Poisonous Times in Putin’s Russia

Excerpts from a book review in The Guardian by Oliver Bullough. Earl Browder was the leader of the Communist Party in the US in the 1930s. His grandson, Bill Browder, was determined to become a capitalist and he did so in grand style. Peter Pomerantsev is a documentary film maker, among other things.

…As is abundantly clear from the inquiry into the 2006 murder with polonium-210 of Alexander Litvinenko, which opened in London a fortnight ago, modern Russia still excels at extreme violence. But assassinations are far rarer now than they were 20 years ago. Vladimir Putin has managed to bring politics in-house: to urge, entice and kick the dogs back under the carpet. Having done so, he de-fanged them: the political parties, the oligarchs, the media, the courts, the Chechens. Power struggles now take place in the offices of the Kremlin, in the dachas along Moscow’s Rublevka, in palaces by the Black Sea, and on yachts on the Mediterranean. We learn who won and who lost after the fact; the Kremlinologists are back in business.

Putin has remained inscrutable throughout, allowing others to project their ideas on to him. Marine Le Pen admired his “cool head” and “economic vision”. Fidel Castro praised his “strength and political intelligence.”

Coming to understand this kind of closed system is a very different challenge to reporting on open revolution. It requires patience, tenacity and years of work. Fortunately, two excellent books by writers matching that template have come along simultaneously: Peter Pomerantsev, whose varied career has involved making films, working for thinktanks and generally charming everyone in Moscow; and Bill Browder, who was once the biggest portfolio investor in Russia but is now a leading campaigner against Putin.

Browder’s Red Notice is a classic tale of two halves: the first is a ripping yarn of murky financiers, desperate investments, and huge sums of money; the second is a terrible tragedy of corrupt officials, grieving friends and the murder of an honest man. I can’t think of another book like it: it’s like Liar’s Poker welded on to one of the angrier John le Carrés.

Browder entered eastern Europe as a banker out of the late-80s playbook. Knowing almost nothing, he talked himself up as an expert and pretty soon he was. He made huge profits for his bank from Russia’s first privatisations, then struck out on his own, surfing Moscow’s massive 1990s boom/bust, and clinging on for the slower but eventually even bigger boom of the early Putin years.

The first half’s insights alone are some of the finest we have of the hideously corrupt way that Russia’s most precious assets were sold off to a handful of insiders for almost nothing, and then the way those insiders exploited everyone else to get even richer. Browder, lacking the guns but not guts, mobilised the media, the banks and the lawyers against the oligarchs. A lot of the time, he won. His account captures well how intoxicating it must be to make a huge amount of money.

Perhaps blinded by the sums on offer, Browder enthusiastically backed Putin long after problems with his mode of governing had become abundantly clear (something, it should be said, that this book does not much dwell on). But that admiration fell away after Browder was banned from Russia. He gets his money out but a gang of corrupt officials then steal his companies, and illegally claim back the taxes he paid. When Browder and his accountant – Sergei Magnitsky – investigate, uncover the scam and complain, the officials arrest Magnitsky, keep him in detention, beat him, deny him medical treatment and do nothing while he dies in agony.

Browder has since devoted his energy, and his large fortune, to trying to make the people responsible pay, and the second half of the book is an account of his (extremely admirable) efforts. It is also a fascinating exposé of the way the Russian elite exploits the western financial system to safeguard the money it steals. Browder’s crucial insight is that, by denying crooked officials access to our economies, we could cripple their ability to steal, thus both cramping their style and making the world a better place.

Pomerantsev (full disclosure: we attended some of the same parties in Moscow but occupied opposite ends of the coolness spectrum) has written a very different book in Nothing Is True… He is a Brit, born to Soviet dissident parents, who moved to Moscow on leaving university, and he has a penchant for philosophising, picking up girls, high culture. “I was a stowaway on the great armada of western civilisation, the bankers, lawyers, international development consultants, accountants, and architects who have sailed out to seek their fortunes in the adventures of globalisation,” he writes, and he became entranced by “a city living in fast forward, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, where boys became billionaires in the blink of an eye.”

His characters are performance artists, gangsters, models, prostitutes, gold-diggers and oligarchs. He made films about some of them but others he just hung out with, and these are the sections of the book that most crackle with sparks. His title – Nothing Is True, and Everything Is Possible – reflects a total cynicism, a Soviet weariness. Everyone has lived lies for so long that it has become impossible for anyone to do otherwise. His subtitle is Adventures in Modern Russia but this is a book about central Moscow, where Russia’s power and money are ever more concentrated. Like the power brokers, Pomerantsev has little time for the sticks.

Although Putin is rarely mentioned, this book is one of the finest accounts we have of the grotesque nihilism of his system. Pomerantsev’s Moscow is a machine that sucks in the hopes, fears, dreams, ambitions and loves of the people who flock to it, spitting out lies, illusion and despair. Only the very nimble can keep their feet in this great spinning mass, and for a while Pomerantsev was among them.

The TV companies he works for churn out fake reality shows, and present Putin to the nation as “gangster-statesman-conqueror-biker-believer-emperor, one moment diplomatically rational, the next frothing with conspiracies.” Pomerantsev eventually gets sickened by it and decides to go home to London before he goes mad. But it’s all still going on, whirling faster and faster with every month that goes by, and if you’re not deeply concerned by the end of this book, you should read it again until you are.

Both books are required reading for anyone seeking to understand Putin’s Russia, and useful antidotes for anyone – on the right or left – who somehow remains convinced that it represents a purer alternative to the wicked west.

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