John Sweeney (journalist)

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John Sweeney in 2010

John Sweeney (born 7 June 1958) is a British investigative journalist and author who has worked for The Observer newspaper and for the BBC's Panorama television series.






  • I look like an exploding tomato and shout like a jet engine and every time I see it, it makes me cringe.



The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceausescu (1991)

  • This is a horror story – a true one – about a monster who came to be president of a country.
    • p. 1
  • To write anything about Ceausescu without discussing his secret police is like Hamlet without the Prince, everybody else and the skull.
    • p. 13
  • His tongue could not get round seemingly simple phrases like tutulor, a form of address meaning 'to everybody'. When Ceausescu said it, it sounded like 'everyboggy'. It is hard to put across to those who have not heard Romanian, a language waggishly described by the BBC's John Simpson as a 'mixture of dog Latin and Esperanto', just how uncouth Ceausescu sounded. To American ears, one must imagine a New Jersey drawl; to British ears, one should think of a Wolverhampton whine: provincial, but not interestingly so.
    • p. 14
  • To understand the extraordinary fact of Ceausescu's monolithic power, and the otherwise incomprehensible lack of resistance to it, one must try to experience the sheer dead weight the Romanians bore day in, day out. During the twenty-four years of his reign, their thoughts were blunted and restricted by what George Orwell might have called 'Homagespeak'.
    • p. 18
  • For most of its history Romania has been divided, skewered and kebabed by a succession of foreign invaders and masters, some of whom were unspeakably nasty. Cruel as Ceausescu's time was, it was not without precedent in his country's history.
    • p. 21
  • It enjoyed the material and spiritual backing of the German Nazis and the Fascists under Mussolini, and combined Jew-baiting with apocalyptical orthodoxy, appeals to Romanian nationalism with a samurai's reverence for violent death and suicide.
    • "On the Iron Guard", p. 36
  • Paranoia appears to be the occupational disease of any Romanian ruler, and Carol II was no exception. Like Ceausescu, he knocked down buildings near his home – in this case, the Royal Palace – to make a clear field for machine-gun fire.
    • p. 37
  • Virtually any description of life under the monarchy makes anyone who knows Ceausescu's Bucharest wince with regret for the good old days. Architecture, cuisine, culture, press freedom, prison conditions, freedom to travel, to go to church: all seem to have been better before the communists. Only the quantity of whores in Bucharest appears to have remained constant.
    • p. 37
  • Poor man: history will never forgive him for proposing Ceausescu as the new general secretary of the party on the death, in 1965, of Gheorghiu-Dej.
    • "On Ion Maurer", p. 76
  • Red Horizons is no better than Bucharest secret policeman's gossip: sordid, dully pornographic, intrusive, morally repugnant, incoherent yet endlessly fascinating. Ceausescu is seen as a power-mad, deeply dishonest paranoiac, as well as someone who cheats at chess. Elena comes of worse, if that is possible, as a sluttish, bad-tempered moron.
    • p. 84
  • Perhaps Red Horizons is a scissors-and-paste job by an unsung, CIA-approved ghostwriter. The raw material reads like translated of Pacepa's debriefing conversations held in Romanian with his CIA case officers immediately after he defected. Pacepa often quotes chunks of Ceausescu's old speeches, freely available from Romanian embassies and in Western libraries, as 'remembered convervations'; occasionally he even quotes the text of Romanian decrees as spouting out of Ceausescu's mouth.
    • p. 85
  • Ceausescu substituted constructive action with frenzy. He went on a continuous rollercoaster, whistle-stop tour of the country. Once on this whirligig of official visits, speeches and congresses, he never got off it. The whirligig became faster and faster and more elaborate, with visits to foreign countries and a constant shuffling of ministers and ministries. It makes anyone who tries to follow it dizzy. It consumed his and everybody else's time; it wasted resources and achieved little. But inside Ceausescu's head frenzy equalled progress: it was an intellectual confusion to which, as time rolled on, the whole country was to succumb.
    • pp. 91-92
  • The 'conditioning' of the communist terror of the late Forties and early Fifties was so strong, so severe that it only required the lightest caress from the Securitate to have the average Romanian lying prone in a position of abject submission. Whatever liberal sentiments Ceausescu expressed in his speeches, the secret policemen were still present, waiting, listening, asking questions. There was no need for Ceausescu to clump heavy-handedly about, threatening people. It had all been done so effectively a generation before and people had not forgotten. The people barked to command, because they knew what happened to the disobedient. Once the dog is trained, there is little need for the whip.
    • p. 93
  • The Ceausescu cult was fed by a job lot of Westerners keen to do business with the one Eastern European leader who could, it appeared, stand up to the Russians and survive. At first, there was a trickle, then a torrent of Western visitors all singing Ceausescu's tune, none of them too choosy about the reality of the man they met – the myth was too much to their liking.
    • p. 95
  • By common consent Ceausescu went mad during his and Elena's trip to China and North Korea in 1971. He went out an unstable paranoiac; he came back a madman. People close to him debate which had the more pernicious influence, China or North Korea. Terrible as Mao's China was as it emerged from the throes of the Cultural Revolution, North Korea was then and still is the more totalitarian society, and enjoys the distinction of being the most pyramidal society on earth.
    • p. 98
  • North Korea is an abomination to man as a freethinking individual.
    • p. 98
  • In Ceausescu's Romania madness was enthroned, sanity a disease.
    • p. 105
  • There was an enormous amount of dissent in Romania, but it was passive, not active. There were far fewer workers and intellectuals who confronted brute power head on in Romania than in, say, Czechoslovakia or Poland. That has partly to be explained by the savagery of the Securitate compared to, for example, the Czech secret police, the StB, and partly the Romanians' lack of a democratic transition and the historic culture of submission.
    • p. 108
  • What was the value to the West of Ceausescu's dissent from Moscow's diktat? Was it of inestimable worth? Or was it, in fact, a marginal propaganda gain of little real substance? Ceausescu was an irritant to the Russians, but they never felt threatened by him. They did march their troops up and down near the Romanian border when Ceausescu was visiting China in 1971; but they invaded Czechoslovakia when the Prague spring got out of hand. The difference is clear. Dubček challenged the communist system. Ceausescu never did. He was not, then, a serious 'enemy of my enemy'. The West misread the cards.
  • p. 112
  • The effect of Pacepa's defection on Ceausescu's mental state was to destabilise him even more. He became quite crazy for a time and suffered a further, permanent loss of proportion. What talent there remained in his circle was removed in the whitch-hunt that followed the defection.
    • p. 123
  • The results of Ceausescu's exercise in social engineering could be seen immediately after the revolution throughout the country in orphanages and hospital wards where the unwanted babies lay. The unwanted included the babies suffering from AIDS – though the regime did not recognise that Romania had an AIDS problem. This official blindness made the problem worse, disastrously so. An old medical habit – abandoned in the West long before the Second World War – had lingered in Romania. It was to inject newborn babies with blood to give them greater strength. One batch of blood contaminated with AIDS, probably in a rare aid package from the United States, was the root cause. The lack of fresh, clean needles for the injections led, through cross-infection, to an AIDS epidemic among the young. But as this too officially did not happen, nothing was done about it.
    • p. 141
  • No Marxist could take Ceausescu seriously after he was seen wandering around on state occasions carrying his sceptre in 1974, the one which so delighted Salvador Dali. The sceptre was the physical emodiment of Ceausescu's drift from the anti-statist, anti-personality bedrock of Marxist thought and practice. Of course, these principles had more often been breached than obeyed in the various communist states since the October revolution, but to play king so blatantly was thought somewhat indecent even among the unblushing despots of the Soviet empire. The 'Bourbonification' of the Ceausescu dynasty can be traced back to the early Seventies, but in the late Eighties it became more and more crass.
    • p. 155
  • [...] the very function of the House of the People was [...] to make concrete the social inequality between the dictator's lowly vassals and the pomp and might of His Majesty. The architect of the House had been selected by a competition. There were a lot of interesting and arresting designs, but, to put it rather brusquely, the architect who came up with the most banal, Stalinist pastiche appealed successfully to the Ceausescu's taste. The prizewinner, after the revolution, has disappeared from view because she has been battered by much hostile criticism.
    • p. 168
  • Andrei, easily the most intelligent and sophisticated of the long-lasting sycophants, could well have behaved decently – in return for what favours one can only guess. Perhaps he was genuinely a good man. Perhaps.

Killer in the Kremlin (2022)

  • Some idiot is moving heavy furniture around in the flat above and I wake up with a start. I'm about to give Lambeth Council a ring to get them to sort him out when I remember I am in Kyiv and it's four o'clock in the morning, and it's not tables and chairs that are going bang but Russian artillery.
    The idiot is Vladimir Putin and his idiot war is two days old.
    • p. 1
  • I am a sixty-three-year-old war reporter. I have covered wars and madness in Rwanda, Burundi, apartheid South Africa, the Romanian revolution, former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Albania, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. I have seen babies with hacked limbs and an old man with his eyes blown in by an artillery shell and people with their lungs sucked inside out and a man with his brain sliced with a machete – and there is nothing worse than watching kids smile in war, watching the aristocracy of the human soul. It makes me cry – and cry I do.
    • p. 9
  • Putin says that the government of Ukraine is neo-Nazi. The president is Jewish; the Russians attacked Babi Yar. For the avoidance of any doubt, it's not the Ukrainians who are behaving like the Nazis in this war.
    • p. 10
  • Russian soldiers eat the best possible nutritious rations of any military, so long as it's dog food.
    • p. 11
  • Paranoia is destroying the Russian Army from within. Vladimir Putin is a prisoner in his own high castle, just like Stalin. His terror of revealing his hand too early, and it being leaked to the Americans, was so great that he kept back his true invasion plans for and from the army until the day before the invasion. So the Russian general staff have had to make up the war as they go along – and the result has been disastrous. Generals have been appointed on the basis of their fealty to the Kremlin, not their courage, not their competence.
    • pp. 12-13
  • Paranoia is what ex-KGB spies do instead of playing golf.
    • p. 13
  • Putin is a rational actor inside a bunker, so deep, so deprived of light and information, that he is pulling levers without understanding how the modern world is responding, without understanding that some of his levers at least are no longer working, without understanding that invading countries at peace is what the Nazis did.
    • p. 22
  • When the Kremlin decided that it was foolish to keep sending yet more of its boys to die here, the Russian Army hit reverse gear. And as they did so, they expressed their dismay at their wretched performance against proper soldiers by butchering innocent civilians in the hundreds. By the way, satellite imagery taken during the Russian occupation shows bodies on the streets before the Ukrainians recaptured Bucha. The Russian Army carried out these killings. Full stop.
    • p. 23
  • The evidence at Nuremberg Two of Russian war crimes will be overwhelming. Satellite images, drone footage, eye-witness accounts, Bellingcat open-source material. A cyclist on a green bike in Bucha. His execution in early March by a Russian Army tank as he turns a corner, filmed by a drone. His body next to the wrecked bike filmed by reporters when the Ukrainian Army returned to the city. Once again: Kremlin inhumanity on repeat.
    • p. 28
  • The Soviet Union could not afford to feed or house or care for its people, so it started to implode. Putin, the secret policeman in Dresden, never properly grasped the power of these three failures [the invasion of Afghanistan, the Chernobyl disaster, and the collapse of the command economy]. His tragedy – our tragedy – was that he had no first-hand knowledge of the three catastrophes. He was too high up in the secret police food chain to be sent to Chernobyl; too pathetically low to be sent to the fag-end of the failing war in Afghanistan; let alone to the fleshpots of the West where he would have seen the stark evidence of how ordinary people in New Jersey or New Brighton in the Wirral lived so much better than in Moscow, let alone Omsk or Tomsk. He never saw the comparative evidence of Soviet economic failure with his own eyes or, if he did, he was too brainwashed to understand what he was looking at.
    Instead, from the bowels of Stasiland, he came to internalize a dark nonsense, that his country's collapse was due to Western trickery and domestic betrayal, rather than the simple facts that the Soviet Union had run out of cash and self-belief and purpose. It was a failed state, just like the Kaiser's Germany became a failed state after it launched its own stupid war in 1914. Like Hitler in 1923, Putin from 1991 onwards breathed a poisonous fiction, that his country had been wronged, that it 'had been stabbed in the back'. In truth, it fell apart because it had been wrong, it had stabbed itself in the front, three times over.
    • p. 43
  • Putin's understanding of the world is maddeningly narrow, reduced to a gloomy tunnel vision, locked into a false narrative of betrayal. He once declared the fall of the Soviet Union 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century'.
    Worse than the First and Second World Wars? Worse than the Holocaust? The Soviet Union was, in reality, a dark totalitarian dictatorship under Stalin that slowly morphed into a gloomy senility.
    • pp. 43-44
  • The Chechens had humiliated the might of Russia in the First Chechen War (1994–6), which Yeltsin had started in a drunken rage. The Russian Army had fought the war with great brutality and greater incompetence. The Chechens fought them to a kind of stalemate, partly because Yeltsin, when he had sobered up, realized that he had been stupid and cruel.
    • p. 60
  • One Chechen view was: 'If we had wanted to bomb Moscow, we would have blown up the Kremlin or a nuclear power station. Why should we blow up a couple of blocks of flats?'
    • p. 61
  • Common sense says it would be madness for a group of Chechens to smuggle explosives all the way from Urus-Martan to Moscow. Since the First Chechen War, Chechens are routinely singled out for harassment by Russian police, vehicles are stopped and searched, identity papers demanded. Besides, there has long been a strong Chechen mafia in Moscow, very capable of getting its hands on arms or explosives in the city. In Russia, in the 1990s, you could bribe your way into a nuclear rocket silo. The 'Chechen terrorists' would have been risking a great deal by hauling their explosives roughly 1,000 miles to Moscow when they could have bought them at the back of a local flea market.
    • pp. 61-62
  • The evidence is compelling that the very thing which galvanized Vladimir Putin's career in Russian politics – his fightback against Chechen bomb outrages – was, in fact, a black operation by the secret police.
    That Vladimir Putin blew up Russia.
    • p. 67
  • September 1999 is the time, the way I see it, when Russia ceases to be a democracy. The Moscow apartment bombings were Vladimir Putin's original sin, and any Russian who dared to investigate them lived in mortal danger.
    • p. 68
  • It is hard, virtually impossible, to convey just how cruel the Second Chechen War was, how pitiless the master of the Kremlin's killing machine. The hardest thing for me, as a reporter, as a human being, to bear was to witness the colossal mistake made by the West's leaders who cuddled up to Vladimir Putin while the evidence of his war crimes in Chechnya, and the crimes against humanity committed when the FSB blew up Moscow apartment buildings, was overwhelming.
    • p. 69
  • If Litvinenko, Felshtinsky, Satter and I could discover the truth about the Moscow apartment bombings, so could the CIA and MI6. What happened instead was a sick-think by the Western foreign-policy establishment. They wanted to believe that Putin was a democrat, a friend of the West, someone with whom they could do business. They set out to bury the evidence to the contrary.
    • p. 71
  • Bombing a white-flag convoy is a war crime. So is using vacuum bombs against civilians. So is torture on an industrial scale. I saw damning evidence of all three in Putin's war on Chechnya and I came away struggling to understand how the West could let these Russian crimes against humanity go unchecked. The evidence that Vladimir Putin was a war criminal in 2000 was clear. All I can say is this: I bloody well told you so.
    • pp. 80-81
  • Everything about the loss of the Kursk in 2000 prefigures the 2022 invasion of Ukraine: the Kremlin's lack of interest in its own people; their shoddy and obsolete kit; the contempt for proper scrutiny; the silencing of honest criticism. The lesson Putin learnt from the sinking of the Kursk was entirely fascistic. He had suffered a lot of heat from Russia's free and independent media for his slow and heartless response. The solution was to switch it off.
    • p. 88
  • The deal between the Russian state and the oligarchs was pretty clear: keep your nosy beaks out of politics, out of power, and enjoy your money. But if you ask the wrong kind of questions, things will not go well for you. It was a recipe for the zombification of Russia.
    • p. 89
  • Once again, the only credible explanation for the siege of Beslan is that the Russian secret state orchestrated an attack by terrorists and then used maximum force to destroy the evidence of its complicity. So not one black operation by the machinery of fear, but three: the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999; the Moscow theatre siege of 2002; the Beslan massacre of 2004. The goal was to create a state of terror; the victims the ordinary people of Russia in their hundreds; the only true beneficiary the master of the Kremlin.
    • p. 100
  • Putin said that Anna was a woman whose influence was 'extremely insignificant'. The truth was that she was extremely significant, very dangerous to his hold on power. No one else was asking the questions she was.
    And then her voice was silenced.
    • p. 102
  • In Russia, Putin's enemies are not allowed to have a private life. We know all about what they do in the bedroom. But no one knows simple facts about Vladimir Putin. How many kids has he got? With whom? And are they by any chance extraordinarily rich?
    • p. 127
  • Putin shapes his public image to the nth degree. Never mind the fake sun shining from behind North Korea's fatty-fat despot, Kim Jong-un, or the Hollywood stars worshipping the leader of the Church of Scientology, Vladimir Putin's cult of personality is the richest, the most well-funded in the whole world. [...] To me, it looks as though this is a man who had an unexceptionally unhappy and unloved childhood, who fears mockery and being laughed at, who wants to show to the world that he is the master of all he surveys, but comes across as a small boy, out for revenge. But then I'm not the target audience.
    • p. 129
  • He wanted Ukraine like he had wanted all the other things that rightfully did not belong to him. Time and again, he had probed the West's steel and found jelly. But this time, Ukraine, its president, its people and its army had other ideas. This time Mr Pleonexia found people who said, 'No, that's not yours. It's ours. Give it back'. No wonder he seems so surprised that Ukraine played hardball. That was not supposed to happen.
    • p. 145
  • The received story of Putin's two decades plus in power was of his tolerance of a monstrously corrupt system. The trade-off with the oligarchs was they were allowed to keep much of their fortunes so long as they paid the master of the Kremlin homage and tithes. And they had to keep their snouts out of power. Or else. But that description masks what's really going on. Putin is stealing Russia's wealth, big time, personally, but he cannot be seen to be doing so – psychologically, he hates the idea of being caught out – so he employs proxies to do the stealing for him. True, the oligarchs emerged from the road-crash of the Soviet Union's implosion and Boris Yeltsin's alcoholic incompetence. But with Yeltsin out of the way, a new president had an opportunity to strip the oligarchs of their ill-gotten and obscene wealth and start afresh. Instead, Putin cemented the oligarch system because it best suited his secret urge to take things that rightfully belonged to others.
    • pp. 146-147
  • I asked him what he thought was the single biggest terrorist attack against his country and he replied, thankfully, there hasn't been one. Then I mentioned MH17, where 193 Dutch citizens died. It wasn't Islamist extremists who killed those people. He didn't like that but then he is, as I told him to his face, a bit of a fascist.
    • On Geert Wilders, pp. 154-155
  • In the flesh Vladimir Putin is nattily-dressed, very short and a dead ringer for an Auton, the ultra-creepy monsters in Doctor Who that morph into wheelie-bins and gobble you up and spit you out as plastic. His cosmetic surgery is not a great advert for Botox but if you get to be the master of the Kremlin no one's going to tell you your skin-job sucks.
    • p. 162
  • We don't know the whole story, and probably never will. But we do know that Vladimir Putin exhibits multiple signs of being a psychopath: smooth lying with no tics; fearless dominance; blame externalization; unexplained easy life.
    • p. 167
  • Nemtsov was an extraordinary man, the sweetest, funniest and most human Russian I've ever met. His brutal snuffing out caused me to sink into a profound depression.
    • pp. 172-173
  • He was shot in the back of the back several times one hundred metres or so from the walls of the Kremlin, one of the most closely CCTV-filmed areas on earth. The official narrative was that a bin lorry obscured the Kremlin's cameras from capturing the killer or killers. Attentive readers will have already got it, but for the avoidance of any doubt the official narrative is a load of old hogwash. In my four decades-plus of reporting, I have never been detained by police officers more often than outside the Kremlin. You cannot move five yards without a cop demanding to see your passport. The idea that Nemtsov was assassinated but that none of the Kremlin's cameras captured critical evidence is absurd.
    • pp. 174-175
  • I say it to my Ukrainian friends again and again: there is another Russia. The problem is that the alternatives to Vladimir Putin are either dead or not very alive.
    • p. 175
  • What remains extraordinary about the Salisbury poisonings is the seeming stupidity of it. How so? Novichok is, like polonium-210, a very expensive poison. The two murderers were sent to Salisbury with their poison bottle but with no regard to the simple fact of modern British life, that the country is littered with six million CCTV cameras, more units per person than any other country apart from China. Whoever sent the GRU officers is a fool. Reflecting on this anomaly – multi-million-dollar secret poison delivered on candid camera – makes me draw a harsh and, perhaps, novel conclusion about the Russian secret state in the twenty-first century. [...] The ideological power of Communism's appeal [...] is long dead; so, too, is its darkest enemy, Hitler; so, too, is the state that created the KGB. In its place you have the Russian Federation, an ethno-nationalist kleptocracy run by a pleonexiac with too long a table. The West should not be surprised that the quality of the servants of the Russian secret state in the twenty-first century is, frankly, a bit rubbish.
    • pp. 200-201
  • It is fair to say that the Russian secret state succeeded in getting worryingly close to serious political leaders in the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Italy. Time and again the Kremlin turned Western democracy into a game of matryoshka dolls. Lift out the Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Jeremy Corbyn or Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen dolls, and you come face to face with Vladimir Putin – smirking at you.
    • p. 231
  • As American and British politicians slowly began to see Putin for who he really was, Corbyn decided to echo, albeit in a faltering and weak voice, some of the Kremlin's messaging. This was because he was navigating simply by holding himself in constant opposition to American power. By doing so, he made himself yet another of the Kremlin's useful idiots. George Osborne and Peter Mandelson cosied up to Kremlin proxies for their own self-interest; Corbyn lost his bearings because his political ideology was so strong it twisted reality.
    • p. 239
  • The break-up of the European Union is a Kremlin goal and Brexit was a great Kremlin success.
    • p. 244
  • Nearly all my Ukrainian friends, whom I adore, believe there is something preternaturally wrong with Russia and the Russian soul, that Putin is just one monster among many from the swamp to the East. With love and with respect, I don't agree with them. This is Vladimir Putin's war. Like his wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. Like his war without tanks and bombs against the West. Like his poisonings. It's down to him.
    • pp. 258-259
  • The Putin I had challenged in 2014 was a different man, subtle, supple, willing to engage with a difficult BBC reporter, albeit only to lie so calmly. The Putin of 2022 was hyper-aggressive. But the reason I felt fear was something else. The Putin I had met in 2014 looked like a ferret or a reptile, thin-faced, lean. The 2022 Putin looks like a hamster, his cheeks stuffed, unhealthy. He looks like a man on steroids and that made me full of fear.
    • p. 260
  • Squealer in Animal Farm but without the charm.
    • On Vladimir Solovyov, p. 268
  • God knows how many civilians have been massacred by the Russian Army in the port city by the Black Sea. There are stories of mobile crematoria vans turning corpses into ash; there are satellite photos of more and yet more mass graves. The chances that the people of Ukraine would agree to a negotiated peace, leaving some of their country permanently under Russian control, is zero or so close to zero as not worth bothering about. Zelenskiy isn't going to try. The war is not going Russia's way, once again, because the morale of the Russian Army is poor; their logistics are rotten from the head down; their leaders are bad in both senses of the word; bad evil and bad incompetent.
    • On Mariupol, p. 273
  • Russia does not tolerate failure for long. My sense is that Vladimir Putin no longer properly controls the machinery of the Kremlin in the way that he did at the start of 2022. And that the Kremlin machines no longer obey their master as before. He's beginning to look like the Wizard of Oz. All we are waiting for is the little dog to pull aside the curtain, and the shrunken faker bellowing into a loudhailer will be revealed to all.
    • p. 275
  • That Putin ends up poisoning himself is an ending fit for Shakespeare.
    Fortune, turn thy wheel.
    • p. 276


  • All concerned deny any wrongdoing.
    • A quote used by Sweeney in many of his investigations
  • Vladamir Putin; do fuck off.
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