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MOSCOW – The colors of the Russian flag change under pressure.

Czar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great, is believed to have been the author of the first white-blue-and-red tricolor in 1668. An English captain, engaged to command the first naval protection vessel in the Russian fleet, asked the czar to choose a flag, because, he told Alexei, all states have flags, and if Russia, which wasn’t flying anything at the time, was a state, it had to have one. Alexei studied the flags of other countries; picked a variation by changing the order of the colors; and hoisted it on what was then a tiny navy for the Volga River and the Caspian Sea.

Peter issued a fresh decree in 1705, ordering this flag to be flown on all Russian merchant ships. One hundred and fifty years later, Alexander II changed the colors to black, yellow and white. These lasted only 25 years, until 1883, when they were eliminated with another change of czars, and the tricolor restored. The communist revolution pulled it down and replaced it with the red flag in 1918. By the end of the 1980s, the old tricolor had become a symbol of the anti-communist opposition. Boris Yeltsin wrapped himself in it during the Kremlin putsch of August 1991. Two years on, after he destroyed parliament in 1993 and rewrote the constitution, Yeltsin issued a decree making the tricolor Russia’s lawful flag. It took the Duma another seven years to adopt this in a constitutional law.

These days, Russians tell an anecdote about a request from Coca-Cola to President Vladimir Putin to change the flag back to red. “We aren’t opposed to the idea that Russia will have the red flag again,” Coke’s chief executive officer telephones Putin from Atlanta to say, “but can you write ‘Coca-Cola’ on it?” “Wait a minute,” Putin says, and puts the American on hold. On another telephone, the Russian president then calls his prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov. “What is the termination date of our contract with Aquafresh?” he asks.

If the Russian revolution that has been simmering since 1991 is about to start redistributing power and wealth once more, then watch the colors on the flags. The slow transformation, which began under the red during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, was halted by Yeltsin. He introduced two forces unconnected at the time to the Russian people – a foreign power determined to destroy the Soviet military-industrial complex; and a group of concessionaires, whom Yeltsin licensed to rob the country blind on two conditions – that they should pay him a modest commission, and that they should not turn against his foreign protector. Like the insignia on the front of every Russian officer’s hat, Yeltsin tried placing one state symbol on top of another.

The symbols went awkwardly with one another, as Putin himself acknowledged when he spoke shortly after the tricolor was signed into law. He was against abandoning the old (red) symbols, he said, otherwise “a whole generation of our citizens, our mothers and fathers, lived a useless, senseless life and lived it in vain. I cannot agree with this in my heart or my mind.”

Indubitably, the Yeltsin period accelerated the rate at which the red generation would disappear, to be replaced by the white-and-blue one. According to the Russian heraldic website, the white on the current flag stands for virginity and cleanliness; blue for faith, fidelity and stability. In order to find out what those who control Russia think of these symbols, I asked the oligarchs to say what colors they prefer in their suits, shirts and ties.

They, or their spokesmen, are reluctant to say. LUKoil said the question was a personal one, and Vagit Alekperov, who heads the company, the largest oil producer in Russia, wouldn’t respond. The spokesman for Vladimir Potanin at Interros, through which Potanin controls Russia’s largest mining company, said he couldn’t tell. At the office of Severstal, one of Russia’s most powerful steelmakers, no one would venture a guess about the color preferences of Alexei Mordashov, the controlling shareholder; nor would anyone dare to ask him. At the office of Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum oligarch, there was another case of color-blindness. For Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the controlling shareholder of Yukos oil company, a source hinted secretively that his color preference was blue for suits, red for ties.

In ancient times, red was the favorite, combined with white and black. There is even evidence that the Greeks and Romans didn’t see blue at all, not as we know it; not even in the rainbow. Blue became a revolutionary color, starting in the Middle Ages. And it was the American Revolution of the 18th century that began the fashion for wearing the three colors in combination. The American flag was an anti-flag; maybe if the British flag hadn’t been red, white and blue since 1603, the Americans would have picked another set of colors. And then the French officers, who fought in the American independence war against the British, might have taken a different combination back to Paris, in time for the French revolutionists to adopt the tricolor for themselves.

But Khodorkovsky isn’t a revolutionary. He is doing no more than continuing what Yeltsin started, and trading the Russian wealth he picked up for a US guarantee of protection. You might say that the white in his tricolor stands for surrender. Khodorkovsky, after all, along with the controlling shareholders of the other major private oil companies, Sibneft and Tyumen Oil Co, are alone in the Russian oil sector in seeking to sell out to foreign buyers. LUKoil, Rosneft and Surgutneftegas are arguably as valuable, but their controlling shareholders haven’t rushed for the exit.

That the US oil companies to whom Khodorkovsky has applied cannot contemplate paying the Yukos price without the protection of both Putin and US President George W Bush is already obvious. That Khodorkovsky claimed to have Putin’s permission earlier in the year is something Khodorkovsky told his associates on the board of Yukos. That he no longer has Putin’s permission was clear when Putin briefed US media correspondents at the Kremlin, ahead of his trip to the United States this week.

And so, when Bush asks Putin what he thinks of cooperation in the Russian oil sector, Putin should pull out his coloring book, and hand Bush a crayon – a blue one – and show him where the map has already been colored red. And if Bush isn’t to confuse white, the color of virginity and cleanliness, for a blank waiting for Bush to color in with his pencil, Putin can remind him gently that not everything in Russia is open to US takeover.

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