Luke Harding’s diary: The Russia report, struggles with Covid-19, and my virtual book launch

For three months I had on-off symptoms; each time I thought I had beaten the virus it came roaring back.

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We have waited a long time for the Russia report. Since Dominic Grieve complained last November that Downing Street was obstructing its release, I had been hoping someone might leak it to me. No one did. There seems to be a peculiar British willingness to put up with official secrecy, which is not seen in Europe or the US. Part of this is down to the naive view that the state is a force for good. And a love of medieval ritual: the MPs and peers who sit on the intelligence and security committee all swear an oath to “keep matters secret”.

In 2013 I wrote The Snowden Files, a book about the US whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Snowden came from an honourable tradition of civil disobedience. He knew his Henry Thoreau. By passing highly classified documents to the Guardian, Snowden put conscience above the law. Disclosure was in the public interest; he revealed a bulk collection of our electronic records – or mass spying – by GCHQ and the National Security Agency. If only more in Whitehall would do the same.

London calling

One of my best contacts in Moscow was Alexander Lebedev, who was once a KGB spy. He spent the late Cold War years working from the Soviet embassy in London, later going into banking and the media. Over lunch one day (pasta with octopus) Lebedev confided he was about to make a major acquisition. “I’m going to buy the Evening Standard,” he told me. It was 2009. At the time I rather admired Lebedev, who called himself a “capitalist-idealist”. He supported Moscow’s independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. One could believe in his opposition to corruption, though he was careful never to criticise Vladimir Putin.

In recent years, Lebedev’s position has changed. He told me over breakfast that he had “mended his relations” with the Kremlin. He and his son Evgeny, who is now the sole owner of the Evening Standard, have assiduously cultivated Boris Johnson and the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Johnson has been a guest at the Lebedevs’ Italian palazzo and in December, a day after winning the general election, the PM attended Alexander’s 60th birthday party at their London mansion. David Cameron attended too.

Lebedev may have bought the loss-making Standard for noble reasons. Or maybe it was a highly successful soft-power play to penetrate the British establishment.

The silent sufferers

I live in the same mid-size Hertfordshire town as Jason Cowley, the esteemed editor of this publication. In pre-virus days I commuted three or four days a week into London. In mid-March I went down with suspected Covid-19. In theory, this was the “mild” version: the local hospital diagnosed me with viral respiratory infection and told me to isolate. The illness didn’t feel mild. For three months I had on-off symptoms: chest pain, fatigue, sore throat, horrible gastro stuff. Each time I thought I had beaten the virus it came roaring back.

There are hundreds of thousands of us long-haulers out there, with anything from minor symptoms to debilitating illness. I had dozens of emails from fellow sufferers after interviewing Paul Garner, a professor from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Garner described his own Covid-19 experience as “weird as hell”. It featured loss of smell, malaise, tight chest and a racing heartbeat – a rollercoaster of ill health, extreme emotions and exhaustion.

The government’s priority has been saving those who fall grievously ill. This is correct. It also needs to pay attention to the large group of patients who are suffering quietly in the community, wondering if they are going bonkers and will ever be truly well.

A very modern book launch

Two hundred people came to the launch last week of my new book, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West. Came – or, more accurately put, tuned in. We did it virtually.

The actor MyAnna Buring read the opening pages, which describe the arrival in London of the two Moscow assassins sent to kill Sergei Skripal. Buring played Dawn Sturgess in the recent BBC drama The Salisbury Poisonings; last autumn she played Marina Litvinenko in the acclaimed Old Vic play A Very Expensive Poison, based on my book of the same name and adapted by Lucy Prebble. For 40 minutes I chatted with fellow author Oliver Bullough about the Kremlin, Trump and Brexit. Friends in the US and Germany viewed from afar. And then we logged off. The model seems an improvement on the usual book launch, held in Daunt’s or similar, with friends, writers and literary agents plus bad white wine. Best of all, I had no idea which of those I had invited didn’t bother to Zoom in.

The sounds of lockdown

We live close to Stansted airport. The view from our garden used to be lawn, washing line – and a Ryanair plane rising noisily into the sky before banking left. The din would begin at 6am. You get used to it, but in the months after lockdown the air traffic abruptly stopped. Our home didn’t quite become an idyll; the non-Arcadian rumble from the M11 never went away. But the birdsong certainly seemed louder. Two goldfinches took up residence in the plum trees overlooking our car park; starlings nested in the eaves, fledging four chicks. The swift colony that lives in the high Victorian buildings across the road had a record year. There are now 23 of them, shrieking crescents that meet and separate in endless patterns. And the wood pigeons pad dopily among the Scots pine trees, as they always did.

I found myself downloading the Merlin bird ID app and looking on the RSPB website at swift nesting boxes. The onset of old age or a post-Covid-19 burst of restorative nature worship? I’m not quite sure. 

Luke Harding is the Guardian’s senior international correspondent

This article appears in the 17 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine

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