Mafia State

Mafia State
Luke Harding
Guardian Books, 320pp, £20

Heads turned last year when WikiLeaks released US diplomatic cables branding Russia a "Mafia state". But the term had entered the lexicon of expert discussion several years earlier, and not as a frivolous metaphor. Those most familiar with the country had come to see it as a kleptocracy with Vladimir Putin in the role of capo di tutti capi, dividing the spoils and preventing turf wars between rival clans of an essentially criminal elite. In the latter stages of the Bush administration, there was even talk of expanding the diplomatic toolkit and using America's draconian anti-Mafia Rico Act as a way of dealing with Moscow.

This is the Russia laid bare by Luke Harding in an absorbing account of four years spent as head of the Guardian's Moscow bureau, a posting that ended abruptly with his expulsion from the country in February this year. There is now a vast literature describing the hard reality of Putin's Russia, but what Harding adds to our awareness is a sense of what it is like to live that reality every day. He does this by relating its tragedies and absurdities through a series of vivid and often moving encounters.

In a country of acute social divisions, we meet a billionaire property tycoon who is building an enclave of opulence, complete with artificial beach, where the super-rich can escape the consequences of their ill-gotten wealth. Trees are planted to block out the sight of a nearby village. We discover the extent of the population crisis with a visit to one of a growing number of women-only villages. All the sons have left and all the fathers have drunk themselves to a premature death. We learn the price of dissent through the story of a human rights activist who attends the funeral of a lawyer and fellow activist gunned down in broad daylight on a street in Moscow. Months later she, too, is abducted and murdered.

We discover the Russian system's contempt for property and legality courtesy of a journalist who explains its guiding philosophy: "For my friends, everything! For my enemies, the law!" And we face the ugly facts of the ethnic cleansing carried out following Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia in the descriptions of burnt-out buildings and the harrowing testimony of victims.

But Harding is more than a witness to Russia's authoritarian lurch; he also becomes one of its victims. An early report upsets his new hosts and he is summoned for an interview by the FSB (né KGB). A campaign of harassment begins. His flat is repeatedly broken into, objects are moved, property is tampered with and a child's bedroom window is left open above a ten-storey drop. There are moments of black humour - a sex manual is left next to his bed - but for the most part there is an unmistakable air of menace. In one exchange, an irate foreign ministry official pointedly asks three times if Harding's wife isn't concerned for his safety.

The campaign seems random and pointless, but towards the end we discover there is method in the madness after all. It even has a name: a technique known as "operational psychology", pioneered by the Stasi during the cold war. The aim is to "disintegrate" the target by inducing pervasive feelings of insecurity and self-doubt; in essence, to create a postmodern torture chamber of the mind in which all fixed points of reference, and even the victim's sanity, are called into question. The results can include withdrawal, even suicide.

The author's descriptive powers and his insights into the mentality and techniques of Putinism are enough to make Mafia State an essential read, but events have conspired to make it a timely one as well. As if to coincide with publication, Vladimir Putin announced his decision to return to the post of Russian president next year (the March election being a mere formality). What had been written as an account of Russia's recent past suddenly became a signpost to its future, too.

Close reading suggests the reason why Putin feels compelled to return. As Harding makes clear, greed is only one of the adhesives holding the new Russian elite together; the other is fear. The men of power see trouble ahead and simply don't trust Dmitry Medvedev to navigate a way safely through it. Renewed global recession and another slump in energy prices threaten to expose Russia's failure to diversify, its inability to attract adequate investment, its shrinking labour force and, above all, the great anchor weight of corruption among its upper classes. Faced with popular anger and pressure for change, they want someone willing to choose repression over the kind of reforms that might threaten their grip on society. Putin is the hard man for hard times - yet what worked in the boom years of the Noughties may not be enough in an era of stagnation and decline.

David Clark is chair of the Russia Foundation