In the hope of understanding Alexei Navalny’s fate, I’ve been watching RT. The Kremlin-funded media network formerly known as Russia Today has dubious form when it comes to apparent poisonings. A couple of years ago, its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, interviewed the two men suspected of smearing Sergei Skripal’s door handle with a ‘novichok’ nerve agent. She didn’t challenge their claim that they visited Salisbury to admire its cathedral spire. Almost despite itself, however, RT’s coverage of Navalny’s sudden illness has been revealing.
You could look very hard in Purleigh and not find any physical evidence of the Tolstoyan anarchist community that was founded there in 1897. The experiment, near Maldon, Essex, was short-lived, and the core settlers soon moved west, to Whiteway Colony on a (then) bleak Cotswolds plateau. It is there still, now comfortably huddled and well treed, its continued existence due in part to a decision by the founding colonists to destroy their title deeds, leaving the settlement to be held perpetually in common.
After we crossed the second checkpoint in Marinka, the taxi driver told me the clocks had gone forward. Donetsk time is Moscow time. It isn’t far from the frontline, but Donetsk city centre is calm at the moment. You could almost forget there’s a war going on.
Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother.
On 30 May, when the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reported dead the day before, appeared at a press conference in Kyiv, the Russian-language internet responded with the meme 'Tsoi lives'. The rock star Viktor Tsoi and his new wave band, Kino ('cinema', 'film') – with their simple but powerful lyrics, fresh tunes and the frontman's low, casually drawn-out, artfully accented baritone – were hugely famous in the 1980s. A university friend of mine lost much of his street cred when, on hearing someone say, 'Let's put some Kino on,' he replied: 'What film?' Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, aged 28. 'Tsoi walls', covered in slogans and lyrics, have since sprung up in several cities, along with a number of sculptures, including one of Tsoi on a motorbike (he never rode one).
James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, has been trimmed of any back story that doesn’t prepare us, in one way or another, for his account of the events before, during and after the election of Donald Trump. It opens in the early 1990s, with the interrogation of Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano, ‘the highest ranking American mobster ever to become a federal witness’, who explains ‘the rules of Mafia life’. Comey is later reminded of this episode during his first meeting with Trump’s team: ‘I sat there thinking, holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an “amica nostra”.’
The UK has the highest incidence in the world of poisonings caused by the toxins produced by E.coli O157:H7. It killed 17 people in the outbreak centred on Wishaw in central Scotland in 1996, still a world record for lethality. My involvement in attempts to stop a repeat led to an invitation to visit the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Security was impressive. The heavily armed welcome at the gate left an abiding memory. It is reasonable to guess that the Russian chemical warfare facility at Shikhany is as well guarded. The notion that nasty substances of high purity could leave it without some kind of authorisation seems highly unlikely.
The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’
The anti-Russian hysteria in Washington has slipped beyond self-parody. We now have front-row seats in a theatre of the absurd, watching the media furor explode after Robert Mueller’s ‘indictments’ of 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections. Mueller’s actions deserve the scare quotes because they are not really indictments at all. The accused parties will never be extradited or brought to trial. Nor is it clear that their actions rise to the level of crimes. The supposed indictments are merely dramatic accusations, a giant publicity stunt.
‘Trains show us that freedom and constraint are a matter of dosage,’ Patrick McGuinness wrote recently in the LRB. He quoted Klaus Kinski’s character in the 1966 film of Dr Zhivago, ‘shaking his chains, an anarchist headed for the camps’: ‘I am the only free man on this train. The rest of you are cattle!’ ‘Soul’, a poem Pasternak wrote in 1956, is one of 20 on display in another meditation on poésie des departs, in Bloomsbury Square until tomorrow.
Donald Trump’s clumsy expressions of interest in getting along with Vladimir Putin continue to provoke widespread outrage. The desperate indignation of Trump’s critics, however, threatens to interfere with US co-operation with Russia on vital national security issues. The latest furor erupted after Bill O’Reilly of Fox News asked Trump why he respected Vladimir Putin despite his being ‘a killer’. ‘There are a lot of killers,’ Trump replied. ‘What, you think our country’s so innocent?’
‘Russia is a mental subcontinent, the subconscious of the West. This is why we place our fears, our phobias and foibles in Russia,’ a character says in Zinovy Zinik’s novel Sounds Familiar or The Beast of Artek. The book, published last summer, explores the way the Kremlin Menace can loom to a monstrous size in the Western imagination. A timely subject, given the way the debate around Donald Trump's admiration of Vladimir Putin has morphed into a grotesque tale of Putin playing puppet-master in the US election – complete, according to a recently leaked 'unverified' report, with candid camera footage of Trump enjoying golden showers in the Moscow Ritz and secret meetings between the Kremlin and Trump's team in Prague (home of the Golem).
At 7.05 p.m. Turkish time yesterday, the Russian ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead in an Ankara art gallery. The assassin, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty Turkish police officer in a suit and tie, calmly shot Karlov in the back several times; spoke in Turkish about Aleppo, with his hand in the air, one finger pointed upward (a jihadi sign, symbolising ‘takbir’, the greatness and oneness of Allah); and then said, in accented Arabic, a few sentences associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. (We can be sure of all this because the shooting was captured by an Associated Press photographer.) Altıntaş was killed by security forces who stormed the building. Vladimir Putin was informed of the assassination while on his way to watch a play written by Alexander Griboyedov, Nicholas I’s ambassador to Persia, who was killed in 1829 when a mob stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran.
One of the earliest movies on which Alfred Hitchcock is known to have worked is the 1922 British silent Three Live Ghosts. The original is gone, together with Hitchcock’s intertitles, but last year a copy was found in Moscow. When the organisers of the British Silent Film Festival asked me to translate the Russian intertitles back into English, I wondered how to go about trying to recreate Hitchcock’s style, but I needn’t have worried: the Russian intertitles have little in common with the lost originals. ‘The film treats of the consequences of the World War in a positively dangerous and unacceptable manner, promotes friendship between socially antagonistic classes, and should therefore be banned,’ the Soviet censor concluded in 1925. But it wasn’t banned; it was re-edited instead.
On 20 July 1942, Time magazine led with a story on ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. ‘Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory,’ the caption on the cover said, under a picture based on a Soviet propaganda photo taken on the roof of the Leningrad Conservatoire in September 1941.
Orango hated communists. Part man, part ape, he was the product of a French biologist’s experiments in inseminating monkeys with human sperm. The human overcame the animal in him and in the early 20th century he rose to become a star journalist and media mogul, using his power to attack the fledgling Soviet Union. But the more he ranted about the evils of the working class and communism, the more ape-like he became, both physically and psychologically, descending into violence and finally madness. By this point a world cataclysm had brought down the bourgeois order, and Orango was sold to a Soviet circus: shown off at Red Square parades as the ape who could blow his nose like a human being. This is where Shostakovich’s opéra bouffe Orango opens. Indeed it is the only scene we have.
Joseph Brodsky would have turned 75 on Sunday. In March, the Moscow publisher Corpus released Бродский среди нас (‘Brodsky among Us’), a memoir by Ellendea Proffer Teasley, who met the poet in 1969 in Leningrad and remained friends with him until his death in 1996. She was a graduate student at Indiana University when she went to the Soviet Union with her husband, Carl Proffer, who taught Russian at Michigan. In 1971 they set up the Ardis press in Ann Arbor, to publish the work of writers banned in the USSR, including Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Bely, Nabokov, Sokolov and Aksenov.
Sanctions and low oil prices are forcing Russia to give some serious thought to China. On a recent trip to Shanghai, the owner of a Russian pipeline fittings business was surprised to find three Chinese suppliers of 48-inch ball valves able to withstand 250 bar and 370ºC. ‘I have been lazy for too long,’ he told me. ‘The valves I’ve been buying from Germany, the Czech Republic and Finland were actually made in China: the only difference is that these ones come with a Chinese logo; and they’re 60 per cent cheaper.’
On 14 January 2014 I saw Jack Straw speak at the Westminster Russia Forum at the Baltic Restaurant on Blackfriars. The Forum, formerly known as Conservative Friends of Russia, was launched in August 2012. Leaked e-mails from Russian officials soon appeared, saying they had been urged to use the organisation to campaign against the Magnitsky Act in Westminster. CFoR tweeted photographs of the anti-Kremlin head of the Parliamentary Committee on Russia, Chris Bryant, in his underpants. The Russian diplomat liaising with the group was Sergey Nalobin, first secretary in the embassy's political section (his father was a senior figure in the KGB and FSB). They were accused by the Guardian, World Affairs and Private Eye of being a lobby group for the Kremlin.
Teatr.doc is – or was – a small theatre in a basement a short walk from Tverskaya Street in the centre of Moscow. Not funded by the government, it has always done as it pleased. Its productions have included One Hour Eighteen, about Sergei Magnitsky, the accountant and auditor whose death in detention continues to haunt Russia (disclosure: my husband was in the cast), and BerlusPutin, an adaptation of a satire by Dario Fo. You could see a play about the fall of Constantinople one day, and go back the next evening to see a short comedy about how much young men hate the draft.
Sweden has always had a problem with Russians and the sea. You can see why when you visit the Stockholm Archipelago and learn about the days when whole islands were set on fire by Russian invaders in the 18th century. Covered with fir trees and little wooden houses, they are very combustible. Whole towns were burned down. It was called a ‘terror’ campaign. Against this, Sweden’s eastern defences are not too impressive. The story is told of the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke that he laughed ‘only twice in his life: once when he heard of the death of his mother-in-law, and then when he visited Waxholm.’ Waxholm fort was supposed to be Stockholm’s outer defence.
Over a drink, an English investment fund manager working in Moscow told a friend of mine that the war in Ukraine meant everyone in his office had had to ‘downgrade their own futures’. They had been calculating that Putin would eventually calm down and things would get back to normal. He hasn’t, and it looks like nothing will ever be normal again. At the fund manager’s office, they’re talking about the possibility of 30 per cent inflation and GDP contracting by 10 per cent. Some of them have decided to relax and enjoy the apocalypse. Since the Kremlin banned food imports from the EU and US earlier this month, there's a sense of needing to party before the good things run out. They start drinking on Tuesdays now.
The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in. When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s I was tempted to see it as an expression of her late-life immigration from the USSR to the USA, leaving one civilisation and never arriving at the other. (I was a teenager.) One of her daughters had cut off her past and been reborn as an American; the other returned over and over to Russia, making documentaries, unearthing graves and exploring gulags so she was all ‘memory’. But my grandmother had neither future nor past. As her illness got worse she would be found walking dazed along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America.
Will Vladimir Putin order direct military intervention in Ukraine? Russia already enables a free flow of Russian volunteers and mercenaries to fight against government forces in eastern Ukraine. It is supplying the rebels with weapons, vehicles and ammunition. It is shelling and rocketing Ukrainian territory daily, and promotes the portrayal of the Kiev government as cruel, illegitimate fascists in Russian-language media. The key leaders of the rebels, like Igor Strelkov, Alexander Borodai, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Kozitsyn and Vladimir Antyufeyev, are Russian citizens or Russian nationalists from ex-Soviet territories under Russian control.
This week the European Union, with Angela Merkel at its head, fired off a communiqué over the signatures of José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy slapping sanctions on Russia after last month's downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the self-important way of these texts, it bemoans Vladimir Putin's failure to accord the EU the respect that it sees as commensurate with its sense of its own importance. Apropos the dusty greeting that the Russians have given its previous communiqués, the Union tut-tuts that our call has been, in practice, left unheeded. Arms and fighters continue flowing into Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Strong Russian State sponsored nationalist propaganda continues supporting the illegal actions of armed separatists. In a parallel world, recognisably similar to but at some distance from our own, EU gnomes behind their plate-glass kraal in Brussels solemnly debate sanctioning Israel for wrecking hospitals and the wholesale murder of civilians, such as blowing children playing beach football in Gaza to pieces.
On Thursday, while Ukrainian government troops began an attempt to disarm, arrest and if it came to it kill the heavily armed pro-Russian fighters who have taken over government buildings in the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, Russian government troops carried out an almost identical operation in the Russian town of Khasavyurt, in the Caucasus. Ukrainian troops killed between one and five anti-government fighters in the course of their operation. Russian troops killed four anti-government fighters during theirs.
Most informed sources in Ukraine and Russia believe that the annexation of Crimea was planned and carried out by the siloviki (former KGB and security service officials close to Putin), and not by the foreign policy elite (including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and defence minister, Sergei Shoigu), whose influence has been waning since Putin veered to the right in the wake of the 2011-12 anti-government protests. A senior figure in the Yeltsin group told me that Putin is using the Ukraine crisis to cleanse the elite and to consolidate his support with the non-metropolitan public at large. It is no coincidence that the last few weeks have seen the Russian authorities cracking down on liberal and internet media. A former intelligence officer told me that influential members of the president’s inner circle, such as Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Sechin, view the confrontation with the United States and European Union as a good thing for Russia, an opportunity to make a long-advocated turn towards China.
Vladislav Surkov is back. Back inside the ever-shrinking sanctum around Putin; on the elite list of Russian officials hit with visa bans and asset freezes in the west. The enemies who were so recently converging around Surkov, threatening charges of corruption and much more, have fallen silent. On 12 March, Surkov published a new short story, in Russky Pioneer (under his pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky). ‘Without Sky’ is set in the future, after the ‘fifth world war’. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose parents were killed in the war. He was brain damaged, and can only see and understand things in two dimensions:
The games the Kremlin is playing in the Ukrainian theatre of almost-war are an extrapolation of the techniques it uses in Russia. Postmodern authoritarianism – or whatever you want to call the 21st-century system the Kremlin has developed with its puppet politicians and simulated ideologies and pretend conflicts and real killing and corporate KGBism – is going on tour.
I was on holiday in Yalta a few years ago, trying to write a script about the last Whites fleeing Soviet Russia for a film that would never be made by the feature film director I would never become (I was still at film school at the time). It was the second half of September, the end of the tourist season, and I could afford to rent a large apartment in the old part of Yalta among lazy 19th-century mansions sunk in liana. It was a writer’s fantasy but I wasn’t getting much done and spent most of the time exploring the peninsula.
Over the past twenty years Russia has removed a set of territories from other countries. It removed the eastern part of Moldova, now known as Transdniestria; it removed the north-western Black Sea part of Georgia, Abkhazia; and it snipped away the territory controlling Georgia's main road to the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia. The intention now appears to be to carry out the same operation in Crimea, removing it from Ukraine.
Among the alleged thirty billion dollars’ worth of inflated contracts, self-dealing, kick-backs, crooked tenders and orgiastic waste that have made the Sochi Olympics cost more than all previous winter games put together, what stands out is the sheer brazenness of the whole thing. ‘The Sochi Olympics reveal the dark heart of Putin’s Russia,’ Panorama concluded on 27 January. But nobody is really bothering to hide it. The Kremlin knows it doesn’t matter how much is stolen or siphoned away: Gazprom will still control energy in Europe, Berlin will still appease Putin, Brussels will still roll over, London will still yearn for oligarchs’ money.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek takes a scalpel to the late Soviet period. The surface, spoken ideology, Žižek argues, was not what actually held the system together. You could joke about ‘great leaders’ and the inadequacies of Marxist economics: the system let you have a giggle. The real holy of holies was the idea of the narod (‘common people’), in whose name the leadership could validate any action. Thus the deeply subversive nature of Milos Forman’s early, Czechoslovak films such as The Firemen’s Ball, which portrayed the narod as stupid, greedy, ugly. This was a cut the system couldn’t take and Forman had to leave. Over the last few days Russia’s only independent (and really rather small) TV channel, TV Rain, was accused by the Kremlin of stepping ‘beyond the limits of the permissible’. Most cable carriers dumped the station, leaving it in crisis and its future under serious question.
Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs are an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.
Of all the pages of comment and analysis I’ve read since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was suddenly pardoned on Friday by Vladimir Putin after spending ten years in prison, a note on the Facebook page of the film critic Roman Volobuev stood out: All day I’ve been thinking: 10 years in a Russian prison! You know what a Russian prison smells like? I’ve been to Russian prisons a couple of times for work and I still dream of that smell periodically. And now a man who’s been there ten years is in a nice hotel room, takes off his socks and walks barefoot on the carpet, or has a drink of Glenlivet and just lies down in the bath... and all that stuff about the Future of Democracy. That can wait.
For the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution last week, Vladimir Putin gave a big speech in which he announced that the new Russia seeks leadership but not superpower status, has no ambitions to interfere in the affairs of other countries, and is increasingly looked to by other nations as a guide for spiritual and moral values. At the Kremlin party afterwards, the ageing rocker Oleg Gazmanov played his hit ‘Born in the USSR’, which echoes the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’:
At noon on 25 August 1968, eight men and women walked out onto Red Square and unfurled a banner: ‘For your and our freedom’. They were protesting against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: eight people out of an empire of 250 million. Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the most famous and most controversial of them, because she took her baby with her. Afterwards she spent three years in punitive psychiatric wards, force-fed haloperidol. In 1975 she emigrated to Paris, where she died last Friday. The eight protesters were dissident heroes. ‘They cleansed our conscience,’ my parents told me.
When the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was a young hoodlum on the make in late 1960s Soviet Donetsk – or so the story goes – he made his first money through the following ruse: he would lurk in a cubicle in a public toilet in winter. When a man came into the cubicle next door, he would wait for the opportune moment, then lean over, grab the man’s expensive fur hat and make a run for it: the victim, caught with his pants down, mid-crap, was in no state to give chase. Whether the story’s entirely true or not – Yanukovich was definitely a hoodlum and served two terms in prison, for robbery and assault, in 1967 and 1970 – it captures something of his operating methods.
On 10 July 1985 a limpet mine attached to the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior exploded, tearing a hole the size of a car in its hull. The ship, which was docked in Auckland harbour, began to list. Captain Peter Wilcox and his crew of twelve disembarked. After a few minutes, with all quiet and the ship having settled but not sunk, the photographer Fernando Pereira went back on board to retrieve equipment. A second bomb exploded, sending the ship to the bottom and drowning him.
Sergey was a blind football hooligan. I got to know him when I was researching a TV show about people overcoming tough challenges. He supported Dynamo Moscow. Every weekend he would take his place in the stands among the hardcore fans behind the goal. He didn’t listen to a radio as most blind supporters do. He told me he could feel what was going on during the game with an ‘inner football vision’. Dynamo Moscow supporters are famous for being among the most racist and neo-nationalist and Sergey was no exception: I can hear those churki in the street. I can hear their filthy language in the metro. My yard used to be full of the sound of Russian… When I hear those churki I just come up and take a swing. Just like that. I saw him in a fight once, swinging wide and wildly. But when he connected it was powerful. (Churka, literally ‘block of wood’, is an offensive term for someone from the Caucasus or Central Asia.)
On 23 October 2002, between 40 and 50 Chechen men and women drove in a blacked-out van through the early evening central Moscow traffic, out to a suburb once home to one of the world’s largest ball-bearing factories. They pulled balaclavas over their heads, strapped belts of dynamite across their bodies, and walked briskly into the main entrance of a concrete, brutalist theatre known as Palace of Culture Number 10. The show that evening was a performance of Nord-Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was sold out. The terrorists came on stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought they were part of the play. When they realised they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the exits. But they were blocked by ‘black widows’ with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on stage ordered the audience back into their seats: if anyone moved they would be shot. By the time I arrived the next morning, as a fixer for tabloid hacks and documentary crews, the theatre was surrounded by soldiers, medics, TV cameras, cops and onlookers.
On Monday, Anatoly Iksanov, the besieged general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, was forced to resign. It has been speculated in Moscow that his departure was hastened by Yuri Grigorovich, the octogenarian éminence grise of the Russian dance scene, who had not to this point got involved. The intervention was long overdue, in the opinion of Iksanov’s harshest critics, who have compared his tenure to a plague in the land. His supporters say he did the best he could to handle crises of a sort that no screenwriter would dare contrive.
There was much talk of fairy tales in the court-room in Kirov where Alexei Navalny gave his closing statements on Friday. Since leading the failed revolt against Putin’s kingdom of corruption, Navalny has been charged with stealing 16 million rubles worth of Kirov Forest when he was assistant to the local governor in 2009.
Earlier this month the bestselling crime writer Boris Akunin announced that as Russia was becoming a police state with political prisoners, any form of co-operation with the state by cultural and artistic figures was tantamount to collaboration. There has been much agonising since: what about if you work at a state newswire agency? Or at the Bolshoi? It’s an old debate in Russia: there are still fights about whether Shostakovich was collaborating with Stalin or subverting the system from inside. But the challenge is harder now the Kremlin has learnt to speak the language of democratic capitalism, and goes out of its way to own opposition narratives. I once did some consultancy for a hotbed of Russian liberal journalism: Snob.
Egor could clearly see the heights of Creation,where in a blinding abyss frolic non-corporeal, un-piloted, pathless words, free beings, joining and dividing and merging to create beautiful patterns. Vladislav Surkov, Almost ZeroVladislav Surkov, the grand vizier of the Putin era, the creator of ‘managed democracy’ and ‘post-modern dictatorship’, today resigned (was sacked) from the Russian government. I saw him on 1 May when he gave the speech at the LSE that may have been his undoing. There was a small protest at the entrance to the lecture hall calling for him to be included on the list of Russian officials denied visas to the US for their part in the killing of the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In a gesture of patriotism Surkov had recently said he would be ‘honoured to be on the Magnitsky list’. Surkov avoided the protest and strode in through the back door. He was wearing a white shirt and a tightly cut leather jacket that was part Joy Division and part 1930s Chekist. He was smiling a Cheshire cat smile. He said that we were too clever an audience to be lectured at and that it would be much freer and more fun if we just threw questions at him. After one vague inquiry he talked for 45 minutes: it was his system of ‘managed democracy’ in miniature – democratic rhetoric and authoritarian practice.
‘Keep punk bands out of this zone,’ said a banner in Amsterdam during the Russian president's visit last week. ‘Putin might be offended.’ Thousands of LGBT demonstrators with rainbow flags lowered to half-mast shouted ‘Putin go homo’ as they protested against the Kremlin’s latest move to ban ‘homosexual propoganda’ (which might include the rainbow flag). A few days earlier in Germany Putin had been rushed by topless Femen activists with the words ‘Fuck you dictator’ scrawled on their breasts: a statement, Femen said, against the Kremlin’s ‘patriarchal authoritarianism’. Putin must have been delighted.
I was at a conference in Moscow for international journalists to meet members of Russian political parties when the news came through of Boris Berezovsky’s death. ‘It’s the end of an era,’ said the editor of Open Democracy Russia. The standard account, especially on Russian state news, is that Berezovsky’s era ended long ago: he personified the ‘wild’ 1990s, the antithesis to the ‘stable’ Putin era. But look closer and you see that the Putin era is not the antithesis but the apotheosis of the tactics, patterns and attitudes that Berezovsky put in place.
‘We’re tormented with Americanisms,’ the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained last week. ‘We need to liberate our language from foreign words.’ He is drawing up a list of 100 words which he would like it to be illegal for broadcasters, writers and academics to use in public. Fines and unemployment could face anyone caught saying café, bar, restaurant, sale, mouton, performance or trader. Some of the words have come into use since the fall of the Soviet Union; others have been around for decades, if not centuries. ‘There are perfectly good Russian words you can use,’ Zhirinovsky says. ‘Why say boutique when we have lavka?’ (Lavka is usually translated into English as something like ‘stall’.)
‘This is like the Cold War,' a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said in December after President Obama signed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. 'We will retaliate.' The act allows for the public naming of Russian officials involved in 'extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights'. It also allows for their US assets to be suspended and for them to be barred entry into the States. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian corporate lawyer who was tortured and died in Butyrka Prison in Moscow in 2009 after accusing various Russian bureaucrats of perpetrating a $230 million tax fraud. The law named after him is targeted at the many corrupt Russian officials who act with impunity at home and then spend their ill-gotten gains in the West. But of course the US isn’t the favoured destination of rich Russians. Most prefer to keep their property, wives, mistresses, football teams, newspapers and children in the UK. What would really hurt corrupt Russian officials is a Magnitsky Act here. But will it happen?
The Russian Orthodox Church is on holy war footing. The ‘sacrilege’ of Pussy Riot is no isolated incident, Patriarch Kirill says, but part of a wave of attacks on the church, ranging from accusations of financial irregularity to seemingly random acts of vandalism against church property. The attack on the church is not just anti-religious, according to pro-Kremlin media, but part of a larger geopolitical campaign by America to destabilise Russia.
Moscow, the myth of the city says, is the Third Rome. And Vladimir Putin has often been compared to the emperor Augustus. Putin, like Augustus, came to fix a cracked superpower, where rule was fracturing between warring regional governors, where democracy was manipulated by powerful oligarchs. Putin, like Augustus, centralised power, tamed the oligarchs, and shifted the political model from a corrupt democracy to a more effective form of quasi-monarchical rule. And, like Augustus, Putin retained the facade of democracy (parliament, elections) with none of its political power. Much of Mary Beard’s account of Augustan Rome in the latest LRB could apply just as well to Putin’s Russia:
Last week the internet group Anonymous hacked into the emails of Nashi, the pro-Putin youth organisation often compared to the Hitler Jugend. It turns out that Nashi keeps lists of ‘enemies’ – including writers, bloggers, activists and politicians – alongside allegations to smear them with, such as ‘gave a blow job to a black man’ or ‘sleeps with prostitutes who say he has a small penis’. Top of the list of exploitable ‘weak spots’ is a Jewish background. But the biggest stir has been caused by allegations that Ilya Varlamov, a photographer and blogger thought to be anti-Putin, received large payments from Nashi. Varlamov, who denies the charges, is said to have been given 400,000 rubles (around £8400) for two photo blogs which, if not blatant propaganda, did make Putin look rather smart. The revelations have opened up an old debate in Russia: what are the limits of co-operation with an unsavoury state? When is it OK, if ever, to take money from Kremlin Inc?
The Kremlin is trying some typically shadowy, sly moves to quell the Russian protest movement, but in Alexey Navalny the opposition may have a tactician who can outplay Putin at his own game. After an unexpected 50,000 demonstrators turned out in Moscow on 10 December to protest against electoral fraud, Mikhail Prokhorov, a flamboyant oligarch, said he supported the protests and would run for president in March. Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets and Snob magazine, and was arrested a few years ago at a French ski resort on suspicion of pimping (though later released without charge), will be an easy target for Putin’s anti-oligarch rhetoric. It seems a classic Kremlin ruse: push forward an opposition candidate so absurd it only strengthens Putin.
One of the first thing the Putinoids did when they got into power just over a decade ago was kill the satirical TV show Kukli (‘Dolls’), the Russian version of Spitting Image. After years of unchecked power they have become their own spitting image, easy targets for the satire of protesters demonstrating against the rigged Duma election. Putin himself, already ridiculed for his macho preening and such PR stunts as ‘accidentally’ discovering archaeological remains on a diving trip broadcast on TV, is now known as Mr Botox. His recent facial enhancement treatment has made him look like a rubber doll.
Russians love living in London: Berezovsky and Abramovich fight it out in a London court room, the Lebedevs buy the Standard and the Independent, minted Sashas and Pashas fill up the public schools, Russian hipsters spliff on London Fields, Russian shoppers throng Selfridges, Russian middle-class professionals walk their tots in Primrose Hill. London is known as ‘Londongrad’ or ‘Moscow on the Thames’; Russian media call it ‘Russia’s premier city abroad’ and even talk about ‘misty Albion’. Skinny bohemians and fat bureaucrats sip overpriced bitter at ‘Olde Englande’ theme pubs in Perm and Ekaterinburg; there’s a boy band called ‘Chelsea’ and Russia’s best alternative rocker has a song called ‘I dreamt of the sky above London’. Tell a certain kind of Russian you’re from the US or Germany and they’ll shrug; say you’re from London and they’ll sigh wistfully the way some Americans once did about Paris.
I should have addressed the envelope to 'Lana Peters' at 280 Ladbroke Grove, but I didn't, and the package I sent out from the London Review's offices in the spring of 1992 was instead addressed to Svetlana Allilueva. Several days later, I heard that she was angry I'd used her better-known name. Worse, a story then appeared in the Evening Standard, which said that Stalin's daughter was living in a halfway house in Notting Hill. Had I helped blow her cover? I apologised. She asked me to tea.
For quite a while now the Kremlin has been preoccupied with creating and managing a loyal ‘opposition’ to itself. Credit for the idea seems to go to Vladislav Surkov, the president’s first deputy chief of staff under both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In 2006 Surkov met with Sergei Mironov, the leader of a small centre-left party and chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. Surkov spoke of the need for a two-party system: ‘Society needs “the second leg” to shift on to, when the first one gets stiff.’ The second leg took the form of A Just Russia, created from the merger of several smaller parties to attract the votes of ‘the left with strong nationalist inclinations’. United Russia was to remain the dominant leg, of course.
I was in Russia when the suicide bomber blew him/herself up in the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo Airport. A rush of worried calls and e-mails jammed my phone (‘I am fine, I was in the Urals when it happened’). One message stands out: ‘The fuckers wrecked our set. Our set!’ In 2008 I produced a television show at the airport for Russian TV. For a year I slept at the airport, I woke at the airport. I know where the smoke alarms are dummies and you can have a crafty fag; when the best light floods through the glass walls to get the best shots; how to cut a deal with the customs guys so they go and buy you duty free whisky. I know which flights bring in which types of passenger. The show was called Hello Goodbye, a remake of a Dutch format. The presenter would walk around the airport and talk to people leaving or meeting each other: emotional families reunited after a generation, lovers parting for ever, lads off for a dirty weekend. It was a microcosm of the new Russia, all the country’s stories under one high-domed roof.
Any number of reasons have been put forward to explain why the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, sacked Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, last week. Some commentators have put it down to an interview Luzhkov gave to Rossijskaia Gazeta in early September, in which he challenged Medvedev from what was thought to be a pro-Putin position. Others say it’s because Luzhkov failed to cut short his holiday and return to Moscow when the city was engulfed in smoke from the summer’s wildfires. Still others say it’s because Medvedev wanted to show that he was serious in his struggle against corruption, for which Luzhkov was notorious. Many think that it’s so the Kremlin can establish control over Moscow’s corrupt electoral mechanisms before the 2011 national elections. Almost all speak about a redistribution of capital flows between Russia’s various power groups.
The story of Russia’s deep cover suburban spies in America is the perfect pitch for a 13-part TV series. It’s The Wire (illegals v. law enforcers), The Sopranos (aspirational lifestyles and typical middle-class problems among people living dangerous secret lives) and V (aliens among us) rolled into one. Lost? They do seem to have been. Like Nigerian email fraudsters, whose sensational Moll Flanders-like tales of inheritances and warped morality suggest their talented authors would make more money bashing out African soap opera scripts than they ever would ripping off naive northerners, the easiest way for the Russian taxpayer to get back the money wasted on this loony espionage venture would be to deport the spymasters responsible to Los Angeles with a contract for a 50 per cent cut of whatever the going Screenwriters Guild rate is these days.
Among the many very interesting Russian documents published in today's Times is a conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev on 23 September 1989, when Thatcher declared she and George Bush were against the reunification of Germany.