How did authorities react to you as a Western reporter?
I arrived in Moscow in February 2007 which was possibly the worst timing for a British citizen to show up because Alexander Litvineko had just been murdered with polonium two months earlier in a plot which had the fingerprints of the FSB [the successor agency of the KGB] all over it. Not only was it a major international scandal, it utterly wrecked the Anglo Russian relationship. Within a few months, I found myself caught up in what felt like an incompetently written Cold War drama. Robert Gates, the last American Defence Secretary, called Russia an ‘oligarchy run by security services’ and it’s true – the apex of the state are often ex-KGB and come with all the ideological baggage you’d expect. The Guardian interviewed the prominent ex-patriot Boris Berezovsky and he claimed to be plotting a revolution against Putin. Purely because I was a Guardian journalist I was summoned to the infamous Lefortovo prison. They genuinely believed I was some sort of James Bond figure and from then on I was followed around by young guys in leather jackets every day: they’d sit so close in restaurants they’d practically be on your lap. They created a whole catalogue of psychological soft torture for me and my family – break ins, strange alarm clocks going off at 4am, a sex manual left on the bed, central heating disconnections, deleted emails. The idea was to wear me down until I couldn’t take it anymore – they decided disappearances and murders were no good if you wanted to be a respectable regime.
How much power do the FSB really wield, and how do their tactics affect the population?
The Orange revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia in 2004 and 2003 respectively terrified the Russian elite. That’s when the FSB budget was really stepped up. Since Putin’s premiership it’s become the most prominent agency in Russia, used against opposition leaders and human rights workers. The bravest people are Russian journalists and human rights workers, those in Chechnya, the Caucasus. Anna Politkovskaya’s murder inquiry was of course inconclusive.
Scare tactics work differently on different people. They are particularly effective on single women – they did it to one of my assistants. I was just furious. It made my writing tougher because I knew that the gap between public pronouncements about modern Russia as a democracy and the rule of law and the observance of human rights were in fact a joke. Putin sets the tone. He believes that corrupt authoritarian methods are more efficient that democratic ones. He doesn’t even believe the West are real democracies. We know from Wikileaks he’s bought Berlusconi and Gerhard Shroeder.
How would you describe the current political climate?
The whole Russian system is decorative: of course Putin is coming back to power. The decision has already been made by the elite and it’ll be passed off as a democratic choice but of course it’s not. Russia is sliding towards a central Asia style dictatorship – they’re isolated from the global conversation. These are people whose minds were forged in the Soviet era but who are now trying to deal with a world of Twitter and Livejournal. Russia in the 1990s was chaotic and Yeltsin was very unpopular but the state was at least quasi-democratic. The problem now is that there is a very cynical, very clever and deeply corrupt vertical system. All real opposition is squeezed. That’s not to say it’s the Soviet Union, because it’s not – there are bloggers and one or two independent newspapers but the regime is sophisticated. Putin’s great genius is realising that you don’t have to control private space. People can have affairs, behave badly, get drunk, and that’s OK. Previous Soviet dictators wanted to control everything. Putin gets it: this is new school.
The one place this regime is vulnerable is monetary. Not through diplomatic pressure, or what Cameron might say in Moscow, or students protesting outside the embassy, but the threat of visa bans and losing all their money. The money of the Russian elite is filtered off and spent in the west, and that’s the only lever we have.
Mafia state was published by Guardian Books on 29 September and is available on Amazon.co.uk and in all major bookstores