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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the wasted human life department, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom are currently the front-runners. With one down (Libya) and three and a half wars on the go – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran – how can the scoring be in doubt?

So it’s always surprising when out of some active-measures file in a Cold War closet, someone depicts the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as the more recklessly murderous. In Geoffrey Sambrook’s fresh novel, not only does an FSB agent kidnap an Austrian aluminium trader from a leading restaurant in Hamburg, but then shoots him in the head and dumps his body off the parapet of the Adolphusbrucke (image), wearing made-in-Russia handcuffs. That’s the thing about the old active-measures files, they always portray the Russian side as fatally careless. And that’s the problem with the novel, Czar Rising: Money and politics in the new Russia, by Geoffrey Sambrook.

The theory of its plot is that the President of Russia – an old man raddled with drink, fear for his political survival, in hock to foreign bribesters: guess who?— is agreeable to the cut-price privatization of an aluminium smelter called “Krayanovsk” to the Malenkov brothers, Oleg and Leonid, in preference to Metalex, a Glencore-type international trader. This is despite the fact that the president has taken large sums of money in the past from Glenc, oops Metalex. The Metalex Moscow representative, with the famous trader name of Koch, tries to persuade the lead presidential advisor that the Malenkov brothers are bad eggs, and that their smelter scheme is a bad idea. Koch then tries to convince the hero of the novel, a London Metals Exchange trader, and an Englishman of Polish extraction (the Polish bit is meant to convey genetic understanding of and hatred for Russians). To stop Koch meddling, the presidential assistant has an Americano in a Moscow coffee house with an old acquaintance from the FSB and orders him to neutralize the nuisance. Shortly afterward this happens in Hamburg.

“Fifteen minutes later he [FSB assassin] was at the Horster Autobahhndreieck, picking up the autobahn for Bremen, Muenster, the Ruhr and eventually Dusseldorf, where he would board his flight to Moscow. As he put his foot down and eased into the outside lane, he felt a quiet satisfaction that he had made Hertz give him the SL500, not the 350. The extra horsepower would be good on a long journey.” Ascribed date – January 12, 1995.

A fortnight later, the Koch corpse having surfaced in the thaw of the Binnalster (factoids are always useful in novels, as in investigative journalism), the Yeltsin character calls in his assistant, Yury Ansonov, and says that “Russia has lost a true friend.”

Although he admits he’s tired – “the country is suffering enormously, I feel I am carrying everything on my back” – Yeltsin says: “after we finally cast off the yoke of the Soviets [yup, Yeltsin talks like that in novels], do we really want still to be dominated by the KGB and its acolytes [помощники] I know you began your career in that organization, but in the time you have worked for me, I have seen you change. You truly believe in the self-determination of the Russian people.”

As the plot thickens, it’s obvious the fictional president can’t be Yeltsin. That’s because, when confronted by his assistant with evidence that his corruption will be outed unless he hands over his job, he has enough sense of personal honour to shoot himself. In reality, in the history of Russia since 1991, there’s only been one Russian commander with that concept of honour, and he wasn’t corrupt.

This plot twist puts the aluminium trade within point-blank range of the heart of Russian politics. Unbeknownst to our Polo-British hero, he’s set up as a witness to the slaughter of a half-dozen Russians he thinks are attempting to hijack his aluminium ingot train. Then he’s set up at Courchevel for New Year skiing and drinking from expensive wine. At the “generally reckoned to be the best slopeside restaurant in Courchevel” our hero does “a double-take when he saw the red wine being opened for them. Chateau Lafite 1982 is something most people don’t experiencein their lives; and yet, he reflected, they weren’t going to get the full flavour and body of that wine drinking it in an outside temperature barely above freezing.” Bravo maestro! Garcon – une bouteille a emporter!

More wine label snobbing and then the FSB agent sets the Polo-Englishman up for the inevitable honey-trap: “She was wearing nothing underneath. With a giggle, she turned and dived into the pool…He was mesmerised by her body as she slipped back down into the water. ‘Come on, Victor [our hero], it’s wonderful. Take your clothes off and have a swim with me.” Next move, Victor is showing off his Polishness. “It’s too cold”, he says. “Pah [Olga talking] Not for a real man surely.”

When the FSB agent reports to the President that he has the compromising photographs, the President is reported as saying: “Russian girls always take their work for the motherland seriously.” Then the plot takes another twist. Olga turns out to have a heart of gold, at least in bed. When it’s safe to do so (under the duvet), she whispers a warning to the Polo-Englishman. “He [the FSB assassin] is a dangerous man. He is associated with politics, and I think he also has some links with Security.” This causes the hero to make his excuses to the Courchevel crowd, climb into his brand new Ferrari, Model 355, and drive back to Old Blighty.

The next four years of billionizing are passed over in silence, and then our hero gets a call to meet someone suspiciously like Nathaniel Rothschild. The new character, called Jacob Feinstein, is reported to be “the up-and-coming generation of the family that owned one of Britain’s foremost merchant banks…the last two hundred-odd years…confidant of a couple of Government ministers”, etc. The Feinstein proposal looks suspiciously like the Vallar scheme – “we’d float it to get the capital in…then, if we price it right, we can be pretty sure the share price will rise, so then we use that paper to buy some more assets.”

This turns out to be so stupid, financially disastrous, and personally ruinous, maybe it is Nat Rothschild playing the cameo he does so well.

But that’s when the novel begins to spark with a flash of inspiration rarely if ever admitted to in the dull pages of investment prospectuses and commodity cycle history. Our hero is about to make the misjudgement of a lifetime. According to our author, “the Pole in him was beginning to resent being ordered around by a Russian again.” Yup, this isn’t about aluminium or Russians at all – it’s about what the Poles have always lacked since their history began – Russia’s good fortune, bequeathed by Mother Nature with an unfairness that only the Catholic Kingdom, so often aligned with anti-Semitism and fascism, can appreciate. It is much the same accusation which Israel’s late prime minister, Gold Meir, laid against the Prophet Moses: “He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!”

Victor Lansky, aluminium trader and billionaire, has decided in his mind to teach the Russians a lesson for having the goods, and leaving him with nothing more than cash.

He also decides not to heed this warning from his partner, Oleg (“the Intellectual”) Malenkov: “I’m glad you say you have not made a decision, because this is not your decision to make. This, this is about power. It’s about transferring the power centre of our business from Russia to a group of international shareholders. But Victor, surely you understand that we cannot do that? The whole purpose of our enterprise is to develop Russia’s assets…this is about power, not money.”

There was more from the Russians, but our hero Victor was now playing Dmitry the False, the stupidest Pole (well, half-Pole) who ever tried ruling Russia.

Like Dmitry, Victor doesn’t last long, and his death is a violent one, albeit a quiet one. (The novelist has a thing about Russian killers wearing “rubber-soled shoes”). In the run-up, there is a revealing moment when the only other people fooled like Victor is by the Feinstein scheme is the “editor of Metal Bulletin , the trade’s weekly bible” who dutifully prints the placement he’s been handed, with sourcing to “a senior industry figure”. (The investigative journalism in this story is fiction.)

That was our hero’s death warrant. The President remarks that “the world has to understand that Russian assets are Russian, they will not be auctioned off to the international capital markets.” He also overestimates the Polishness of our hero. “He’s half Polish, so he should be well aware of what happens when you take on Russia.”

Inside the Kremlin, the President also has some lovely things to tell Sir Crispin, the British Ambassador, including intelligence that our hero’s donations to the Prime Minister’s political party were about to get him a knighthood. Then at Downing Street the Ambassador had some lovely things to tell the Prime Minister, and vice versa. On the subject of a threat by a Russian official against a British citizen, the Prime Minister gives the game away: “Why should that concern us? Beyond our concerns for Russian human rights, of course.”

It would be unfair to Mr Sambrook to give the surprise finale away. A lissom American blonde makes an appearance, and the loving Olga a comeback. There’s an unusually significant football match. And for the recorders at the State Department’s Department of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, there are also Chechens.

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