In early October 2007, almost three years to the day after I began my career as a journalist in Russia, a conversation with a former CIA agent brought it to an end. He was a longtime friend I’d joined in Scotland for a weekend holiday. We were on a train hurtling through the countryside east of Edinburgh after a morning rain; the hills were so vivid it hurt to look at them too long. Idly at first, I told him about a series of encounters I’d had in Moscow with a former agent of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency that runs more spies abroad than any other branch of the country’s secret services. The Russian agent, who called himself Alex, had appeared as though out of nowhere earlier that year and struck up a friendship—only weeks after I’d gotten the attention of the FSB (the reconstituted KGB) with some aggressive reporting in Dagestan, the unstable Russian republic that borders Chechnya in the Northern Caucasus.
Alex picked me up in Moscow when I was hailing a ride on the Third Ring Road. (A large but dwindling number of ordinary Moscow drivers accept passengers to make a few extra rubles if they’re heading in your direction.) Our conversation was a series of coincidences, each of which Alex marked with a celebratory: “Vhat a coincidence!” I was toting a guitar, and he was a guitar player himself: “Vhat a coincidence!” He was wearing a sweatshirt with the emblem of KFOR—NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo—and I had friends who had been in Kosovo during the NATO bombing. “Vhat a coincidence!” I was a journalist, while he had just retired from the Russian Ministry of Defense (he mentioned his work for the GRU later) and had stories from Afghanistan and Iran that would be “very interestink” for a journalist. “Vhat a coincidence!”
My former CIA friend’s eyes grew wider as I narrated the meetings that followed. Alex invited me on banya trips, cookouts, and swims at the lake near his dacha. I met his bank executive girlfriend, his doting, fox-eyed mother, his cousin Olya, a single mother who told me she was an on-site dentist at the FSB headquarters at Lubyanka. All the while, Alex hinted at stories, contacts, and access he could offer that Western journalists in Russia only dream of.
“Tell me you didn’t accept any documents from him,” my ex-CIA friend said. “Please tell me you didn’t accept any documents.”
I went numb. At that moment under my desk in Moscow were four boxes of 3.5 floppy disks with digital photos that I vaguely understood to show NATO military vulnerabilities in Afghanistan. Alex had let me take them home, professing reluctance, after failing to bring a laptop to a meeting where we were supposed to view them together. I knew it was a mistake to take them but couldn’t resist the chance at what might be my Seymour Hersh moment.
“Before you get on a plane back to Moscow,” my friend said evenly, “there are a few more people I think should hear this story.”
A week of frenzied consultations with embassy officials and CIA veterans brought a consensus: I had fallen into a trap the Russians had been laying for naïve Westerners since time immemorial. The targets were journalists, diplomats, scholars, and do-gooders; the bait was girls, boys, drugs, and documents. Former US News and World Report Moscow bureau chief Nicholas Daniloff spent three weeks in a KGB prison in 1986 after accepting from a suspiciously friendly Russian acquaintance—wait for it—military-related photographs from Afghanistan.
I was useless as a blackmail target, but a nerve-wracking handover of power was about to take place in Russia, and I might have made a fine pawn in the propaganda war if the elections got messy and the Western media became too aggressive in its condemnation. As an American working for a French news agency, I would have produced two scandals for the price of one. It seems Western journalists are no longer satisfied poking at Russia with accusations of authoritarianism, the Izvestia front-pager might have read, over a grainy picture of me taking the disks from Alex. Now they spend their weekends stealing state secrets.
For Steve LeVine, author of Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, the incident would likely be another sign that Russia has taken a dark turn under Vladimir Putin—still the most powerful man in the country since ceding the presidency in May 2008 to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
LeVine lived through his own share of intrigue during eleven years of reporting from the former Soviet Union for the Washington Post, Newsweek, and others. As a reporter in Tashkent in the 1990s, he was roommate with Chris Bowers, then a BBC correspondent, now a UK trade diplomat in Moscow who stands accused of being a British spy. In 1995, LeVine became the first American journalist since the fall of the Soviet Union to have his Russian visa revoked, ostensibly because a treaty made Russia follow suit after Uzbekistan revoked LeVine’s journalistic accreditation.
The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere is a fact of life for Western journalists working in Russia, particularly since Putin, himself the former head of the FSB, dramatically expanded the organization’s funding, presence, and prestige during his eight years as president. And it’s no small part of the fun. My conversations with other Western journalists in Moscow alternated between horror at the worst incidents of violence—the assassinations in 2006 of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and FSB agent turned anti-Putin crusader Alexander Litvinenko in London—and hilarity over the Kremlin’s bumbling PR or pseudo-scandals such as the British “spy rock” case when allegations were made that British spies hid a transmitter in a fake rock. A favorite joke in the Moscow bureau of Agence France Presse, where I worked immediately before my unexpected flight from the country, was to answer an anti-Putin remark by lifting a shirt corner and whispering, “You get that, boys?”
Most of us retained an adolescent sense of invincibility during the disasters and scandals LeVine retells, events that characterized the Putin era for most Russia-watchers as one of unremitting violence and increasing authoritarianism: Moscow’s brutal prosecution of the Second Chechen War, the Kursk submarine disaster, the Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis, the state takeover of national media outlets, the legal onslaught against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Beslan school hostage crisis, and the murders of journalists.
It was hard to be scared for our safety, knowing how little threat our 400-word articles on anemic opposition rallies or Gazprom production figures posed to any regime anywhere. But the hazards to careers were real and usually struck for no other reason than bad luck. A few days after I resettled in the States last October, I was on the phone with a thirty-year CIA veteran my friend had put me in touch with. “It’s the way they’ve always done it,” he said. “They like to have four or five journalists on the hook at any given time. The fact you got out just means one of your buddies got bumped to the top of the list.” As if on cue, I received a carefully worded e-mail that week from a friend at the Moscow Times, asking my opinion on a sudden and insistent offer he’d received of “compromising information relating to the Russian military.” I advised him to stick to Gazprom production figures. In another case this summer, I learned that a pair of FSB agents had showed up at the Moscow office of a major Western news agency for a chat with the bureau chief about one of his correspondents, an American reporter who had provoked rumors by speaking Russian a little too well. The reporter has since been relocated.
Putin’s eight years in office produced an astonishing sequence of headlines, and LeVine is not the first Western journalist to retell them in book form. The most thorough account of Putin’s first term is a team effort by Washington Post Russian correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, published in 2005. More current is former Economist Moscow bureau chief Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West, published in February 2008. Alongside these is a small raft of more specialized books that focus on the radioactive-poisoning murder of Litvinenko, Russia’s rise as an energy superpower, and Putin’s well-concealed inner depths.
The logical question would seem to be what LeVine’s book, which weighs in at a mere 166 pages and retells events occurring long after LeVine left Russia, adds to the debate. But it’s the wrong question, because there is no debate.
Putin’s spy-centric consolidation of power, together with the stream of sensational stories and historical amnesia that would be shocking if it weren’t a national affliction in the US, has helped create a perfect storm of anti-Russian sentiment in the Western media. Seventeen radically transformative years of contemporary Russian history—and the extraordinary complexity and ambiguity of Russia’s current situation—are consistently reduced to a single grim narrative: After nine years of President Boris Yeltsin, a drunk but a democrat (a son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch), former KGB spy Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and seized his country by the throat. He suppressed dissent, persecuted foreign companies, strong-armed former Soviet neighbors, rattled sabers at the West, and generally revealed himself to be a murderous thug—in spirit if not in fact. Small wonder that when Russia took the global stage in 2006 to host the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin hired PR giant Ketchum to make sure the show ran smoothly.
It was too little too late. In spite of superficial variations in range, tone, and depth of reporting in LeVine’s book and those preceding it, all rely on the same damning central narrative, and few make any pretense of entertaining alternative points of view. With subtitles like Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, and How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West, the book jackets alone are enough to make a non-NATO state cower.
It’s not just the retrospective gaze of book-writing sabbaticals that turns Western journalists sour. The same contemptuous, shaming editorial line is on regular display in the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and their British peers, as well as the blitzkrieg “news analyses” dashed off by Reuters, AFP, and the Associated Press.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Western coverage of this summer’s Russian-Georgian war. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave twenty interviews to Western television networks in the first eleven days of the war. His characterization of the conflict as unprovoked Russian brutality was echoed virtually without question in the Western press and amplified by commentators’ astonishing comparisons between Russian military action and Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia, while Moscow’s claims that it was responding to a reckless assault on Tskhinvali by Georgian forces was dismissed out of hand. In fact, as Der Spiegel eventually reported on September 15, NATO International Military Staff experts determined that Georgia started the war the night of August 7, raining cluster bombs, artillery, and fire from twenty-seven rocket launchers down on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in preparation for a planned infantry sweep to the Russian border. The Russian army, according to the Der Spiegel report, did not begin firing until 7:30 the next morning. A follow-up report by the New York Times on November 7 cited OSCE military observers as saying that at least forty-eight Georgian artillery rounds fell in civilian areas of Tskhinvali during the first hour of the bombing.
The Western media’s anti-Russian impulses also drive the work of think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, whose March 2006 report “Russia’s Wrong Direction” embarrassed even some Putin critics with its hectoring tone. These impulses extend to non-governmental organizations such as Freedom House, whose 2008 ranking of political freedom declared Russia “less free” than countries such as Afghanistan, which last year saw 8,000 combat deaths and a 600 percent rise in suicide bombings over 2005; Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reigned since seizing power in a military coup in 1978; and Jordan, a hereditary monarchy where the law defines any meeting of two or more people as a public gathering requiring advanced permission. (Happily, though, all three countries are allies in the US “war on terror.”)
The same attitude fuels the tough-on-Russia rhetoric from both sides of the US political divide. One of the few topics to bring a spark of life to John McCain on the campaign trail was Russian iniquity. Barack Obama attempted to withhold judgment on the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war but was hammered for it by McCain and quickly joined the chorus of condemnation.