Book review: Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg

WHEN a sprawling yellow banner cascaded from the stands of Basel’s St Jakob-Park football stadium in late-2013 the world was suddenly alerted to a struggle for freedom thousands of kilometres away that had been waging for weeks.

Ben Stewart

Guardian Books

Emblazoned across the poster were the phrases: “Gazprom: Don’t Foul The Arctic” and “#FreeTheArctic30”.

Two weeks earlier a crew of activists from 18 countries were arrested at gunpoint on a Greenpeace ship by Russian authorities for attempting to disrupt majority State-owned Gazprom’s initial foray into the Arctic in search of previously inaccessible oil.

Much as Greenpeace didn’t like Gazprom’s plans and football fans didn’t have much time for the protest, Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin certainly didn’t take too kindly to the disruption of the oil giant’s plans.

Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg is Greenpeace head of media, Ben Stewart’s account of the Arctic 30’s dust up with the might of an irascible Russian government and the subsequent fight to free its protagonists from the Russian jails within which they had never counted on finding themselves caged.

From the off, the book bristles with the emotions of a writer invested in the true-life events that inspired him to write the account.

Well paced with short, accessible chapters Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg initially allows the reader to delve into the events of September 2013 with little trouble even if this promising start is briefly squandered in the ensuing chapters.

The narrative gets a little lost for a while as Stewart struggles with the sprawling cast of activists; making the cardinal sin of focusing on too many for too long rather than cherry picking just a few.

Thirty characters from 18 countries before we even get to the Russians is a lot for anyone to keep track of and the story suffers briefly from the author’s attempt to leave no man behind in the telling of the tale.

It’s only once the Greenpeace ship has been stormed and the story follows the troop of 30 into the unforgiving reality of Soviet-style prison life in Murmansk’s SIZO-1 detention centre that Stewart’s account comes into its own.

The fear, loneliness and disorientation of the Greenpeace activists spills vividly from the pages while Stewart keeps the reader informed of simultaneous efforts to bring their ordeal to an end from offices all across Europe.

Cleverly dotted throughout the book are brief histories of everything from the Soviet Union to Arctic oil exploration and Putin’s formative years. 

Charting the union from its origins through its heyday and to its eventual demise, Stewart uses Dima — one of the Arctic 30 — and two previous generations of his family to illustrate Soviet life, and death, through the years.

The totalitarianism of the modern-day Russian regime headed by Putin, painted here as a thug-done-good, is woven throughout Stewart’s account of the activists’ attempts to break free from its clutches.

The reader, meanwhile, is left in little doubt as to Putin’s obsession with securing more than the Motherland’s fair share of the earth’s natural resources in order to secure his own grip on power, which too is instructive.

A Greenpeace representative’s meeting with Martin Sixsmith, the BBC journalist once stationed in Russia and who shot to fame with his book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, is used as another vehicle through which Stewart paints the economic, political and ecological context for the story and from which the book benefits tremendously.

Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg is an engrossing tale which succeeds in marrying the political context of the struggle against Putin and Gazprom with the everyday torment of those fighting it.


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