The first virgin cases of Matt’s non-fiction thriller/true crime book Outlaws Inc. will be broken open at a launch reception at London’s Goldsboro Books. For a place on the guest list, more information, or interview opportunities and press material, email matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com or h.guthrie [at] macmillan [dot] co [dot] uk.
Outlaws Inc.: Under the Radar and on the Black Market with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. Aug. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9781608195305. $25.
When communism collapses, some Russian military men get together and buy a decommissioned Soviet plane for mere kopeks, then launch a shipping business. Soon they’re crisscrossing borders with everything from illegal weapons to emergency aid, trading behind the scenes with the Taliban, the U.S. government, and various global corporations. It’s scary, but it pays, until the world settles into a new groove and their smuggling expertise isn’t in as much demand. Then they move their operations to a particularly troubled part of Africa. Okay, sounds like a thriller, but it’s all true. Widely published British journalist Potter traveled with these risk takers for a time so that he could tell their story. This should be great narrative nonfiction reading.”
Very interesting city, Ekaterinburg. It’s known for a number of reasons, all of which are to do with its somewhat shadowy, secretive character. It was the scene of the Romanov family’s assassination by the Bolsheviks, and the fount of the whole Anastasia controversy/red herring. During World War II, the Russian government created a secret second HQ in Ekaterinburg – now known as Sverdlovsk – in case Moscow, further West in ‘European’ Russia, should fall to the advancing Wehrmacht. The treasures of the St Petersburg Hermitage museum were stored in underground bunkers here too, just in case. Through the post-war Soviet years, the Sverdlovskaya region became the heart of Russia’s ‘nuclear archipelago’ – a chain of sites that housed the USSR’s weapons powerhouses, from warheads to supergerms aand chemicals to spy factories. It’s an interesting place. Even Russians weren’t allowed there most of the time in those days. Lots of blanks on maps. An anthrax leak from a secret bio-warfare facility in the suburbs killed dozens in the 1970s. Rather than treat them, the authorities claimed they were sick from eating iffy meat and let them die. Then a radiation leak – the world’s worst before Chernobyl – exacted its price in secrecy too. To this day, the Lonely Planet guide to Russia advises backpackers that radiation levels around some of the lakes will kill a man within an hour. Gary Powers’ U2 spyplane got shot down here. In the 1990s, renamed (again) Ekateerinburg, the city became the Russian mafiya wars’ ground zero. People disappear a lot here; the airmen in Outlaws Inc – men who make their living being non-existent – happen to call Ekaterinburg home. To this day, in the informal forgers’ shops and stalls around the city, you can buy a whole new ID for a few dollars. I came back with seven, five of which carried the names Vladimir Putin, Roman Abramovich, V.I. Lenin, Boris Berezhovsky and Osama bin Laden.
So why am I telling you all this? Because I thought of it today, when I saw the reports on the newswires that Russia had overturned a bid by the FSB – the KGB’s all-powerful successor agency – to have encrypted digital communications like Hotmail, Skype and Gmail banned or monitored in Russia. Fair enough, and all good. But what got reported less widely was this January 13th news that the FSB had already succeeded in winning approval for the motion in the Sverdlovskaya region, of which the capital is… Ekaterinburg.