Mafia State, by Luke Harding

Article published on November 11, 2011.

This is an angry, personal and quickly put together book.

Harding is a guardian journalist and much of the book is a travelogue made up of articles clearly bound for the newspaper, but perhaps given more editorial control. This is the side of Russia that we are not supposed to know about but have always suspected. From corrupt officials and football agencies to Oligarchs and murdered activists. It feels like a Conservative government given free rein and is the opposite of a tourism boosting travel guide.

A review I read mentioned that Harding was unnecessarily harsh to fellow journalists working in Moscow. His argument is that to speak anything like the truth leads to threats, harassment, expulsion or even death. So to judge people working in Moscow with families in the same light as Harding sitting back in Hertfordshire does seem wrong. Yet he does champion those who speak out against the new Russia from within, some of whom have been murdered for it.

That the book is quickly put together is shown in the many typos but more the tone which is best described as simmering futility. This is a deeply personal revenge book – it was Harding and his family who were targeted by the state. That said the ideas within this book are not new. The attitudes of those in charge and those who have been made rich by Putin – essentially Putin’s cronies are his ex-KGB colleagues – are that they need to amass as much wealth as possible, that the huge population of Russia can remain poor and that despite their actions Moscow will be made powerful by its sheer size and its colossal natural resources. Despite this Maoist attitude recent history has shown them to be correct. More importantly the great proletariat of Russia love Putin for three very sensible reasons: That under his leadership wealth has risen on the back of gas and other natural resources, that the state effectively strangles any other political parties or dissenters and lastly that the state controlled Russian media allows no other voice. There again we in the UK are scared to provoke the wrath of Russia and therefore print less and less of what we should. We too need Putin to be neutral, to sell us his gas and not to throw his weight around in UN committees.

It is a timely book and though angry in tone shows why we do not see more of this kind of thing.

And then the design, books being judged in these capitalist times pretty much on their cover. The title and the subject are an easy brief for any designer, but the folk at Guardian Books have done themselves proud with the book jacket. Like Russia, it is simple, to the point, utilitarian and steeped in Soviet history. The typography is spot on with just enough human touches of decay to merit being one of the most successful covers of the year.

The back cover blurb is not only fantastically, simply designed, but it has the best blurb I think I have ever read. And it is worth quoting almost in full:

Someone has broken into my flat.

Three months after arriving in Russia as the Guardian’s new Moscow Bureau chief, I return home from a dinner party. At first, everything appears normal. And then I see it. It is a strange detail. The window of my son’s bedroom is wide open. The dark symbolism is not hard to decipher: take care, or your kids might just fall out.

The book and the cover reek of dark vengeance. A deeply disturbing piece it begs the question – what happens next?


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