Blogger in residence: Modern Russia

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by DBF Blogger in residence, Simon Savidge

As many regular readers of my blog will know I can sometimes struggle with non-fiction. However, this is something that I am keen to address, or even redress, as I think that sometimes non-fiction (when done right) can have an incredibly deep and resonating impact with you as you know it’s real. It can also make it all the more uncomfortable, in all the right ways, because you can’t read some of the things going on in the world, past or present, and simply say ‘oh but it’s fiction’ even when it seems to be stranger than.

For this reason I already had my sights on attending the Modern Russia event at the festival today with journalists Arkady Ostrovsky and Luke Harding at the Town Hall. I don’t think I was quite ready for the event that unfolded before me and how much it has bothered me and stayed with me several hours (sorry my phone died) since.

Arkady is a Russian born journalist, who has only recently left Russia again after being a foreign correspondent for the UK within his own country – which he made a joke of the irony of. His book The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War looks at just that period and what on earth has happened to his own country since one president left things in a time of potential positive change for the country to one that seems at its most fragile and dangerous. Luke Harding is a writer for the Guardian, where he has been Moscow bureau chief, and lived there and endured subtle and not so subtle threats whilst in his job there along with his house being bugged and all sorts (which he described like being in a really bad Bond movie) before being expelled from the country by the Kremlin. His book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia looks at those times. The question both of them were to discuss was ‘how did we get here?’ and their answers were fascinating.

Now I am not going to divulge every single thing they said, as why would you need to read the book, though actually (as I am sure anyone else who was at the event will agree) you were left in no doubt that their books were very much required reading for us to understand the news at the moment, how we have got here and what it could all mean. I can say that I didn’t realise the impact of the propaganda that is going on in the country, war is made to look like a blockbuster and the only possible answer, people only tend to get political roles if they are corrupt because then the powers that be have a hold over them, the KGB is back in full force, the fact it is one man not many that rules, etc. The other part I found chilling was when they both spoke about Russia now, at its fragile and most dangerous, and that Putin is a man with nothing to lose and a nuclear arsenal at his finger tips. There is a new cold war already; no one is daring to say the words yet though.

I found their thoughts and opinions grimly fascinating occasionally jaw dropping and in the end deeply disturbing, yet thought provoking in all the right ways. I think what has stayed with me most is the hope that Arkady had after Gorbachev left and the fact that he has now left the country with his family because he finds the whole atmosphere and attitude simply too toxic to bring his own children up in. Haunting, what a session, a truly impacting hour!

After this event and hearing Peter Pomerantsev yesterday, I need to be reading much more non fiction about Russia – if you have any recommendations in that field, or indeed modern Russian fiction (unlikely with the way the country is being run, but not impossible) that looks at the country now, I would love to hear about them.

Simon Savidge is a writer who contributes to several literary and lifestyle magazines and hosts Savidge Reads, a blog about all things literary.

You can contact him on [email protected] and follow him on Twitter here @SavidgeReads