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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Financial Times, a London newspaper, recommends that under your Christmas tree you put a book called Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, who was the Moscow correspondent of The Economist between 2004 and 2007. According to the recommendation, “it’s a sinister, seductive read that paints a murky moral portrait of the new capitalist Russia.” That omits to say the book is fiction.

The FT also recommends you read a story called “A Realm Fit for a Tsar” by Catherine Belton, and illustrated with a picture of Vladimir Putin wearing reflecting sunglasses. Published on December 1, with tags “Analysis” at top right and “FT investigation” at top left, that too is fiction. Behind the shades it’s difficult to tell the novel from reality.

One of the pre-Christmas tests for the tall tales which Miller (left) and Belton (right) have been telling about Russia for years is generally known as truth value, aka evidence. Of that there is next to none in Miller’s book. It’s not even newsworthy that the big London-based law firms operating around Russian dealmaking lack elementary honesty and competence, and brandish libel litigation threats to cover up their profit-taking from their clients’ wrongdoing.

The narrator and hero of Miller’s tale is a 30-something lawyer who botches his fiduciary and professional duties in two transactions – one, a Moscow apartment fraud in which he loses $25,000 of his own money, and his client, a babushka, everything she owns; and the other, a $500 million bank loan to a logistics group for constructing a terminal for loading crude oil on tankers on the Barents Sea, near Murmansk. Miller’s hero introduces his tough accountancy and accountability standards when he has a row with a gypsy cabdriver for charging 200 roubles – “daylight robbery”. But when the lights go out, our hero fails in the A & A department: in the first transaction, because he’s having sex with one of the fraudsters (female, called Masha); and the second, because the logistics company owner (male, called “the Cossack”), helps get him and his girlfriend past face-control at a Moscow nightclub, the old Rasputin.

Central to Miller’s version of the plot, and the FT’s recommendation, is this chestnut, which materializes between a booze-up with a belly-dancer at an Uzbek joint for lunch, and an afternoon of heavily invoiced work at the law office: “I had one of those moments of semi-drunk reflection that at the time you take for insights. They’re just babies, I thought, these Russians with their blacked-out windows and their Uzis. All these adolescent hints of violence, from the bodyguards to the Cossack to the sabre-rattling President. For all their worldliness and pain, I thought then, the Russians are just babies.” For the rest of the plot, our reflective British hero loses his clients everything they hand over, without reading the paperwork carefully or taking an inspection and verification trip beyond Masha’s body parts.

For this, at the book’s end, our hero is promoted to the corporate due diligence department of his law firm in London. What that says about the law firm and the quality of its clientele is strictly offline. For this is a book that nearly won the Man Booker Prize, the UK literary equivalent of the Pulitzer, the Goncourt or the Nobel. And that can only be because of what the book reveals about Russia today.

So, here in order of their appearance, are the near prize-winning insights of our British hero as he wrestles manfully to keep his dick in his pants, and — as prize-winning works of art are meant to convey – fails tragically:

+ On Moscow city’s flowers: “The city authorities had pulled the flowers out of their beds, as they do every year when the game is up, carting them away in the night like condemned prisoners so they don’t die in public”.

+ On homelessness: “On the benches the tramps lay seasoned with snow, like meat sprinkled with salt on a butcher’s slab.”

+ On the past: “The couple [in a photograph] looked happy in a way that I didn’t think people in the Soviet Union were supposed to have been happy.”

+ On happiness: “And beneath the fur coats and grimaces, you knew the Russians were happy, relatively speaking. Because, along with the fatalism and the borsch, the snow is part of what makes them and nobody else”.

+ On the USSR: “You have to understand, the Soviet Union produced the opposite of what it was meant to. They were all supposed to love each other, but it ended with noone giving a shit about anyone else.”

+ On suicide at the top: “The governor had shot himself in the head – twice.”

+ On the legal code: “Notaries are one of the staple Moscow professions, like property developers, Georgian restaurateurs, and prostitutes. They are essentially pointless functionaries left over from tsarism, whose job it is to issue and stamp the legal documents that you need to do more or less anything in Russia”.

+ On foot and mouth: “The traffic police had been issued with old-fashioned felt boots, an ancient Russian precaution that kept their feet from falling off while they hung around extorting bribes from people.”

+ On Orthodox religion: “I’d been wrong, maybe, to have thought their religion was dying, these flamboyantly sinful Slavs. Maybe to be this immoral you’ve got to have religion somewhere – some decrepit gods lurking at the back of your mind, gods you are determined to defy.”

+ on taste: “In accordance with a secret clause in the Russian constitution, half the women under forty had started dressing like prostitutes.”

Miller doesn’t mention Vladimir Putin by name. Instead: “I asked her what she thought of the current weasel President (a mass murderer, like all Russian leaders as far as I can tell).” The weasel attribution is repeated several times.

Miller’s assessment of the Yukos affair is a one-liner because “Narodneft”, the name he gives for Rosneft, remains unessayed in the background while our hero pockets his hefty salary for failing to check on the Cossack’s business relationships in the oil sector. Narodneft, he explains — “it’s the giant state energy company, which had swallowed the assets the Kremlin strong-armed from the oligarchs using bogus lawsuits and made-up tax demands”. A novel after the hearts of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Robert Amsterdam, Stephen Theede, and Bruce Misamore, and with their gift for precision.

The reader is meant to understand there are corpses everywhere under the Russian snow – the purported snow drops. But unlike the competing anti-Russian thrillers written for the bestseller market by Martin Cruz Smith, Miller presents only one corpse, whose smell appears on page 1, line 1; but who has everything to do with the title, nothing to do with the plot.

The book cover says it was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. That means two things – firstly it didn’t win; secondly, the chairman of the Prize Judging Committee, Stella Rimington, must have liked it ahead of several thousand other novels published this year and read carefully by her and her committee. Rimington writes thrillers herself about the inimical Russians, and before she took up her pen publicly, she worked as a British intelligence agent, reaching career peak as director of MI5.

Perhaps if she had stayed on, MI5’s recently embarrassing pursuit of non-spy Ekaterina Zatuliveter might never have been given the internal green light. That case was dismissed last week by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission as a botch-up, full of deep throat fantasy, but lacking in standard size evidence. According to Zatuliveter’s lawyer, the MI5 case “was built entirely on speculation, prejudice and conjecture. It was amateur, poorly researched and compared very unfavourably to the counter-espionage work conducted by the FBI in recent years [ouch! the sharpest sting!].” According to Commission chairman, Justice Sir John Mitting, “even if [Zatuliveter] was approached in Russia by the FSB/SVR (two of the country’s three intelligence agencies), we have seen nothing which satisfies us that she was recruited as an agent or was tasked, or acted, as one. We have not reached that conclusion by a narrow margin.” MI5, summed up Zatuliveter’s lawyer, “have chosen to waste their time, at great public expense, needlessly and unfairly pursuing an innocent young woman.”

If Miller and his lawyer hero in Moscow had had the MI5 standard, shopworn though that now appears in London, he might never have lost $500,525,000. Also, his pursuit of a young woman might never have obliged Atlantic Books and the London publishing market to oblige the reading public to go to needless expense.

But then if Rimington and her fellow Booker judges enjoyed Miller’s tale ahead of so much competition, perhaps the fictive spirit not only didn’t leave MI5 when Rimington retired – she took the MI5 spirit with her to the Booker panel. That the MI5 spirit is bound to survive the thrashing which Judge Mitting administered.on November 29 is suggested by the FT’s publication of Belton’s tale on December 1.

This purports to “lift the veil on the history of Bank Rossiya whose shareholders include several men with close links to Vladimir Putin…including the son of his cousin, Yury Kovalchuk, and Nikolai Shamalov.” On the surface, the story is about the construction of this palatial residence on a headland above the Black Sea, near the village of Praskoveyevka, half way between the ports of Novorossiysk and Tuapse:

Belton claims to have uncovered a trail of money from a charity run by Roman Abramovich called “Pole of Hope” into a medical equipment company called Petromed, and from there into a UK entity called EM&PS; Rollins International, registered in the British Virgin Islands; and Santal Trading of Panama. From there money headed into Bank Rossiya to buy shareholdings. From that bank Belton claims her money trail goes in and out of Gazprom, coming away with assets like Sogaz, Gazprom’s insurance company. In subsequent steps, it is reported, Bank Rossiya bought into Gazprombank. The trail of money also reportedly runs from Rollins and Santal, through unnamed entities in Liechtenstein and Switzerland, and into a Russian domiciled company, Rosinvest (not to be confused with Mosstroiinvest, one of the special vehicles which fools the hero in Snow Drops). From Rosinvest the money moves on to Lirus, and from there to the construction project on the Black Sea.

It is thrilling to chase down this trail, even though there is no other female present save Belton, and no sex with her; no corpses; no bad smells except the wrongdoing alleged. Give Rimington half a chance, and she might short-list this one for next year’s Man Booker Prize. But then there might be an argument over authorship. In Belton’s excitement, and that of the FT’s editors, there appears to be only one writer of this story — a man named Sergei Kolesnikov, and he’s told his tale before. Kolesnikov started telling the tale to another fiction writer specializing in spy stories, David Ignatius, who doubles as a columnist in the Washington Post. Ignatius and Kolesnikov made their first attempt at the secret Black Sea palace story on December 23, a year ago.

According to Ignatius, “I met [Kolesnikov] this month and reviewed his notes and other documents supporting his charges. The Russian businessman, who became wealthy through various ventures, including a medical-supply company called Petromed, appears to have nothing to gain personally by attacking Putin – and much to lose. That boosts his credibility in my eyes.” Belton is a wee bit more careful. After a year of “documents from Mr Kolesnikov, together with a Financial Times investigation”, she acknowledges the evidence “provides some support… for construction work on a Black Sea resort complex now claimed to have been intended as a secret palace for Mr Putin.” Never mind the denials from Putin’s spokesman and from the others named by Kolesnikov, Belton confesses: “Mr Kolesnikov has no documentary evidence the transactions were conducted on Mr Putin’s behalf.” Also: “the paper trail…is relatively scanty and, though it shows various payments between the companies, they do not amount to the $1bn Mr Kolesnikov alleges was spent on the palace in total.”

Belton’s meticulous investigative methods, months of forensic accountancy in tax haven company registers, and expensive support from Charles Clover, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, and Lionel Barber, the newspaper’s editor in chief – all appear to have failed to turn up a trace of this clincher in Ignatius’s original report: “Kolesnikov says Putin was briefed regularly on his hidden wealth. ‘Two or three times a year, during 8 years, at Shamalov’s direction, I prepared financial summaries for him to personally update President Putin on his investments,’ he alleges in his letter. ‘Immediately following each of these meetings, Shamalov would provide me with Putin’s comments and instructions for the use of funds.’” In the truth-and-lie jargon favoured by the FT, this appears to be threatened by the relative scantiness of some support.

If it all comes down to Kolesnikov’s word against Putin’s, Russian sources say that one of Kolesnikov’s words is plainly preposterous. That’s the one where he confides in Belton that “those who dealt with him initially nicknamed Mr Putin ‘boss’, then ‘tsar’. ‘First it was a joke but then it was serious. Only he could decide everything.’ ” From a hearsay joke from a man who says he has run away from Russia to the US, carrying “just a small bag”, the FT has elevated the word to a headline for an expose of “a new system of crony capitalism”.

And one final quibble: during all of the alleged milking of Gazprom money into underpriced deals and out again as valuations rise towards market, the man in charge of the Gazprom board was Dmitry Medvedev. Why he isn’t the photograph dominating the FT page with sunglasses is never made known.

It’s too early to call Miller’s and Belton’s tales tale snow drops in either their floral or faunal senses. So why did the FT go to so much trouble to tell less than the Washington Post came up with a year ago? Perhaps the timing was intended to give Russian voters a glimpse of what they were voting for, between fact and fiction, on December 4. If this is so, the best that can be said for it is that it has reinforced the voting strength of the Russian Communist Party, and the parties of Sergei Mironov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As they make their way up and out of the grave, the corpse in the snow, the true dead beat in this story, turns out not to be Russian at all. It’s British.

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