Diary

Peter Pomerantsev

Two men who defined post-Soviet Russia died within eight days of each other last month, both suddenly and far from home. On 16 March the body of Vladislav Mamyshev was found floating in a swimming pool in Bali. His death was blamed on a heart attack. He was 43. Better known as Vladik Monroe, Mamyshev was a pioneer of performance art in Russia, his status that of a sort of post-Soviet Warhol crossed with RuPaul. In the late 1980s he had hung out with the St Petersburg art group Pop Mechanika, who were famous for such stunts as going on TV to argue that Lenin was a mushroom, using the language and pseudo-logic of Soviet history programmes – at the time an unthinkable provocation. Mamyshev went on screen himself soon afterwards, impersonating Marilyn Monroe in a sketch called ‘The Death of Wonderful People’, and over the next decade he impersonated Russian pop stars, Hitler and Gorbachev (in the guise of an Indian woman); he turned up at parties as Yeltsin, Tutunkhamun or Karl Lagerfeld. It might be hard for non-Russians to understand why his work was felt to be so important, but in the post-Soviet world, where all the old roles and archetypes had disappeared, where no one knew how to behave and everyone seemed to be constantly trying on new poses, hysterically switching ideologies in a blistering progression from communism to perestroika to liberalism to nationalism to mafia state to postmodern dictatorship, the term ‘performance’ (a new Anglicism) became a buzzword and performance artists stars. No party was complete if Mamyshev or one of his fellow artists wasn’t there: Oleg Kulik, who impersonated a rabid dog to represent the brokenness of post-Soviet man; Andrei Barteniev, who appeared as an alien to demonstrate the weirdness of this new world; or German Vinogradov, who walked naked into the street and poured iced water over himself.

I first met Mamyshev in the mid-noughties. Hyper-camp and always trying on new ideas, he was just planning his next role: Putin. ‘When I became Putin,’ he later told a magazine, ‘I felt myself become a totemic maggot, about to explode with shit. But I wasn’t the baddie, I was the janitor who needed to eat everything up, Russia, the USSR, so the new life could begin … Putin will eat up our country. One day we will reach into the cupboard for our clothes and they will turn to dust in our hands because they have been eaten by maggots.’ As Russian politics became more unreal, an absurd theatre of fake elections, fake political parties and fake media, so Monroe’s work became more political. In 2010, a year before protesters took to the streets, he signed a letter asking Putin to leave: ‘It is time,’ he wrote, ‘to save millions of people from this simulacrum’ – the performance artist was accusing the political leadership of becoming a pure performance itself. He had been outdone. Mamyshev was now spending more and more time in South-East Asia. What place could he have in a Russia where to watch a grotesque piece of performance art you just had to switch on the news?

As the shock of Mamyshev-Monroe’s death was sinking in, and Moscow’s art critics were writing their obituaries for the ‘end of an era’, the news came on 23 March that Boris Berezovsky had died. He had been the original oligarch, the 1990s ‘Godfather of the Kremlin’ who claimed to be able to make or break presidents, start and stop wars, who had put Putin on the Russian throne before being banished by his protégé to spend his final 13 years as an exile in London telling the world he was using all the means at his disposal to unseat the man he had made king. With Berezovsky truth was always indivisible from fiction. ‘You would never know when he was bullshitting,’ a Duma deputy recently told me. ‘I remember in the 1990s he told us a Communist coup was in the offing and we needed to start building a reserve capital city in Perm to retreat to. We had no idea whether it was real or not but we started to plan for it anyway.’ Berezovsky had nearly been ‘killed’ before, the target of assassination plots both real (a car bomb decapitated his driver) and outlandish (he told an English court the KGB wanted to poison him with a pen). I was in Moscow the day he died, and it was a tribute to his Metternich-like reputation that people asked: ‘What new stunt is this? Why did he do it? Was he killed? Was it the Kremlin? Did he fake his death?’ Even the name the body was officially identified as belonging to wasn’t his own: since being granted British citizenship the name on Berezovsky’s passport was Platon Elenin, after the hero of a film, Oligarch, based on his life, in which the oligarch Elenin fakes his own death to take revenge on a Kremlin out to destroy him. Over the next 24 hours the truth started to filter through as his friends in London gave interviews and the police released information: Berezovsky had been found in a locked bathroom, in the Surrey mansion that had once belonged to him but was now his ex-wife’s, with a scarf hanging from the bathroom rail and marks ‘consistent with hanging’ on his neck. Over the past year he had been clinically depressed, had lost his fortune, had been in and out of the Priory, and had understood that nothing would ever change in Russia, that Putinism was for ever.

Since his exile from Russia, Berezovsky had been the ultimate bogeyman in the Kremlin narrative, hauled out whenever the Kremlin wanted to pin the blame on someone or distract from internal problems. Earlier this year Channel One showed a documentary that accused him, inter alia, of being responsible for the poisoning of his friend Alexander Litvinenko, planning to murder the mayor of Moscow, organising the kidnapping of a Duma deputy and funding Chechen terror attacks. After his death I expected more vitriol. Instead the reaction was stunned, mournful. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, set the tone when he said that the death of any person is a tragedy. Eduard Limonov, a former dissident émigré writer who has transformed himself into the leader of the National Bolsheviks, a movement that started as an art project and became an anti-oligarch revolutionary party mixing Trotskyism and Fascism, said: ‘I had always admired him … he was great, like a Shakespeare character.’ Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist scarecrow used by the Kremlin to frighten voters, who normally spits and scowls when he speaks of Russia’s enemies, sounded almost tender: ‘I’d seen him a few months ago in Israel. He was tired, disillusioned.’ People usually banned from TV, like Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen leader in exile, were allowed to pay their respects on air. It was as if the vast charade of Russian politics had suddenly paused and all the actors turned to the audience to applaud a missing player. Berezovsky had been integral to the drama: now it seemed the show couldn’t continue without him. NTV, a channel famous for documentaries about opposition groups like Pussy Riot being in the pay of the US State Department, showed black and white photos of Berezovsky as touching mood music was played. ‘After all this time,’ the presenter said, ‘and all the roles he’s played, we never did find out who he really was.’

I had a seat for Berezovsky’s last hurrah, the court case in London against his former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky was a whirr of jokes and gesticulations, skipping and strutting into court, always with an entourage of pretty women, chin-stroking advisers and giant Israeli bodyguards. The morning before beginning his testimony, he saw a parking warden outside the court ticket his Maybach and called out with a laugh: ‘Stop – we can do business together!’

The witnesses at court number 26 in the Rolls Building were a who’s who of post-Soviet Russia: anti-Putin activists, Chechen ministers-in-exile, former heads of Kremlin administration, directors of Chelsea Football Club and a thirty-strong team of English lawyers. ‘That’s the last twenty years of our history stuffed into one room,’ a Russian journalist said. On the opening day a small procession of stunning females in short skirts and high heels made its way to the back of the room: ‘Look,’ the Russian journalist said to me, ‘they’ve come to see if they can bag an oligarch’ (at one point there were six in court). The essence of Berezovsky’s case was that Abramovich had ‘acted like a gangster’ in taking over his share of the oil company Sibneft after Berezovsky was exiled. He wanted five billion dollars in compensation, the largest private litigation in history. Abramovich countered that Berezovsky was the gangster: that he’d never co-owned the company and had kept extorting money from him. There was nothing on paper to prove either case: it was a contest between personalities.

Berezovsky’s argument throughout was that all his corrupt dealings in the Kremlin had been done in the name of protecting ‘business in Russia’ from the ‘brown-red’ menace. But the professional economic reformers had always been his enemies: they saw his rigged privatisations as blocking the creation of a real market, and were delighted when Putin expelled him. From the evidence in court it was clear that Berezovsky wasn’t one for checking the books, leaving his actual business dealings to partners. Friends say he never knew how much money he had, and he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a businessman when he moved to the West. He made his first big money in the early 1990s, when he persuaded the giant automobile company Avtovaz to allow him to re-sell their cars at market rates. His trick was to have negotiated a deal whereby he would pay Avtovaz at some point in the future: unlike the ‘red’ factory owners he realised that hyperinflation would make the price worthless. He later promised the Russian public they could be part of his grand project to create a ‘national’ car, once the unobtainable dream of Soviet citizens, and advertisements nationwide offered everyone the chance to buy ‘shares’ in the scheme. The dream quickly collapsed and Berezovsky pocketed the public’s cash.

‘The main reason for my success,’ Berezovsky told the court, ‘was my superior intelligence.’ In his memoir of the 1990s, Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s right-hand man, doesn’t hide his distaste for the fast-talking Jewish maths professor who disrupted the scene at the Kremlin Tennis Club where heavy-drinking jocks would meet to decide government policy. But he admits that Berezovsky seemed smarter than they were. He would say that he didn’t want to be the tsar ‘but the Jew behind the tsar’, and in photoshoots seemed to mimic the crafty smirk of Soviet posters of evil ‘international capitalists’ with hook noses. He played the part of caricature capitalist at a time when the concept was becoming Russia’s default image of success. The only form of capitalism Russia could invent in the 1990s was the distorted Soviet critique it had grown up with: property, after all, is theft.

In 1994, when Berezovsky took over Russia’s biggest TV network, the unprofitable, partly state-owned ORT, most people thought he was throwing money away: in fact he was the first person in Russia to grasp the importance of television in politics. In 1996 and 1999 he used TV to pull off seemingly impossible victories for Yeltsin and Putin. He popularised the ‘fabricated documentary’, the form that would later be used to attack him: ORT presenters brandished random pieces of paper to ‘prove’ corruption by the mayor of Moscow and showed gruesome footage of a hip operation to persuade viewers that Evgeny Primakov, who had undergone a similar operation, was too old for politics. When Berezovsky fell out with Boris Nemtsov he told ORT’s head producer he didn’t want Nemtsov ever to appear on TV again.

‘But he’s the deputy PM!’ the producer said.

‘Doesn’t matter – get him off!’

Berezovsky loved being on TV himself, showing up after bugging government offices with the help of former KGB operatives so that he could announce new government initiatives to the nation before the government had a chance to do so. His TV channels made Putin what he was: by supporting his war in Chechnya they turned him from grey apparatchik to macho warrior. (Berezovsky later said that he had wanted a phony war, and had been promised that Russian troops would advance towards the Chechen border without invading, but that Putin double-crossed him and the phony war became real.) It was Berezovsky who invented and publicised Unity, the political party that would back Putin in parliament. Unity, later United Russia, was a party without a programme whose only purpose was to prop up Putin. Berezovsky’s strategies were later centralised, and perfected, by the Kremlin. Though his own TV channels would later cast him as a villain it was always his similarity rather than his opposition to the system that made him the perfect enemy. And he played along, alleging, long after his influence inside Russia was spent, that he was plotting a coup against Putin. ‘What Berezovsky feared most was being irrelevant,’ Stanislav Belkovsky, a spin doctor and ally, said. ‘His pronouncements were a way to make sure Putin paid attention to him.’

Did he believe in anything? He often spoke the language and walked the walk of dissident democrats, denouncing Putin’s new authoritarianism, pitching up like a street activist outside the Russian embassy in London with the banner ‘I made you and I will keep you quiet.’ At the time of his case against Abramovich, he posted a ‘confession’ on Facebook (it was Forgiveness Sunday in the Russian Church): ‘I ask for your forgiveness, People of Russia … for destroying freedom of speech and democratic values … I confess to bringing Vladimir Putin to power. I understand confession is not words but deeds, these will soon follow.’ But while posturing as a democrat Berezovsky was working to support the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko by claiming that Belarusian dissidents were actually Russian agents (members of the Belarusian opposition said Berezovsky had interests in the country’s energy sector). In his court testimony he claimed to have been alarmed when he saw a statue of Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, on Putin’s desk – but my sense was that he was drawn to the KGB, with its intrigue and eavesdropping. Yet it wasn’t all posturing. Berezovsky seemed to believe in the roles he played. In this he is representative of a state of mind prevalent among the elite who grew up in the late Soviet Union. You ask them if they believed in Communism and they say: ‘Don’t be silly.’

‘But you sang the songs? Were good members of the Komsomol?’

‘Of course we did, and we felt good when we sang them. And then right afterwards we would listen to Deep Purple and “the voices” – Radio Liberty, the BBC.’

‘So you were dissidents? You believed in the end of the USSR?’

‘No. It’s not like that. You just speak several languages at the same time, all the time. There are several “yous”.’

It is this late Soviet state of mind that has informed the construction of post-Soviet Russia. A few couldn’t cope with the polyphony and went on to become full-blown dissidents with arrests and jail terms to show for it. A new book by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy attempts to draw a psychological portrait of Putin and finds at least six personas in him, from the ‘history man’ to the ‘free marketeer’ (I would add several more to their list).[*] The condition has made for a generation of leaders who excel at simulation and mind-games but are incapable of fashioning any meaningful politics because they themselves grew up without them. Seen from this perspective the great drama of recent Russian history isn’t the difficulty of managing the ‘transition’ between Communism and capitalism, of casting off once fervently held beliefs, but that in the final decades of the USSR its elites (and not only its elites) didn’t believe in Communism but kept living as if they did, and now can only keep pretending.

‘I found Mr Berezovsky an unimpressive and inherently unreliable witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes,’ Justice Gloster said in her final judgment. By coincidence the mass demonstrations in Moscow, the first since perestroika, had started at the same time as the case, giving proceedings in the Rolls Building a dimly epic feel. Just as Gloster rejected Berezovsky’s endless fakeries hundreds of thousands appeared on the streets of a freezing Moscow to reject the faked elections and Kremlin-appointed successions Berezovsky had put in motion. ‘This is a portrait by our favourite artist, Vladik Monroe,’ one of the protest leaders announced from the barricades at Chistiye Prudi, holding up a picture of Mamyshev impersonating Putin. ‘This is what we have to get rid of.’ In the protests liberals marched alongside ultra-nationalists: getting rid of fake politics won’t be the end of the story.

‘I gained the impression,’ Gloster went on, ‘that he was not necessarily being deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events.’ It was this sentence that did it for Berezovsky: he could never be taken seriously again, never again be a player. He would always have the word ‘deluded’ hanging over him, and behind it the word ‘mad’. After the trial, which cost him more than £100 million, he refused to give interviews and faded from view. On 19 March he sold a Warhol at Christie’s, and the media tried to guess how broke he was: the picture – a silk screen 1987 Red Lenin – sold for $200,000. Three days later he was dead.

It was some time before the state media in Russia recovered sufficiently from the shock to spin the story. On 31 March, NTV broadcast a documentary called See Big Ben and Die, claiming that Berezovsky and other Russians who have died mysteriously in London, like Litvinenko, were all killed by MI6. The old stars of Channel One were wheeled out to make the case, with a logic worthy of Pop Mechanika’s ‘Lenin Is a Mushroom’: Berezovsky was sick of the West and wanted to return to Russia, the film argued, so ‘obviously MI6 killed him as he could reveal their secrets.’ The Kremlin leaked that Berezovsky had sent a letter to Putin begging forgiveness and asking to be allowed to return. The Kremlin has refused to produce the letter, but Berezovsky’s last girlfriend, a 23-year-old model, now says she saw him write it (she also says the Russian secret services are following her). It may or may not be true. But it was Berezovsky’s final role: prodigal son.

[*] Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Brookings, 150 pp., £19.99, February, 978 0 8157 2376 9).