Hence, the book instead focuses on giving a detailed and intimate version of these events. And for a story about Greenpeace activists being arrested, told by a veteran Greenpeace activist who campaigned for their freedom, it’s a lot more impartial than you might expect.
The core narrative is the same that made headlines back in 2013, and drove thousands to protest in cities around the world: peaceful environmentalists being kept prisoner by ‘nasty’ Russia. But there’s also a more nuanced and authentic feel to the book, with real and complicated relationships between characters. The doubts and fears of many activists are exposed, while finger-pointing and differences of opinion within the Greenpeace ranks reveal division behind the scenes.
Similarly, Russian prisoners are shown to be largely sociable and compassionate. Even the FSB Russian special forces who stormed Greenpeace’s ship, the Arctic Sunrise, are given a human side, including a bizarre scene where one attempts to start a casual conversation about iPhones with one of the activists in the middle of the siege. The unseen villain in the story is Vladimir Putin, and how the Russian military and legal systems bend to his will.
For a story provisionally about the drilling for Arctic oil, this is largely forced to take a back seat in favour of one about the experience of detainment in a Russian jail. But this again comes across as a faithful telling of what actually happened, as opposed to an attempt at twisting the story into fiction. A well-crafted and, at times, gripping account.
DON’T TRUST, DON’T FEAR, DON’T BEG by Ben Stewart; Guardian Faber; £12.99 (paperback)
This review was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine