Review: Why new Ukraine documentary film Maïdan is right to resist the voiceover

 

I was asked to review Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 documentary film Maïdan for Radio 4’s Front Row programme earlier this week. You can listen to the review, in the form of a stimulating conversation with presenter Samira Ahmed, here.

 

A year on from the massacre of Maidan protestors by president Viktor Yanukovich’s berkut officers, there’s a very real danger of the Maidan protests becoming lost from view.

 

Russia’s black propaganda efforts have been unrelenting – from official attempts to label the protestors ‘Nazis’ and their leaders in Kiev a ‘junta’ to the flooding of commetary with trolls and masking of their own forces as ‘separatists’, protesting in turn. So any document of Maidan that takes us back to first principles – that bears witness, rather than imposing a retrospective interpretation – is welcome.

 

And in a lot of ways, Maïdan is that document. The cameras are simply installed, and left to run, picking up the crowd, in parts and whole. There is no narrator. Or at least, not of the kind of narrator we’re used to in films. More of that in a moment.

In some ways, it’s as much a video installation piece as a film. I actually think the cinema is the wrong place for it: for my first viewing, I sat and watched. It was a strange, gripping but occasionally frustrating experience. For my second, I watched while pottering about, eating and wandering in and out… And it was amazing.

 

It’s a film that invites you to be part of it, in an almost ambient, inclusive way. For long stretches, it even feels like those long, late-night live-broadcast hours they used to do from the Big Brother house outside of scheduled programme time. There’s a screen between you, but there might as well not be. Life is being lived, sandwiches eaten, tea drunk on both sides of the glass. You feel like following buskers past the edges of the frame as they wanderout of shot. Faces in the crowd peer out at points just past your shoulder. But then suddenly – very suddenly – things turn. And by that time, you’re… what… tuned in and on their wavelength somehow. You feel involved, without being offered easy hooks, personal stories, heroes. No leading men or ladies, no leading politicians. You are one of the crowd.

 

In particular, what struck me about the protestors is just how sauntering and adhoc and The Mouse That Roared it all was. Hot drinks are clutched, volunteers make soup. Community centres, street corners become meeting places. They look, for the most part, like people with jobs, and mums and dads, and wholesome aspirations. People like us. Of course, that’s just how they look, and talk, and act. And amid all the noise, that’s all we have to go on. We don’t know them. We don’t follow them as individuals. There are no emblematic stories. It’s as if to say that emblematic stories have caused enough problems already. As a voice cries over the PA when imploring the crowd to remain calm even as the violence begins: “Emotion is your enemy.”

 

Maïdan’s insistence on not entering the mad arms race of over-narration and assertion and theorising all sides were/are being sucked into around Ukraine really does feel like the only sane thing to do.

 

I think that act of asking us to look and see what’s happening, and getting out of the way, is an absolute masterstroke.

 

Maïdan is not bums-on-seats, Hollywood-style commercial dynamite. And yet it feels like something people will return to for far longer. It feels, at times, like we’re seeing cinema stretching itself again, in ways that will have value in decades to come, like The Battle Of Algiers or even Eisenstein.

Of course, those are hardly examples of POV-free filmmaking. Which is, I guess, the twist.

 

Nothing is really that simple. Loznitsa shot more than a hundred hours of footage. We get two. Maybe Maidan does have more in common with narrated or polemical collages like Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake after all.

For me, though, this is where Maïdan gets really interesting. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more snatches of PA appeals for doctors, crowd chants, half-conversations-in-passing, painted slogans, odd shouts, noises off, radio pop songs and so on you hear, the more that circus of voices becomes the chorus, the narrator. It felt at times like those great Robert Altman films, M.A.S.H. (narration comes from tannoy), Nashville (chorus/narration comes from overheard snatches of event PA/DJs on the radio), Short Cuts (character scenes are accompanied by TVs on which you overhear news bulletins of the impending earthquake and crime stuff) etc. If it’s a composition of broken voices in an hour of chaos, maybe it’s our, or Ukraine’s version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

But even if it is a collage, a composition, it’s one that leaves you alone for long periods, including extraordinarily long static shots.

 

There are no characters. No individual stories are asked to be emblematic of the whole. The subject is the crowd, and your responses to it. And while the camera is there, trained on the square or the refectory like a CCTV or weathercam, there’s no-one telling you what to think. You’re forced to pick your way through those voices and faces and messages… watch, listen and interpret which way things are about to turn as you watch the crowd at that moment. The crowd is all.

 

We don’t get to see inside anyone’s head. We’re among strangers. The anthem swells and disappears. People read demands to Putin. People talk about what Putin’s said back. People make and eat sandwiches. Mill about. Someone strums a guitar. There are moments when it feels closer to the infamous, unreleasable outtake-as-feature footage that made up Robert Franks’ Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues, or Bob Dylan’s abandoned ’66 tour chronicle Eat the Document than anything else. Aimlessness as purpose. Chaos as direction. Crowd as motivational force.

In fact, for the most part – including the endless lulls, the itch to interpret someone coming towards us as a sign that ‘things are about to happen’, the comic moments, the slow-train-crash horror of things turning ugly and uncontrollable, whatever we intend – really is just like being part of a big demonstration/protest crowd. Key events are happening are out of sight. You hear that they’ve happened, or may be about to happen, elsewhere. You’re always reading the mood of the people around you and seeing how things are about to turn/who to be close to and who not/what happens next should someone kick off, etc.

 

This is a huge part of what I take from the film. The beginning really immerses you – sort of stretches your idea of what to expect I think. It’s like those long, fixed-camera hours broadcast live from the Big Brother house, or Andy Warhol films. You start getting itchy feet, thinking ‘When is something going to happen? Why all the waiting around in one place, camera?’ And of course that’s very much the start of any movement, if I recall my Iraq Demo, Occupy and Poll Tax Protest days right.

 

Maybe no-one telling you what to think is the point about revolutions. And about Maïdan. It’s messy. It’s bewildering.

 

And it might only make sense later, when it’s slipping away again.

 

Are US mercenaries deploying in Ukraine? Or… is it bullshit? On Putin’s use of speculation as foreign policy.

 

RIA Novosti screenshot

 

Yesterday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti asked for my insight into Kremlin claims that US private military company Greystone is deploying mercenaries in Ukraine.

 

Amid the chaos of eastern Ukraine and Greystone’s association with Blackwater/Xe Services, the Russian claims seem to be gathering momentum, regardless of evidence. There’s an added twist. RIA Novosti itself – once a pretty independent source of news – was shut down late last year by the Kremlin, and now exists as a government controlled agency. 

 

Claims like these remind me of the ‘Bullshit Or Not?’ sketch on cult 1987 film ‘Amazon Women On The Moon’ in which Henry Silva floated the possibility that Jack the Ripper might in fact have been the Loch Ness Monster. So I figured the least I could do would be to point out how problematic agenda-driven news like this can be. Here are their questions (below). What follows is my reply, warts and all (but with links and some hurriedly made typos corrected).

The April 10th 2014 email from RIA Novosti

The April 10th 2014 email from RIA Novosti

Hi _____,

 

Thanks for inviting me to comment. I’ve written you some answers, and they appear below.

 

But of course I’m a little wary of the current editorial line of the ‘reborn’/post-shutdown RIA Novosti. From the questions you ask, I sense that it would be convenient for me to get excited (like the classic nutters and conspiracy theorists on Russia Today) to back up some line about mercenaries. (“We are doing a story about Greystone mercenaries in Ukraine” would seem to accept that such forces are in Ukraine before the question “Are there mercenaries in Ukraine” even arrives!)

 

I’m afraid that if that’s the editorial line, my answers are going to disappoint.

 

I don’t think there’s credible case either way for the presence of mercenaries (we’ll get to contentious definitions later) in the places RIA Novosti is currently reporting, and I don’t think interviews with local militia commanders who reckon they saw people who “look like” mercenaries (were they wearing the party hats?) or spoke to people who claimed they’d heard some mercenaries (were they discussing their membership of a mercenary union?) is the way to go.

 

I could probably find someone on my road who says they were John Lennon in a previous life, but I don’t think I’d report it as fact. Although actually, the Lewisham News Shopper did have a cracking piece on a poor lady who was convinced she’d been Arsène Wenger’s fiancée in mediaeval France. Apparently he had no Plan B then either.

 

Essentially, if this is part of a piece in which the editorial line is “Let’s get some people to agree that there are mercenaries doing evil deeds in Ukraine”, I’m not your man, and I can’t give permission to participate, or to use my material.

 

OK. Apologies for saying all this first. I’m a confirmed and lifelong russophile, my work in journalism tends to be around avoiding the harmful push towards convenient but mendacious narratives, and I’d say the same to trolls-and-nutters US networks like Fox TV these days if they asked me for material to back up what I suspect might be a non-story.

 

That said – and on the understanding that you guys will treat this with integrity – happy to offer some insight.

 

Here are your questions, with my answers underneath. I hope they’re helpful.

 

Qualifier
The pathology around the word ‘mercenary’ makes it an easy thing to accuse someone of, but a very difficult thing to define, much less prove. And of course, the absence of a mercenary force is by its nature unverifiable – could it just mean that they were “so good they were never caught!” Which makes it the new witchcraft, I suppose. Certainly the new conspiracy theory. Libya was a recent example of the word ‘mercenary’ applied to just about every side at one point – depending on who you wanted to delegitimize. I reckon this is not only intellectually dishonest, but sows fear and miscalculation. It also (perhaps more importantly from your point of view and this story) misses the key points about mercenary use anyway.

1. How legal is it to use mercenaries, what are the existing regulations?

There’s a UN convention against mercenaries (UN resolution 44/34, International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, came into force on 20/10/2001) and different countries rule against their use too. However, their definition of a Mercenary is quite full of loopholes, and could either encompass security guards in buildings, or Blackwater, or soldiers of fortune, or none of them. (The UN’s definition is copied here.)

 

Parameter one, “…in order to fight…”: Historically, that’s been got around by saying “Our staff are not there to fight, they are security guards specifically trained in conflict avoidance techniques” or some such. Is guarding something fighting? Not really, no – you hope it won’t be, any more than walking down the street means getting mugged. So in practice, there’s often a huge blurry area where terms like security guard, courier, technician and mercenary (and too many others to mention) tend to edge into each other.

 

Perhaps the most famous recent example of someone who inhabits that grey area is Viktor Bout – a simple businessman in the air freight industry, as he and the Russian government claimed during his extradition hearing? Or The Merchant Of Death, the world’s most notorious gunrunner to mercenary and guerrilla armies, as the US & UN Panel of Experts claimed? The picture gets complicated because, though he worked for private militaries in Africa, promised to supply what he thought was FARC and so on, he was also subcontracted to both the Pentagon (as a transporter for US reconstruction in Iraq) and the Russian government (flying arms to Afghan factions in the 1990s – see the 2010 Russian blockbuster Kandaghar for the dramatization of the story of one of his real crews). But there’s also the ‘grey’ zone around US PMCs in Iraq, armed security around oil pipelines and refineries (in Russia, Africa, Libya, everywhere), and companies like DynCorp and Executive Outcomes used by peacekeeping operations in Africa.

 

Or, more simply (if no more easy in terms of answers), it is not legal to use the classically defined proactive paid combatants known as mercenaries. But to deploy trained security personnel who can protect property, people, assets, businesses, whatever – that can well be legal, and of course for businesses across Russia, the West, the world generally, it’s part of standard corporate practice. So the dividing line becomes something people tend to define for themselves on a case-by-case basis.

 

2. Are there mercenaries in Ukraine?

Nobody has credible information on that score – including, I’d strongly suggest, the ‘local militia leaders’ and sundry other types currently pointing and shouting about mercenaries from RIA Novosti’s Twitter feed.

 

 

 

And I’d tend to mistrust anyone who claims to know differently right now – like those local militia commanders being treated as responsible/expert sources on RIA this afternoon… Because ‘mercenary’ so loose and therefore easily manipulated, defining people as ‘mercenaries’ has become as much an act of political will and expediency as calling someone a “traitor”.

 

(Example: Just look at the ongoing claim and counterclaim as to whether pro-Russian protestors in Kharkiv are “paid and arrive in buses” or “locals who are not being paid”.)

 

For what it’s worth, I suspect that there’s an element of that here. The Kremlin and bystanders have said people look like mercenaries. Yet (unless you’re reading graphic novels or watching Hollywood films) mercenaries don’t really look like mercenaries. Well, you wouldn’t want to really, would you? For the same reason, you don’t get a badge and uniform when you join the Mafia!

 

Sometimes private military contractors take full advantage of that looseness too – as did Blackwater in Iraq.

 

But beyond ‘Nobody knows for sure’, we can say that it’s in the interests of (or, it fits the policy of) the current Russian government to say there are.

 

This leads us to the goal of any mercenaries – whether real or imagined.

 

3. What are their goals?

If there were any paid personnel (please see earlier qualifier as to what makes one person’s mercenary another’s guard), their goals would probably be the usual – protect key people, assets and potentially places and resources.

 

This is not the goal people usually imagine, of course. But remember, any private military company who pro-actively deploys to engage with an enemy is no longer deniable: it would be breaking the UN Convention in a very clear way. So ‘mercenary’ units (PMCs) don’t tend to do that. Hence the high number of ‘security contractors’ and not ‘mercenaries’. Usually their deployment makes a deterrent to casual or spontaneous damage (like a bodyguard to a celebrity – you won’t ever hope to protect them from a planned assassination, but from a nutter with a broken bottle, sure) and potentially to be there for the rapid rescue of specific people or intelligence or whatever, in the event of an acute crisis.

 

But then, we also need to ask what would be the purpose of phantom (ie: not really there at all) mercenaries. Well, on one hand, if the West were deploying mercenaries in Ukraine, it would be very easy for the Kremlin to call it a provocation (In fact, though there’s no credible evidence, it just did anyway.) So it’s clearly in the Putin administration’s interests – or rather, again, it seems to fit their current line of policy with regard to Ukraine – to claim they are there.

 

Which is one reason, actually, that I’m a little dubious about the claim. Are there businesses (including, but not limited to, Western ones) with regional HQs in Ukraine that employ heavy security to protect their property? Well, they’d be stupid not to, right? In the same way that Gazprom employs a private army to protect miles and miles of Siberian pipes, or Shell uses armed security to protect oil installations.

 

Are they anything to do with the current crisis? I’d tend to think they were trying not to be.

 

Are they a convenient thing for hawks in Putin’s administration to call mercenaries?

 

Maybe. Let’s ponder that.

 

4. What threats does it pose to the democratic processes in the country?

Well, as you see, nothing around mercenaries is simple. And when you throw in propaganda, high emotion and a chaotic environment in which the rule of law is being denigrated, it’s murkier still. Mercenary armies, when they exist and deploy, are clearly counter to the common good. That’s why the UN bans them, in language however woolly.

 

However, perhaps in this case you could say that throwing the phrase “mercenaries” around is also a threat to the democratic process in a country. I’d suggest that at the very least it’s unhelpful, and at worst intended to stir up a feeling of being “under occupation”, or being muscled into by a military force other than Russia. So of course, rather than “Do you want to be just Ukraine, or more closely tied to Russia?” they’d hope to force the question: “Under whose military occupation/protection would you rather be? Your neighbour, or a Western bunch of people some local militia leaders reckon are definitely mercenaries?” A choice based on a false premise, aimed at persuading floating voters? In the end, that’s the suspicion that lingers over these claims.

 

However, it’s just a suspicion. I’m probably being infuriatingly cautious from a broadcaster’s point of view. Apologies. But truthfully, it’s best to be suspicious of anyone who speaks with less caution at a time like this. By far the greatest threats to the democratic process in Ukraine and everywhere else are fear, miscalculation, and bullshit.

 

Make sense?

 

Thanks for letting me sound off! Hope some of this is useful.

 

Many thanks.

 

Postscript: Well, I wrote that to be as defiantly unquoteable as I could, copying in a fellow Moscow journalist, just to put the exchange on-record in real time. Here’s what RIA Novosti turned the above contribution into.

... here's how RIA Novosti extracted my quotes to suit their purpose.

… here’s how RIA Novosti extracted my quotes to suit their purpose.

And here’s my reply, pre-publication:

My response to RIA Novosti, asking that my quotes not be decontextualised

My response to RIA Novosti, asking that my quotes not be decontextualised

The piece eventually appeared with my one-line qualifier in. I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Henry Silva, Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness Monster, and a sketch that could have been written for Russia Today (or Fox News, to be fair). In Mr Silva’s words: “Is it bullshit? Or not? YOU be the judge!”

 

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.

 

Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout linked to UK horsemeat scandal… And we’re, like, totally shocked

Looks like someone’s finally catching on. This is the network my book is about:

“#Horsemeat firms linked to Russian arms dealer #ViktorBout” http://t.co/e4xTQnls.

Rebel militias, high street retail giants, Somali pirates, fashion brands, Peruvian drug lords, our own government, ready-meal makers, all depend on some of the same shady people, but we all get it cheap so don’t ask too many questions & act shocked when you’re rumbled.

Meanwhile, subcontracting is what makes the world go round, from the UN to arms dealers, blood diamonds to NGOs, and Afghan heroin to food processing. And if some of that gets mixed up on the way? There are enough weak links to mean it’s not your proble.

News: Reader’s Digest publishes ‘Outlaws Inc’ in 26 languages as its Autumn adventure read

International literary selection Reader’s Digest has published a condensed version of Outlaws Inc. in its Autumn edition… and brought its international detective story home.

 

The condensed extract is published in Norwegian, Swedish, Slovenian (a taster for the translation is here), Russian, French, Dutch, Hungarian, Finnish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, German, Italian, Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, and a host of other languages. In the New Year, it will see publication in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and other Far Eastern languages, as well as for parts of Africa.

 

The extracts come with some incredible, atmospheric new illustrations inspired by the action, supplied by Bryan Christie Design of New York – that’s one of Bryan’s illustrations at the head of this post, and more of his work is here.

 

It’s a big moment for me. While Outlaws Inc. has been translated into several languages as a full book, having it read by people in some of the countries central to its investigative trail through the secret world of international arms smuggling – from the Far East to Russia itself – is an honour. I guess I hope some of its findings hit home in the heartland of the operations I followed, as they have elsewhere. It’s undeniably thrilling, even a little strange, seeing the story printed in Cyrillic. I sort of feel like I need to wish it luck in there.

 

But it’s more personal than that too. My grandma was a lifetime subscriber to Reader’s Digest‘s condensed selection of books, and it loomed large throughout my childhood. She was its biggest fan. I remember cutting my reading teeth on some of the non-fiction adventure stories in the copies she always had at her house. Jaws was one extract I read, back when it was new. There was another called The Sea Shall Not Have Them, too. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the story had the same kind of outer darkness that hung over Mickey and the pilots I tracked. that In a way, I think that more than my writing the book – and perhaps more than any good it has (or hasn’t) done in the battle against global weapons smuggling – I think this would have been the seal of approval that made her proud.

 

So thanks, Reader’s Digest. And thanks, Grandma.

 

 

Life imitates ‘Outlaws Inc’, but with added cats: A flight to Afghanistan & a kitten called Il-76

 

From the “Now-that’s-what-I-call-a-literary-legacy” desk: this news, from Afghan pet rescue charity Nowzad, made my day. It seems a Russian-crewed Ilyushin-76 flight from the Gulf to Afghanistan was being unloaded in Kabul earlier this month when the crew discovered a half-starved feline stowaway. Taken in, first by the crew, then by Nowzad staff, the kitten was named Il-76 (after the plane on which it was discovered). The even better news is that it’s now living a new life with new ID in the USA… under the name of Mickey.

 

Mickey the kitten

 

I’m sure the real Mickey would have approved. Just this: If Outlaws Inc. sells not one more copy from here to Doomsday, I can now die a happy man.

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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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?
MP:
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.”
MP:
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.

 

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…

News: Australia wakes up to Outlaws Inc after “sensational” ABC Breakfast show interview

This morning I was a guest on Australia’s no.1 breakfast show on ABC. During the link-up interview with host Mike Rowland (a still from the show, above), we talked about how the cut-throat economics of the global marketplace in everything from aid delivery to the food in our supermarkets feeds a shadow industry of mercenary pilots, smuggling narcotics, weapons and diamonds.

 

 

Viewer verdicts, via the channel, to Mike direct and over social networks, ranged from acclaim (“Sensational interview!”) to outrage (“… can’t believe our Western governments don’t care!”) and requests for more info. By lunchtime, the channel had released a clip in response to calls to share it. Mike Rowland himself finished the show’s slot with the words, “Well, all I can say is: we await the inevitable Hollywood movie of this one.” You can view the interview here: Matt Potter on ABC Breakfast show, 2nd August 2011

 

Meanwhile, the media schedule in Australia is manic, with the newly launched Maxim Australia running a four-page feature on Matt’s adventures with what they call “Air Don’t-Give-A-Fuck”, great banter with John Safran and Father Bob Maguire on ABC TripleJ’s legendary Sunday Night Safran cultural chat show, trading repartee on Evenings With Robbie Buck and co, and more radio and print stuff.

 

Meanwhile, Melbourne & Victoria daily the Herald Sun has announced it will be serialising Outlaws Inc in August, with extracts also pushed to subscribers to its iPad app, and content available online.

 

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.