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By John Helmer, Moscow

To gauge the future welfare of Russia and the Russians, nothing is more telling than the Cat Test.

Michel de Montaigne (left) originated it in one of his 16th century essays, when he wrote: “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.” The name of Montaigne’s cat isn’t known. In any event, what he meant didn’t refer to a real-life cat. A hypothetical one would have done just as well, as Montaigne was making his point, not about cats, but about men. His point was: what if what we think about ourselves is insignificant, compared to what others think of us? In short, the Cat Test is a measurement of our capacity to think reciprocally.

Jean de Plessis, the nation-builder of France known as Cardinal Richelieu, failed the test, not because he didn’t love cats, but because he didn’t love them enough for themselves — as distinct from what he loved them for. When he died, Richelieu is known to have been survived by fourteen cats, each named. They were slaughtered by his bodyguard, as soon as it was safe for them to do so, for the same reason Richelieu had ordered the slaughter of individuals he called witches, and their pet cats. If the cardinal couldn’t tell the difference between the culpability of the mistress and of her cat, he flunked the Montaigne test. So his own cats had to die for it.

In Russian history, as well as in the Soviet period, few affinities have been recorded between the tsars, the commissars and their cats, except for Lenin. The photo archives suggest there were two, perhaps more cats at his Gorky residence, the grey-striped, short-haired European tabby shown in the illustration, and also a black and white one. Significantly too, from the Montaigne perspective, Lenin was happy to be photographed with his cat. Vladimir Putin is similar, though he prefers dogs as pets.

The lead character in Colette’s story, The Cat (1936), a Russian Blue named Saha, had originated as a breed from Arkhangelsk, appearing for the first time in western Europe in the second half of the 19th century. That creature had many qualities, but Russianness wasn’t one of them.

So what does the Cat Test mean for Russians? In the terms Montaigne expressed it, it’s the test of whether it is possible for Russians to understand, let alone accept, the possibility of reciprocity – that those with whom they deal may have a very different assessment of Russian character than Russians have of the cat’s character. Another way of putting this is – can Russians in power allow a creature to survive, if he is sceptical, even critical of his master’s power and potency. A third way of posing the Cat Test is – can Russians with power make jokes about and of themselves?

Everyone knows that Russians make jokes; the Cat Test isn’t about the national sense of humour. But it is a test of the men who rule Russia. Putin makes jokes about himself; this is well-known. In 2006, asked in Shanghai by reporters to say what he would like to do privately, if he could, he replied: “I’d like to wander around St. Petersburg, to go back to the place where I used to live. So I’m like a cockroach in an armoured jar: from my residence I go to the Kremlin, from the Kremlin – back to my residence.”

Take the oligarchs. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was always so monomaniacal, his closest advisors were afraid to let slip the slightest wisecrack for fear that Khodorkovsky might suspect disloyalty, and round on them. Prison hasn’t enhanced his lack of wit.

Alexander Smolensky’s joke, calling what he owed depositors in his bankrupt ABS Agro bank, “dead donkey’s ears”, was a thief making fun of his victims. He lives witlessly in Austria.

No better application of the Cat Test is testimony of the oligarchs and their advisors who have been on the witness stand in the UK High Court trial of Boris Berezovsky v Roman Abramovich, under way since October 3. Taking into account how carefully they have been coached by experts in courtroom presentation, the lack of wit is striking. On one occasion, Berezovsky made light of his verbosity in a quip to the judge. But that exception proves the rule – not a single witness has been able to see the funny side of themselves and their behaviour. Oleg Deripaska’s reference to Berezovsky appearing for a meeting nude — “that would have been quite in his character” – was intended to inflict humiliation, not inspire laughter.

Abramovich’s performance, particularly when he conceded how little he had read of his own contracts and accounts, may be diagnosed as a cognitive problem. But that’s not to be laughed at. Abramovich had been coached to keep his answers so short, his wit, if he has one, was suppressed.

Alexander Voloshin, once chief of Boris Yeltsin’s staff and for a time in the same position under President Putin, made a career record when he was in power of dealing with others with the punch made famous in gangster movies – it disables without leaving a bruise. In 1994, Voloshin admitted in his court appearance on November 14, he was a consultant to Berezovsky when the latter was running a car business; Voloshin was paid by the All-Russia Automobile Alliance (AVVA), run by Berezovsky. Voloshin admitted that one assessment in the Moscow market in 1994 was that the scheme to sell AVVA shares was a pyramid fraud, though he himself was confident it was not. “I am definitely certain that it was not one of those schemes”. A man is revealing how little he comprehends what his words mean to his audience if he qualifies his certainty with adverbial definitiveness. Score Voloshin an early minus on the Cat Test.

Voloshin was then asked what role he had played as chief of the Kremlin staff in June of 2000, when Vladimir Gusinsky, then owner of the Media Most and NTV group, was imprisoned, and then released after he agreed to sell his media assets to Gazprom. Asked if he was aware that Gusinsky later repudiated the sale agreement on the ground he had been made to sell under duress, Voloshin responded; “To be honest, I do not recall these nuances”. Score Voloshin a plus for irony, even if he didn’t mean others to appreciate it that way.

The same line of wit appears when Voloshin was asked about the meeting he says was held on President Putin’s instructions in late August of 2000. Then, he said, his instructions were to tell Berezovsky to stop using reports by his ORT television network to serve his own political purposes in opposition to Putin. Testifying in court, Voloshin says he remembers thinking: “well, there is an end to everything sooner or later”.

As the second hour of Voloshin’s testimony on the stand was close to concluding, he almost manages a joke at Berezovsky’s expense. Asked why he didn’t respond to an open letter from Berezovsky, published in September 2000, claiming the Kremlin was forcing him to sell out of ORT to avoid going to prison, Voloshin says: “I never publicly commented on this open letter, this is true. However, it would have been impossible. We would have had to double the staff of the president’s administration to be able to comment on every utterance of Mr Berezovsky, including utterances directed at us. Also, he constantly was saying different things — we would never ever catch up with him to comment on his utterances every time.”

The only self-regarding jokes Voloshin tells were those he conceded others had told that he didn’t find funny. They came early in December 2000, in the aftermath of what the court was told was a campaign of threats to halt Berezovsky’s anti-Putin instructions at the ORT television network; and what Berezovsky alleges was also a campaign to force him to sell his ORT shares to Abramovich. “I can say that Mr [Alexander] Krasnenker was doing black jokes that Mr Glushkov was imprisoned during some professional holiday, such as the airline employees day, and he was joking that, you know, how could it be, you know, a professional holiday and he was put in prison on the same day.”

The imprisonment of Nikolai Glushkov, a close associate of Berezovsky’s, in connection with alleged fraud at Aeroflot and diversion of its foreign currency revenues to Switzerland, occurred on December 7, 2000. Four years later, he was acquitted of those charges, but convicted of escaping from prison (in 2001) and abuse of authority. Berezovsky claims the process was initiated in order to remove both his political and business power. Krasnenker, the chief financial officer at Aeroflot, was also implicated. Krasnenker, Voloshin testified, was “a friend of Mr Abramovich who, in his turn, was my friend.” He avoided Glushkov’s fate, and though convicted in 2004 and sentenced to two years in jail, received an amnesty.

The strongest feline characteristic to appear in Voloshin’s testimony was the success with which he was able to bell the cat for those the Kremlin designated as dangerous. He testifies that reciprocal understanding on Berezovsky’s part was impossible. But that, Voloshin said, didn’t matter.

“Everything that would have happened if he did not follow these — this advice, and I think he did start to follow this advice because, strangely enough, he stopped calling to ORT. But even if it were not the case, the journalists would not have been listening to him anyway. This is all that happened. And I’ll tell you — the journalists were delighted to be rid of this influence. And those who were not happy to be rid of this influence, for example, as in the case with Mr [Sergei] Dorenko, who couldn’t get rid of this influence — his show was closed, and I think that happened a week or a week and a half after our conversation. This is all.”

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