Face it, the FSB is just not that into you

Why do Western journalists working in Russia always end up convinced that the state is out to get them?

Richard de Lacy

Topics World

I recently happened across a feature-length article about life in Russia by Luke Harding, a one-time Moscow-based foreign correspondent for the Guardian. If the title, ‘Enemy of the state’, wasn’t self-glorifying enough, the subtitle rammed the message home. It read: ‘How Luke Harding became the reporter Russia hated.’ It seems that if there is one thing Western journalists in Russia aren’t lacking, it is paranoia.

It’s certainly not an unusual phenomenon. I moved from England to Russia in 2005 and within months I was wondering whether there was something about the climate that affected Western journalists’ brains. Russia, after all, could be considered the birthplace of the modern conspiracy theory. It was here, for example, that the Tsar’s secret police concocted the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 1890s, a fake plot that outlined plans for Jewish global domination. For intricacy and intrigue, it is a text to rival the theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy.

For lazier and less eloquent paranoiacs, there is the tactic which Dr Madsen Pirie, a professor of logic, called cum hoc ergo propter hoc – the habit of suggesting that two events that occur around the same time must be causally related. This is usually achieved by asking, in a sarcastic voice, whether it could really be just coincidence.

It seems to be this affliction which has settled on the Guardian’s man in Moscow, Harding.

For example, one very common ‘welcome to Russia’ phenomenon which often does drive us expats mad (albeit usually only figuratively) is returning to your rented flat to find that the landlady has charged in uninvited to nose about, rearrange something, theatrically move the ashtray outside to the balcony, etc. Fortunately, mine always telephoned the day before to give advanced warning, but I can sympathise with Harding when in 2007, after just three months in Russia, he came home to find someone had been in his tenth-floor flat. His reaction, however, invites comment. ‘Everything appeared normal… And then I saw it. The window of my son’s bedroom was wide open… almost provocatively, defiantly so… The dark symbolism of the open window in the children’s bedroom was not hard to decipher: take care, or your kids might just fall out.’

So his first thought is not of some overly fastidious landlady wanting some air in her flat, but of a threat from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to throw his children to their deaths. And why does he think the FSB, the KGB’s successor organisation, would be after him? Because his paper, the Guardian, had carried an interview earlier that year with Russian fugitive oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Thankfully, it was only Harding’s grip on reality which went hurtling out of the window.

Soon after, he says, ‘a middle-aged woman, casually dressed and with – I noted – a rather bad 1970s-ish haircut, appeared outside my front door at 7am. When I opened it, she just examined me and left.’ Now most of us would assume it was a typically brusque Russian lady looking for someone, and deciding against having a tricky early-morning conversation with an obvious foreigner. But no, Harding is convinced it’s the evil FSB.

Then, after – sorry, because of – the Guardian’s Berezovsky scoop, Harding even believes he is being targeted at the airport on his way to London. That is, a man slaps his shoulder and tells him there is something wrong with his jacket. This behaviour is familiar to everyone living in Russia. Whether it is a shoelace undone, stitching falling apart, ladders in ladies’ tights, dust or dirt, the Russians cannot help pointing it out.

Harding, however, claims that the man’s leather jacket is ‘the unmistakable uniform of the KGB spook’. In that dull, boring real world that the rest of us inhabit, leather jackets are as common in Russia as Manchester United shirts are in Surrey. But this is when Harding really loses the plot: ‘After takeoff, I made my way to the loo. I took off my jacket and shirt. There was nothing on them. But then, I wouldn’t actually know what a bugging device looked like, I reflected.’ Well, as a former radio engineer, I can help him here: it needs an aerial, a power source, and you cannot place it invisibly on a target by slapping it on to their shoulder.

There is a lot more of this manic conspiracy theorising in Harding’s piece. When his screensaver at work is changed, it is the FSB. When his press accreditation is withdrawn, it is part of the FSB plot – despite his admission that he had broken the terms. When the Russians show leniency and extend his visa to enable his children to finish school, he reflects that this ‘was always part of the (FSB) plan’. Like the BBC attributing all possible weather conditions to climate change, one wonders what combination of events would not constitute an FSB plot.

One side-effect of Harding’s paranoia seems to be an aversion to facts. He launches into a lengthy rant about the nature and recent history of the FSB, but does not even know the name of the organisation behind his torment, calling them the Federal Security Bureau instead of Service (FSB is a transliteration from Russian, with the B standing for Bezopasnosti, or security).

There are other inaccuracies in Harding’s piece. He says Russia’s media covered the 2008 war in South Ossetia as a ‘peacekeeping operation’ when in reality they covered it, incessantly, as a genocide of innocent Ossetians by Georgians. I am told Harding does not know Russian, which could explain a lot of his confusions. Less forgivable is his claim that many subjects – ‘corruption in the Kremlin, activities of Russia’s intelligence agencies… human rights abuses by federal security forces… speculation about Putin’s personal wealth’ – are taboo in the Russian media. He may not be aware that such issues are frequently covered in Russian, but he should at least know that the state-owned English language newspaper, the Moscow News, regularly touches on these themes, since his wife was a regular contributor to the paper.

All this is not to say, of course, that the FSB does not target foreigners. Even a lowly translator like me can attract their attention. Once, a man named Pavel perched next to me in a pub and engaged me in conversation for a few hours. As an old Russia hand, I just knew he was FSB. The first sign I picked up on was my English pals saying, ‘watch what you say to Pavel when you’re bevvied up, mate; he’s a good bloke, but he’s FSB’. The second tell-tale sign was the way he reached into his non-leather jacket and gave me his business card, complete with FSB emblem, his rank and telephone number.

His fleeting interest in me was merely because of my regular drinking chums who worked at the British embassy. The FSB spooks believe our embassy is a nest of spies fomenting trouble throughout the land. Watching, harassing and reporting on embassy staff takes up most of the FSB’s energy, resources and manpower. I can confidently assert that they are not interested in journalists like Harding for one important reason: he is simply not that interesting.

Harding would like us to believe that the FSB would become irked at his and his paper’s reporting on Anna Chapman, a Russian spy deported from the US in July 2010. This despite the combined Russian media devoting several thousand pages to the alleged spy. He also wants us to believe that the FSB were annoyed at the Guardian’s Wikileaks-inspired revelations – those US embassy cables which tell us that Russia is a mafia state, some Muslims in Russia drink alcohol, Russian bears defecate in the woods, and that US embassy staff are a bit dim. This is surely inconsistent with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s relaxed approach to Wikileaks, flippantly suggesting Assange should get a Nobel Prize while Western governments froze assets and issued extradition requests.

Nonetheless, Harding alleges that tittle-tattle from Wikileaks may have been behind the next bit of Russian brutality that came his way – laughter. He describes his return to Russia thus: ‘On landing, I hand over my battered British passport. A federal border agency official taps in my details. She calls over her boss. They exchange glances, and then break into an embarrassed giggle. (I’ve observed this on previous occasions and wonder if something puerile, something mockingly unpleasant, is written on the agency’s system next to my name – like “the bearer of this passport has a small cock”.)’ Maybe this is true. As they say, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean the entire Russian border control organisation has not altered its database to accuse you of having a small penis. However, I imagine that reading ‘Guardian journalist’ could produce similar merriment.

This incident was when Harding enjoyed his short burst of fame, as he was refused entry to Russia. There are differing versions to the reasons, although less paranoid travellers have been sent home for having a ‘battered’ passport, and it seems he was trying to enter on a work visa while his work permit was still being put together in Russia.

Not long before this episode the disgraced historian Orlando Figes came out with a tirade of unsubstantiated anti-Russian ravings, just as he was plugging his new book about Russia. Luke Harding’s outpourings also reached a crescendo when he released his book about Russia, Mafia State, this autumn.

I wonder if Harding will claim all four events are just coincidence.

Richard de Lacy is a freelance translator, based in Moscow, and specialising in ice hockey and football. He has lived in Russia for most of the past six years and has contributed to various sporting journals and blogs.

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Topics World


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