By Paul Robinson, Ottawa*
Helmer is an equal opportunity critic. And in the current political climate that is unacceptable. One is either with us or against us. Any signs of whataboutism, or any criticisms of the prevailing Western narrative which indicate that you’re not 100% on our side, are proof positive that is that you must be a fully paid up Kremlin agent. It is, of course, absurd, but alas it seems that that’s the way it is.
The back of Australian journalist John Helmer’s memoir The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia contains an endorsement from Euromaidan Press describing him as one of a group of ‘Pro Kremlin leftists and liberals … who echo the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda’. I take it that Helmer, who reported from Russia for about 30 years, considers being insulted by Euromaidan Press a sort of compliment. The charge that he’s a ‘pro-Kremlin’ propagandist is not, however, unusual.
A couple of years ago, Helmer hit the headlines here in Canada when he used his blog Dances with Bears to spread the story of the Nazi connections of Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather. This was rapidly denounced by Freeland and Prime Minister Trudeau as ‘Russian disinformation’, as if Helmer was simply doing the bidding of the Russian government. A report by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institution about Russian disinformation similarly remarked that ‘Recent articles on Helmer’s blog also promote other Kremlin positions’, and commented that, ‘John Helmer is also a regular contributor to a well-known anti-Semitic, pro-Kremlin media platform called Russia Insider.’ (I suspect this isn’t true and Russian Insider has just republished stuff from Dancing with Bears). Suffice it to say that Helmer is not much loved by the Russophobic wing of the Western political spectrum.
You’d think, then, that The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia would be full of pro-Kremlin propaganda, painting Russia in glorious colours as a land of milk and honey. If so, you’ll be very surprised. This isn’t a book which makes Russians – or anybody else for that matter – look good at all. The first half is primarily an account of Helmer’s near-fatal dealings with the Russian aluminium company Rusal and its owner Oleg Deripaska. Helmer recounts how two Rusal agents attempted to bribe him to write a positive review of Rusal prior to the company’s attempt to sell shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. When Helmer refused to do so, but instead published articles indicating that Rusal was in financial trouble, three armed goons turned up at his apartment and attempted to gain entry. Wisely, Helmer and his wife refused to let them in, but instead called the police, who soon arrested them and found in their possession not only weapons but also incriminating documents linking them to Rusal. It seemed like a pretty clear case of attempted murder, and the police, according to Helmer, were keen to press charges.
At that point, however, things changed. Somebody somewhere called some bigwig, and the initial policemen were taken off the case and replaced by new ones, who declared that the whole episode was just a misunderstanding and then let the goons off scot free. Helmer subsequently persuaded a court to order the police to reopen the case, but they never did anything more.
That wasn’t the end of Helmer’s problems. A few months later he was stripped of his official accreditation as a journalist, and so forced to leave the country. Subsequent attempts to obtain a Russian visa have all failed. He is, in effect, persona non grata and banned from Russia. His crime – stepping on the toes of the people with power and influence.
The second half of Helmer’s book covers a different story: accusations made by a washed-out former KGB agent Yury Shvets that Helmer and his wife had been Soviet spies. The story continued to circulate for years despite the fact that various newspapers had been forced to recant it and admit that there was no evidence to support it. Helmer uses the episode as a means of lambasting the journalist ethics of some of his colleagues, who don’t let such awkward things as the truth get in the way of a good headline. He ends his book with what may be said to an overall comment on the state of Western journalism:
“Repeat a lie often enough and it will erase the truth as if it never existed. So long as the subject is a Russian one, this is the rule for all conmen and reporters to get away scot-free, with the cash.”
The Man Who Knows Who Too Much About Russia is replete with conspiracy, shady characters, and murky goings-on. The picture it paints of Russia is hardly a positive one. Rather, it’s portrayed as a country in which oligarchs are happy to murder journalists, and use their influence to subvert the judicial process and to persuade the government to have those they fail to kill expelled from the country. Helmer doesn’t even let Vladimir Putin off the hook. It is surprising, he says, that Western observers ascribe such power to a man ‘of such smallness’, ‘who does what the oligarchs’ interests dictate’. Overall, Helmer concludes, Russia is ruled ‘by small men scheming at crimes, and defeating their enemies, domestic and foreign, who are not less small and criminal themselves.’
It’s somewhat surprising, therefore, that the more Russophobic elements of the Western commentariat are so keen to portray Helmer as a Russian propagandist. He is clearly nothing of the sort. But the last part of the phrase quoted above provides a clue. He lambasts the Russians. But he portrays Westerners as no less corrupt. He complains at length, for instance, that the Australian authorities failed to protect him when warned that his life was in danger because they didn’t want to alienate Deripaska and Rusal, who were investing large sums of money into the Australian economy. Helmer is an equal opportunity critic. And in the current political climate that is unacceptable. One is either with us or against us. Any signs of whataboutism, or any criticisms of the prevailing Western narrative which indicate that you’re not 100% on our side, are proof positive that is that you must be a fully paid up Kremlin agent. It is, of course, absurd, but alas it seems that that’s the way it is.
Overall, then, I’d say that if you’re the sort of person who likes moral clarity, and is looking for a black and white tale with good guys and bad guys, this book isn’t going to be to your liking. There aren’t any good guys here. But if you’re of a more cynical frame of mind, relish stories of conspiracy and all-round corruption, and tend to think ‘A plague on all your houses,’ then The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia will probably be right up your alley.
NOTE: Paul Robinson (right) is a professor of politics at the University of Ottawa and one of North America’s  leading experts on Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics. Between 1989 and 1994 he was an officer in the British Army Intelligence Corps; then a reserve officer in the Canadian Forces from 1994 to 1996. This book review appeared on his blog, Irrussianality, which can be followed here . Eleven of his books on Russian and military topics can be found here .