As a well-spoken, neatly dressed Oxford University graduate, it is hard to believe that the Guardian’s former Russian-Correspondent, Luke Harding, was the first journalist to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War. When he came to the University of Leeds on February 9th he described his terrifying ordeal of living in Russia under the watchful eye of the Russian government and the Russian Federal Security Service due to writing controversial articles about the Russian Prime Minister and his possible involvement in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Throughout the talk Harding described to the students what he and his family had to encounter on a day to day basis, just to give the British public access to important information regarding Vladamir Putin and his government.
He experienced first-hand the eeriness of the KGB prison that he was given a personal tour around, which he stated was ‘to intimate and make me think twice before publishing everything’. Despite describing the horror of laying eyes on Russian confinement chambers, he told us a comical story about the ‘sci-fi’ CCTV camera that literally followed his every single move whilst he was there. He certainly knew how to tell a good story! And in an almost blasé attitude Harding recalled the times when he would return home with his family to find his tenth floor Moscow flat had been broken in to. He stated that ‘house intrusions’ were a euphemistic way of wording illegal break-ins in Russia. They were a regular occurrence carried out by the FSB to try and uncover any information being hidden from them, and often enough they were used just to invoke terror into certain individuals that were seen as a threat to the government, namely people like Luke Harding. His listeners sat wrapped in silence as Harding described the psychologically disturbing actions carried out by the FSB to terrorise him and his family. He explained how he would return to his flat in the middle of the winter to find that his central heating had been disconnected. He would also wake up at random times of the night due to alarm clocks going off that were hidden around the apartment. He added in mock confusion about the time when he found a Russian sex book at the side of his bed, open at the chapter on ‘How To Have Better Orgasms’. Any other man may have been unnerved to hear breathing down the phone due to a third party listened in on the conversation, but he laughed and added how Berezovsky’s code name was ‘banana’ so important information was still able to be shared using phone communications. But I think the most terrifying thing that he told us was when he went into his four year old son’s room to find his floor length window jammed wide open, making it almost too easy for the child to climb onto the ledge.
As I sat there and listened to his accounts, I was unsure as to how he felt about his violation of privacy, as he chuckled and said ‘it was funny, but appalling,’ in an almost care free voice. Was he putting up a barrier so that we could not see how terrified he really was over the ordeal? After all, this tactic has been seen and witnessed throughout the world since the fifteenth century to create terror and lower morale (Hitler being the most obvious example). I personally could think of very little worse than being woken up in the middle of the night to a hidden alarm clock, but that might be because I’ve watched one too many horror films.
During the question time at the end of the lecture, one student asked if Harding regretted publishing the stories that got him deported from Russia. There was a pause as Harding looked at the floor, smiling slightly and finally saying, ‘Well, you don’t want to unlive your life.’ In his care free tone he did mention being slightly ticked off at learning Russian and no longer having a use for this skill. But I think that just by telling talking to us for an hour and a half about his ordeals in Russia that if Putin was innocent of these crimes then he would not find it necessary to repeatedly break into his house and put his family in danger. Not many people would be willing to break against the tide of the government to write about what they believe society needs to know, and it is obvious that Harding has paid the ultimate price. But it cannot be argued that his Russian experience has allowed the rest of the world to see corruption that is trying to be hidden from them.