51. ‘Mafia State,’ Luke Harding

17 Dec
51. ‘Mafia State,’ Luke Harding

Mafia State,’ Luke Harding

This was a book I picked up at this year’s Hay Literature Festival, despite missing the talk which promoted it. I had been in a different event, but one of my fellow stewards recommended it, and since I am currently learning Russian, with plans to eventually visit, (possibly for the 2016 Winter Olympics in Sochi), it seemed like a good buy, and a chance to practice my limited русский with the author.

Harding was the Guardian newspaper’s Russian correspondent from 2007 until he was expelled in 2011, and this book is the story of his fairly disturbing life in Moscow and on various Soviet travels. It begins with him coming home one night to find that someone has broken into his apartment, setting the book up as a kind of spy story, but soon develops into a far more interesting critique of Russia’s corrupt political system. Having watched the BBC’s excellent documentary on Vladimir Putin earlier this year, it was all enough to put me off the country for life.

Here are some quotes:

“Natalia Estemirova…is the head of the human rights group Memorial’s office in the Chechen capital, Grozny. ‘I think criminals are happy with the kind of government we have now. It’s less comfortable for human rights advocates,’ she says…”

“In 2011 the Russian government will spend $1.4billion on international propaganda – more than on fighting unemployment…”

“In July 2011 a presumed Kremlin blogger sets up a clone Twitter account which mimics my own. Mine is @lukeharding1968. His looks the same but has a capital ‘i’ at the beginning. He even uses my photo and bio. My clone tweets [then Russian President] Dmitry Medvedev press releases…”

“Downstairs, I spot 17-year-old Danny Welbeck, a  member of [Manchester] United’s reserve squad, as he wanders somewhat forlornly around the hotel lobby. The coach had apparently left without him half an hour earlier, whisking away a winking Christiano Ronaldo and a mute Wayne Rooney…”

From the ridiculous, (back) to the corrupt:

“..several oligarchs who promised to finance the Sochi Olympics have not yet put in the cash as a result of the financial crisis. Deripaska, for example, had pledged to build a new terminal for the city’s airport. So far, though, this is an empty shell. When an inspection team from the International Olympic Committee flies in, panicked local bureaucrats hire teachers to dress up as fake passengers. They are instructed to mill around the half-finished terminal and pretend to be tourists. One ‘tourist’ tells the delegates that she is on route to Bangkok – unlikely, since there are no flights from Sochi to Thailand…”

And as if I don’t feel sick enough already at the corruption which brought them the Olympics…

“Later I ask Stanislav Belkovsky whether Russia bought the World Cup. Belkovsky answers like this. He says the Kremlin, the Russia 2018 bid committee and senior football officials all knew a week before FIFA’s secret ballot that Russia had already won. Only England…was unaware that FIFA had already decided to give the competition to Moscow…”

Want to know more about Russia’s demographics? Here are some bizarre statistics:

“Russia, the world’s biggest country, where there are at least 34,000 villages inhabited by 10 people or fewer, almost all of them old women…”

“Russian men continue to die before old age. On average they consume a bottle of vodka a day. Some 30% of all male deaths in Russia re alcohol related…”

And finally, from the penultimate chapter, (possibly helping to explain why the last chapter sees Harding return home to the UK):

“Russia is becoming synonymous with intimidation of journalists as well as a spate of murders. It is already the third most deadly country in the world for journalists…”

Maybe I’ll just watch the Winter Olympics on TV…


1 Comment

Posted by on December 17, 2012 in BOOKS


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One response to “51. ‘Mafia State,’ Luke Harding

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