Book Review – John Helmer

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 Dancing 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 of 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.

helmer

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 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.

21 thoughts on “Book Review – John Helmer”

    1. Certainly better than JRL’s propping of Paul Goble, while omitting the rock solid counters to him.

      It’s no small wonder why the coverage continues to lack from what it otherwise could and should be.

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  1. Why should it be interpreted as “a plague on all your houses”? Rather than a natural phenomenon, the laws of nature. I think maybe the frustration, the feeling of outrage at the corruption of power (the rule of “small men scheming at crimes”) is itself a product of deeply instilled indoctrination. ‘Cynical frame of mind’ is perhaps a bit strong, but ‘healthy skepticism’ – definitely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re on to something. Frustration with Russia’s seeming inability to change for the better (usually by Western standards) might also contribute to longtime commentators either abandoning Russia altogether or taking a sharp, for lack of a better term hostile turn. Mark Adomanis, whoever ran the blog Putinania, and (maybe) Kevin Rothrock come to mind.

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      1. In line with US mass media inaccuracies, Adomanis and Rothrock were always (at least upon their getting propped by the likes of JRL) limited in going against such a bias. That they were at times better than the US mass media at large, serves to exhibit the limits in the American foreign policy establishment.

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      2. JT, ages ago, I stumbled across a really short review in a German weekly. For whatever reason I link the review to shortly before 9/11 around the same time that curiously enough something of a warning popped up in the arts and culture section at that time. The reviews pagewise followed the larger arts related section. The warning on the front page of the art section concerned “hawks” in the Bush admin. Meaning politics surfaced there for me out of the blue. Art and the larger culture? It must have been early 2001. I cancelled my subscription around May 2001. Too much paper, and admittedly I had never paid much attention to most of it. Like politics. Meaning all of the dominating front pages.

        I deeply regret to not have made a note then. But I found the subject interesting. The review was about the book of a journalist working out of Russia for a long time, before being sent to the land of the free, meaning the US. It was a really, really short review. Not being interested in politics the name was unfamiliar to me. But his argument may have been close to Helmer’s. After years in Russia he felt now coming to the US, the land of milk and honey, would be completely different experience. To be disappointed. To the extend I recall the really short review, it felt to him basic matters were pretty much the same.

        Back to Shakespeare or Machiavelli?

        Would you care to tell me how those two guys drew your attention?

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  2. Everyone try to kill him but can’t. If even antipod government can’t protect him from roaming goons then his ban on Russia enter is made out christian care.

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  3. thanks for the review of john helmers book.. in my e mail conversations with him, i find him a stand up guy! your review of his book reinforces this.. i hope he sells some copies and finds a wider audience for his independent view point on much that goes on in russia and the west..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Does the book give the year he was banned from Russia?

      If he can no longer enter Russia – he can no longer report first hand on what goes on there.

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      1. One doesn’t have to live in Russia to conduct in depth researched commentaries on matters pertaining to Chrystia Freeland, as well as foreign policy, historical, media and sports issues concerning Russia.

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  4. Helmer has never struck me as “pro-Kremlin” – he notes whenever it messes up, points out what he thinks it does wrong or when it treats problems in less-than-useful ways, etc. However, he’s always seemed pro-Russian, in the sense that he likes the country and the people (he doesn’t like the oligarchs and shady dealings), and is unamused by Western hacks getting things more or less willfully wrong. Also, he’s funny.

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    1. No small wonder why Ajay Goyal and Helmer seemed to have had a pretty good working relationship.

      If I’m not mistaken (pardon if incorrect), the former has expressed the view that his Russian media project was hijacked by RIA Novosti and The Moscow Times, noting that these latter two had a working relationship with each other at one point.

      Regarding Goyal’s experience, at possible play is a back stabbing competition for the same market.

      I’m all for a constructively critical pro-Russian approach, which shouldn’t be confused with sheer anti-Russian garbage, as well as a phony, crony, baloney structure. Related is this review of RT:

      https://www.eurasiareview.com/29122014-with-room-for-improvement-rt-gives-time-to-diverse-views-analysis/

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    1. https://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2019/05/nope-guccifer-20-was-not-a-russian-creation-by-larry-c-johnson.html

      gone now? Was there a moment ago. That would be one of those rare experiences.

      there was this interesting linked doc shortly after a comment I posted, pretty ad hoc admittedly. Before taking a second look at the argument.

      https://archive.fo/2dMfC

      guccifer 2.0 and American hysteria or how to launch something and look how the mass creates a rumor mill? My favorite option, admittedly.

      Much of the US response post 9/11 looked that way. Leaves some allays slightly murky, and people will naturally follow their desire to fill in the missing dots.

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    2. Sorry for this highly unrelated response.

      When I use “elder” in communications, it is the result of short immersion and communications in the larger Canadian First Nations networks. … I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with them had they insisted on using their own language. Admittedly, my interest was raised by Michael Posluns. One of the best minds you can imagine. Or at least my ethical pillar at one point in time on an academic reading list.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Posluns

      Anyway it was a pleasure to meet him in a already then rather heated partisan semi-academic debate.

      I enjoy you being around here too.

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