Longform’s Picks of the Week

Longform’s Picks of the Week

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Forms of Delirium: The Night Wolves, by Peter Pomerantsev, London Review of Books

A Kremlin-backed Orthodox biker gang may be just what the Russian government needs to rally popular support.

The Kremlin needs the bikers, and movements like them. The things Russia’s dictatorship once depended on to give it an air of legitimacy – its cheerleaders and its fake opposition, the pro-Putin youth groups and tame political parties – no longer hold sway the way they did. Only 5 per cent of Russians think the government ‘very effective’. Putin’s popularity is at an all-time low: an approval rating of 60 per cent is high for a democracy but in a system built around one man it raises eyebrows. Apathy rules: only 30 per cent bothered to vote in the Moscow mayoral elections. The system needs new stars and the Night Wolves are just the type that’s wanted. Where until recently political players talked about ‘modernisation’ and ‘innovation’ the buzzwords are now ‘religion’, ‘traditionalism’, ‘Eurasia’, ‘God’. Among the new religious nationalists are the black-clad Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, who have burned Harry Potter books on the embankment by the Kremlin to protest against J.K. Rowling’s Satanism, and Dmitry Enteo, a wan-faced youth with a goatee, who has made speeches on TV about his plan to throw bricks at the windows of Western department stores. Even the Night Wolves think Enteo and the Banner Bearers clinically unwell.


Once Upon a Time in the Middle East, by Nathan Deuel, the Morning News

Driving around the Middle East — from Lebanon toward Syria, across the Saudi Arabian desert to Dammam — quickly becomes the Wild West.

I never wanted to drive in Lebanon, scarred as I was by my experience in Saudi Arabia, where we’d lived for a few years, and where the only rule of the road seemed to be gravity. There, women were forbidden from driving, and would instead deputize 14-year-old sons or cousins to pilot the family car, often a massive SUV, and it was because of this, and the Wild West feel that gripped the edge of a desert, that passenger fatalities were higher in Saudi Arabia than in any other country in the world. Additionally, if you struck and killed someone, a family could demand blood money. The first time we drove to the eastern town of Dammam, where all the oil was, we spent four terrifying hours gritting our teeth on the desert highway, astonished to see everyone blasting by us at 120 mph. It seemed like a death wish. There were wrecks every few miles; nearly half the cars seemed to have burst into flames. We drove through an ocean of sand and after a while I pushed the pedal all the way down.


Myanmar old guard clings to $8 billion jade empire, by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Min Zayar Oo, Reuters

Tin Tun hopes the lump of jade he now holds in his hand will make him a fortune. It’s happened before.

Official Chinese statistics only deepen the mystery. China doesn’t publicly report how much jade it imports from Myanmar. But jade is included in official imports of precious stones and metals, which in 2012 were worth $293 million – a figure still too small to explain where billions of dollars of Myanmar jade has gone.

Such squandered wealth symbolizes a wider challenge in Myanmar, an impoverished country whose natural resources – including oil, timber and precious metals – have long fueled armed conflicts while enriching only powerful individuals or groups. In a rare visit to the heart of Myanmar’s secretive jade-mining industry in Hpakant, Reuters found an anarchic region where soldiers and ethnic rebels clash, and where mainland Chinese traders rub shoulders with heroin-fueled “handpickers” who are routinely buried alive while scavenging for stones.

Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

The Snowden files: why the British public should be worried about GCHQ, by John Lanchester, the Guardian

John Lanchester was skeptical at first, but the GCHQ files convinced him: Britain is sliding towards a new kind of surveillance society.

Looking at the GCHQ papers, it is clear that there is an ambition to get access to everything digital. That’s what engineers do: they seek new capabilities. When it applies to the people who wish us harm, that’s fair enough. Take a hypothetical, but maybe not unthinkable, ability to eavesdrop on any room via an electrical socket. From the GCHQ engineers’ point of view, they would do that if they could. And there are a few people out there on whom it would be useful to be able to eavesdrop via an electrical socket. But the price of doing so would be a society that really did have total surveillance. Would it be worth it? Is the risk worth the intrusion?

That example might sound far-fetched, but trust me, it isn’t quite as far fetched as all that, and the basic intention on the part of the GCHQ engineers – to get everything – is there.


The Coiffeur of Cairo, by Ned Parker and Yassin Gaber, Foreign Policy

For 50 years, Mahmoud Labib has cut the hair of Egypt’s rulers, from Sadat to Mubarak.What secrets can he tell?

The 75-year-old hairdresser headed to the military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. It was late August, and Egypt was in turmoil; the former president had just been freed from prison after two years. And the man needed a haircut. Mahmoud says he considers Mubarak a customer just like any other, but the aged former leader stands at the heart of Mahmoud’s magic — the mystique that drew people and presidents to his hair salon’s iron latticed door, with a golden “M” at the center.

Mahmoud has cut Mubarak’s hair since he was vice president, and Mahmoud knew his sons when they were little boys running around in T-shirts and shorts. And the hairdresser’s time with the man who ruled Egypt for three decades provided him with a privileged view of a leader who often proved awkward and secretive toward the public.