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Unfiled July 10, 2003
 
Russia Thaws
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
 
 

"The seizing of power is only the beginning. The whole point is to maintain power."

-- Stalin

When Putin came to power in late 1999, one of the things he promised to do was put a lid on the unpredictability and anarchy that marked the Yeltsin years. Feeding on the nation's exhaustion -- no culture could possibly sustain the reckless, destructive pace of the 1990s -- and employing old-style KGB and gangland tactics, Putin masterfully fulfilled his promise to seal Russia's radioactive soul in a kind of semi-freeze. Russia, once the land of Infinite Events, became almost...boring. Boring, and believably so -- it seemed that a new paradigm had indeed been achieved. For the first time, Moscow seemed almost safe, recognizable and predictable.

Late last week the casing cracked and subcutaneous Russia spewed out into the atmosphere. The arrest of YUKOS billionaire Platon Lebedev is one of those truly ground-shattering events that we haven't seen in Russia since Putin consolidated his power. Such a thing as arresting the West's favorite billionaire and denying him even the right to visit his lawyer didn't seem possible any longer.

It seems sudden, but in fact the casing cracked months ago. It's just that the whole facade of normalcy finally imploded last week. All those sushi bars that the Thomas Friedmans have raved about with triumphant relief are not examples of progress but rather camouflage.

Russia is back. The Russia of the 1990s, that is. Think about it. Moscow is once again ranked in the top three most expensive cities in the world, the stock market is hitting its Yeltsin-era peak, foreign investors rate it the hottest emerging market, debt issuance is soaring, the last major auction, Slavneft, was grossly rigged in favor of the Kremlin's pet oligarch, and Western correspondents are singing the praises of Russia's "transformation." In the media world, The Moscow Times was taken over by yet another oligarch, just as it was in 1996, while yet another of Russia's "last independent television stations" caved into the Kremlin, a repeating drama that goes back to NTV's 1996 decision to join the Kremlin fold. Expats are pouring back into Moscow to feed from the trough (in the last year, two new English-language nightlife papers, Pulse and Element, were added to the two that already exist along with three straight English-language newspapers), whores regularly demand $200 a pop, and now, contract killings and a burst of high-profile scandals and savage political machinations have made Russia seem, well, Russian again. If you need any evidence that the Russia we knew is back, just look at our cover: eXile columnist Edward Limonov is out of jail and back in the business of plotting a revolution and driving our readers up the wall.

I'm not sure people get it yet. I'm not sure if people really understand, for example, how ominous Lebedev's arrest is and what it means both politically and economically for Russia. The election season has barely begun and already we've had a TV station shut down, opposition deputies assassinated, poisoned and arrested, an increasing number of high-profile hits, and now, the country's flagship company is under threat, its billionaire oligarch shareholder held in detention without even access to his lawyer. To the credit of The Moscow Times, they covered the story of his arrest quite fairly and accurately. Most of the Western press, however, has remained oddly quiet about the whole thing. I suspect the reason is that when you scratch this story a little more deeply than a few factual paragraphs, you might wind up completely contradicting the narrative of a Russia progressing and normalizing under Putin. Too many Western reporters have sold the parallel stories about Yukos's transformation into Russia's first truly modern, Western-style multinational company along with the story of Putin as the great Russian modernizer successfully overseeing an economic boom thanks to his enlightened free-market policies.


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Ames
Browse author
Email Mark Ames at editor@exile.ru.
 
 
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