For four years, British journalist Luke Harding covered Moscow for The Guardian despite a campaign of harassment that ended in his 2011 expulsion from Russia by the Kremlin—the first time they’d deported a western journalist since the Cold War. He wrote about his harrowing experiences there in Expelled: A Journalist’s Descent into the Russian Mafia State, out this week from Palgrave Macmillan. Read an excerpt below.
Someone has broken into my flat. Three months after arriving in Russia as the Guardian’s new Moscow bureau chief, I return home from a dinner party. It’s late. I turn the key. At first, everything appears normal. Children’s clothes lie in the corridor, books are piled on the living room floor; there is the comforting debris of family life. And then I see it. It is a strange detail. The window of my son’s bedroom is wide open.
I am certain it wasn’t open when I’d left five hours previously, taking my two children with me. We live on the 10th floor of one of Moscow’s post-communist-era apartment blocks, an ugly orange-brick tower. It overlooks a park of silver birches and deep green firs, in the Moscow suburb of Voikovskaya. We keep our windows shut. The danger of a child falling out is too obvious. To open the window you have to twist the white plastic handle downwards 90 degrees. Two handles, in fact. This is possible only from the inside; it couldn’t have blown open.
But the window is open, almost provocatively, defiantly so—a statement, even. “Has there been a burglar?” my six-year-old son asks, peering out of the open window and down at the frozen courtyard three hundred feet below. It is a reasonable question. It’s a small step from his bed to the window. “I don’t know,” I reply. “It’s a mystery. Perhaps someone managed to climb up the outside. Maybe it was Spiderman.” In our spare room, with its unused exercise bike and lurid tropical plant, I discover a cassette tape hissing in our music player. I hadn’t put the tape on either. My wife, Phoebe Taplin, is away for the weekend. So someone else has put the tape on.
Several hours later, while trying to suppress a feeling of—what?—horror, alarm, incredulity, bafflement, a kind of cold rational rage, a tightening fury, I wake up. An unknown alarm clock is going off somewhere in the flat. The noise is unfamiliar. I go into the living room and turn on the lights. A clock—left behind by my Russian landlord, Vadim, who had moved out two weeks earlier—is beeping loudly. I turn it off, fumblingly. I hadn’t set it. But someone else has—to go off at 4:10 a.m. I look at the date. It’s Sunday, April 29, 2007. I go back to bed. I sleep fitfully.
It’s clear, then, that this is no orthodox break-in. Nothing has been stolen; nothing damaged. Several thousand dollars lazily concealed in a kitchen drawer, next to an egg whisk, are untouched. (The money is next month’s rent. Two decades after communism and the alleged end of the cold war, Russia is still a cash economy. The preferred currency is dollars, though euros are also acceptable.) I can discount Vadim as the culprit, since his only interests appear to be venal ones.
The intruders’ aim seems merely to have been to demonstrate that they had been there—and to show, presumably, that they can come back, if the mood takes them. They have apparently entered through the front door. The locks don’t seem to have troubled them much. They have opened a window, set an alarm, and probably hidden a few bugs. Then they are gone. I can’t help wondering whether a recording device has been concealed in the marital bedroom. This isn’t a thought I want to pursue.
The dark symbolism of the open window in the children’s bedroom is not hard to decipher: take care, or your kids might just fall out. For any child, the 10-storey drop would be deadly. Mission accomplished: the men—I assume it is men—have vanished like ghosts. I find myself in a new world. It is a place of unknown rules, of thuggish adversaries. I lack the vocabulary to explain what has just happened to us: a burglary, a break-in, an intrusion? Suddenly, it appears we have become the objects of a malign psychological exercise, a dark experiment on the human soul. Our souls. I hug my son close. But who are these ghosts? And who sent them?
From Expelled by Luke Harding. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.