Rockin’ in the free world: Gorbachev, poppies and the death of Kurt Cobain

If you really want to know about Nirvana – from who killed Kurt Cobain to the rise of grunge and the Generation X tag – don’t listen to the conspiracy theories; ask a historian.


Soviet anti-drugs poster


The news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke 20 years ago today. The anniversary of his death – which probably took place sometime on the 5th April 1994 – from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Seattle, has already picked up its fair share of coverage.


There are also plenty of silly conspiracy theories. In the parlour game of ‘Who killed Kurt Cobain?’, anyone but Kurt Cobain will do.


Yet in historical terms, the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain is much bigger, darker and more mysterious – and ultimately, more important to us all here in 2014 – than the shopworn horror show of celebrity, depression, public addiction and suicide suggests. Like all the great detective stories, it deals in the kinds of details outside the jurisdiction of coroners and local cops. In this telling, the soap opera of a pop star’s life and the frenzied search for clues in the music is a distraction from another, more compelling trail of evidence, leading towards a far larger crime.


When American political economist Francis Fukuyama called the Cold War’s close ‘the end of history’ in 1989 – a phrase that gained global currency when he published The End of History & The Last Man in 1992, victorious, insulated America applauded. The rest of us weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Far from signalling the final, settled dominance of Western liberal democracy as Fukuyama predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union had already led to the re-emergence of ethnic and political loyalties long suppressed – and nursed – by the comfortable stasis of the bipolar world. Because the same Cold War that had kept African puppet states, the Iron Curtain and European ethnic divisions in a kind of stasis for the past 40 years had also kept a little piece of death – the seed of his success and his suicide – away from Kurt Cobain. But it too was free now. And it was looking for him.


There’s an uncanny symmetry in Nirvana’s rise and the fall of the established order. The band’s breakthrough sophomore album (and the singer’s eventual albatross) Nevermind went nuclear over Christmas 1991 – the very week Mikhail Gorbachev signed the decree ending the USSR. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 1992, Nevermind hit Number One, pushing Michael Jackson’s Pepsi-sponsored Bad off the top of the Billboard chart. We woke on that first morning since 1922 without a Soviet Union in the world (it ceased to exist as an entity at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991) to find that Nevermind had conquered the globe instead.


It would be the first Nirvana record for which the band’s traditional way of sharing royalties out by even thirds would end up recarved by Cobain’s lawyers in the principal songwriter’s favour. No more comrades-in-arms indeed.


In fact, success had made lots of once-simple things dreadfully complicated for Kurt. Good, straightforward relationships – with his band, his record company, his wife, his fans – had become complex, shifting. They couldn’t be trusted. Everyone wanted something. All relationships and values were now calibrated in terms of money. It was a very post-Cold War feeling indeed.


No wonder the monstrous, freakish success of Nevermind led to the re-emergence of all sorts of long-dormant insecurities in Cobain. That happens when you’ve won, chart battle or political standoff. He’d become popular, but was it for the right reasons, in the right way? He worried away at his own worthiness, his authenticity. It didn’t help that he was convinced ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was little more than a cop of another band’s tune. He and bassist Krist Novoselic were consumed with fear that people would see the song for the Pixies rip-off they confessed it had started life as. He didn’t like the fact that he wanted money enough to get heavy on Krist and Dave Grohl about it. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was a disguised dig at his own watching of every penny royalty. At the moment of his greatest triumph, Cobain was panicked. He felt like an impostor in his own life. And the more he felt like that, the further he retreated into the drug that made it matter less. Heroin. It have him the power to shrug it off. To say: Never mind. (By 1992, with the heroin-chic circus around him starting to reach the fashion glossies, he wrote a letter to fans explaining his struggle with rehab, in luring the phrase, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” )


Would he have been better off without Nevermind’s success? He often seemed to think so. What is beyond doubt is that while a global tsunami of fantastically good, cheap heroin from the former Central Asian borderlands of the USSR might have been the catalyst for grunge’s super-slow, warm’n’fuzzy sound and (to quote Billy Corgan) “I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up” mantra, it was the very worst thing for anyone experiencing exactly those feelings Cobain now harboured, exactly that need for refuge, at exactly that point.


Yet the wave of heroin kept building. And its appearance at grunge’s cradle was part of a Faustian pact much, much bigger than any that Kurt could make – or for that matter, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, or Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, or Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, or Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, or anyone dealing in low-tuned, warm, slack, sludgy sleepwalking music in those melancholic, oceanic, autumnal-looking picture sleeves.


The invasion of Afghanistan just over a decade earlier had been the Soviet Union’s most public, costly and longest-drawn-out mistake. Before 1979, Afghanistan’s opium fields exported very little along westward routes. But the CIA’s (and Pakistan’s) assistance for mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation extended to getting the occupiers hooked on heroin. Production rose, and transportation was provided – Pakistan army trucks coming and going with bales of the stuff every day.


At the same time, there is evidence to suggest official (and increasingly desperate) Soviet plans to cultivate Afghanistan as a heroin patch, and to destabilize the West by facilitating supply lines to Europe and the US. (As early as 1971, a KGB directive designated M·120/00-050 outlined Soviet plans to use heroin to destabilize the West. And by 1986, Soviet state-operated freighters were sailing from Soviet Baltic ports, and arriving in Rotterdam, London, Denmark and elsewhere laden with hundreds of kilos of high-grade heroin.)


Encouraging it was one thing. Controlling it was another. Like a nuclear arms race that would leave unattended warheads lying around who-knew-how-many unstable, newly independent republics the day Nevermind hit the top, this was the sort of tactic that works during occupation and stasis, but backfires after.


The Soviets withdrew in 1989 – crippled by addiction, demotivated, bust. (How very early grunge.) The withdrawing soldiers, quartermasters, pilots, diplomats, drivers, construction workers, kids, all took their Jones with them. Their contacts and supply routes – often officially protected – stayed open for business. And sure enough, a huge problem that had been underground in the ’80s became a huge problem that had gone mainstream. And a system that put its faith in young pioneers, in ideology and the commitment and belief of workers, found itself ill-equipped to survive the point where those young pioneers shrugged, stayed home and jacked up.


And all the time, there came more heroin. And with the domestic market more or less saturated, it had to go somewhere. The product was there; the infrastructure was there; the corruption was still there. And now, as the ruble collapsed, came the sudden, pressing need to make hard, convertible currency. Down on the Afghan-Pakistan side, too many people had been making too many US dollars for too long to stop now. And on the now-ex-Soviet side, plenty of people – demobbed people, people whose future inside the system suddenly looked a lot less secure – suddenly found they had an opportunity. A simple trade.


South-East Asia’s heroin – difficult to transport to Europe or the US, and therefore invariably expensive and degraded by middle-men – suddenly had a far more attractive rival product to contend with.


These were wild times on a new Silk Route. Western Autobahns thronged with Trabis; Highway E55 on the Czech-German border became the world’s longest brothel, cars fitted with blackout screens and grubby curtains rocking and jerking through the bitter winter night. Adventurous tourists and robber capitalists alike swarmed East, overwhelming Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Almaty and Tashkent with dollars and promises and legally enforceable contracts. And the heroin and the money flowed, aided by police corruption, desperation and the irresistible gradient of supply and demand.


Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe were easy staging points for the now-free-to-travel vessels, trucks and containers of the former USSR. And once you were in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Liverpool or London, the world – namely, the USA – was your oyster. The cheap heroin that had brought Russia to its knees was too good an opportunity for gangs on both sides to miss.


Slacker and grunge in the West, refuseniks in the East, were all borne along on the wave of unassailable apathy by history’s largest release of Afghan opium from a failed war. As a retort to the propaganda of struggle for a brighter utopian future (whether chasing a communist ideal or a floating hard-currency dollar), “Never mind” is pretty final.


It’s an intriguing thought. Had it not been for the disaster of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ensuing collapse of the USSR, would Kurt Cobain have died as he did? Perhaps the bigger question is whether grunge itself could have become so big. Did that specific, one-time-only combination of the Afghan mujahideen, Gorbachev and Reagan, and a newly entrepreneurial network of heroin gangs save us all from LA hair metal?


Or perhaps the question is more important still. Maybe all those people in the East who shrugged and turned away from their manifest destiny were part of a more global idea of Generation X than we’d imagined. Maybe their piece of the Berlin Wall was our Adbusters. We’d all been peachy keen recruits to the system, before the shrug. This was history made not by people saluting or rallying, but by people retreating, copping out, shrugging it all off, saying ‘No’.


Which brings us back to that silent house in Seattle 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain didn’t die of a heroin overdose, of course. He died because he shot himself. The autopsy revealed large quantities of heroin in his system, alongside plenty of other stuff, mostly prescription Rohypnol and other garbage. Autopsies don’t say where the heroin came from. They don’t talk about why it’s suddenly flooding streets, gigs, friends’ bedrooms, hotels. They don’t address the economics. It takes history to do that.


Seattle, the E55, Berlin, Russia, Armenia, Kabul, Rwanda, Estonia, Rotterdam. 20 years later, you can trace more and more lines. Now it’s the West’s turn to retreat from Afghanistan. Opium production has soared during our occupation. It’s going to go somewhere. Maybe we should listen out for it. It’s there, in the music, and the celebrity news too.


To steal a 1989 line from Kurt’s hero Neil Young – whose “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Cobain quoted in his suicide letter – we’re all rockin’ in the free world now.


Crime & corruption: Are you a terrorist? If Yes, please tick box below…


Ever get the creeping feeling that the fight against corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance are doomed? Well, you’d be right. And here – in one phone call – is why.


I had a conversation with my bank about money laundering today.


I denied everything, naturally. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? These are tough times for money-launderers. We know they are because the government tells us, the police tell us, and the news media tells us.


Somali remittance services like Dahabshiil are getting the third degree amid claims they are conduits of funds to Al Shabaab. David Cameron recently “pressed the EU” on tax evasion, and has committed to a public register of company owners. “Those who want to evade taxes,” he thundered after this year’s G8 summit, “have nowhere to hide”.


Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s cherished City of London is one of the leading global hubs for money laundering licit and illicit (and if you haven’t read Nicholas Shaxson’s eye-opening book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens & The Men Who Stole The World, I would urge you to do so): the overall message is clear. Money laundering by the rest of us is a Very Bad Thing, and Inspector Cameron, HMRC and the G8 are totally on it.


So it was that, having announced I wished to make a deposit with my bank (actually switching some money from another account somewhere else), I was made to feel what it’s like to have nowhere to hide. Here’s how it went.


Me: “Hello, I’d like to make a deposit, please.”


Bank: “OK. Now, I do need to ask – in accordance with the new money-laundering regulations – where this money is from?”


Me: “It’s mine.”


Bank: “OK, that’s great, I’ll tick ‘savings’. Thanks.”


And that was it. That was the full extent of the change wrought by the new money laundering regulations.


So if you’re a Mexican drug lord, Al-Shabaab fighter or common-or-garden tax avoider from the UK, remember: you have nowhere to hide. Except, y’know, a mortgage or current account. So long as you don’t confess under thorough interrogations like this.


As the Monty Python sketch says: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…





DOWNLOAD: Cool fabricator: The strange and beautiful case of Tom Kummer

Bad Boy Kummer: The poster for the inevitable biopic

In the course of researching my new book on resignations, I’ve been wading through a lot of parting shots from journalists.


Well, they have the public forum. Most of us pass through our careers without leaving a trace. We speak as representatives. We curtail our language. We stick to the script. This makes workplaces strangely preliterate, at least in terms of studying them. In the absence of personal testimony, we need to turn anthropologist.


It’s not like that with journalists. Everything they write is a personal testimony. Their/our careers are (often, at least) all footprint. And sometimes, the testifying is all there is.


So I’ve been wading through the last flare-outs of Jonah Lehrer, Johann Hari, Jayson Blair and others. And those cases reminded me of another that I’d known more than a decade before. This case never got quite the fame in the English-speaking world; but then, if it hadn’t been for our anglophone insularity, perhaps it could never have happened in the first place.


It’s the strange, strange story of a Swiss-German Hollywood reporter called Tom Kummer. He was Germany’s man on the inside throughout the 1990s. Nobody – not the LA Times, not Vanity Fair – could get the access he got; or get the stars to open up like him. He interviewed Brad Pitt about his bogies; Courtney Love about dinosaurs; Sharon Stone about post-structuralism. The world asked: how did he do it? What was his secret?


Well, you can guess. But there was a twist to Tom Kummer’s story that nobody saw coming. I wrote a feature about him in Jack magazine back in 2003. So I dug it out. Here it is.


It’s not perfect. But it sure is weird.



Comment: Reign of Errors – The Merchant of Death story ends the way we all figured. Or does it?


The sentencing of Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to 25 years in New York’s South District of Manhattan Federal Court this month has, to paraphrase the old smoking joke, become a major causes of statistics, comment and opinion.


NGOs and arms-control activists – including, I should say, a great many friends, and others for whom I have huge respect and admiration – have been quick to declare the world a safer place, despite news of huge movements of illicit arms in North Africa and North Korea’s rocket test, using embargo-busting hardware bought from China, in the same fortnight. On the other side of US politics, the National Rifle Association used the occasion to thunder against arms controls, and seemingly came very close to saying the US government had betrayed the country’s constitution by hosting arms treaty conferences in New York. Meanwhile a diffuse but vociferous core of bloggers, NatSec heads, investigative journalists, ex-military types and libertarians wasted no time in joining conspiracy theorists in declaring Bout to be a pawn in a bigger game being played out by the USA, and Bout’s prosecutors and the DEA hailed his conviction and tough sentence as a victory. Just as predictably, the Kremlin began anew the sabre-rattling about the case harming bilateral relations that it had initiated on Bout’s arrest in Thailand in 2008 (a move it claimed was illegal) but had rather conspicuously left off during the trial. You had to rub your eyes sometimes, and remind yourself sometimes that it was one trial, and one man we’re talking about.


Ah yes, that man. Who was he again? In the course of researching my book Outlaws Inc., which contains transcripts of the DEA’s wire on the day of his arrest and a blow-by-blow account of the trial and conviction, I met and spoke to many associates, acquaintances, allies and enemies of Viktor Bout, and no two people seemed to agree. Nor did their stance and their background always make for an easy fit: I spoke to as many former cohorts in the gun-running air trade who thought he was a mobster, a spy, a scoundrel or a liability as I did UN staff who believed him to be on the rough end of some rather arbitrary and heavy-handed US justice. There were plenty who broadly held the same essential view as I do – that he’s a highly intelligent, amoral businessman who made a living capitalizing on and helping perpetuate human misery – while at the same time disagreeing as to exactly what that made him. Worse than BAE Systems? Not as bad as Blackwater/Xe? A terrorist himself? As bad as [name your big Wall Street arms or software corporation of choice here]? George W Bush’s independent alter-ego? Putin’s puppet? The man John Bolton wishes he could be? In the end, you go crazy. Bout became a symbol for all-purpose avarice – a yardstick to gauge whatever point anyone wanted to make about something else.


And that’s what I suppose I found (find) most interesting about his case, and his story. He is the British parliament’s Merchant of Death, a foxtrot-loving family man, Hollywood’s Lord of War, a friend to dictators in Liberia and the Congo, a supplier to terrorists in Colombia and Africa, a zeitgeist-surfing private military contractor, a gunrunner, a mastermind, a small businessman, a kingpin, a Kremlin proxy, a shabby and rather naive salesman hopelessly out of his depth, a patsy, and, lest we forget, partner and supplier to US adventures abroad, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how is this possible?


One of the reasons Viktor Bout seems to split people in this way is his own weirdly ephemeral nature. Here’s what we know from the record. Ask him what he believes, and he’ll tell you he’s just a family man and entrepreneur, and that such questions are meaningless to him. Ask him why he ran guns, and the party line is that he’s just like a taxi driver, and you don’t ask them why they take passengers, some good and some not so much. And on the rare occasion you ask him, as Peter Landesman did, who’s helped him out of some of his previous jams (having his entire crew and plane held hostage by the Taliban while supplying the Northern Alliance, for example), he points to his forehead and says if he tells you he’ll “get the red dot right here”.


In my book, I argued that this “shimmering, insubstantial” quality was part and parcel of being an arms smuggler. It’s as true of personal traits and beliefs as it is of his documentation. (He possessed seven passports, carrying wildly different names, nationalities and details.) Whatever suits you best right now, that’s the one you’ll produce. Keep the rest sketchy, that way no-one can hold you to anything later.


I suppose for a while, I thought it was going badly for Bout in that courtroom. It seemed that there finally was a narrative for him, and he didn’t look good in it. The DEA had it all on tape: their undercover agents pretending to be FARC men, Bout promising to sell them weapons “to kill Americans with”. Indeed throughout the trial Bout’s defence attorney Albert Dayan had consistently flubbed the opportunity to put his client’s side of any story. He’d focused on alleged US hypocrisy, and that was more or less it. Well, I’m not saying he didn’t try, but Dayan’s flubs – spilling a pitcher of water over himself and the dais as he drew breath to start cross-questioning; forgetting what he was saying, let alone missing opportunities to put forward some solid arguments for his client – all seemed to the casual observer to have something of self-sabotage and unpreparedness about them. And as Dayan himself (an ambitious young American and, let it be noted, a last-minute replacement for the court-appointed lawyers Bout sacked just as proceedings commenced) would hardly have wanted to go before the world’s TV cameras and into the most high-profile trial of his career unprepared, one must assume part of the fault for his seeming unpreparedness lies with Bout himself.


Why would he do that? Post-sentencing, I’m not sure I really think he blew it at all. On the contrary, maybe – just maybe – he’s played his hand rather smartly. Maybe going down with a whimper to what was after all a very, very self-contained US sting operation, was the best of all his options. It meant he didn’t have to talk about any of the other work he’s done; it meant that he didn’t have to talk about Africa, or Afghanistan, or any of the covert deliveries he’s been making for either Russia, or (crucially) the United States. This was the one scenario everyone could afford. Except of course, Viktor. He’s in for 25 years. Or is he?


What made me think again about the trial, and about its part in the bigger game being played out, was an email exchange I had with Russian journalist Yulia Ponomareva of the Moscow News, written up here. The starting point for the exchange was Yulia’s question: “Will Viktor Bout serve his 25 years, or return to Russia? Which is more likely?”


The day Bout was convicted back in the autumn, I’d expressed the gut belief on Twitter that he would be repatriated fairly soon; though as that was a first reaction and sentence had not been passed at that stage, I’d left open what exactly I meant by “soon”. But preparing my answers for the Moscow News, I realized that – assuming my feeling about repatriation is correct – the hand Bout has played is careful indeed. It’s about the long game: talk in court in the US in an attempt to get off, or to cut a deal, and you might succeed; but you’ll probably fail anyway, and messily, having played all of your cards and sold out most of your contacts back home and around the world. Fail on purpose, however – brief your attorney poorly, insist he witters on about US hypocrisy, blithely miss all the hints a deal may be on the cards – and you’ll go down. But you’ll be repatriated, and that’s where the real trial will start. Like a mobster who keeps schtum in jail knowing he’ll be collected outside the gates by his old cohorts the day he gets parole, Bout played the long game.


So one question now is, how soon will that happen? And for that, I’m posting below and entire my answers to the questions on his repatriation from the Moscow News. (The other, of course, is whether the bust itself was, to some extent, theatre.)


Yulia Ponomareva: So there are two options so far, the first one being Bout’s serving his 25-year sentence in the US, the second one is his extradition to Russia. Which one is more likely?
I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term. The fact is that (from the point of view of successive American administrations) Viktor Bout became rather an embarrassment, and that made him the perfect ‘example’ case. What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms. However, they will now be keenly aware that Viktor Bout has not stopped being a problem for them, at least behind the scenes. And to this end I expect discussions to begin in earnest now that he has been sentenced and the media spotlight is off. (It is also interesting that right now, there seem to be more illicit arms floating around than there ever have been – so as far as public opinion is concerned, perhaps there is some amazement that stopping Viktor Bout did not lead to a sudden unavailability of illicit weapons…)

YP: Is there really anything the Russian Foreign Ministry can do to bring him back to Russia?
When I say that I expect diplomacy to increase in terms of finding a workable solution, I mean on both sides. This is true of both the USA and Russian Federation, whose public diplomatic campaigns during his incarceration have been sporadic, and mostly concentrated on the short periods of time when Bout was in the news (Thai extradition to USA, verdict/sentencing). I personally think that (again, for both sides) the biggest issues now is credibility: if a return to Russia under any circumstances is on the cards (so to speak) there has to be a way for the US to credibly communicate to its public and NGOs the fact that he will not simply be taking up his business where he left it – that their sentencing and enforcement actions (and associated costs) have been effective. From the point of view of Russian diplomacy, there are also clearly two audiences: the Americans and the Russian electorate. This is normal for any country, and explains the dual tone we’ve seen so far, of quiet pressure and public outcry. (In some ways, the change of position of Dmitry Rogozin from Nato Ambassador to Russian Deputy PM should have some effect here!)

YP: Do you think he could be swapped for someone? And should we expect arrests of alleged US spies in this case?
Excellent question. On one hand, that would be very transparent piece of political theatre. On the other, we are used to that, no? (Also, I think it would offer both sides the “credible way out” I talked about above, if I’m being honest…) So, without gambling money on it, I’ll just say pretty soon.

YP: If he has to be extradited, will he serve 25 years in Russian prison, or chances are he’ll be released here?
I believe the prospect of Viktor serving 25 years in either Russia or the USA to be very slight. Being realistic, there is almost no chance of him ever being able to go back to the business he had before (Would you do business with him if you were an arms dealer nowadays? Not me. Too notorious/hot to touch), so reoffending is not an issue. And from what I understand, he is a model prisoner in terms of behaviour. So serving the full term is unlikely, even in the US. The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health, though there is nothing currently to suggest his health or that of others is poor.

YP: If he remains in the US, could he be of any value to the U.S. intelligence?
I think, personally, that his value to US intelligence is less than most of the public thinks. After all, most of his deals are known about already; even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal. I have no doubt that US intelligence will be romancing him at the moment, trying to get what info they can negotiate, with the prospect of a deal. However, on balance, if I were Viktor, I would probably be less worried about US intelligence than I would be about what would happen if I did reveal something. He’s always been very discreet.

YP: Why has he been the only one of his arms trafficking network to be put in jail?
Personally, I believe Viktor Bout’s big mistake was to allow himself to become a celebrity. There are bigger arms-transporting fish than him out there, and they are corporations doing the same thing illicitly as they do licitly. They are quite complex, faceless and therefore rather boring in terms of mobilizing opinion within government or law enforcement to act against them. Viktor Bout’s troubles really stem from his New Yorker photoshoots and his interviews in the early-mid-2000s, and from coming to the attention of politicians like Peter Hain who became angry at his seeming impudence and notoriety. When he was just a businessman, he was more or less safe. Once he was branded a ‘Merchant of Death’ and Nicholas Cage was acting film roles based on him, he was a living challenge to law enforcers, arms control NGOs and politicians everywhere.

YP: What about his accomplices? Do you think any of Russia’s high-ranking officials and the military have been involved and is it possible Bout will give their names away?
High-ranking Russian politicians were certainly involved: the transportation and sale of arms for cash was seen, in the early 1990s, as a way for the Russian (and Ukrainian/Belarusian) state and military to liquidate assets they no longer needed, and this was all quite openly done. This was how many of the businessmen in the same field as Viktor got started in air transportation. In my book
Outlaws Inc., in which I follow the former Red Army pilots who flew for Viktor and others, I interviewed former Defence minister and Commander of the Armed Forces Marshal Evgeny Shaposhnikov. I asked him the following question about one of Viktor Bout’s illicit transport operations in 1995 (on which the Russian film Kandaghar: Survive & Return” was based).
[Me to Shaposhnikov: “Later, in the mid-1990s, did you know about flights in Il-76 aircraft to supply the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan with weapons? Or rather, did these flights ever have official (or unofficial) government approval?” Shaposhnikov’s answer was: “No comment.” I make no accusation against Shaposhnikov, but clearly there was a tolerance for what needed to be done. He also said, when I asked about an order giving servicemen the right to sell military property, including weapons, back in 1992 when Bout began his business from an army base…

Shaposhnikov’s answer: “Certain steps had to be done officially in this direction: some firing and training grounds were leased to local collective farms; military trucks were used for fetching non-military goods;  our men were sent to help collective farmers with crops; and extra military property were given to local businessmen.”] This is all in my book. However, it’s crucially important to realize that although there was some cooperation, or at least non-intervention, from high up the Russian political establishment, the same is true in the US and many other countries, who were at the same time reading United Nations Security Council reports into Viktor’s (and others’) activities, and using Viktor (and those others) to transport their arms, equipment and men to Iraq and so on. The fact is that these ‘illicit’ airlines give governments all over the world a discreet, private transport method when they are dropping Private Military Contractors or sensitive personnel or material somewhere. You can bet that security forces from Africa, America or wherever else don’t get dropped off in Somalia by Lufthansa.

YP: That’s even greater than I expected, many thanks. This is really funny, btw: “The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health”. Many Russian convicts dream of serving a sentence in a ‘civilized’ country like the US. Still, there are just a couple of things that need clarifying, I think. [Your phrase] “I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term.” – I assume you’re taking about several months’ time here, right?
Yes. I would say we’re talking 50/50 within a year, 75% chance within 3, and I just cannot see Viktor Bout in a US prison in 5 years. Behind the scenes, I simply don’t think anyone wants him there. Out of the way/out of mischief, yes. But not there!

YP: [Your phrase] “What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms.” – Is it possible to specify how ‘big’ he was as an arms trafficker?
Viktor Bout was as big as you get being an independent, is perhaps a good way of putting it. He headed his company, did his deals himself, handled clients, ran around with the planes if he had to. Now, some of those deals look impressive, and some of the clients’ names are well-known. But as Peter Danssaert of the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Antwerp told me in the book, this does only makes him a big fish within that bracket – of independent owner-businessmen. There are far more significant shipments being made by the state-corporates on all sides. In Russian terms, this might equate to Rosoboronexport/Rozvooruzhenie (state-owned arms producer, recently suspected of selling arms to blacklisted regimes like Omar al Bashir’s Sudan – some of which, the MiG fighter planes, mysteriously turned up with bonus-extra mercenary pilots to fly them (on their papers, listed as instructors and mechanics of course, only some later turned up dead in battle against the rebels…). But I’m not picking Russia out as a particularly bad example in all this: UK’s equipment is flying all over the place, France ended up shipping tonnes upon tonnes of illicit small weapons to the Libyan rebels, and the US is arming Somali forces to the teeth using licit corporate means right now. So really, as Moises Naim (ex-World Bank) told me, the Viktor Bouts and Pablo Escobars are somehow relics. They had a purpose in the marketplace, and that was to do the things there was no infrastructure for. But now globalization has been properly established, the arms producers are not going to allow themselves to be cut out of a money-making situation by some middlemen running around selling second-hand goods, not when there’s really big money at stake. Russian film producer Ilya Neretin made that film Kandaghar a couple of years ago. It was his movie, and he used one of Bout’s planes for the re-enactment, and of course the story is of one of Bout’s operations gone wrong. Even he laughed about it to me (again, quoting from the book):  “Look Matt, I will tell you this. There are so many Mr X figures ruling this world. And Mr Bout is a prince. But there are kings.” Viktor Bout is the boss of a small business. Think of a car dealership. His name and his brand are important, which is why he did all he could do to build them up (his mistake, potentially). Against that, imagine the others. They are not independent car dealerships. They are more like General Motors or something, in size and reach. That’s how big Viktor was.

YP: And what do you mean by “not actually illegal” here? “Even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal.”
Well, I meant just that – until Viktor Bout was caught in the sting operation having a conversation in which he said yes, he’d give [people he thought were] FARC missiles to shoot down US-piloted helicopters, he was not committing any crimes. There were a lot of things he did that were maybe reprehensible, but part of the reason he ran around for so long was that nobody knew what they could charge him with. This was one of the key frustrations of Douglas Farah & Stephen Braun’s 2007 book
Merchant of Death, a dossier from two American reporters who would later bear witness against Bout, as it was for Condoleezza Rice and the CIA. This was why it was so important for the undercover agents in the hotel room in Bangkok to get him saying the specific words into the tape about giving them ammo to kill Americans with. It was their only real weapon to go against him. And don’t forget, although there are questions as to whether (for instance) he supplied both the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan with guns in the 1990s, well, so had the USA in the 1980s and then again (to the Northern Alliance) post-9/11. So the bust was a nice way to get him charged on a specific crime, right now in the present, with a start and a finish to it that could be captured on tape in one meeting. That meant nobody had to delve back into any uncomfortable questions about how many times they had also used this man to deliver weapons for them, and they could ignore all questions Bout’s defence might raise about their involvement and past history with him. Which they did.


So watch this space. These predictions may pan out, or they may not. But either way, in the limelight or behind the scenes, I’ve a feeling the Viktor Bout story’s got a way to run yet.


Report: Smuggling, security & the power of cheap – speaking at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs

On 22nd September, I was honoured to be invited to discuss the links between big business, mercenary airmen and terrorist groups at a special event presented by the Transnational Security Committee of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. The conversation that followed, moderated by CGA Academic Chair Dr Mark Galeotti, took in the disintegrating Soviet Union, the forces and motives directing policy in Afghanistan, Central America and increasingly, East Africa.


The high point for me personally was Dr Galeotti’s killer question – one I haven’t been asked before, and when I think about it, I wish I had, because it’s an incredibly fertile way to look at how our world works. He posited a hypothetical set of conditions where it was possible to shut down all rogue air operators and stem the flow of invisible cargo overnight. He then asked, what would our world look like then?

Well, war would get bigger again, for a start. Not just in the sense that smaller groups would find it harder to access plentiful weapons without a superpower ‘backer’ – much as they did in Cold War days – but in that moves like invasions, regime change and reconstruction would come with a far higher tax bill attached, since the grunt work could no longer be outsourced to cost-effective partners-for-hire, but would demand the presence of a far larger standing force.Prices for other things would rise, too. Not just contraband – though the plentiful supply of cheap movers helps keep prices artificially low there too – but everything from bouquets to chickenburgers and parcel post to washing machines.


Humanitarian aid, too, would come with a heftier bill attached – again, it would require bodies like the UN to run a far larger standing transport resource – and would be slower in its deployment, since the perma-circling flocks of cheap Russian cargo planes operating in and around the world’s troublespots would have disappeared. Smaller aid outfits would likely be squeezed out of the emergency-response market, since they would not have access to cheap capacity in planes that were already going to Somalia, Pakistan or Haiti, and could neither afford to charter nor run their own plane.


No wonder the Q&A with the audience was described as “spirited”! You can read more about the event, and the CGA’s upcoming lecture programme, here.

Analysis: Chewbacca, Kurt Cobain & cheap thrills, or life in a post-Soviet West

What if…? is a popular parlour game among historians. How would the world look had World War Two ended differently? What would a Confederate-won Civil War have meant in a parallel 21st-century USA? What if the DDR’s army hadn’t wavered, and the Berlin Wall had never fallen?


This week brought a chance to play a different, even more tantalizing game. Truthdig Radio and the KPFK network in Los Angeles devoted a half-hour segment of their weekend show to discussion with Matt this week, talking Outlaws Inc., the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, and its continuing aftermath.


Titled ‘Dodging Missiles With Russian Smugglers‘, the segment looked at the way in which everything from free trade to terrorism, our own governments’ foreign and fiscal policy, and even our own view of democracy, society and the world continues to be affected by what Soviets called the Cataclysm of 1991. While we in the West were all obsessing about a Reagan/Lucasfilm showdown with the Evil Empire and its Politburo of Darth Vaders that never materialized, should we have been watching instead for the thousands upon thousands of demobbed, unaccountable and nigh-untraceable Han Solos and Chewbaccas in their rusty old Millennium Falcons that suddenly swamped the skies? And what, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Colombia to Haiti, might have been different if we had?


Were we distracted by our own propaganda into believing a Cold War could be won outright, to the point of ignoring the aftermath of cheap AK-47s and Strela rocket launchers flooding the market? Is the War on Terror floundering precisely because it’s based on the fatal assumption that the War on Communism ended nice and neatly? Where would Rumsfeld and co have found all the ‘non-state actors’ to fly materiel to Iraq and Afghanistan without all the cheap ex-military Russian labour? How did we not predict the USSR’s military-assisted heroin pipelines suddenly redirecting through Europe and America as its newly freelance – and impoverished – ex-servicemen strove to make a buck out of their old infrastructure?


Could it be that, as well as arming a rash of conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan and Armenia to Liberia and creating the generation of highly educated software dabblers who more or less invented the DDOS and spawned the download and piracy industry, the suddenness of the Soviet collapse was what killed Kurt Cobain and that guy from Alice In Chains?


So, how much of all our lives in the West 20 years on is secretly, subtly, Soviet-influenced? Are we ourselves living inside one of those ‘What if…?’ games after all? You can listen to the interview here, read the book if you want to, and make your own mind up…

Free audio download: Matt talks 9/11’s unreported aftermath on the Rick & Donna Martinez Show

Listen to Matt on WPTF with Rick and Donna Martinez:
Matt’s guest appearance on WPTF’s Rick and Donna Martinez show yesterday kicked off the show’s coverage of some of the more unheralded players in 9/11 and its global aftermath. Matt and Donna discussed the dirty deals our governments make with phantom carriers – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and closer to home. You can download the show as an iTunes-ready Mp3 here.

Google, Skype, Hotmail & the FSB: Russia’s hidden heart

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.

What makes you think it’s not me, officer?

No, officer, I haven't been drinking

Just a small post today, happy memories of shopping for fake driving licences in the Urals while out there researching the book in 2007. Though it’s fair to say this one is not the best likeness of me, it certainly seemed to work whenever I flashed it at hotel reception check-ins. Serious question, though. This was a £5 readymade. I also bought Russian PM Vladimir Putin’s (clean licence, St Petersburg citizen, currently a Moscow resident – and Roman Abramovich’s. Others were bespoke, with the correct picture and whatever else ($10). If you really had a problem and needed to disappear – let’s even say you were someone like the guy on the licence – how hard would it be? It might cost more that $5… but not that much more.