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By John Helmer, Moscow

To the Tuileries Palace in Paris on Saturday, January 28, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte, then France’s Emperor, summoned five of his closest advisors.  He had just raced back from the war front in Spain, and wanted to discuss the course of the war and the growing discontent among the French with Napoleon himself.  

Accusing Charles-Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord of betrayal, Napoleon launched at him the most famous line of contempt a politician has ever publicly issued to a subordinate.  At the time Talleyrand, the foreign minister, was secretly selling his intelligence on Napoleon to the Russian ambassador in Paris. Four years later, in March 1814, when Tsar Alexander I entered Paris with his troops and Napoleon was in temporary retreat on the island of Elba, Talleyrand hosted the tsar overnight at his Paris mansion. They were together as the instrument of the city’s capitulation was being drawn up. Aside, Talleyrand told the tsar’s intelligence chief he was ready to switch sides if paid a much larger stipend than he had taken for his spying to date.

 “What are you planning? What do you want?” Napoleon had shouted earlier at Talleyrand. “Tell me, I dare you! I should break you like a piece of glass; you deserve it. I have the power, only I despise you too much to take the trouble. Why haven’t I had you hanged from the Carousel railings? There’s still time. You are a…a…a shit in a silk stocking.”

It’s that last phrase which, more than two hundred years later, still sticks to the name of Talleyrand.

The question still not answered, despite all the evidence of Talleyrand’s career as a betrayer of everyone and everything (except his bank balance) is Napoleon’s own: why did he keep Talleyrand on for so long?

That’s for historians. For today in Moscow the question is:  why does President Vladimir Putin keep employing spokesman Dmitry Peskov (lead image, right*) when out of the latter’s negligence, miscalculation and his Talleyrand-sized desire to collect and display wealth, he has caused damage to Russia’s state interests?

In December Peskov told reporters “I do not make personnel decisions;  the President makes personnel decisions.” He acknowledged then and in subsequent remarks that following the March election there would be staff changes in the Kremlin, and that he might not remain as Putin’s spokesman and head of the Kremlin press office.

This week a source at the Kremlin press office dropped the hint that Putin has reappointed Peskov.  Asked who is to host Putin’s annual Direct Line television talk-show, scheduled for June 7, the Kremlin source said it would be Peskov. In the past, Peskov has hosted Putin’s December national press conference, but he has not been the on-screen director of Direct Line.

On June 7, it will be a full month since Putin’s re-inauguration. It’s two weeks since the new government ministers were announced. The Moscow press has been reporting the semi-official news that Putin’s chief of staff Anton Vaino and deputy chief of staff Sergei Kirienko are keeping their posts. But there has been no word about Peskov.

So is the nervous Peskov making an attempt to pre-empt the President’s decision on whether to reappoint him as spokesman and head of the Kremlin’s press, propaganda and public relations operations?

After the Kremlin source’s remark, Peskov went on television to cover his tracks. In an NTV satirical programme (right) he announced he is afraid of what Putin will do to him. “In my dreams he always appears in a harsh mood. This, you know, is some kind of [delirium] tremens: what did you forget to do? You wake up soaking wet and think, O God!”

Peskov, 50, comes from a Soviet Foreign Ministry family, as did his second wife; his first wife was  granddaughter of the Red Army Marshal Semyon Budennyi.   Unlike his in-laws, Peskov stopped short of the top rank.  He started in the Foreign Ministry in 1990, rising slowly through the ranks to First Secretary. Eight years — all of his foreign posting time — he spent in Turkey.

Peskov (extreme left) is the only member of the Russian delegation without translation earphones for this session with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara, December 1, 2014. Elizaveta Peskova, Peskov’s daughter by his second wife,  also speaks Turkish. 

Peskov then started as a press officer in the Kremlin in 2000; he has been Putin’s spokesman at the presidency and the prime ministry. His present post, which also includes the power to direct the budgets and operations of the state media, commenced in 2012.

Left: Turkish President Erdogan gives his double-handed appreciation of Peskov’s long relationship with Turkey at the official welcome ceremony for President Putin in Ankara on April 3, 2018.  Right:  In an intimate show of her appreciation for Turkish generosity,  Peskov’s daughter released this photo in a 37-picture album published by the Turkish daily Hurriyet on August 8, 2017. The newspaper also reported that she was advertising shipyards.  

Russian government officials and their wives are required to make annual disclosures of their income and assets, so it is well-known that Peskov’s third wife, the professional ice-skater Tatiana Navka, has been earning far more than her husband;   more than any other spouse on the Kremlin list.  

Peskov’s reports for himself show that since 2014, when the Russian economy went into oil-driven decline and the US war commenced, Peskov has been doing financially better than ever.


Key: chart-1, income in roubles; chart-2, real estate in square metres; chart-3, number of personal vehicles. Source: https://declarator.org/person/2607/

Compared to his income and assets in 2009, Peskov has gathered three and half times the cash; five times the real estate space; and two additional vehicles. Investigative reporting by independent Russian reporters, and by the anti-Russian press in the US and UK, have questioned an expensive watch, wedding celebration and honeymoon yachting trip in the Mediterranean from which Peskov has benefitted. They have been identified as wedding gifts from his wife and other well-wishers.

Peskov and Navka exchange rings (left) and a watch (right) at their marriage on August 3, 2015 . The wealth displayed by Peskov’s second wife after their divorce, has also been voluntarily disclosed to the Russian press. 

As head of the Kremlin press office Peskov directly manages an unreported budget for that operation;  he also supervises the sizeable budgets of the Russian state media organizations. Because these have come under sustained attack in the US and the UK, no details will be reported here. The attacks on Russian media, which have been part of the cyberwar directed from Washington, were analysed most recently in this report.  

Putin’s ambiguity towards Peskov for his role in the production of films intended to combat the rise in negative sentiment in the US was reported by the Kremlin last July. Then Putin, accompanied by Peskov, visited the Lebedinsky iron-ore complex in Kursk, and answered questions from the plant workers. One of the questions was: “Recently the documentary Putin was released. The film is full of private emotional moments where you speak about your grandchildren, and moments in the church… I would like to ask about your first-hand impressions, your emotions from participating in that project. And Mr President, will there be a follow-up, like with The Three Musketeers: Twenty Years Later?”

At Lebedinsky GOK on July 14, 2017, Putin is at right, behind the plant control panel. Peskov is at the back of the control-room, centre, wearing a red tie. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55052/photos/49447

“Where is the culprit mister-comrade-master Peskov?” Putin answered.  “Must have dashed out, he is not here. But it was he who talked me into it [Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews, broadcast in four parts in mid-June 2017]. And my first reaction was, why? Who needs it? Everybody knows everything anyway; I do not even know what I am going to say. But he said, ‘Nevertheless, there is this director, he is very famous, he even got an Oscar, he is a talented person, and he will tell this story to the Americans, a broad US audience. Because,ultimately, this will not be so much about you as about the country. And it is important that an American viewer should learn about Russia as much as possible and from you directly.’  I had a second question to ask, how objectively was he going to convey what I will be telling him, will he cut things out or comment or distort?  He said, ‘I cannot guarantee it, but he is basically a very decent person, a good journalist.’  And so I agreed.”

“You know, I did not view it as a project. You said ‘project’. I want to make it clear how it was done. So, the Executive Office staff, in particular, my press secretary, would come up to me and say, ‘The team is coming tomorrow, we found several minutes, an hour to meet them.’ And I would say all right. I would occasionally forget that they were supposed to come. They would tell me ‘They are waiting.’ I would come out to them and begin speaking. Then I would leave and immediately forget about them. So it is not the way they usually make a film, with a set, the other things, questions. In addition, the director was the kind of person who does not prepare you for anything, he just comes and asks his questions.”

“I should give him credit, though; from what I saw…I did not see the complete film. I am going to reveal a secret to you: I watched this film on my way home from a trip abroad, aboard an airplane. But as I had not got enough sleep there, I fell asleep on the plane as I was watching, so I did not see it to the end. But I will definitely watch it. Actually, judging by reviews, everything is fairly objective there, and no sequel is being considered.”

Aware of the uncertainty now surrounding Peskov, Russian media, political and business sources were asked this week to identify “one to five things you believe Peskov has done in the time he’s been Putin’s spokesman? Is there anything you believe Peskov would not do?”

The sources agree that Putin is his own best spokesman, and speaks better than any of his peers  around the world – without a spokesman to clarify, elaborate or correct. What is remembered are Peskov’s own maladroit remarks.  The best known of these was his comment on Moscow protesters who had clashed with police at Bolotnaya Square in May 2012. “Their liver[s] should be dragged along the road,” Peskov said.

A Moscow media veteran responds to the questions about Peskov by describing his role as “like a butler [to the President]. He briefs Putin well; he prepares the public appearances well. It seems he has no role in policy. He also has no role in speaking for the President – the President has been speaking well for himself. He is not curious. He does not seem very well read. He talks with a banality that I saw in interpreters and translators who used to work for foreign trade organizations. He is a confidant on a very personal level and he protects Putin and his family from any personal public relations embarrassments. He is the guy as a valet who knows everything and has been maintaining a complete veil of secrecy on Putin’s personal life.”

 “As a media manager, his record is of failure. Putin has managed every media interview rather well but the result of Peskov’s media management has been the most catastrophic,negative image of Putin and Russia in the western world.  I cannot recall any country so demonized now by the same people who have been feted and paid [by Peskov’s PR] for nearly fifteen years.”

“[Peskov] has spent enormous amounts of money on PR, but the result of every dime spent has been a net negative. Compare that with the money spent on infrastructure, football, railways, military operations, weapons production and dozens of other national projects. Putin has a record of victory except in allowing Peskov to damage his reputation.”

Peskov’s counterparts in Moscow -- left: Maria Zakharova, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry; right: Major-General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

“In recent years the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry have gotten themselves some very good press secretaries. [Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria] Zakharova does a good job. So too Major-General [Igor] Konashenkov at Defense who does the Syria briefings. They have become sort of stars in their own right. I do not think Putin would want that. He walks alone and he can only have people who will shine his shoes and nothing else.”

Yesterday, before this report was finalized before publication, the Kremlin Press Office was asked for the second time if Peskov is to host the President’s Direct Line broadcast next week. “Look forward”, the source responded, “to an official announcement on the website.”  

[*] The original caricature shows Talleyrand being prompted by the Devil. It was published in late 1814, before Napoleon’s return from Elba to Paris in March of 1815, and his final defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Talleyrand was briefly prime minister of the new regime of King Louis XVIII.  He was then pensioned off until the new King Louis-Philippe sent him in 1830 to be France’s ambassador in London. In 1834 he returned to France, dying there in 1838.  The Russian ambassador to Paris recorded: “Now he is in hell, and I am sure the Devil is telling him, ‘Old Friend, you exceeded my instructions.’” 




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