Voices from Russia

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Boris Berezovky: Game Over

00 Boris Berezovsky 3. Russia. 24.03.13


I arrived in Russia in 1997, when Boris Berezovsky’s influence was at its height. The year before, he had managed to get Boris Yeltsin re-elected, and we needn’t think too hard about how or why he achieved that. In those days, Berezovsky was often in Chechnya, and I couldn’t keep up with how much stuff he owned. Then Putin became president, and shortly afterwards the “Godfather of the Kremlin” was out. Sometime later I read a vehemently anti-Putin editorial in a major British newspaper, before such things were commonplace. “Who wrote this? I wondered. Then, I saw the by-line:

Boris Berezovsky

I was stunned. Hadn’t the editor done a quick web search before paying this “Russian businessman” to write his screed? Evidently, not, although I now understand that serial failure to grasp that not every opponent of Putin is a brave Solzhenitsyn is characteristic of the media in the UK and USA. Last year, for instance, I watched a documentary on Khodorkovsky, and the filmmaker was baffled when Russians expressed contempt for the fallen billionaire. As for Berezovsky, for years I wrote him off as an embittered crook until I read an interesting piece by Eduard Limonov, written in his trademark broken English. The author-turned-opposition leader was recalling a very expensive bottle of cognac the exiled billionaire had sent him upon his release from prison on weapons smuggling charges in 2003:

I like Berezovsky more and more. Exiled, he looks noble. Berezovsky is a type of anxious, never-satisfied life-eater, of warrior, the person who lives by the energy of conflict. Abroad, in Great Britain, he’s forced to exist without conflict, in order to preserve himself from a Russian prison. He wants badly to go out of that golden cage of London, again go to exciting life of conflicts in Russia. He isn’t interested in money. Money is only fuel to his conflicts.

(Full Limonov text)

A life-eater, fuelled by the energy of conflict! That also describes Limonov, who used to ramble on about legalising polygamy and teaching kids to use flame-throwers (before he became a semi-respectable Putin opponent in the eyes of David Frost et al). In Berezovsky, he recognised some of his own characteristics. Now, I saw the oligarch differently. He was a game-player, a man who delighted in his cleverness, in danger, and who exulted in the provocations he staged before the global media.

I recall footage I saw of Berezovsky talking to a group of Russophile English aristocrats about Putin. With what pleasure… and ease… he seduced these political naifs, who were blind to the conspiratorial nature of Russian power. Even better was when he befriended George Bush’s hapless wee brother Neil, who in the mid-2000s was trying to sell a video projector he called “The Cow” as an educational tool to developing countries who didn’t know any better. Berezovsky got involved and made a few introductions in the former USSR, even accompanying the mini-Bush on a visit to Latvia. Putin was outraged; Berezovsky was delighted; Bush never sold his rubbish toy.

Berezovsky’s influence in exile reached its peak with the murder of his employee Aleksandr Litvinenko. Suddenly, the renegade oligarch was at the centre of the world’s attention, wreaking havoc upon Putin’s reputation. However, this is also when journalists started looking seriously into the career of the life-eater, and his reputation never recovered either, for the “heroic dissident” was clearly a man enmeshed in plots, scandal, crime, and death. Of course, Berezovsky was an exceedingly clever man. Long before he was a car dealer, he was a mathematician and a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Nevertheless, this was his problem. His attitude was that of someone who’d always considered himself the smartest man in the room. Now, when the other man in the room was Yeltsin, that may have been true… but then again, the table at which Yeltsin sat also had more brains than the Russian president did.

Yeltsin, it is clear, was too easy to manipulate… because, after that, Berezovsky serially underestimated his foes. Having backed the mid-level ex-KGB officer Putin as successor, he was astounded when Putin drove him into exile. He also underestimated his protégé Roman Abramovich, and this is where his intelligence really started to undermine him. You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that Berezovsky’s claim that Abramovich bullied him into giving up his stake in Sibneft sounded feeble. Indeed, the case was so tenuous that Berezovsky must have used a lot of intellectual energy to persuade himself of his own arguments.

The results were disastrous, and with the evaporation of his money and influence, Berezovsky could see that the game was finally up. Then again, maybe not… when Putin’s spokesman claimed that Berezovsky sent his foe a handwritten letter pleading for the right to return to Russia, I was sceptical. All exiles yearn for home, but did Berezovsky really think that he could sweet-talk Putin? Then I remembered his arrogance, his hubris, and wondered if he hadn’t persuaded himself he could use his cleverness to pull off one last great act of gamesmanship…

Then, it would seem, he hanged himself.

27 March 2013

Daniel Kalder




Tuesday, 23 October 2012

How to Become an International Celebrity Protester


This week I was wandering around my local supermarket when I spotted something very unusual for Central Texas. A young woman was wearing a shocking pink T-shirt that read FREE PUSSY RIOT. I thought, Wow, they’re megastars now! Yet, although I more or less agreed with the sentiment on the T-shirt, I did wonder why these young women receive so much attention, when their protest was so asinine, and there are so many more causes in the world deserving of attention. For instance, that little girl who got shot in the head in Afghanistan earlier this week… where are the T-shirts demanding justice for her? Nowhere. Or, what about Mali, overrun by radical Islamists who are busy destroying ancient Sufi shrines? When is Paul McCartney going to tell them to stop? Never. Then, there’s NATO member Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world… when is Sean Penn going to speak up for them? He isn’t.

What’s going on here? Well, first of all, Russia’s very easy to understand. Russians are always the bad guys in Hollywood movies, and Putin is ex- KGB, so the Pussy Riot case is an incredibly easy narrative to frame. However, that’s not the complete explanation, because many people in Russia’s opposition are much more coherent and intelligent than Pussy Riot, but nobody in Texas is wearing hot pink T-shirts in support of Aleksei Navalny or Sergei Udaltsov. Is it because Pussy Riot consists of young women and mothers? Certainly, that increases sympathy for them, but I still don’t think that’s the core of the matter. Rather, I think it’s because their protest was extremely Western in style, as if designed to trigger a massive nostalgic response in Europe and America.

You see, punk music, feminists with attitude, irreverence for church and state… once upon a time, all that stuff was very exciting for us. Now, it’s incredibly boring. Punk music? In the 1970s, it was a bit shocking, what with all that spitting and saying rude things about the Queen. Today, the most famous punks are millionaires in their 40s or late 50s who live in mansions. As for blasphemy, you can dunk a crucifix in urine or incorporate elephant dung into your picture of the Virgin Mary and most people will yawn, whilst the artist reaps handsome rewards. See how boring that is? The ennui is terrible; there’s no risk involved. You need to go back 30 or 40 years for any of it to have meaning. In Russia, however, you’ll still get bashed on the head if you irritate the wrong people, and… as we have seen… singing a rotten song in a church can land you in jail. As the writer Zinovy Zinik once said, Russia is a vast erogenous zone for bored Westerners, close enough to provide a vicarious thrill, but sufficiently distant that it poses no risk of infection. Russians won’t protest in their thousands in front of Google’s offices in London if you say rude things about them on Youtube, for instance.

This meanwhile leads to an interesting question… how can you become an international celebrity protester? Well, if you live in the Middle East, or Africa, tough luck. Those places are too exotic, and much too dangerous. The best you can hope for is that a celebrity mediator might stop by and pick up your cause… like George Clooney in Darfur, or Sting wherever it is he hangs out these days. No, you need to live in a country that can be easily encapsulated as authoritarian, and preferably ex-communist. Thus, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei managed to achieve some renown, although he is much less successful than Pussy Riot. Retro youth culture is the way to go; you have to appeal to Western nostalgia. The problem is that punk’s been done, and protesting in a church has been done, so what’s left? I think you have to go further back in time, to the 1960s. None of that Black Panther, Weather Underground terror stuff, though; it isn’t fashionable any more. No, the protest has to be really asinine… like getting naked in public for instance. Ah, wait… FEMEN in the Ukraine have already done that (and scored decent media coverage).

Wait, I’ve got it! Here’s the height of pointlessness, the most ridiculous protest of all. Stage a bed-in, like John and Yoko! Decades afterward, people still remember that the ex-Beatle and his undertalented wife slept in late one day for the sake of… world peace, was it? Or, were they raising our consciousness? Maybe Garry Kasparov could lie in bed with Eduard Limonov and refuse to get up until Russia changes. Of course, I think President Putin would be perfectly happy if they did just that.

17 October 2012

Daniel Kalder




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