Russia 'like a beguiling black hole'

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 15:32 30/07/2014
Luke Harding
END OF THE LINE: Luke Harding was the first journalist deported from Russia since the end of the Cold War.

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As Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, Luke Harding had first-hand experience of Vladimir Putin's strange new world. Philip Matthews reports.

"I could talk about Russia forever," says Guardian journalist Luke Harding.

We are 25 minutes into a 40-minute phone call. The official subject is Harding's appearances in Christchurch and his books on WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, but Russia seeps into everything.

"I can't escape. It's like a beguiling black hole, it just sucks you in."

From 2007 to 2011 Harding was the Guardian's Moscow correspondent but he was famously booted out by the Kremlin. After spending two months in London on WikiLeaks work, Harding flew back to Moscow but got no further than the airport. He was the first journalist deported from Russia since the end of the Cold War.

A pattern of harassment was already apparent. Harding has written about this in a book called Mafia State. It seems that Russia was particularly sensitive about reports on President Vladimir Putin's personal wealth and speculation about the Kremlin's role in the death by radiation poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

For Harding, it was a case of loving the country and its people but not loving the system.

He learned Russian, which he says is the hardest thing he has ever done. His wife Phoebe wrote guidebooks. They read Russian literature, they had Russian friends, they loved the culture.

"Life is much more vivid than in the West. If you say 'freedom' in Christchurch or London, you sound like a loony or a neo-con, whereas if you say 'freedom' in Moscow, where people who protest on the streets are loaded into police vans, you understand what that means on some fundamental level. It was the most intellectually exciting period of my life."

But we are not just reminiscing. Russia's political culture has been the week's big subject.

The UK government has finally announced an inquiry into Litvinenko's death. And of course there is MH17. The most likely scenario is that Russian-backed rebels in east Ukraine mistook the Malaysian airliner for an Ukrainian transport plane and destroyed it with Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles.

But Russians hear a different story.

"Putin is increasingly living in a parallel universe, a different informational reality," Harding says. "The media in Russia is almost completely controlled. Most Russians now genuinely believe that Ukrainians shot the plane down, because this is what the Russian defence ministry says. This is what the Russian spy agency that Putin used to head, the FSB, which he relies on very heavily, has been telling him too.

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"Putin really feels he is the victim in this situation. He sees through a KGB matrix of paranoia and conspiracy. He genuinely believes the uprising in Ukraine at the end of last year was not a popular protest but a plot by the CIA. He doesn't believe in mutually beneficial diplomatic solutions. He has a messianic project to bring Russia back as a superpower on the world stage. Essentially he thinks the US is encroaching on Russia's backyard."

Harding has done three long reporting stints in east Ukraine and has met the "morons and mercenaries" that Russia has armed.

"Putin basically sees Ukraine as a proxy war with the US which he does not want to lose. It's not that, but that's how he sees it. This being an informationally wacky universe makes him very dangerous.

"But for all of Putin's neo-imperialist fantasies, Russia is not a superpower," Harding says. "It's a medium-sized regional power with a capacity to bully and even tyrannise its neighbours and infect the West through corrupt money flows, whether it's Kremlin officials buying mansions in Knightsbridge or co- opting politicians like Silvio Berlusconi, who we know from WikiLeaks was on the Kremlin's payroll."

Without "being too clash of civilisations" about it, this is a critical juncture. On one side, the Anglosphere, with its democracies that believe in human rights and civilised values. On the other, Putin's view of the world as a Darwinian struggle, "where there is no democracy and no values."

Harding is firmly on the side of decency. There should be decency in international relations.

An emphasis on decency sounds very British. It might also be a neat way of distinguishing between leakers and Guardian collaborators Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

WikiLeaks' Assange comes across as mercurial, brilliant, arrogant and easily disillusioned. Snowden seems more controlled and enigmatic.

"There are important philosophical differences between the two of them," Harding says. "I worked with Julian on WikiLeaks and we at the Guardian collaborated pretty well with him until he fell out with us like he falls out with everybody. He has a rather primitive philosophy of complete transparency. He thinks that if all documents and official secrets are released, we shall bring governments and corporations to account and make the world more democratic.

"Snowden is not anti-secrecy. He believes in secrecy but felt that spy agencies in the US absolutely over- reached themselves after 9/11 and turned into monsters, without proper oversight or democratic accountability. He is a highly strategic, rational, intelligent guy who knew exactly what he was doing."

Harding and Guardian journalist David Leigh's book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy was written in just four weeks and published in 2011. Harding's The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man appeared earlier this year, beating former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald's account, No Place to Hide, by three months.

"My role was to chronicle what was going on and to turn it into a story that would grip everybody, not just geeks or privacy advocates but young women who would read it on the beach, grannies, everyone."

And if the Snowden book reads like a thriller? Well, it should.

"A guy sitting in Hawaii downloads tens of thousands of secret documents from the National Security Agency, his employer, skips off to Hong Kong, gives them to a journalist and goes to Moscow. If you pitched it as a novel, it would have been rejected on the grounds of implausibility."

The Guardian recently updated its Snowden coverage with a long interview in Moscow, viewable online. Editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Ewen MacAskill went to see him. Harding would have liked to go "but my problem is I'm banned from the Russian Federation".

One year after becoming infamous, Snowden has optimistic moments and pessimistic moments, Harding says. Optimistic ones come when he thinks he might be able to leave Russia without facing 400 years in a US jail.

But through it all, he maintains his dignity. How about Assange?

"I'm not unsympathetic to Julian," Harding says. "He has been so vile towards me personally and the Guardian since the WikiLeaks book came out. He tweets abuse. When the Snowden book came out, he hadn't read it but he said it was a terrible work and everyone should boycott it and I was a Russophobe and various other insults.

"He has a small coterie left of teenage supporters and Left-wing has-beens whose glory days are back in the 1960s."

Harding is heading to writers festivals in New Zealand and Australia at the end of August. Two weeks later, Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story for the Guardian, will be in Auckland as a guest of Kim Dotcom.

"I just heard about that," Harding says. "I'm afraid I can't really tell you what it means."

Is there a belief that Greenwald has intelligence documents that show that Prime Minister John Key knew about Dotcom earlier that he has admitted to? There was nothing about Dotcom in the British spy documents that Harding saw but Greenwald has "a different data set". We will have to wait and see.

Just as there are competing Snowden books, soon there may be competing movies.

Producers of the James Bond films are behind an adaptation of Greenwald's book. Meanwhile, director Oliver Stone has bought the rights to Harding's book and a novel by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena.

There may be some deja vu for Harding. The week after he was kicked out of Russia, Harding was phoned by "Marcy calling from DreamWorks in New York".

DreamWorks was keen on the WikiLeaks book. If most journalists fantasise about writing books, then having a Hollywood studio call would be that fantasy amplified. But this was a strange one.

"It was a bizarre experience," Harding says. "The scriptwriter came over. I met him once then he disappeared back to Los Angeles. He never contacted us for two years." The resulting film, The Fifth Estate, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Assange, was a flop. Blame the timing.

"It's not a terrible film. The big problem was that the world had moved on. It was a 2010 story three years later. People were fed up with Julian Assange - they were suffering from Julian fatigue."

Luke Harding appears in two sessions at the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, on August 29 and 30. Click here for information and tickets.

- The Press

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