EXTRACT: The Kremlin recently provided a particularly audacious example of how it sees its role as an ‘energy superpower’: Royal Dutch Shell, which had invested billions of dollars to develop the world’s largest oil-and-gas field, Sakhalin II, in the Russian far east, was forced by the government to sell its controlling stake in the project. The company had endured a year of regulatory harassment – including ludicrous threats that the pipeline would not meet Russia’s environmental standards. The moment Shell surrendered to Gazprom, however, those environmental concerns vanished. And what was Shell’s response after its holding in the project was reduced from 55 to 25 per cent? ‘Thank you very much for your support,’ the company’s chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, told Putin at a meeting three weeks ago. ‘This was a historic occasion.’
Sunday February 25, 2007
Vladimir Putin has presided over a staggering economic boom in the six years since he took control of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, a dozen of his critics have been assassinated and the country’s vast natural resources are in the pockets of a chosen few. Michael Specter reports on the corruption and gangsterism gripping Russia.
Saturday 7 October was a marathon of disheartening tasks for Anna Politkovskaya. Two weeks earlier her father, a retired diplomat, had died of a heart attack as he emerged from the Moscow metro while on his way to visit Politkovskaya’s mother, Raisa Mazepa, in hospital. She had just been diagnosed with cancer and was too weak even to attend her husband’s funeral. ‘Your father will forgive me, because he knows I have always loved him,’ she told Anna and her sister, Elena Kudimova, the day he was buried. A week later she underwent surgery, and since then Anna and Elena had been taking turns helping her cope with her grief.
Politkovskaya was supposed to spend the day at the hospital, but her 26-year-old daughter, who was pregnant, had just moved into her flat, on Lesnaya Street, while her own place was being prepared for the baby. ‘Anna had so much on her mind,’ Elena Kudimova told me when we met in London, before Christmas. ‘And she was trying to finish her article.’
Politkovskaya was a special correspondent for the small, liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and, like most of her work, the piece focused on the terror that pervades the southern republic of Chechnya. This time, she had been trying to document repeated acts of torture carried out by squads loyal to the pro-Russian prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov. In the past seven years Politkovskaya had written dozens of accounts of life during wartime; many had been collected in her book A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. Politkovskaya was far more likely to spend time in a hospital than on a battlefield, and her writing bore frequent witness to robbery, rape and the unbridled cruelty of life in a place few other Russians – and almost no other reporters – cared to think about.
One day, at the Ninth Municipal Hospital in Grozny, the Chechen capital, Politkovskaya encountered a 62-year-old woman named Aishat Suleimanova whose eyes expressed ‘complete indifference to the world’, as she wrote in a typical piece. ‘And it is beyond one’s strength to look at her naked body. She has been disembowelled like a chicken. The surgeons have cut into her from above her chest to her groin.’ Two weeks earlier, a ‘young fellow in a Russian serviceman’s uniform put Aishat on a bed in her own house and shot five 5.45mm bullets into her. These bullets, weighted at the edges, have been forbidden by all international conventions as inhumane.’
In the west, Politkovskaya’s honesty brought her a measure of fame and a string of awards, bestowed at ceremonies in hotel ballrooms from New York to Stockholm. At home, she had none of that. Her excoriations of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, ensured isolation, harassment, and, many predicted, death. ‘I am a pariah,’ she wrote in an essay last year. ‘That is the result of my journalism through the years of the second Chechen war, and of publishing books abroad about life in Russia.’
Despite the fact that Politkovskaya was articulate, attractive and accomplished, she was barred from appearing on television, which is the only way the vast majority of Russians get news. To the degree that a living woman could be airbrushed out of post-Soviet history, she had been. ‘People call the newspaper,’ she wrote, ‘and send letters with one and the same question: “Why are you writing about this? Why are you scaring us? Why do we need to know this?”‘ She provided an answer as much for herself as for any reader: ‘I’m sure this has to be done, for one simple reason: as contemporaries of this war, we will be held responsible for it. The classic Soviet excuse of not being there and not taking part in anything personally won’t work. So I want you to know the truth. Then you’ll be free of cynicism.’
On the afternoon of 7 October Politkovskaya drove to a supermarket near her mother’s flat on the Frunzenskaya Embankment. Her daughter had planned to meet her there but was delayed. Nonetheless, as a surveillance camera at the store later showed, Politkovskaya was not alone. A young woman and a tall, slender man whose face was obscured by a baseball cap lurked in the aisles as she shopped. When Politkovskaya finished she drove home in her silver Vaz 2110 and parked a few feet from the entrance to her building. She took the tiny elevator up to her flat on the seventh floor and dropped two bags of groceries at the door. Then she went down to fetch the rest of her parcels. When the elevator opened on the ground floor, her killer was waiting. He shot her four times – the first two bullets piercing her heart and lungs, the third shattering her shoulder, with a force that drove Politkovskaya back into the elevator. He then administered what is referred to in Moscow, where contract killings have become routine, as the kontrolnyi vystrel – the control shot. He fired a bullet into her head from inches away. Then he dropped his weapon, a plastic 9mm Makarov pistol whose serial number had been filed away, and slipped into the darkening afternoon.
‘Anna knew the risks only too well,’ her sister told me. Politkovskaya was born in New York in 1958 while her father was serving at the United Nations; not long ago her family persuaded her to obtain an American passport – ‘but that was as far as she would go,’ Kudimova said. ‘We all begged her to stop. We begged. My parents. Her editors. Her children. But she always answered the same way: “How could I live with myself if I didn’t write the truth?”‘
Since 1999, when Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer, was, in effect, anointed as president by Boris Yeltsin, 13 journalists have been murdered in Russia. Nearly all the deaths took place in strange circumstances, and none of them has been successfully investigated or prosecuted. In July 2003 the investigative reporter Yuri Shchekochikhin, a well-known colleague of Politkovskaya at Novaya Gazeta, died of what doctors described as an ‘allergic reaction’. Shchekochikhin, who became famous in the Gorbachev era for his reports on the rise of a new mafia, had been investigating allegations of tax evasion against people with links to the FSB, the post-Soviet KGB. Nobody ever explained what Shchekochikhin was allergic to, and his family is convinced he was poisoned. On 9 July 2004 Paul Klebnikov, the founding editor of the Russian edition of Forbes – who had made powerful enemies by investigating corruption among Russian business tycoons – was shot dead as he left his Moscow office.
The attacks have not been limited to journalists. In September 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, a candidate for president of Ukraine, who helped lead the Orange Revolution and who was vigorously opposed by Putin, barely survived a poisoning. Doctors determined that he had been given the deadly chemical dioxin, which left his face disfigured and his health severely impaired. Since then two members of the duma, the Russian parliament, have been assassinated, and last September Andrei Kozlov, the deputy chief of Russia’s central bank, was shot outside a Moscow stadium following a company football match. Kozlov had initiated a highly visible effort to rid the country of banks that were little more than fronts for organised crime. And just a few weeks ago, in an execution that could have been planned by Al Capone, Movladi Baisarov, a former Chechen special forces officer who had come to be seen by the prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov as a rival, was gunned down on Leninsky Prospekt, one of Moscow’s busiest thoroughfares. A series of control shots were administered in front of scores of witnesses, including high-ranking members of the police force. No arrests have been made.
Four weeks after Politkovskaya died Alexander Litvinenko, a little-known former KGB agent who had been imprisoned by Putin and had then defected to England, fell gravely ill in London. Like many others, including Politkovskaya, Litvinenko had accused the Russian president of creating a pretext for the second Chechen war in 1999 by blowing up buildings in Moscow and then blaming Chechen separatists for the attacks. Putin’s decisive response to those acts of terrorism propelled him toward immense and lasting popularity. He was outraged by Litvinenko’s accusation and equally angered that Litvinenko had fallen into the orbit of Boris Berezovsky, one of Putin’s most despised enemies. Berezovsky, a shady billionaire oligarch, wielded huge power in the Yeltsin years, helped bring Putin to Yeltsin’s attention, and even played a major role in persuading him to assume the presidency. Once Putin took power, though, Berezovsky found himself shut off from the Kremlin; he accused Putin of turning his back on Yeltsin’s reforms, and was driven from the country. Litvinenko subsequently charged that his FSB superiors had ordered him to kill Berezovsky. On his deathbed, he accused Putin of killing him; he also blamed Putin for Politkovskaya’s death.
The manner of Litvinenko’s poisoning was obscure almost until the moment he died. At first doctors thought he had an unusual bacterial infection; then they said that his symptoms pointed toward rat poison. When his immune system started to fail, they thought it more likely the poison was a radioactive form of thallium, which had been used by the KGB nearly 50 years earlier in a failed attempt to assassinate Nikolai Khokhlov, an agent who had refused to comply with an order to kill a prominent Russian dissident. Finally, just hours before Litvinenko died, the doctors provided a definitive and even more improbable diagnosis: he had been poisoned with polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope; a millionth of a gram is enough to destroy a person’s bodily organs. Litvinenko’s murder was the first known case of nuclear terrorism perpetrated against an individual.
In Moscow, a city given to conspiracy theories, people could speak of little else: Putin had acted to silence a vocal traitor; no, Putin’s enemies did it, to destroy the image of the Kremlin and gain leverage in the 2008 presidential campaign; Putin’s allies did it, so that they could use the affair as a convenient excuse to ignore the constitution and secure him a third term; the ‘Jews’ did it, because Litvinenko had converted to Islam; Muslim extremists did it, because Litvinenko had reneged on a promise to supply parts for a dirty bomb; Berezovsky did it, to embarrass Putin. The Kremlin even suggested that Leonid Nevzlin, a wealthy oil executive who had fled Russia and lives in Israel, might have been involved. There was no proof for any of these assertions. Last July, however, the duma passed a law, introduced by the Kremlin, to permit the assassination of ‘enemies of the Russian regime’ abroad. For people like Boris Berezovsky, whose hatred for Putin has become an obsession, the new law explained everything.
‘This guy is a KGB guy,’ Berezovsky told me one afternoon over tea at a London hotel. ‘This guy issues a law allowing the Russians to kill opponents abroad. So they kill opponents abroad.’ His voice rose, and he shrugged, and then he glanced at me as if to say, how could one draw any other conclusion? ‘This is absolutely logical. Why did they issue this law? For what? Because this is Russia and nobody agrees to kill without the signature of somebody more important who gave the order.’ The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s death. Whatever the truth, the manner in which he died has tarnished Putin’s reputation in the west. And so has the execution of a journalist who had been accused of nothing more than doing her job.
At first Putin, like most other Russians, tried to ignore the Politkovskaya murder. He refused even to make a gesture of sympathy. As mourners gathered at services in Helsinki, Paris and New York, and as many others – most of them members of Moscow’s dwindling liberal establishment – laid flowers on the doorstep of Politkovskaya’s apartment building and attended her funeral, at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, on the outskirts of Moscow, the president said nothing. On 10 October he travelled to Dresden (where he had been stationed as a KGB operative in the Eighties) for a meeting with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Afterwards they appeared at a press conference, and Putin was no longer able to avoid questions about the killing. He responded curtly, ‘She was well known in the media community, in human rights circles, and in the west, but her influence on political life within Russia was very minimal … In my opinion, she was too radical, and by virtue of this radicalism she did not have a very strong influence on political life within the country, and especially in Chechnya.’
The president’s detached and clinical approach to the murder infuriated Politkovskaya’s colleagues and shocked her family. ‘It was like he was saying she was of no value to the Kremlin, so she didn’t deserve to live,’ Elena Kudimova told me. ‘I don’t care what he thought of her work, but what kind of man speaks that way about the dead?’
Euphoria cannot sustain a business, however. When Yeltsin instituted the economic reforms known as ‘shock therapy’ in 1992, prices soared and the cost of publishing a newspaper became prohibitive. There were no advertisements, and subscriptions all but evaporated, along with whatever innocence remained. The moral tone of the journalistic world began to shift, from idealistic to mercenary. The practice of writing biased news articles for money became routine even at the best papers. Restaurant owners, businessmen and public officials knew that the right price would bring them favourable coverage almost anywhere. ‘It would be good to say we had our hands clean at all times,’ Raf Shakirov, who later became the editor of Izvestia, told me. ‘We tried. But it was done by everyone. Absolutely everyone.’
As the process of Soviet disintegration accelerated, the Yeltsin government was consumed by economic and social chaos. Leaders of several Russian regions, including Siberia and Yakutia – both with vast reserves of diamonds, oil and gold beneath their frozen ground – began to speak openly of seceding. One Soviet general, Dzhokhar Dudayev, watched from his post in Estonia as the Baltic republics demanded independence. He resigned his commission as commander of a strategic wing of nuclear bombers, went home to Grozny and, after a dubious election, proclaimed himself the leader of an independent Chechnya. Boris Yeltsin did not take the Chechen threat seriously, but he began to worry that this rebellion, in a part of the country that had been hostile to Moscow for centuries, might set off similar demands in other republics. Yeltsin was struggling to keep the country together, and in 1993 he was even forced to turn his tanks against his own mutinous parliament.
By the end of the following year Yeltsin had heard enough talk of Chechen independence. To those who encouraged the president to negotiate – as he had with Tatarstan and other regions seeking greater autonomy – Yeltsin replied by asking if the president of Russia should really be bargaining with ‘a bunch of shepherds’. Pavel Grachev, the defence minister, promised that he could win a war against Dudayev’s forces with one paratroop regiment ‘in two hours’, and Yeltsin told him to go ahead. Instead, what became known as the first Chechen war dragged on for nearly two years. By the time it ended, in the summer of 1996, Grozny had been levelled, tens of thousands of Russians and Chechens had died, and Europe’s largest army had been forced into a historic retreat.
Most Russians had quickly come to oppose the war in Chechnya, largely because of reports they saw on TV, particularly on the NTV network. NTV was owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the earliest Moscow ‘oligarchs’. Its correspondents were fearless. ‘Those pictures created an overwhelming sense that the war was unjust and that Yeltsin had to end it,’ Masha Lipman, who was the deputy editor of Gusinsky’s magazine Itogi, said. ‘It hurt him very badly – his popularity plummeted. The war was seen as cruel.’ For the first time, the Russian press had played a central role in altering the nation’s political direction. Indeed, with the single exception of the economic windfall granted to a few well-placed men – oligarchs who were permitted to buy state property at ludicrously low prices – the war in Chechnya did more to unravel the promise of Yeltsin’s presidency than any other event.
The young liberals who worked at Moscow’s newspapers and television stations, and had championed Yeltsin’s rise during the Gorbachev years, were terrified their liberties would vanish under a neo-Communist government. For all his faults and his increasing malevolence, Yeltsin rarely challenged the right of the press to do its job in Chechnya or anywhere else. ‘Yeltsin was an opportunist, as every politician is,’ Igor Malashenko, the founding president of NTV, told me recently. ‘He had personal flaws and made mistakes. But he did not need to control everything. He had a visceral taste for democracy and freedom. And he loved the mess.’ So, despite Yeltsin’s precarious health, his loss of public support, and an inner circle riven by factional disputes and corruption, the most influential journalists in Russia – led by Malashenko and NTV – decided nothing was more important than protecting Yeltsin.
They wanted to drive Communism from Russia forever; impartiality, they felt, was too decorous a response to what they saw as a national emergency. As a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, I saw many of my friends were certain that a Yeltsin loss would be a disaster for the country. One day, I travelled with the press corps to Novosibirsk, a centre of Soviet-era science and scholarship, to watch Zyuganov campaign. He was attempting to convince people that their new freedoms were filled with false promises. At that time factory salaries were often paid in dish towels, tyres or cheap cutlery. Inflation had rendered pensions almost worthless, and people in the crowd listened to Zyuganov with hope and relief. My friends in the Russian press, however, were disgusted. ‘We got rid of this shit,’ one of them told me that night, ‘and we are never going to let it back. Never.’ They wrote accordingly. Any suggestion that journalism shouldn’t work that way was rebuffed with assertions that people in America and Europe had less at stake.
‘When NTV was busy reflecting Yeltsin, when he had two per cent and it magically went to 54 per cent, why didn’t you in the west say, “Careful, Russia, this will lead to a system you will regret,”?’ Leonid Parfyonov asked me recently. Until two years ago Parfyonov was the nation’s most influential television host, but he was abruptly fired after a dispute with the Kremlin over the censoring of his Sunday-night political news programme. He is now the editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek. ‘No. We never got that from the west. You all said, “Good job. Yeltsin good, Zyuganov bad.” You prevented the return of Communism as much as we did.’ That is true, no doubt. But when Russia’s young democrats jettisoned the rules of democracy they also forfeited their independence. That made what came next for the media, and for Russia, possible – perhaps even inevitable.
The 1996 election ‘put a poison seed into the soil,’ Andrei Norkin, a former anchor for NTV, told me. Norkin now works for the satellite network RTV1, which is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky. ‘And, even if we did not see why, the authorities understood at once: mass media could very easily be manipulated to achieve any goal. Whether the Kremlin needed to raise the rating of a president or bring down an opponent or conduct an operation to destroy a business, or a man, the media could do the job. Once the Kremlin understood that it could use journalists as instruments of its will, and saw that journalists would go along, everything that happened in the Putin era was, sadly, quite logical.’
A few months before Putin became president, in 2000, there was a battle for control of parliament – and, by implication, the government – as Russia prepared for the end of Yeltsin’s administration. One group was backed by the Kremlin and the other by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the extraordinarily powerful mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. The outcome was determined wholly by television coverage. Most newspapers had lost what influence they had had. Channel 1, the main state network, unleashed a barrage of biased, defamatory reports that destroyed Primakov in less than two months. As Alexander Rodnyansky, who is the head of CTC, one of Russia’s major television networks, put it, ‘Television is the only reality in which we exist.’
Putin had seen what true press freedom could accomplish during the first Chechen war, and he was not about to repeat Yeltsin’s mistake. In 1999, after the explosions that terrorised Moscow and provided the rationale for instigating the second Chechen war, the Kremlin quickly assumed control of essentially all television in Russia and responded harshly to those who tried to resist. On 14 April 2001 the state-controlled energy monolith, Gazprom, forcibly took over NTV – cutting Andrei Norkin off in the middle of a sentence as he tried to explain what was happening inside the studios. The screen filled with coloured stripes. Igor Malashenko referred to the seizure – a decisive moment in the muffling of free speech in Russia – as ‘a creeping coup’. Networks soon became wholly owned by the state or by companies – like Gazprom, which owns three networks and also Izvestia – that function as corporate arms of the government.
Propaganda has become more sophisticated and possibly more effective than it was during the Soviet years, when television was a tool used to sustain an ideology. The goal today is simpler: to support the Kremlin and its corporate interests. ‘It’s a magic process now,’ Anna Kachkaeva, who broadcasts a weekly interview show on Radio Liberty, told me. Kachkaeva, who is also the head of the television department at Moscow State University, went on: ‘There is no censorship – it’s much more advanced. I would call it a system of contacts and agreements between the Kremlin and the heads of television networks. There is no need to start every day with instructions. It is all done with winks and nods. They meet at the end of the week, and the problem, for TV and even in the printed press, is that self-censorship is worse than any other kind. Journalists know – they can feel – what is allowed and what is not.’
The Kremlin’s relationship with this pliable, post-Soviet press corps becomes obvious in any political crisis. Last January, for example, every channel helped wage an information war against Ukraine during that country’s price dispute with Gazprom. Oil and gas revenue is almost wholly responsible for Russia’s current economic boom – not to mention the Kremlin’s rapidly growing political confidence. Since Gazprom is the central instrument of that success, Putin keeps a careful watch on its interests. Dmitry Medvedev, the chairman of the Gazprom board, is also Putin’s first deputy prime minister and a likely presidential candidate next year. (Many commentators have wondered if he and Putin will simply switch jobs.) In the corporatist, semi-authoritarian structure that Putin has created – the Kremlin refers to it as ‘sovereign democracy’ – what is good for Gazprom is good for Russia, and no Russian television station would have dared to present the Ukrainian side of the story.
The Putin government has made a clever calculation: a few newspapers, with tiny elite audiences, can publish highly critical investigations and editorials as long as that reporting and criticism stays absolutely disconnected from television. (And as long as their reporters keep out of Chechnya.) Anna Politkovskaya began writing about the war in 1999, after the rules of press freedom changed, and she violated those rules every time she went to work. Not long before her death she wrote, ‘I will not go into the … joys of the path I have chosen – the poisoning, the arrests, the threats in letters and over the internet, the telephoned death threats, the weekly summons to the prosecutor general’s office to sign statements about practically every article I write (the first question being, “How and where did you obtain this information?”). Of course I don’t like the constant derisive articles about me that appear in other newspapers and on websites presenting me as the madwoman of Moscow. I find it disgusting to live this way. I would like a bit more understanding.’ The fact that Novaya Gazeta continued to exist says more about the paper’s minimal impact than about its openness.
Politkovskaya, like many others, attributed the precipitate decline of press freedoms to Putin’s background and his reflexes. In her 2004 book Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy she wrote that he is ‘a product of the country’s murkiest intelligence service,’ and ‘has failed to transcend his origins and stop behaving like a KGB officer.’ Putin has indeed presided over a remarkable resurgence in the power of the secret services, and many current Russian leaders are products of the KGB and its successors.
‘Reform of the KGB never really happened,’ Evgenia Albats, a professor of political science at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said a few weeks ago, after the deaths of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko. Albats has written more incisively about the KGB than any other Russian journalist. ‘The organisation was broken into several agencies in the early Nineties, but the reforms were abandoned, especially after Putin became president,’ she went on. ‘The KGB’s capacity to be a political organisation is back. And, unlike in the Soviet era, the secret services are now in full power.’
‘Those years are now increasingly called the Golden Age of the great power, which preceded the turmoil of Gorbachev and Yeltsin – theirs was the age of a weak and lost Russia, ended by the return of Russia’s past grandeur under President Putin,’ the columnist Sergey Strokan noted in Kommersant
Like Brezhnev, Pinochet evoked a sense of stability, a lack of turmoil. Russia’s most popular paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, asked readers if the country needed its own Pinochet. The overwhelming response was yes. ‘We don’t need a dictator,’ the liberal legislator Irina Khakamada wrote. ‘But we might need an economic Pinochet.’ Others were far more effusive. ‘Pinochet made an exemplary and glamorous nation out of Chile,’ one typical reader wrote. ‘Stable and strong.’
Putin, who has called the break-up of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’, clearly agrees. Sick of the queues, the empty shops and the false promises of Soviet life, Russians looked first to the west – and particularly to the United States – to provide an economic model. What followed was an epic disaster: the sell-off of the state’s most valuable assets made a few dozen people obscenely rich, but the lives of millions of others became far worse. The healthcare system fell apart, and so did many of the social services networks. Russia became the first industrial country ever to experience a sustained fall in life expectancy. Russian males born today can, on average, expect to live to the age of 59, dying younger than if they were born in Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is not surprising, then, that by the time Putin became president most Russians were only too happy to exchange the ideas of free speech and intellectual freedom for the concrete desires of owning a home and a car and possessing a bank account. They also wanted to feel that somebody was in control of their country.
In today’s Russia, as Politkovskaya wrote, stability is everything and damn the cost. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are seen by an overwhelming majority as historical disasters who provoked decline, collapse, chaos and humiliation before the triumphal west. The opportunities created in those years, the liberation from totalitarianism, have been forgotten. ‘Yes, stability has come to Russia,’ Politkovskaya wrote. ‘It is a monstrous stability under which nobody seeks justice in courts that flaunt their subservience and partisanship. Nobody in his or her right mind seeks protection from the institutions entrusted with maintaining law and order, because they are totally corrupt. Lynch law is the order of the day, both in people’s minds and in their actions. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’
‘I don’t know of a single case in the past six years when the duma voted against any presidential initiative,’ Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the last liberal legislators willing to speak critically and publicly, told me. ‘I also don’t know of any case where the duma adopted an initiative that came from the regions. One man makes all the rules in Russia now, and the duma has become like a new Supreme Soviet.’
No company, foreign or domestic, can prevail in an argument with the Kremlin. That became clear on 25 October 2003, when armed and masked FSB agents stormed a private jet and arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky as he was about to depart from the Novosibirsk airport in Siberia. Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest and, after Putin himself, easily its most influential man. He ran Yukos, the largest – and, by most estimates – the best managed oil company in the country. Khodorkovsky had failed to honour an unspoken pact with the Kremlin: stay out of politics and stay rich. Instead he had begun to speak out, act independently, and support Putin’s opponents. He even started appearing in foreign capitals, often acting more like a head of state than an oil magnate. Khodorkovsky was charged with fraud and tax evasion, and then convicted in a trial that few observers, in or out of Russia, believed was fair. He was sentenced to nine years in prison and is serving them at Prison Camp IZ-75/1, in Chita, one of Siberia’s most inhospitable regions. The Kremlin then set out to destroy his company, suing Yukos for billions of dollars in what it said were unpaid taxes. Yukos’s assets are being distributed among the president’s allies, the biggest beneficiaries being the two companies that are sometimes referred to as the only meaningful political ‘parties’ left in Russia: Gazprom and Rosneft, the state-run oil concern.
The Russian government has become bolder and more assertive throughout Putin’s tenure. On New Year’s Day 2006 Russia abruptly cut gas exports to Ukraine after the government there objected to a sharp rise in the prices charged by Gazprom. Gas heading to Europe from Russia passes through Ukraine, and the disruption – which was widely seen as punishment for Ukraine’s political intransigence – affected many European countries. This month Belarus was treated in the same fashion: Russia doubled the price it charges for gas and began to impose much higher export duties on oil. Putin clearly sees today’s ideological battles in economic, rather than military, terms. Vladislav Surkov, who is essentially the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, told delegates at a meeting of the president’s party last year, ‘For all globalisation’s benefits, all the talk of friendship, the Americans count their dividends at home, the British count theirs – and we count ours. The majority count their losses. So when they tell us that sovereignty is outdated, as is the nation-state, we should ask ourselves what they are up to.’
The Kremlin recently provided a particularly audacious example of how it sees its role as an ‘energy superpower’: Royal Dutch Shell, which had invested billions of dollars to develop the world’s largest oil-and-gas field, Sakhalin II, in the Russian far east, was forced by the government to sell its controlling stake in the project. The company had endured a year of regulatory harassment – including ludicrous threats that the pipeline would not meet Russia’s environmental standards. The moment Shell surrendered to Gazprom, however, those environmental concerns vanished. And what was Shell’s response after its holding in the project was reduced from 55 to 25 per cent? ‘Thank you very much for your support,’ the company’s chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, told Putin at a meeting three weeks ago. ‘This was a historic occasion.’
With 30 per cent of the world’s gas exports, Russia can impose its will for one simple reason. ‘The entire world is obsessed with energy security and resources,’ Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, told me. ‘You need it. We have it. It is up to us to decide how to deal with that. India and China are seeking new sources of energy to secure their very rapid growth. The US is lost in its war in Iraq, the European Union has no idea what it is any more. And then there is Russia: stable, wealthy, controlled very solidly. No opposition. There is really a feeling of superiority, a sense that Russia is now an indispensable nation, as Mrs Albright [Clinton's secretary of state] said just a few years ago about the United States.’
For the first time since the Eighties, when a steep drop in the price of oil brought on an economic crisis that helped destroy the Soviet Union, Russia feels truly independent. Throughout the Nineties every Russian leader, including Putin during the first years of his administration, was preoccupied with financial problems in an attempt to repair the broken Soviet economy, or to respond to humanitarian crises, or, finally, and most humiliatingly, to persuade the International Monetary Fund to help the country survive its birth. ‘Today, it is ridiculous to remember,’ Lukyanov said, ‘but through much of the Nineties economic decisions in Russia could be taken only after consultation with the IMF and sometimes after the approval of the American Embassy in Moscow. Russia was weak. Russia didn’t know what to do. And today’s greed is a reaction to all of that. To poverty and humiliation. Our official ideology is to make more money.’
Moscow has changed even more. Parts of the city are coming to resemble colder versions of Riyadh or Dubai. One afternoon, as I walked to the Lenin Library from my hotel, I noticed that one of the library’s main signs now shares space with another local landmark: Planet Sushi. Nearby, a few hundred yards from Red Square, is the Moscow Bentley, Ferrari and Maserati dealership, and each new model seems to sell out faster than the one before.
Putin is proud of Russia’s economic achievements, and he took advantage of the press conference in Germany where he spoke with so little passion about Anna Politkovskaya to describe them in detail. ‘When I became president, our foreign currency and gold reserves stood at $12bn, and now they have increased by $80bn over the first half of this year alone, and currently come to a total of around $270bn,’ he said. ‘We have paid off our debts in full. We have now become a grain-exporting country.’ He added, ‘But none of this would mean anything if it did not bring change to people’s lives,’ noting that incomes and pensions have risen nearly 10 per cent each year since he became president. Nevertheless, the people are literally dying. When Yeltsin took office, the population stood at 150m. By 2050, most projections suggest, the number may fall below 100m. In describing the new Russia, neither Putin nor his loyalists mention the country’s rapidly expanding Aids epidemic, its endemic alcoholism, or the vast differences in incomes among its citizens. Nor do they acknowledge that, despite the robust GDP, Russia’s rankings on such essential global economic issues as competitiveness and labour efficiency are appallingly low.
‘The majority of the population, they are absolutely happy,’ Alexei Volin, who served for three years as deputy chief of staff in Putin’s government and now runs a highly successful publishing house, said when we met in Moscow. ‘They get more money. Consumption has increased two and a half times in the past six years. People are buying cars, country houses, they are going to big shopping malls – as big as those in the United States.’ Volin, a trim, clean-cut, 43-year-old man dressed in a white button-down shirt and khaki Dockers, smiled. ‘They are just as happy as they can be,’ he said. ‘They don’t have a headache because of some political problem or the concentration of power. They don’t watch TV news. They don’t care.’ He went on: ‘There is another group. They are unhappy, because political life has been frozen. They don’t like the situation with Russian television or the press. Several months ago, I talked to one important Kremlin person and I asked him why is our TV news so awful and dull. And his answer was, “Why are you watching TV? People like you should go read the internet if you want information. TV is not for you. It’s for the people.”‘
In this context, freedom of the press doesn’t matter much and, increasingly in Russia, doesn’t exist. ‘Here we have this question of freedom or wealth,’ Aleksei Venediktov, who runs the radio station Echo of Moscow, told me. It’s the one remaining station in the capital that broadcasts truthful, and even combative, news reports and live call-in shows – a genre that has disappeared from Russian television. ‘People chose wealth. They do not understand that freedom is a necessary condition for preserving the wealth and security that they have come to value. To be engaged in honest reporting about delicate subjects like corruption or to travel to Chechnya is too dangerous. People don’t want it, they don’t ask for it, and they really don’t understand that they need it.’
Zakayev looks more like a lawyer these days than a revolutionary; when we met he was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie. His shoes were spit-shined. When Litvinenko died, on 23 November, Russian prosecutors once again began an effort to extradite him, and Berezovsky. ‘Putin won’t stop till every one of us is dead,’ Zakayev told me. By ‘us’ he meant not only the Chechen people but also those who oppose Kremlin policies, people such as Politkovskaya and Litvinenko. ‘Alexander and Anna were killed to send a message,’ he said. ‘I am sure of that.’
A couple of days before leaving Moscow, I went to see Viktor Shenderovich at what was once an NTV building; it still houses Vladimir Gusinsky’s cable channels. The place looks like a Courtyard Marriott – a central atrium with big trees, a glass roof and lots of chrome. It is one of the last refuges for liberal journalists in Moscow. Shenderovich is a grumpy-looking former stand-up comedian whose satirical television show Kukly (Puppets) aired on NTV between 1994 and 2003. For much of that time it was required viewing for anyone who cared about politics. Shenderovich was savagely funny, using his puppets to ridicule whoever held power. Nobody was spared, not Boris Yeltsin nor Mikhail Gorbachev, and certainly not Vladimir Putin. But Putin does not take well to being made fun of. A few weeks after he was portrayed by a puppet as a nasty dwarf, Shenderovich was out of a job. He now has a weekly radio broadcast on Echo of Moscow and another on Radio Liberty.
Shenderovich had just received a phone call from his daughter, who had heard something about Garry Kasparov, the chess champion. Kasparov has emerged as the most prominent man in what is called the Other Russia – a coalition of Putin’s most outspoken critics. ‘The office is being raided as we speak,’ Shenderovich said. ‘The police are there locking down computers and confiscating everybody’s cell phone.’ They took away newspapers, books and other literature to see if any of it was ‘extremist’ and therefore illegal.
The raid occurred a few days before the Other Russia planned to hold a Saturday afternoon march from Triumphalnaya Square to the Kremlin; permission was denied, so more than 1,000 people gathered across from the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. There were nearly 10,000 police officers – in green, blue, and brown uniforms, denoting different services – and two helicopters hovered above. To enter the square it was necessary to walk through one of the many metal detectors the police had provided – and one might as well have walked through a time machine. The protest was a bizarre ideological stew; Kasparov spoke about liberty and openness, but Communists spoke about liberty and openness as well. Ancient Stalinists stood on the kerb selling anti-Semitic literature, Order of Lenin badges and yellowing copies of Zavtra!, one of Russia’s most rabidly right-wing newspapers. There were chess players, too. Speakers talked of ‘saving Russia from the horrors that had descended upon it’. People chanted for a while, and then everyone went home.
The next afternoon, Sunday, brought glorious weather, and thousands of people took advantage of it to do some shopping. Many of them ended up in Red Square. Workmen had placed a giant skating rink between Lenin’s tomb and Christian Dior’s new flagship store at GUM. Hundreds of young parents stood in line holding their children’s hands as they waited to skate. They seemed happy. The grey, 1,000-yard stare so representative of Soviet life was gone, replaced with, of all things, a smile. It was not difficult to see why so many Russians – more than 70 per cent in most polls – seem to support the president.
Since Alexander Litvinenko’s death, there has been much public discussion of what Putin will do next year, when his term concludes. He has promised to step down, but he has also said that he intends to ‘retain influence’, and people have speculated on the many ways he could do that: as prime minister, for example, or as chairman of Gazprom. Russia today, and not for the first time, has wagered its wellbeing on the price of oil, and as long as salaries continue to rise, people seem untroubled by the future and unwilling to dwell on even the most compelling warnings from the past. Oil prices have crashed before. In recent months, they have fallen more than 20 per cent. At some point, if the fall continues, it way no longer be possible to ignore Russia’s dead Cassandra.
‘I have wondered a great deal about why I am so intolerant of Putin,’ Politkovskaya wrote. ‘Quite simply, I am a 45-year-old Muscovite who observed the Soviet Union at its most disgraceful in the Seventies and Eighties … Putin has, by chance, gotten his hands on enormous power and has used it to catastrophic effect. I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us as a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that. Accordingly, he believes he can do anything he likes with us, play with us as he sees fit, destroy us as he sees fit. We are nobody, while he whom chance has enabled to clamber to the top of the pile is today Tsar and God. In Russia we have had leaders with this outlook before. It led to tragedy, to bloodshed on a vast scale, to civil wars.’ For her part, she said, ‘I want no more of that.’