Dispatch

Out of Country

A reporter's disturbing expulsion from Russia.

OXANA ONIPKO/AFP/Getty Images
OXANA ONIPKO/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — Luke Harding touched down at Moscow’s recently bombed Domodedovo airport this past Saturday, Feb. 5, at 4:10 p.m. The Guardian’s Russia correspondent had been in London for the last two months, working on the paper’s coverage of WikiLeaks and writing a quickie book about the subject (it came out at the end of January). When he got to passport control, the young woman in the booth did a double take when she scanned his passport; Harding knew something was wrong. In fact, things were about to spin very badly out of control.

The young customs officer called over her supervisor, who looked at the screen and also did a double take. "The Russian Federation is closed to you," Harding recalls the man saying as he punched a blue "annulled" stamp on his perfectly valid Russian visa. "Just because you have a Russian visa doesn’t mean you can enter the country," the supervisor said.

Within minutes, Harding’s passport was confiscated and he was locked in a deportation cell. Being a journalist, he counted everyone in there. "There were four Tajiks, a Kyrgyz guy, and a woman from the Congo," Harding told me on the phone from London. "She had been there for seven days and was half-asleep on a metal bench." In another half-hour, Harding was on a plane, bound for London on the first flight home, his passport returned to him with a slip of paper marking him as a deportee. His wife and two teenage kids remained stuck in Moscow.

I don’t know Harding very well, but we are friends with the same people and spin in the same brotherly circle of Moscow foreign correspondents. It was well known that, of all of us, Harding had the tensest relationship with the Kremlin and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the people who control our passage into the country).

"I’d say they had a tense relationship with me!" he is quick to counter. Since his arrival in Russia four years ago, he and his family have been harassed by what everyone assumed was the Federal Security Service (FSB). The Hardings would come home to find the windows of the children’s bedrooms open, their toys rearranged. Alarm clocks went off at strange hours. But nothing is ever quite clear in Moscow. The harassment, an open secret among us hacks, was itself a slippery thing, nearly impossible to prove. It was the kind of subtle thing that could have been Harding’s imagination — which tends to run amok here for everyone — or a very real threat from the security services. (Whatever it was, the British ambassador eventually had to get involved, and the pestering stopped as mysteriously as it had started.)

And then there was the fact that Harding had a reputation for playing with fire — perhaps foolishly — by going after the strictly taboo stories, like talking to the relatives of Dagestani terrorists or investigating Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune. Even Harding will admit that that last one, which put the figure at $40 billion, was a gauntlet of sorts. "That was maybe the bravest — and the stupidest — story I did," he said. He quickly surfaced on the official radar as a renegade, a species not much liked in the Kremlin.

And this was all before he was all over the WikiLeaks Russia documents, in a way that most foreign correspondents in Moscow weren’t. (Harding, in one instance, described the Russia portrayed in the documents as a "corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy.")

Harding’s choice of tactics has been the subject of significant debate. Some have even cringed at his decision to make a public fuss about his expulsion. "It’s not the right thing to do," said one veteran Moscow correspondent. "Once it’s official, once it’s public, they start playing tough guy and the decision becomes much harder to reverse."

It’s a hard line to walk, this talk of rules and journalistic provocation. Ostensibly, there should be no such thing, but in Russia, unfortunately there is. And, even more unfortunately, any journalist — especially our Russian colleagues — working in today’s Russia has to ask themselves whether this one story or the next will make you a martyr, and whether it’s worth it. When I first arrived in Moscow, a year and a half ago, I balked at suggestions of what one could and couldn’t write. I found it to be bizarre, galling even. It upbraided my grandiose journalistic values and my American sense of invincibility. Only Russian reporters, I figured, have to filter and fear; we serve only truth, and we do so fearlessly. And then I got my first (very veiled) threat from a Russian businessman I was doing a story on, and things suddenly snapped into perspective.

There are very different rules for Russian journalists. We foreigners are much more likely, as Harding’s case shows, to get kicked out (highly unpleasant and stressful to anyone who has built a life here) rather than beaten or killed, but there are rules — simultaneously strict and unpredictable — for us, too. We too have learned, for better or worse, to tread carefully.

In 2005, after ABC aired an interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev (Russia’s Osama bin Laden at the time), the bureau chief had his visa revoked, and the bureau was effectively shuttered for two years. (He is still not allowed back in the country.) A similar thing happened to Thomas de Waal, a British journalist denied a visa in 2006, probably because of his coverage of violence in the Caucasus. And to Moldovan national Natalia Morar, denied a visa for her coverage despite her marriage to a Russian. And so on and so on.

Although we can never be exactly sure whom we offend with which article (it’s not just Putin who calls the shots on this), the ultimate message is always the same: You are guests, you play by our rules, and you play at our pleasure.

Harding chose to fight the system and now sits in London, fielding phone calls two or three at a time from his Moscow colleagues who, awkwardly, are now reporting on his predicament, peppering their questions with words of empathy.

That said, Harding admits the expulsion was not exactly a surprise. In November, he was called into the Foreign Ministry and told his visa and accreditation were not being renewed. "They made it quite clear they didn’t like me," he recalled. Then, a day before the visa expired, after his house had been packed and his children had said their goodbyes at school, the Foreign Ministry granted the Hardings a six-month visa to finish the school year. It was that visa with which Harding tried to re-enter the country.

The scariest thing about Harding’s story is that it validates the fear we all have upon returning to Moscow after a trip out of the country. It’s a fear, a cardiac boom-boom, that doesn’t abate until you’re through passport control and watching the baggage carousel do its soothing laps. Harding, it turns out, had this same fear, too. "I always had a habit of looking at the name tag of the passport control officer, thinking, is this going to be the time?" he told me. "And it was Lilia who did it. Lilia. It was a very nice name."

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