Martin Dewhirst reviews Luke Harding’s new book, ‘Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West’

30 June 2020

By Martin Dewhirst

Martin Dewhirst reviews Luke Harding, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, London, Guardian Faber, 2020.  £14.99p.  ISBN 978-1-783-35205-0.


In his new page-turner (though it’s worth lingering on p.191), Luke Harding reminds us that some intellectuals believe, like it or not, that we are now living in the age of ‘post-truth’.  When I read some of the outpourings of the current Presidents of Russia, China and the USA, who are in the vanguard of this movement, I realise you don’t have to be a post-modernist to agree with this fashionable statement.  Of these three gentlemen, Putin is perhaps the most dangerous, partly because Russian has two different concepts of truth, pravda and istina, with most Russian-speakers still preferring the former.  The very concept of ‘truth’ is therefore split, and this could have tragic consequences.  Harding doesn’t discuss China in this book, so I asked a leading American expert on that country whether a similar split exists there as well.  His reply included a sentence saying that the ‘Chinese, like the Soviets in the “old days” and again under Putin, live in a dichotomous reality (at least) in which there is objective truth that is often politically unpalatable to the authorities, and an official “truth” often at great variance from reality’.

Of course, many (perhaps all) other countries have had and still have shadowy (or shady) characters helping to run or misrun the affairs of state.  World literature has many works about shadows, some of whom take over from those who cast them.  Perhaps the most famous such work in Russian literature is a play written in 1940 (i.e., during the Nazi-Soviet Pact period) by Yevgeny Shvarts, partly based on a story by Hans C. Andersen and actually called ‘The Shadow’ (‘Ten’‘). Reading Harding’s book not far from London last week, I found it impossible not to think of certain quite influential, even powerful and perhaps rather irresponsible individuals not close to the throne (I hope!), but not very far away from №10, Downing Street.  And of course there are always all those ‘Shadow Ministers’, some of whom can become quite malignant!  Because we don’t have a written Constitution with the American First Amendment to it, Harding has had to be extremely careful, publishing in the libel capital of the world, not to bankrupt himself and his publishers by being too specific.  I found it very amusing to read occasional sentences, some of them in brackets, specially implanted, I assumed, to reduce these dangers.

One of the reasons why the present political situation is so dangerous is that most people, especially in the West, mistakenly insist that the Cold War is over and that Russia is already in a post-Soviet, not still in a neo-Soviet, period of development (or decay).  Harding deserves praise for making it clear from the start that ‘Power may have changed in Russia, but the system and its bureaucrats remained implacably Soviet in their thinking’ (p.8).  However, I would have been even happier if he had distinguished more clearly between cooperating with Russia and collaborating with Putin.  But he is right in asserting that Putin is backward thinking.  He wants ‘to return to a nineteenth-century model of great-power politics and to disrupt the ideals-based international order established after World War II’ (p.68).  The extraordinarily feeble response to the murder in London of Litvinenko ‘led to more rogue state episodes by Russia, […] the military invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and Skripal’s 2018 poisoning. […] The West seemed to think restraint would lead to restored relations with Russia.  It didn’t’ (p.73).  Yet this weak attitude still prevails today – especially with regard to Brexit – see page 204.  I think this is due in part to the widespread illusion that the West is usually dealing with the Russian government (see, e.g., p.257).  It isn’t.  The really important decisions in Moscow are still taken by Putin, Putin’s inner circle, the FSB, the Presidential Administration and the Russian Security Council.  Or, as Harding put it, differently, ‘Under Putin, Russia had become a virtual Mafia state in which the government, its spy agencies, and organized crime had merged into a single entity’ (p. 270).

Shadow State consists of a dozen chapters.  Chapter 1 concerns the Salisbury attempted  double murder, about which much is still unknown.  I should mention here that the recent 3-part BBC film on this tragedy, which some readers may have watched, is not, repeat not, a documentary.

Harding’s conclusion – that the main reason for the poisoning was ‘to pre-empt further treason’ (p.18) seems convincing.  Chapter 2 sheds much-needed light on Russian military intelligence and cyber warfare.  Chapter 3 examines the collaboration between Putin and Trump.  Chapter 4 tells us more about ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele and his dossier on Putin – and note also p.244!  Chapter 5, ‘The Servants’, is about several shady Americans working for Trump as well as an underestimated Russian called Andrey Kostin and an underestimated Ukrainian called Dmitry Firtash.  Chapter 6 concentrates on various GRU (military intelligence) officers and their operations in the West.  Chapter 7 introduces us to a remarkable Englishman, Eliot Higgins, and his amazing work at Bellingcat, finding out through open, but difficult to access, sources many invaluable details about Russian criminal activists and activities.  Viktor Suvorov, a genuinely ‘former’ GRU officer who defected in 1978 and, amazingly, is still alive today, also gets some belated and well-deserved praise.  Chapter 8 reveals a great deal about one of Putin’s most despicable friends, Yevgeny Prigozhin, his trolls and his mercenaries, often known as the Wagner Group.  Chapter 9, ‘Moscow Gold’, is the closest this book comes to shedding light on British businessmen who have no qualms about collaborating with the Kremlin and who helped no end to lead us into the uncertainties of Brexit.  Chapter 10 concentrates on some of the Americans who were anxious to help the rulers of Russia and some pro-Putin Ukrainians, with the help of such mysterious individuals as Konstantin Kilimnik.  (One underlying leitmotif of this book is how few of these Western pro-Kremlin facilitators had any knowledge of either Russian or Ukrainian – they were, it seems, almost totally dependent on their translators and interpreters, often helpfully provided by the Russian side.)  Chapter 11 reveals, on pp. 253-61, the important but hardly-known name of another Kremlin fixer, this one resident at the time in America but since disappeared, one Sergei Millian, but is mainly concerned with the weaknesses of the Mueller investigation into the possible (to put it mildly) collusion (not a legal term) between Trump and Putin.  Chapter 12 brings us back to Mr. Firtash and the pathetic attempts to show that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that was trying to help Trump to win the 2016 election.  The last words of Harding’s Epilogue are that Moscow’s secret services are still ‘formidable – a deadly shadow monster, on the rampage still’ (p.306).

Harding evidently completed his monograph before Covid-19 started raging throughout most of the world – hence the shut-downs and the delay in publication.  It’s tempting, and perhaps an example of wishful thinking, to ask whether the ongoing horrific tragedy might lead to the downfall of at least two of the Presidents of the Big Three, and even, perhaps, to a change of course by the current Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Hope dies last.

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