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06 February 2019

The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia



John Helmer has been - and is - many things; political advisor at very high levels, journalist, academic, writer. Some thirty-odd years ago, he established himself as a journalist in Moscow, setting up his own independent news bureau. His name is known to us in the metals business from the extensive coverage he has given to the resource industry in Russia, specifically the antics of the oligarchs running the mining and metals sector. Most of his thoughts and stories are found on his extensive website, “Dances with Bears”.

I’ve just finished reading his latest book, “The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia”. That title may seem to show a tad of self-aggrandisement, but actually the narrative would seem to bear out the truth of it. Helmer is clearly, unambiguously, tapped in to the machinations of those who run the country, both in front of and behind the scenes. Most of us who have had any substantial dealings with Russia over the years tend to think we have a grasp of how things work. I don’t really think we do; we can get our minds rounds parts of it, but there are so many subterranean hidden connections at which we can barely guess - that’s part of what makes it so fascinating, I suppose. 

Helmer’s book starts to peel away at some of those layers, to show what is underneath, and in his exploration of how things work, he has made some serious enemies. Spiked drinks, assassination attempts, expulsion from the country - all these add a frisson to the story. One problem with that, though, is that some of the narrative reads like conspiracy theory. My only comment on that is that going back over stories on Dances with Bears, it is striking how often the facts - at the time of writing put forward as theories - turn out to be real. The benefit of the doubt of the probability - that would suggest - lies with the author. 

The other kind of criticism I would make is that, strangely, in many ways the book contains too much. John Helmer has worn many hats, but deep down, I think he is at heart a journalist, and his most comfortable format is the kind of punchy, journalistic pieces we find on the website. Putting that kind of energy into the longer format of a book almost results in an assault on the brain of the reader. I found it necessary to pause and absorb frequently as I was reading. Don’t get me wrong; the subject matter is compelling and the author’s knowledge of it is blatantly obvious; sometimes, though, fact is piled on fact with little respite, whereas perhaps some more reflective passages could have been interspersed with the narrative. It is a journalist’s book, written in a journalistic style, and one has to accept that.

A few months ago, I wrote on here about Bill Browder’s book “Red Notice”. In their different ways, both these books tell us things about that strange, sometime superpower, new empire, kleptocracy - choose for yourself - stretching from the edges of Europe to the Pacific. I enjoyed both. I recommend this latest work of Helmer’s, available on Amazon (in both hard copy and ebook form), for anybody who is interested in twenty-first century Russia. It’s not always comfortable reading, but the content indeed seems to bear out the claim of the title.         

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