- Print This Post Print This Post

by John Helmer, Moscow 

The first Dance with Bears appeared twenty-two years ago.  It began as a short commentary appearing once or twice a week. The title came from Astolphe de Custine, the greatest observer of Russia ever to be obliged to conceal what he was writing inside his hat, as the Russians he was writing about chased him across the frontier. That circumstance made for pithy style, sharp focus.

In 1839 de Custine had written: “Such ill-bred and yet well-informed, well-dressed, clever, and self-confident Russians 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.”  His book drew denunciations in the Russian press at the time, and was banned in Russia until 1996.

One of the subtlest – make that most duplicitous and cowardly of Russia-fighters among Americans — the State Department official George Kennan wrote that de Custine had produced “the best guide to Russia ever written”, and then proceeded to argue that when de Custine referred to Tsar Nicholas I, Kennan meant the same judgements to apply to Joseph Stalin and his heirs.

Like most of what Kennan wrote for his own circle of spoiled savages, he was half-right, half-wrong – make that, mostly wrong. In 1991, twenty years after Kennan had pontificated about de Custine, the collapse of the communist regime in Moscow released forces which had been under control, more or less, for seventy years. This allowed the savages to revert to the type de Custine had observed. Kennan and his successors called that democracy and did more than applaud.  Look where that has got them now.

The first thousandth Dance with Bears appeared on January 24, 2012; the second thousandth on October 6, 2017. Allowing for the Moscow summer and New Year holidays, and breaks for May Day and Victory over the Germans, the pieces have been appearing at a rate of three per week.  Attacks by enemies aiming to destroy a particular story of unwelcome truths or obliterate the entire archive  are common; their sources, methods and motives vary. The full archive can be followed on the right-hand column of the home page.

A very serious City of London banker, who subscribed in order to compile a profile of his Russian clients for debate on his bank’s Risk Committee, once advised that the lead cartoon should be dropped because, he said,  this was no place for laughing. Soldiers and spies, some of them in retirement, advised that the punchline in the cartoon said as much as the text.

An album of the punchiest of the pictures was published in 2021; the targets have included the Turkish president, the Polish foreign minister, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister of Canada, a  succession of meretricious presidents of the US and France, prime ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. The time to write this is also taking its toll on the cartoon that was me twenty years ago (below, left) and now (centre).    

According to a learned professor in the US, the book is a “very erudite political analysis and very funny”; a learned professor in Portugal has concurred: “best politically incorrect satire about the West's reporting on Russia”. Reader opinion differs on whether these Dances with Bears make “the best non-Russian journalist in Russia” or “the best writing in English on Russia”. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has acknowledged grudgingly by declaring me persona non grata in 2010 and in 2023 barring me from accompanying my wife’s body to her grave in Siberia. Click to read the book.  

Foretasting of what the long read of the Dances with Bears has to discover is the purpose of the accompanying Twitter stream, which began in June 2019. The 10,000th follower has punched his ticket this week.

My focus has been to pick out more than one bear; rarely the top one or two. Observing carefully their fancy footwork is a better guide to these Russians than reporting what they have been paying the dance band to play. Also, until the musicians pack up, I’m not so sure what the party means for those who have attended, and for the rest of world looking on.

At the time I started the column in Ajay Goyal’s Russia Journal, it was competing in the English-language market in Moscow with the Moscow Times, then a property of Derk Sauer and his Dutch, Russian,and secret associates. By then, the third rival in the market, the Moscow Tribune, a creation of Anthony Louis, had gone belly-up.

I’ve written for all three as reporter and essayist. I was ousted from the Times after seven months of 1992 by the then editor, Meg Bortin, an American who had next to no acquaintance with Russia, except for the phrase, “the Communist-controlled”, which she attached to a great many nouns in reports I filed. When I objected that the fact was often untrue and the practice ill-advised, Bortin tried the other editing tactic for which she was well-known in the newsroom at the time. To call that hysteria was politically incorrect – Bortin eventually found her sanatorium at the International Herald Tribune. She then wrote a memoir called Desperate to be a Communist-Controlled Housewife, in which she claims to have been a founding editor of the Times. She wasn’t – shrieekkk

Left, Meg Bortin; right, Derk Sauer. 

Sauer paid me a monthly stipend not to appear in a competing newspaper in Moscow for six months. Then in 1993 I joined Anthony Louis, who was suspected of being soft on Russia on account of his relationship to Victor Louis his father, a Soviet journalist who had been suspected in his turn of being a front-man for the KGB.  Louis junior over-compensated, employing as his deputy Janice Cowan, a Canadian of English origin. She has since admitted serving as a part-time spy for the Canadian special services with whom her husband was also employed under diplomatic cover. Her memoir is already out; it’s called A Spy’s Wife.  

Left: Victor Louis, right: Janice Cowan. As Canadian journalists go, Cowan was as diminutive in stature as Chrystia Freeland, accredited then to the Financial Times; of the two, Cowan was the more ethical.  For a valuable biography of Victor Louis, and how journalists (some of them) get rich on Russia, read Jean-Christophe Emmenegger, Victor Louis. Un agent très spécial (2021), reviewed here.  

The Exile was the fourth English-language newspaper appearing in Moscow during the 1990s, edited by Americans Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi. They provided a weekly guide to Moscow’s sex joints and a semi-annual guide to the worst journalism on Russia produced in English by the foreign press corps. There was an overlap when the New York Times bureau chief, the Murdoch hacks, or the man from The Economist would show off their heads between their buttocks. The Exile attacked by calling me a curmudgeon; covering up the size of my sex organs; and tossing me out of the Worst Journalist Tournament in the first round. Bastards.

When we were young: left, Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames at Teatralnaya Metro in 1995; right, Oleg Deripaska apologizes for trying to assassinate me in December 2009.  To his undying credit, Taibbi publicly accepted what the Moscow police and court reports revealed about the assassination attempt, when most  members of the domestic and foreign press corps in Moscow at the time were bribed or intimidated into silence.

Left: Ajay Goyal, editor in chief of The Russia Journal. Right: its servers and archives attacked repeatedly, and targeted by advertiser boycotts because of its investigations of oligarch businesses, Goyal chose to close the newspaper in 2005 and sell his internet ventures for personal  classifieds, jobs, online dating, and Moscow Lifestyle guide. The Russia Journal survives in the book compilation of its best stories and writers, introduced by Goyal and published in 2003; click to read.

As a subject Russia is the only case I know of in which the clinical symptoms of horniness present themselves after orgasm, not before it. This is visible when foreign correspondents publish books about Russia after they have left the country, sponsored by the book-publishing arms of their newspapers, and fired up by their own book review pages to ensure sales and  profit.

Sauer was shocked when he discovered one day that Ajay Goyal and I had gone to Haarlem, in the Netherlands, to arrange a buy-out of his newspaper with Sauer’s control shareholder. The then editor of the Moscow Times secretly asked for a meeting to present his availability in the event we managed to pull off the raid. We didn’t. But to fight us Sauer begged money off two Russian oligarchs, a pack of nasty Finns, Pearsons of London, and Dow Jones of New York.  

Instead of them, Dances with Bears has gone solo, cheered on by the crowd you see around the birthday cake. Here is how it started on March 15, 2002 – the very first dance.


The only foreign-language sentence that managed to lodge itself correctly in the brain of Ronald Reagan, before he developed Alzheimer’s Disease but after he became President of the United States, was “doveryai no proveryai”. As he never tired of explaining, that is Russian for “trust but verify.”

Reagan and his successors always meant to apply that to treaties on arms deployments and limitations. Bankers and other businessmen mean to apply it to every form of financial or commercial contract that can be signed with Russian counterparties, especially since the government and the leading commercial banks defaulted on their obligations in 1998.

“Trust but verify” is the reason most foreign investment agreements with Russians contain a clause that places the jurisdiction for dispute resolution outside Russia in countries like Sweden, the United Kingdom, or the US. It is also the reason why both Russians and foreigners, who have lost assets and money to Russian raiders, are increasingly turning to the US court system to apply the US racketeering statute, with its triple damages clause. Among the Russian corporations now in the dock facing racketeering charges, there is LUKoil, Russian Aluminum, Alfa Bank, and Tyumen Neftegas. The list is growing fast.

Back when Reagan was getting out his bit of Russian, John Le Carre published a novel called “The Russia House”. It’s a tale about a Scotsman and minor publisher, whom British intelligence, then the CIA, use to obtain secrets from a high-level Soviet military scientist. The go-between is Katya Orlova; but the Scotsman falls in love with her. To save her, he has to dupe his British and American handlers, and make a deal with the KGB.

In the film version, Sean Connery playing the Scotsman tells a panel of KGB officers, after he’s delivered the secrets of the Anglo-American team: “We have a deal, and I expect you to honour that deal. I am talking about honour, not ideology.” The climax of the film comes when Michelle Pfeiffer, playing Katya, steps off a Russian boat and into Connery’s arms, proving that Russians honour their commitments, even if westerners don’t.

Fast forward to a new film version of a similar moral predicament. This is the new release called “Birthday Girl”, in which Nicole Kidman plays Nadia. She is a Russian girl who answers a lonely English banker’s request for a mail-order bride, and establishes herself in his home. John the banker is then set up by Nadia, and two Russian accomplices, who move into the house, and use John to steal 90,000 pounds from his own bank, before making
their getaway.

“Don’t feel too bad”, Yuri, the mastermind of the scam, tells John after gagging and tying him up. He then shows him photographs of all the other western men Nadia and her gang have duped. But that isn’t the end of the tale. John pursues the trio, who start fighting among themselves over the money. Having betrayed John, Nadia then betrays her accomplices, taking all the money for herself — and also, it seems, for John. With Nadia and the money, he climbs on board the return flight to Moscow, improbably equipped with a Russian passport in the name of one of the accomplices. What will happen to John at Sheremetyevo isn’t of interest to the filmmakers, who think they have tied up their flick with a happy ending in midair. We can guess what the airport officers will do to John on arrival — and what Nadia will do once she’s home.

In the new film, there’s a lot of talk about love, as there was in the earlier film. But not a word about honour. What a difference the decade between the two films makes, at least to the image of Russian women, and Russian honour.

In that decade I’ve known many Russian women, including one who was the wickedest individual of any gender I’ve known. As a general rule, in the decade between “The Russia House” and “Birthday Girl” it has turned out that Russian women lost their honour, as did the other gender, as well as almost every type of Russian organization from the KGB on up, or down, depending on your point of view. The dishonouring process has been so thorough, you have to wonder whether it was a mistake to imagine it, when Le Carre thought so, in the Soviet period. We have arrived at a time when Russian dishonour is a topic for comedy; and honour in the old fashioned sense is laughable.

The honour of Joes (spy jargon) and Johns (sex business) may be misplaced enough to amuse. But of course, bankers to Russia can’t afford the luxury. When one of the largest banks in the world decided (this month) that it won’t even review the state of the Russian metals sector, because it doesn’t want to lend any money to the companies that occupy it, that suggests how fundamentally flawed the methodology of trust-and-verify has become. After all, Russian metals producers are among the market leaders and price makers of the world. If western bankers judge they can’t trust them, because they can’t verify their financials, then the small sums of credit that are trickling through on short-run, high-price terms won’t be anywhere near enough to sustain the growth and competitive edge which these producers need.

This is no joke, unless Russian metals producers think they can outlive their bankers. Now that’s funny.

Note: Key to the celebration (from left to right): Igor Zyuzin, Mikhail Prokhorov, Gennady Timchenko, Oleg Deripaska, Patriarch Kirill, Sergei Frank, Radoslav Sikorski, Igor Sechin, Alexei Kudrin, Leonid Lebedev. Today some of them are in exile in the US or Israel; Sikorski is once again Poland’s foreign minister. The book of 2018, The Man Who Knows Too Much about Russia,   told the story of the trouble Oleg Deripaska tried to cause me, culminating in an abortive assassination plot and my explusion from Russia. The book of 2023, Sovcomplot,   was an adventure on the high seas with Sergei Frank; he tried to have me expelled from Russia for many years; Deripaska beat him to it.  The rollicking ended on July 13, 2023, when Tatiana Turitsyna, my wife, lost her life.  The three men who murdered her are being prosecuted.    

Leave a Reply