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By John Helmer, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin (left) has appointed his deputy chief of staff Sergei Kirienko (right) “Hero of Russia”, the highest award for personal valour in the table of Russian state decorations.   

Kirienko’s career includes presiding as prime minister over the 1998 default by the Russian  treasury, the only sovereign default since  repudiation of the tsar’s debts in 1918. More recently as head of Rosatom, Kirienko directed the failure to persuade the corrupt South African government to buy $50 billion worth of nuclear reactors.  The money involved in these feats was heroic in value, but until now Kirienko has not been judged to have performed pluckily enough in medallion terms.

Exactly which of Kirienko’s feats have warranted the hero award have not been disclosed publicly because the Putin decree remains a state secret.  Kremlin sources have told the state news agency Tass and other Russian media the decree was signed by Putin early in March, and remained secret until this week.

Asked to explain why Kirienko’s courage should be classified, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said  yesterday : “I do not comment on this message”.  Which is a reminder of the tale of the priest, the donkey, and the press.

A priest entered his donkey in a race and it won. The local paper read: PRIEST’S ASS WINS. The priest’s bishop was so upset with this publicity that he ordered the priest not to enter the donkey in another race. The next day the local paper headline read: BISHOP SCRATCHES PRIEST’S ASS. This made the bishop even more unhappy so he ordered the priest to get rid of the donkey. The priest decided to give it to a nun in a nearby convent.

When the local paper received the news, it reported the headline: NUN HAS BEST ASS IN TOWN. The bishop immediately ordered the nun to get rid of the donkey, so she sold it to a farmer for £10.  The next day the paper read: NUN SELLS HER ASS FOR £10.  

This was too much for the bishop so he ordered the nun to buy back the donkey and lead it to the plains where it could run wild. The next day the local newspaper headline was: NUN ANNOUNCES HER ASS IS WILD AND FREE. The bishop was buried the next day.

The moral of the story has something to do with skepticism as an aid to career advancement and longevity. But this depends on whether you are religious; an animal lover; or a poorly paid journalist.   

In the case of the Hero of Russia medal, the only exploits for which it has been awarded in the past required the winner to defy mortal risks. In many cases, the medal has been awarded posthumously because the hero was killed in action; for details, click

Kirienko’s exposure to radioactivity in his previous job wasn’t a mortal risk. Risk aversion is his métier — he is highly reputed at covering the asses of his superiors without exposing himself. But in the opinion polls of Russia voters, for which Kirienko is responsible in the Kremlin, ass-covering is so commonplace among Russian government officials as to lack meritoriousness. Quite the opposite, in fact. So this has led to speculation in the Russian media that Kirienko got the hero medal for his part in arranging Putin’s unprecedented first-round victory in the March presidential election. In this circumstance Kirienko’s discretion is getting a greater part of the award than his valour.

The Moscow press is also speculating  that Kirienko’s medal was awarded for his role at Rosatom in devising some of the unbeatable weapons in the Russian armoury which Putin unveiled in his speech to the Federal Assembly on March 1. Since the weapons are a team effort which is mostly military, and they are still in the pre-operational phase of development, it’s difficult to see what Kirienko has done that’s deserving. By profession Kirienko was a shipyard engineer; his father also. Everything he learned about politics he was taught by Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov.

Left to right: Prime Minister Kirienko with Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov and President Boris Yeltsin, May 1998; Kirienko with Nemtsov, Chubais and former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, May 2001.

Kommersant was the first to report Kirienko’s new status as Hero of Russia on Thursday morning.   Vedomosti followed with its own Kremlin source.

In a discussion on Moscow Radio Svoboda,  it was observed that the status of Hero of Russia is “connected with the commission of a heroic feat. This isn’t for the routine work which Kirienko was engaged in. This isn’t the time, as it was under [Soviet leader Leonid]  Brezhnev, where such things were handed out like trinkets.”

Business Radio FM then reported this exchange between a reporter and Peskov: “Do you think the country should know its heroes? — Certainly. Is it possible to learn something about the high rank which has been awarded to one of the heads of the presidential administration of Russia? Is it connected with the nuclear industry or with the election campaign? — I leave it without comments, here I can tell nothing.”

Andrei Tsybulin, Peskov’s deputy and chief of the Kremlin press office, was asked today to confirm the date of the award to Kirienko, and also to say if the Hero of Russia medals have been issued to others in secret before Kirienko? Tsybulin refused to answer.

Not for Kirienko La Rochefoucauld’s maxim: “perfect valour is to do without witnesses what one would do before all the world.” Not the unsung hero then; rather, the braying ass.


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