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MOSCOW – The English and North Americans have never been much good at analyzing Russia, and they haven’t gotten better. A long time fighting an enemy can make you wary, without becoming wise. But in war neither time nor experience need make any difference to who wins, who loses.

Kremlinology was a wartime industry, and like the gathering of battlefield intelligence or the production of ordnance, it was only as good as its impact on targets, and the collateral damage. The Kremlinologists were bound to fail at long-term prediction. They weren’t capable of detecting underlying causes or trends. They never got close.

Since 1991, the journalists who have replaced the Kremlinologists – especially those who worked for the so-called journals of record of London, New York and Washington, and their bastard offspring, The Moscow Times – began the tale of the Russian oligarchs with a colossal mistake that they still haven’t corrected, more than a decade later. The oligarchs, they claimed with all the excitement of a cub reporter hoping for a Pulitzer prize, were a brand-new Russian phenomenon. But the oligarchs aren’t new. They aren’t originally or uniquely Russian either.

To begin, it’s necessary to go back in Russian time, following the only American analysis of Russia that gets close to the truth, Woody Allen’s film Love and Death.

Set in the time of Napoleon’s march on Moscow, Woody’s character is Boris Dmitrievich Grushenko, the frail third son of provincial landowners who is reluctant to follow his two brawnier brothers into the Russian army, still less into battle with the French.

“What’s the difference if Napoleon wins?” Boris asks, suggesting that replacing Tsar Alexander I with Emperor Napoleon might not be a bad thing; and in any case wasn’t worth risking his life to stop. “Ooohhh!” gasped a group of fellow Russian officers. “You wouldn’t want to be forced to eat French food, would you? Not with all those heavy cream sauces.”

If you believe the elements of the Russian press feted by Western embassies in Moscow, and echoed by Western journalists, that’s the trouble with Russia today. One tyrant has replaced another, they claim; the only difference between them is that Russia is eating better, at least compared with 1998. The line of criticism is that President Vladimir Putin is nothing more than Boris Yeltsin, with a coating of barnaise.

Sociologically speaking, there’s no doubt that Putin’s approval among Russian voters tracks very closely with how well they are eating. But more surprising is the fact that Putin’s trust rating among voters is often higher than his approval. In other words, Russians expect Putin to do better in future than he is doing at the moment. When trust sinks below approval, this is the signal the voters see good but little alternative in the future.

At the same time, the dwindling of voter support for the pro-Kremlin factions in the Duma, and the rise of support for the Communist Party – the preoccupying political problem for the Kremlin between now and the presidential election of 2004 – show that the Russian electorate doesn’t believe Putin can manage to do better by himself, by feats of political willpower motivated by what is right and good for Russia. The voters suspect, as they have always suspected since 1991, that the oligarchs – those with the cash to corrupt, and the power to control – can bend Putin to their will, not the other way round.

To prevent that, Russian voters back the president against the oligarchs. To hedge against the likelihood he will fail, they back parliamentary opposition on the left. This balance of power has been the basic conception of Russian democracy, as the voters have understood it; and when the balloting has been relatively free of manipulation and fraud, they have voted for it consistently since 1991. This was what Yeltsin’s attack on parliament in 1993; his rewriting of the constitution; and his election tactics of 1996 all aimed to destroy.

His failure was Putin’s opportunity. But as we all know, Yeltsin didn’t fall. He was persuaded to step down. The terms of that power transfer meant that those with wealth and political influence – identified as oligarchs in public opinion – were granted the status of co-guarantors and collateral holders for the Kremlin. In his first term Putin has been able to do no more than pick off the two oligarchs who made themselves easy targets, because their media had the weakest of financial foundations, and were the most directly threatening to the Kremlin – Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky. In their arrogance and folly, that duo also missed the opportunities to save themselves with Putin.

Viewed sector by sector of the economy, the signs are there that not all wealth has been able to buy the protection of the state, let alone dictate state policy, as compradors, the Hispanic name for oligarchs. There has been a partial cleanup of the corruption that has plagued arms trading, railways, ports, shipping, vodka production, customs collection, meat importation, diamond sales and the precious metals trade.

In oil, gas, steel, aluminum, timber and pulp, telecommunications and auto production, there is much less clarity of outcome, and hence considerable doubt about presidential policy. The only way to judge what the oligarchs are up to is industry by industry, case by case. Is Kremlin policy a case of sureness of purpose meeting weakness of means? Or does vacillation and insecurity produce indecision? Russian insiders can’t answer with more confidence than foreign outsiders, because the game is far from being played out.

In the climax of Love and Death, Woody Allen’s Grushenko becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. The wily French fool him with a double, and in any event Grushenko isn’t ruthless enough to kill.

Grushenko is nabbed and sentenced to be shot. He believes that an angel of God will appear to say that he will be pardoned at the last moment, but that doesn’t happen. His lawyer wins him an hour’s stay of execution, and Grushenko can’t negotiate out of his date with the Grim Reaper. It’s an unhappy ending for Grushenko, but not exactly pessimistic for Russia.

“What’s it like to be dead?” Grushenko’s love Sonia asks his ghost. “You know the chicken at Tressky’s restaurant?” he replies. “Well, it’s worse.”

And the message for Russia, says Woody in the epilogue: “Don’t think of death as an end. Think of it as a very efficient way of cutting down on expenses.”

If this is to be the metaphorical, commercial or literal outcome of Putin’s policy for the oligarchs, Russian voters should continue to trust him for a good while yet. But since it was, and remains, the oligarchs and their political placemen who continue to run the Finance Ministry, it is just as likely they will continue deciding whose deaths are most efficacious for cutting down on expenses. It’s possible that the election campaign of 2003 and 2004 will sharpen public focus on this choice, but even if it does, the outcome is unlikely to be decisive. In Love and Death, who is it that ends up dead at the end?

Twenty-seven years after Napoleon left Moscow, in the middle of 1839, a Frenchman named Astolphe de Custine arrived in the city. He spent 10 days there; Napoleon had spent 34. But Custine also visited St Petersburg, Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod for a total of 78 days. If you count the time Napoleon spent on Russian territory from his first frontier crossing to the last, the days add up to 165. Napoleon produced a good many dispatches and letters about Russia, most of them preoccupied retrospectively with his own mistakes and misjudgments. (The biggest of them, he concluded later, was that he “should have married a Russian”.)

With less than half the time Napoleon had at his disposal, and none of his staff intelligence, Custine – alone, and without being able to speak a word of Russian – produced a study of Russia so accurate Alexander Herzen, the 19th century Russian philosopher, called it the most intelligent ever written. George Kennan, the American diplomat who created the rationale of American Cold War policy, called it the best on the Russian condition that had led to the Russian revolution. In Russia, Custine’s book was banned by the Tsar until 1910, and then banned again after the revolution. The penalty fitted the crime -Custine understood too well what was happening, and anticipated too precisely what would transpire, so the book should cease to exist, at least in Russia. It’s been forgotten almost everywhere else.

When Chrystia Freeland, a Canadian who was the Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times from 1995 to 1998, came to rewrite all she had misreported for her newspaper, she couldn’t manage to define the men she called the oligarchs, except to name them, and describe what they looked like to prove how close she had been able to get to them.

“The oligarchs,” Freeland wrote in a book published in 2000, “wear $100,000 wristwatches and their wives wear $100,000 fur coats. They travel in motorcades of armored Mercedes and Jeeps, employ small armies of bodyguards, and maintain a collection of homes. They spend $1 million on a birthday gift for a helpful politician as casually as you or I would send a card to a friend.”

To Freeland, her predecessors and successors, this combination of wealth and political corruption was the Vogue magazine version of power – seemingly big, mesmerizingly new. By making that newsworthy, the reporters have made themselves reputations, as well as money.

But in 1839 Custine had already met the Russian oligarchs – the concessionaires, compradors and title-buyers of the time -disdained their celebrity, and saw through the captivating show. “Such ill-bred and yet well-informed, well-dressed, clever and self-confident Russians,” he reported in his Letter 19, “tread in the steps of European elegance, without knowing that refinement of habits has no value except as it announces the existence of something better in the heart of its possessor. These apprentices of fashion, who confuse the appearance with the reality, are trained bears, the sight of which inclines me to regret the wild ones: they have not yet become polished men, and they are already spoiled savages.”

Here they are – the old become new again.

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