you
know, your – (inaudible) – can be knocked over on a pedestrian crossing, and if
the person driving the car is well-connected, nothing will happen to them. And
I – just this legal impunity, I think people are fed up with. And I think that
they just want their basic rights.
MR. PARKER: Thank you for mentioning Khodorkovsky. I’m going to – I’m going
to use something from him to move into another question and sort of another
part of this story.
MR. HARDING: So it’s – (inaudible).
MR. PARKER: Oh, yeah, so – we’ll get to it. In 2008 – this is Khodorkovsky in
correspondence with Boris Akunin in Russian – I believe Russian Esquire. And
he says: “You know, I really do love my country, my Moscow. It seems like one
huge, apathetic and indifferent anthill, but it’s got so much soul. You know,
inside I was sure about the people. And they turned out to be even better than
I had thought.” I found these words rather striking from someone who has been
imprisoned in Siberia for so many years now in European Russia.
And I guess I would use that to sort of get at the issue you raise some in your
talk, more in your book – which strikes me as a tale of two Russias, or at
least two Russias. We have your experience; and then this incredibly moving
letter from your daughter’s experience, which is a different experience of
Russia; and your wife’s experience, which is still yet another experience and
another facet of Russia. I guess you could crudely call it a more positive
experience. But it gets at, I think, one of the reasons why Russia is
discussed so much – which is not necessarily because people are busybodies and
most of them, you know, have to sort of follow what’s going on in other
countries and not look at the real issues – but because Russia is really deeply
I think – again, not to get too smarmy, but there is something very gripping,
something very human, something perhaps even more honest in what you see in
Russia’s system, that – you know, that it is at once beautiful and brutal. The
corruption is real; perhaps it’s more honest. It’s – you know – (chuckles) –
it’s one thing to get a gun in the face and say you’re being robbed, as opposed
to hide it somewhere in the top and cloak it in regulation and – I’m just
wondering if you could sort of tease out –
MR. HARDING: Well, I – may I just – may I just – to talk to just the – for
those of you who haven’t read the book, my wife spent four years wandering
around Moscow and writing basically walks – cultural pieces, literary pieces –
she’d go to – Tolstoy’s house, Chekhov’s house; she’d go to villages where
tourists had never been before. And she’s just written two walking guides to
Moscow, both in Russian and English, with two more to come.
And in a sense I thought we – you know, I thought we – you know, I think a more
laid-back regime would have let us stay, because she was doing all the positive
stuff, almost acting as a kind of tourist person promoting the best parts of
Russia. And I was just telling the political story, which was necessarily
gloomy and dark. But, you know, unfortunately it didn’t work like that. So
we’re now – we’re now – she’s now writing about, you know, Russia from London.
And I’ve – strangely enough, I’ve kind of got to know all of the exiles and
critics of the regime, whom I didn’t know previously but who are kind of living
in London, and really just following – (Hoovering ?) up information from
Moscow, and asking themselves whether they’ll be able to go back anytime soon.
MR. PARKER: It’s interesting, you know – you read your book, and my reaction
is not, wow, I hope I don’t have to go there again. It’s, boy, I’d really like
to – really like to hang out with these people and get to know these people,
the Russians, even better. It’s – I mean, it’s truly a captivating human
story. Other questions? Not to –
MR. PARKER: I think we have one here.
Q: I’m – (inaudible); I’m from the North Caucasus, a journalist. Speaking of
proofs and evidence, I am (unveiling ? ) evidence of situation – (a buried ?)
situation of journalism and secret services in Russia. For foreign journalists
the cost is losing visas, jobs, being expelled from – for me the cost was much
higher. I was kidnapped. I was tortured. My son was arrested. I was never
able to travel for 50 miles without being detained for hours. I was working
for – (inaudible) – Gazeta; that was all my crime.
So my question is: In the North Caucasus, journalists are still being killed.
(Inaudible.) In Russia, journalists use a lot of self-censorship. Situation
is not nice. We saw what happened to – (inaudible) – and we saw what happened
to – (inaudible). So my question is: In your view, what the Western community
can do to probably push Russia to respect the rights of journalists and freedom
of speech – what the society can do? That’s my question. Thank you.
MR. HARDING: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you – thank you very much for your
statement. I mean, I – just to speak to that, I mean, I don’t write or suggest
anywhere that I’m especially heroic or that Western journalists are heroic.
And you’re completely right; there are two sets of rules. Russian journalists
can be killed, and foreign journalists can be harassed and bullied and
ultimately expelled. There’s a sort of twin track, basically –
MR.: And sometimes they’re killed.
MR. HARDING: And sometimes killed. But –
MR.: Paul Klebnikov – (inaudible) –
MR. HARDING: Of course. No, I’m not marginalizing his case at all. I mean,
obviously that’s terrible case. But generally that’s how it works. And I made
very clear in my book that the heroes for me are Natalya Estemirova – the
Russian journalists, not just in Moscow – especially in Russia’s provinces,
where there’s less scrutiny – who are doing – who are brave and courageous and
suffer, you know, everything. I mean, you know about this, and you’re a key
But to answer your question in terms of what can be done, I think really
there’s no point in – and I think diplomatic pressure is ineffective. I think
the Russian leadership lives in a kind of – its own world, to a certain extent
– a kind of a priori world in which essentially everything is kind of
conspiracy against Russia, especially from the United States. And I think
trying to treat them as sort of rational interlocutors who can be persuaded is
wrong. But I think the one practical weapon that the U.S. government has – the
European governments have – are visa bans and asset freezes for individuals
involved in corruption and human rights abuses.
Now there are very many rich Russians who live in – who live in London and
enjoy living in London, who buy up British football teams, newspapers,
everything else. Now of course, you know, I’m in favor of a – of a free market
and so on. But I think – I don’t think we – I don’t think Britain should be
giving visas to people who are connected with human rights cases, certainly –
(inaudible) – or other ones as well.
But I think that’s the one weapon that Western governments have, because the
whole – (inaudible) – is up in Europe for visa liberalization. I’ve never met
anyone, any ordinary Russian, who cares about visa liberalization of the
European Union. But the bureaucratic class, hell, they care about it, because
their wives go shopping in Paris; they have flats in Knightsbridge; their kids
attend British schools and so on. And so this really is a – is a weapon. But
whether there’s any kind of political will to do that from London, from
Washington, I think we’ll have to see. Possibly, but that conversation is
still going on.
MR. PARKER: Questions, please. Cathy.
Q: Cathy Cosman on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. I
wanted to try out on you a couple of comments that Sergei Markedonov made at a
recent session today on the Caucasus. And that was, he felt that Russian
policy on the North Caucasus could be defined as outsourcing sovereignty. He
admitted that certainly that’s true – probably most true of Chechnya. And you
mentioned Kadyrov being the most difficult – one of the taboo topics, and I’d
like to hear more about that, but also if you could view that as applying to
other parts of the North Caucaus as well.
And another comment he made, which I felt was very interesting apropos the
elections, was that there are really three Russias from a political
perspective. One is the budget, the parts of Russia that depend on the state
budget – which includes, you know – (inaudible) – and not just sections of
Russia, but also sections of the population like pensioners. Another of course
is rural Russia. And then of course there is urban Russia, which, as usual,
the Western press is obsessed by. I – they are the most privileged. It’s, you
know, the best educated with the best Western connections and international
connections. So while that’s understandable, I think that also distorts the
perception of what actually Russia is.
And finally he said – and I’m just quoting him, because I think he’s quite
knowledgeable – that he felt that even the three Russias, as he defined them –
probably if you added it all up, the real level of support for Putin would be
40 percent. But – so any reaction to that, I would appreciate. Thanks.
MR. HARDING: OK. Just to keep it relatively brief, on the Caucasus – I think
much of his policy has failed in the Caucasus, and that the war there is
spilling over into European Russia. There are all sorts of reasons –
(inaudible) – poverty, corruption, economic backwardness and so on. But I
think there’s been no creative thinking by the Kremlin for some time on this.
And the default position is always to use force. There’s no attempt to explore
really – meaningful attempt to explore nonforce solutions. And yes –
(inaudible) – has been franchised out to – (inaudible). I mean – (inaudible)
– is the powerful regional leader Russia – (inaudible). But in a way, Chechnya
now enjoys more de facto kind of independence than it did in the 1990s when
there was a constitution and separatists who were fighting for their own
separate state and were brutally suppressed. And Chechnya is just a kind of
bizarre eastern kind of fiefdom. You drive through Grozny, and you see huge
portraits of Putin, of – you know, his father everywhere. It’s like being in –
(inaudible) – photo album – (inaudible) – situation there. I can only see it
On the middle class: Sure, you know, it’s easy to talk to people like you.
And I think probably you’re right. But there’s – you know, I – when I was
there, I did less reporting than I would have liked to have done from rural
Russia. I did do some pieces. But it’s a totally different world.
And it’s true that in some provincial areas that, you know, Vladimir Putin has
support there. I mean, 40 percent I think is a bit high. But the problem is,
it’s impossible to gauge it, because there’s no mechanism. There’s no
mechanism because there are no democratic elections – not real elections.
Opposition parties that offend the Kremlin are not – and they’re not – and
they’re not – they’re sort of nonsystemic. They’re not allowed to stand.
So – and plus they’re all this kind of TV. If you watch Russian – if you speak
Russian, you watch Russian TV, it’s like sort of TV for zombies. You know,
it’s interesting. I mean, young little Russians just like watch it because
it’s just a fairy tale. There’s no (real sense ?) to what’s going on, and it’s
basically a day (blog ?) of Putin and Medvedev – (inaudible).
So we can’t – I mean, Putin definitely has some support, but he’s less popular
than he used to be for sure. And I think this social contract which existed
during his last two presidential terms, which was in essence – you know, what
he said was: You give up your rights, your democratic rights, but in return
you get more prosperity; you know, your standard of living will go up – I think
that social contract is bust. I think it’s collapsed. I think – you know,
these are tough economic times and I think people are tired. They want – you
know, they want a new hero. They want – it’s like having watched seven “Harry
Potters” and quite enjoying it. You know, you realize there’s no eighth, ninth
or 10th “Harry Potter.” It’s just time for a new – franchise.
MR. PARKER: Thank you. Do we have other questions?
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. PARKER: (Off mic.) If you wouldn’t mind again – I hate to make you do it,
but we won’t get it on the record if it’s not on the microphone.
MR. : Sorry –
Q: No? Well, there’s a French journalist.
MR. HARDING: Yes, I’ve read the story. Yeah, yeah.
Q: And she was denied visa and expelled. Then head of the Russian Federal
Immigration Service fired the local boss of some regional division of –
(inaudible) – immigration service. And Russian Ambassador – (inaudible) – and
asked her to go back to Russia. So sometimes strange things happen (in Russia
MR. HARDING: Yeah, I – (inaudible) – agree with that thesis, that sometimes
strange things do happen. And it goes to the model of whether this – actually,
it speaks to the model of whether this a ruthlessly organized, efficient,
Prussian, vertical state – (inaudible) – or whether actually it’s just a –
MR. HARDING: (Inaudible.) It’s a sort of chaotic thing where, you know,
people do the wrong thing or the – you know, a bureaucrat is away, he’s on
holiday, or his boss stamps the wrong form and so on. And I think, you know,
that the state is very powerful. But I think – (inaudible). But I also think
that a lot of these kind of, you know – (inaudible) – are deliberate. I mean,
in my case I was expelled – (inaudible) – guys. You know, and then –
(inaudible) – was about to visit London, and there was a debate in the British
House of Commons with MPs, members of Parliament standing up to say, well, you
know, if British journalists are not welcome in Moscow – (inaudible) – not
welcome in London. And then the Russian ambassador in London – (inaudible) –
said that, you know, he can have a visa again – which was great. So after a
week I was allowed to fly back. I wouldn’t be deported. I was on the same
plane. I re-watched “The Social Network” for the third time. And – but when I
got to the airport, I was met by – (inaudible) – and he gave it to me, and it
was only valid until May. So I said, well, that’s like a few weeks away. What
happens in May? Well, it turned out (anyway ?) I had to leave again.
So this was merely – I was going to be really expelled – (inaudible) – the
third time. So it was a kind of – it’s a game, right, and it’s a game. And it
sets the tone. I mean, you don’t need to bully every foreign journalist. You
do need to periodically kick one out or make them have visa problems. And this
makes everyone think, I – do I really want to write that story? Will it be
passing on consequences to me and my family and my loved ones, et cetera? You
know, will my kids have to find a new school in – (inaudible) – which is what
happens to us. And so it just enforces the system of self-censorship.
So maybe this was a mess-up. But I think in my case that the plan was
essentially all along to just wreck our family life. I mean, we were told in
November we had to leave. I said, can we stay during Christmas? The answer
was no. We had our own – (inaudible) – wrapped up. We had – (inaudible) – we
were about to get on the plane and go to the airport. Our kids had left school
to say goodbye to their friends, and then a phone call came – (inaudible) – I
will give you a visa till May.
And you know, I include my daughter’s letter in this book; she was 13. And she
writes about how her life had been turned upside down. And it’s a very moving
piece because we – there’s a humorous joke to our Moscow – (inaudible). We
hung a clock with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin’s faces on the – it was a
kind of greeting for our FSB intruders. The first thing they saw was their
boss. So I was hoping they might kind of take a bow or something to the czars
as they came in to muck my flat up. And so she starts about how this was a
kind of – you know, a joke, a kind of parody. And then she says, well, now
when I see the clock, I realize it’s the source of all my problems, and now I
realize that this is when my life has been turned upside down. And now we
don’t really joke about the clock. And it’s all thanks to – (inaudible) – and
And I have to say, you know, every parent, you know, loves their kids, but I
can’t read this without kind of crying, because it’s one thing – as you know,
it’s one thing as a journalist taking this and so on, but somehow when your
family’s involved and there are consequences for them, you feel unbelievably
guilty about it. And – because they don’t sign up for that. And that’s why
the FSB’s tactics are so clever, because they know where you’re vulnerable, and
where you’re vulnerable is your family – and not necessarily that something
will absolutely will happen to them, but the fear that something might happen
Q: A couple of points I wanted to ask you. One: What was the reaction of
your – (inaudible)? Did you – did you find support? I know there’s –
(inaudible) – discussions.
MR. HARDING: Yeah, yeah.
Q: And I’m just wondering what the general sense there was, and as well, also,
if you could give us a little bit of insight. I mean, you’ve covered some
pretty interesting and hot stories.
MR. HARDING: Yeah.
Q: You were around the battle at Mazar-e Sharif where Johnny Micheal Spann,
CIA operative, first American casualty in the Afghan War; John Walker Lindh,
the American Taliban, was picked up.
MR. HARDING: That’s right.
Q: You covered Iraq. You were in South Ossetia, inside of Georgia.
Psychologically speaking – you know, you know, Delhi as well – left that out.
I would assume that was relatively calm. But, you know, India has a rather
sophisticated intelligence service. Were there any similarities? Was the
psychological toll different, the same, more intense? I mean, I have friends
that did – (inaudible) – who suffer PTSD after their tour at American embassy
Baghdad. How did Moscow compare to that?
MR. HARDING: Yeah, well, I mean, the strange thing was – and again, I don’t
mean to be in any way flippant – in some ways, covering war is easier than what
you get in Moscow. Because in a war situation – and (shall I say ?), I was
very distressed by the death of Marie Colvin in Syria, who was – who was a
colleague in the Sunday Times who was killed in Homs – but in a war situation,
in a sense you – it’s kind of chaos for everybody. And you make your own risk
assessment. You hope you’ve made the right risk assessment. You try and, you
know, interview people, stay alive, do the story and so on. But the conditions
are really difficult for everybody.
What was so insidious about Moscow was, it’s personal. It really is personal.
And essentially, if you don’t write critical articles about the Russian regime,
their agendas, then nothing will happen to you – probably not. And if you do,
then there may or may not be consequences. And I think what Vladimir Putin has
done really very cleverly – I mean, I don’t underestimate him at all – is that
he’s created a system where private space is private space, for most people.
If you put (somebody to one side ?) and said, so, if you’re a Russian citizen,
this is not the Soviet Union; this is not the Soviet Union (part two ?). You
can earn a living, you can fall in love, you can have affairs, you can get
drunk – you can do all that stuff. And that’s OK.
But the problem is, as soon as you start challenging in any way the Kremlin’s
monopoly on power and information, as soon as you – as soon as you’re in public
space, then various things can happen to you – very often legalistic things.
You might have a visit from the tax police. Your company might be raided by
the – you know, the (fire ? ) people – and so on. As journalists you might
have accreditation problems and so on. And so that’s the wall. You know,
private space is fine and public space isn’t. And of course, you know,
everyone is trying to guess where precisely the line is.
MR. PARKER: What about the reaction from other colleagues – (inaudible)?
MR. HARDING: Oh, I’m so sorry – (inaudible) – yeah. Well actually, the thing
is, the – in a way, these house break-ins – the FSB sort of burglary –
(inaudible) – it’s the worst-kept diplomatic secret in Moscow. And after this
happened to me for the first time, I just didn’t know what the rules of the
game were. And so I – the British embassy – I phoned them up. And they said,
well, come in; we’ll give you a little talk. And so we were – we were taken
upstairs to a sort of room which was secure. And basically the guy who briefed
me there said, you know, we have a file of this-big cases, you know – that
basically it’s happened to a lot of people. And he explained what the standard
But several of my journalist colleagues, Western journalist colleagues, have
suffered from this – but normally only on kind of one occasion, and that’s it.
With me, I don’t know how many times they broke into my flat, but – and office,
but at least I would say 10 – eight to 10, 12 occasions I knew of, and then
others where – when it wasn’t – (inaudible). So they really had it in for me.
But again, the people I felt most sorry for were my Russian colleagues.
There was one woman who worked for the Guardian. And the FSB broke into her
flat on one occasion; they did – they did basically a couple of things. She
came home from work – she lived alone, single, 41 years old – came out to her
flat and discovered that her (beret ?), which had been hanging on the peg next
to the door, was in the middle of her living room. And that was it. And she –
no one believed her; she had a nervous breakdown; she resigned; she severed all
contact; I never saw her again. And this is the problem. The problem is, for
Russians that are in the system who can’t leave, you know, with their wife and
kids and move on, I think these tactics can be devastating.
MR. PARKER: Others? We can continue if there’s interest in questions, or we
can wrap up. Have an opportunity here to put on-the-record questions to a
leading journalist, one of the most important English-language newspapers in
the world? Anyone?
MR. HARDING: Or we can stop. (Laughter.)
MR. PARKER: Or we can stop – (inaudible) – I have a – I’m sure there are –
there are other questions to ask.
Oh, one other thing should be mentioned, by the way. And there is some
material outside on some other cases and this phenomenon in other contexts – a
particular case, an American diplomat a few years back; as well as a relatively
recent story within the past year in The Washington Times on sort of dirty
tricks, if you will, for lack of a better term. I’m just looking to see if
there’s something else I –
MR. HARDING: I think we can wrap up.
MR. PARKER: Yeah. Yeah. I suppose and – without any further questions. And
I think we’ve had a free-ranging, interesting discussion, provocative at times.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed it. It will be in transcription form probably in
about, I don’t know, 48 hours on our website, csce.gov. You can stop in there
to see any upcoming activity we have going. Thank the audience again. I’d
like to thank you, Luke, for traveling. Thank our wonderful Rebecca Armitage,
a stellar intern from Australia who has helped us put this briefing together.
And with that, we stand adjourned.
MR. HARDING: Thank you very much. Thank you for coming.