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.

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.