Putin’s Dark Imperium

I’ve had a passion for Russian literature since I was a teenager. Its grand themes of murder and redemption were always going to hold more appeal to a troubled adolescent than the airs and graces of yet another Austen novel – I pray the British people tire of her soon! – and after reading too much Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn as a postgraduate, I wanted to write something Russian.

I travelled throughout the country in 2008, making it as far as Magadan, the Russian Far East, the gateway to Gulag hell. It became clear that though the Soviet Union is no more, the place is still very much an “Imperium”, in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s words, the country’s rulers little more than former Communists who’ve turned their jackets inside out, Putin the epitome of such an unconvincing metamorphosis – the proud, surly and deadly KGB man who resigned just at the right time, renounced communism (this creed he would formerly have done anything for) and became a democratic capitalist overnight. Vladimir Vladimirovich will do anything in the pursuit of power.

And yet, beneath the democratic facade of 21st century Russia, there remains a grim authoritarian character obsessed with national greatness, intolerant of any political opposition and suspicious of the majority of foreign influence. It remains nigh impossible to buy an English language newspaper at Moscow’s one and only international airport, Domodedovo. At no other major city’s international airport would one encounter this problem.

If I had any concerns about this autocratic personality – perhaps I was yet another liberal westerner who misjudged Putin and his governance, which, in spite of first impressions, was fair and decent after all – then these grew significantly when I was grabbed by two FSB operatives in Moscow while taking pictures of the Lubyanka. I wanted photographic references for when I returned to London and began writing, but they were sure that I was a British spy. Undercover, dressed in dark suits, the two agents marched me through an underpass and held me outside the main building while a third man, having confiscated my passport, ran checks on me inside. They released me after forty minutes, having deleted every photo I’d taken, their parting words, “Fuck off!”, spoken in perfect English.

This incident set the tone for the novel, The Distinguished Assassin, an exploration of how opposition formed to authoritarian rule in Soviet Russia, and how the thieves-in-law (the elite of organized crime) voiced their dissent not through political activism but criminal activity. The story was born out of this, an unholy alliance between a political dissident and a prominent thief-in-law, both men intent on challenging and subverting the system that rules over them.

There was the great hope, after the collapse of communism, that Russia would become fair and free. Ironically, even under a system which heralded equality above all else, Soviet Russia was not fair, the Communists the greatest thieves of all. And yet now it is Putin and his oligarchs – Abramovich, Deripaska, Prokhorov, Kovalchuk and others, these beacons of new Russian capitalism – who are the criminals. These men should be judged less for their business acumen and more their theft of their country’s resources.

But among this band of thieves, there is one man who poses a threat to them all, who might ultimately be their undoing and restore fairness and freedom to Mother Russia. This is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Now serving six more years in jail after being sentenced at a second trial in December 2010, it seems this former oligarch has realised that greed is not good after all, and that far from encouraging freedom it encourages, rather, its very opposite – enslavement.

Might Khodorkovsky lead a further Russian Revolution, should he one day find his freedom? I hope so.

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