Marching on an embankment between the ice-bound Moscow River and the snow-bound British Embassy, a pro-Kremlin youth group demonstrated last month for the freedom of Julian Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks.
The march featured a top hatted Uncle Sam leading a submissive John Bull on a leash. In bold white letters, a red banner demanded “Free Assahge.” (That put Russia’s post-Soviet education standards on display for the world to see. )
At the time, I wondered: how long will it take for these dunderheads to learn the party line?
It didn’t take long.
Last Saturday night, the Kremlin’s real view of Wiki Leaks came out of the closet when Luke Harding, staff correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, was detained at Moscow’s Domodedevo airport. An agent for the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, told the Moscow-based reporter, “For you, Russia is closed.”
Escorted to a plane headed back to London, he was handed his passport. A journalist visa that had been valid through May was stamped “Annulled.”
(Note: After a week of British protests and Russian debate. Russia allowed Luke Harding to return to Russia this weekend. On Sunday Feb. 13, he wrote on his Twitter account: “Yes, I am back in Moscow.” On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in London for a pre-planned visit and meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.)
Luke and I had bumped into each other now and then since he moved here in 2007. Often the two tallest members of the Anglo-American press community here, we seemed to naturally collide at events.
On one train ride out of Moscow, in the summer of 2008, Luke described to me what he saw as a pattern of intelligence service monitoring. On returning to their apartment after an excursion, the Harding family would find that a toy or another household item had been moved in their absence.
Luke said it was the intelligence services way of signaling to him that they were watching.
Luke may have first drawn official wrath with a 2007 story alleging that that then President Vladimir Putin had $40 billion in an offshore bank account. A few weeks later, the president responded during a nationally televised press conference, saying that people who write such things “dig it out of their noses and smear it on their papers.”
Other run-ins followed, including a detention in Ingushetia, a republic in the war-torn Caucasus. Last November, officials formally canceled his visa. He appealed and won a six-month reprieve so his son and daughter could finish their school year in Moscow.
Then in December, Luke wrote several stories based on WikiLeaks memos about Russia, including one where a Spanish prosecutor described this country as “a mafia state.”
At the same time, two Moscow publications, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, and Russia Reporter, a newsweekly, had become partners of WikiLeaks. Promising revelations, Assange warned in an interview with Izvestia, a pro-government newspaper: “The Kremlin had better brace itself for a coming wave of WikiLeaks disclosures about Russia.”
Five days before flying to Moscow, Luke and his co-author, David Leigh, launched in London their new book: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.
Luke’s expulsion may be the FSB’s way of sending a warning shot to foreign and Russian reporters alike: WikiLeaks and Russia’s election year will not make a healthy mix.
In a bureaucratic split, Russia’s Foreign Ministry is doing damage control, saying that the deportation is all a paperwork misunderstanding. Coming two weeks after President Dimitri Medvedev appealed for Western investment at the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, the first expulsion of a staff correspondent of a British newspaper from Moscow since the days of communism does not send a welcoming message to foreign investors
While Luke wrote his WikiLeaks book, his wife, Phoebe Taplin, wrote Phoebe’s Weekend Walks. This column runs weekly in The Moscow News, a government-owned biweekly newspaper here.
An indomitable British woman, of the mold who favor hiking books in a land of stiletto heels, Phoebe created what is probably the best read feature of The Moscow News. Coaxing – or dragging – her mop-haired son and daughter over hill and dale, she produced a weekly column for Russia ramblers.
Recent columns include “Ivan’s World,” a walking tour of central Moscow landmarks associated with Ivan the Terrible, “Notes from Dostoevsky’s Underground,” and “Tolstoy’s Fine and Joyful World.”
I once cornered her at a news event party and told her that directions were so vague in one column that a friend and I ended up fording frigid streams and climbing over barbed wire fences. She diligently took note. I later heard that she would sometimes do a walk twice to get the directions right.
Her fans grew over the years. For expat wives, it became a social coup to be invited to join her rambles. I was told she had her very own undercover FSB female agent assigned to her walking parties, presumably to shoo off barking dogs and defuse grumpy locals.
With an eye to the future, Phoebe had the savvy to only surrender one time publication rights to the newspaper.
Presumably, a guide book is now in the offing. I can imagine the book jacket blurb next summer: “A walking guide to the wonders of Moscow and its environs. Author’s husband was deported last winter, but otherwise, Moscow welcomes foreigners.”