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Reporter’s Notebook: What Would Vladimir Lenin Have Said?

View of St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)

What would Vladimir Lenin have said?

After the Bolshevik revolution, “while many of the other Kremlin magnates were soon enjoying the trappings of power, Lenin and Nadya [his wife] lived fairly modestly. Their domestic arrangements were similar to the way they had existed in exile — unostentatious,” writes Victor Sebestyen, author of an acclaimed new biography on Lenin.

The couple rarely dined in the well-stocked Kremlin restaurant — Lenin’s wife could be seen “trudging along the pavements with black bread under her arm and a tureen of soup.”

Across from Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square, where the preserved, waxy body of the Soviet leader has been on display since after his death in 1924, there’s another shrine — this one dedicated to conspicuous consumption.

The Kremlin is reflected in a GUM Department store window display in Moscow. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)

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Conspicuous consumption

On weekends, the GUM department store is heaving with moneyed Muscovites — and gawping provincial Russians and Chinese tourists, who can’t afford what’s stocked in the brand name stores that include Cartier, Prada, Hermes, Bulgari, John Lobb and Mont Blanc.

I try on a pair of John Lobb suede brogues. The price? Just $2,600 — double the already astronomical price of the same shoes in London.

GUM’s artful windows draw tourists’ camera lenses almost as much as the Kremlin and the multicolored onion domes of St. Basil Cathedral. About the only people who don’t loiter outside the department store for a stare as they enter Red Square are a couple of elderly bearded Italians wearing the style of cap Lenin wore.

They stumble reverently toward Lenin’s Mausoleum.

Customers walk past Christmas trees decorated for New Year celebrations in the Moscow GUM department store in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 29, 2017. VOA

For anyone who has not visited the Russian capital for many years, the makeover is nothing short of astonishing. The city center’s infrastructure puts to shame many Western European capitals. Old buildings once in disrepair have been restored; a huge financial center has been built.

Moscow boasts new restaurants with gourmet chefs, funky bars and luxurious hotels. The beefy bodyguards also have changed — they’ve now grown necks, wear tailored Italian suits and can be as polite as the city center’s tourist police.

But what you see in the city center is a far cry from how Russians generally live. Russians on average earn only $558 month. Even skilled workers in the capital would have to work more than several months to afford those John Lobb shoes. The average salary for a skilled educated worker in Moscow is about $1,000 per month.

A view inside GUM Department store in Moscow. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)

When I lived here briefly nearly 20 years ago, there were three color choices for clothing — gray, black and risqué brown. Not so now. Another thing noticeable is how Muscovites are far more expressive and demonstrative in public than they were in the first few years after the end of Communism. Then in the public space — except, obviously, at protests — Muscovites still adopted the uniform guarded blank Soviet expression, giving nothing away.

Poisoning fallout

With diplomatic tempers flaring over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, I’d been warned by fellow reporters to be prepared for hostility from Russians. I didn’t experience any. There was the normal gruffness and unhelpfulness from officialdom — and the tiresome underlying insinuation that all Western reporters are spies. There were playbacks on my phone — a tell-tale sign of eavesdropping.

The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the center of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. VOA

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Russia Today reporters, with quirky resumes and a penchant for the kind of fare that would have warmed the hearts of grizzled KGB propagandists, are the most hostile. I spotted one I last saw in Ukraine’s Donbas region happily identifying to heavily armed pro-Russian separatists Western reporters she thought were spooks. She also had snarled at Western journalists for refusing to contribute money in a whip-round for the separatist cause during a press conference in Donetsk.

State-owned Russia Today has had a field day with the Skripal affair, trotting out ever more dubious characters to support the shifting — often outlandish — explanations offered by Kremlin officials and Russian lawmakers about whom might have been behind the nerve-agent poisoning on British soil. Everyone from the “devious” British themselves to the inculpable Swedes have been blamed. The British, though, are now facing a marketing challenge.

So far, their public case for alleging that the attempted assassination was state-sanctioned has rested on arguments of capability, intent and a pattern of highly aggressive Kremlin behavior, from the annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks on Western states. Add to that multiple odd deaths of Russian dissidents, critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and former spies on British soil.

But the British have failed to prove the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok used in the poisoning had been made in a Russian laboratory, allowing the Kremlin to echo mobster Al Capone, who once complained amid a bloodbath in Chicago, “It seems like I’m responsible for every crime that takes place.”

On Tuesday, a top scientist at Porton Down, the British defense facility, disclosed that his team had been unable to determine the toxin used had beyond doubt been made in Russia. The scientists had “not identified the precise source,” he said. That contradicts a statement made, for example, by Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who told German television two weeks ago that Porton Down had been “categorical” about the Russian origin of the substance used in the nerve-agent attack.

The gap between plausibility (who else would want Skripal dead and had the capability?) and proof has prompted charges of the British overstating their case. And that’s making it harder for British leader Theresa May to maintain the Western alliance she mustered to punish Russia.

The Russian embassy is pictured in Paris, March 26, 2018. France expelled four Russian diplomats in show of solidarity with Britain over the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy. VOA

The deputy chairman of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Armin Laschet, said Tuesday: “If one forces nearly all NATO countries into solidarity, shouldn’t one have certain evidence?”

There already was a clear split in Europe, with the Slavic countries most reluctant to join in the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats — Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria have expelled no Russians. “We are seeing the emergence not so much of an Iron Curtain but an Iron Veil,” quips a Western diplomat.

Just three percent of Russians believe the Kremlin was responsible for the Skripal poisoning, according to the state-run polling agency VTsIOM. Nine percent think the poisoning was an accident, 17 percent suspect criminals were the perpetrators. And 38 percent say the poisoning was the handiwork of Russia’s enemies.

Independent observers are generally circumspect about VTsIOM’s polls, but the Skripal findings are not that much different from what I encountered in conversations with Muscovites. The biggest fear of the young, though, is that it will become even harder to secure visas to Western countries — and that Russia increasingly will turn its back on the West and become more closed.

“Many of the good things you see here in Moscow now is because we have been more open to the world,” says a 20-something marketing analyst, who moved from Siberia. “I hope we don’t step back,” she told me.

Deadly fire

We talked also about the awful March 25 shopping mall blaze in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, where she comes from, in which at least 64 people died, including 41 children. She’s annoyed with Putin — even though he did visit the town two days after the fire.

A woman reacts during a funeral of a victim of a shopping mall fire at a cemetery in Kemerovo, Russia, March 28, 2018. VOA

Reading the transcript of what Putin said to local officials in Kemerovo on that trip is eye-opening. He’s all toughness and brusqueness as he promises to make sure there’s punishment for officials and inspectors who failed to enforce building codes and fire regulations. There’s little humanity in his words, though, and no emotional understanding expressed of the pain bereaved parents must be enduring or the terror the children must have experienced in their final horrifying moments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at a memorial made for the victims of a fire in a multi-story shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, about 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) east of Moscow, March 27, 2018. VOA

And then there’s this chilling line. “We talk about demography, encouraging people to have more children, but look how many kids we lost as a result of this incident,” he concluded.

His comment prompted the outrage of Echo of Moscow radio presenter Olga Bychkova. “He’s talking about demography!” she exclaims to me. “What do people mean to him? They are serfs and one should have many because one needs working hands! Or livestock? How could he talk like that?” VOA


Next Story

Foreign Investors Call Calvey Detention Decisive Moment for Russia’s Economic Future

A recent Moscow court decision to extend Calvey’s detention without trial for a minimum of two months on the grounds that his release poses a flight risk.

Russia, America, Calvey
Foreign investors call Calvey detention decisive moment for Russia's Economic Future. VOA

Last week’s shocking detention of one of Russia’s most renowned and publicly visible American entrepreneurs not only caught fellow foreign investors off guard, it may have prompted a moment of national reckoning about how Moscow handles investor relations, say both Kremlin-aligned and international trade groups.

Baring Vostok founder Michael Calvey’s arrest Feb. 14 on charges of fraud stemming from a lengthy legal dispute with Russia’s Orient Express Bank sparked widespread speculation about whether the days of unbridled “reiderstvo” — aggressive Kremlin-backed asset raids and corporate takeovers synonymous with Yukos, Russneft, Bashneft, Stolichnaya Vodka and VKontakte — were a thing of the past, or whether, perhaps, Calvey had actually committed a crime.

A recent Moscow court decision to extend Calvey’s detention without trial for a minimum of two months on the grounds that his release poses a flight risk, along with news that he’s been denied consular access in violation of the 1966 Vienna Convention, doesn’t bode well for professionals such as Aleksander Khurudzhi, who has been tasked by the state with rehabilitating Russia’s image as a secure place to invest.

‘This is a shock’

“From my point of view, what happened is in complete contradiction with statements of a Russian president who, from all rostrums, has expressed the same unchanging viewpoint: that Russia is open for investments and that Russia will do its best to attract and safeguard both Russian and foreign investments,” Khurudzhi, deputy ombudsman for the Kremlin office of business ethics, told VOA.

“This is a shock,” he added. “It undermines all the work being conducted by the Agency for Strategic Initiatives. All the work that has been done for the last seven to eight years aimed at improving the investment climate. It undermines trust in the system as such … (and our entire) team isn’t sleeping at night. Without any exaggeration, the work is being carried out for 24 hours. This is a challenge for all of us, for our whole team.”

Russia, Calvey, America
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including the State Duma parliamentarians, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and other high-ranking officials, in Moscow, Feb. 20, 2019. VOA

Indeed, during his annual State of the Nation address before Russia’s Federal Assembly on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin, who has been faced with record-low approval ratings, even made a fairly explicit reference to Calvey’s detention.

“To achieve … great (economic) objectives, we must get rid of everything that limits the freedom and initiative of enterprise,” Putin said. “Honest businesses should not live in fear of being prosecuted of criminal or even administrative punishment.”

Putin, who met Calvey multiple times since the American arrived in Russia in the mid-1990s, has said he had no foreknowledge of Calvey’s arrest, and that despite his repeated calls to keep commercial disputes and litigation from culminating in spurious charges against foreign investors, he has no direct influence over how Russian courts render their verdicts.

Russia, Calvey, America
FILE – CEO and co-founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management Bill Browder attends the “Prospects for Russia after Putin” debate in the Houses of Parliament, London on Nov. 18, 2014. VOA

Vocal Kremlin critics, such as Hermitage Capital co-founder Bill Browder, are deeply skeptical of these claims.

“The arrest of Mike Calvey in Moscow should be the final straw that Russia is an entirely corrupt and (uninvestable) country,” Browder said in a tweet Friday. “Of all the people I knew in Moscow, Mike played by their rules, kept his head down and never criticized the government.”

Browder was denied entry into Russia in 2005 after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, began investigating governmental misconduct and corruption in response to suspicious tax evasion charges brought against Hermitage by Russia’s Interior Ministry.

Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances in Russian custody in 2009.

Seen as a ploy

For someone like Browder, it would seem Putin’s claim of political impotence in the face of a fully independent judiciary, despite copious historical evidence to the contrary, is nothing more than a cynical public relations ploy meant to portray Russia as a nation of procedural law, while denying justice and consular access to the very foreigners who fastidiously try to abide it.

Even prominent Putin allies, such as Russia’s ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, have sounded the alarm, calling Calvey’s arrest an “economic emergency.”

russia, Calvey, america
FILE – Alexis Rodzianko talks to Reuters in Moscow, Sept. 16, 2009.

For U.S. citizen Alexis O. Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia and a longtime Moscow resident, the initial shock of Calvey’s detention might, however ironically, reveal a longer-term opportunity to recalibrate Russia’s ties with foreign investors.

“Sure, at this point it’s damaging. It certainly makes every one of us who were here thinking about, ‘Well, you know, how far is it from me to his prison cell?’” he told VOA. “But I think it could be a defining issue for the business climate here. It could be the beginning of a bad streak, or it could be the signal for Russia to actually take some positive action.”

Calvey’s formal indictment on Thursday, however, speaks more to the former than the latter outcome.

Rodzianko, who’s convinced the charges against Calvey are without legal merit, said he’s personally convinced the arrest stemmed from “a commercial dispute in the usual sense,” and that “people who set it up were not expecting the resonance that it (has) received.”

Asked if he thought Calvey’s arrest could be in any way politically motivated, he said he was convinced it was not.

“But then I think, in the circumstances, it can’t but be political, just because of the current state of affairs, because of the current state of relations,” Rodzianko said. “It’s just too easy to make that connection, which I don’t think is a proper connection, but I don’t see how it can be avoided.

Two possible outcomes

“I think it’s a symptom of a problem that Russia has, and Russia has to deal with,” he added. “It could (have one of) two outcomes.”

One, he said, is that Calvey’s arrest will come to signify a continuation of a malevolently corrupt practice that Russian and foreign investors have come to “face on an endemic basis.”

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Or, “it might actually be a mistake which leads to significant reform, which might improve the situation for both foreigners and Russians investing in Russia,” Rodzianko said.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow district court said that Calvey, who was detained along with other members of the firm on suspicion of stealing $37.5 million (2.5 billion rubles), faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. (VOA)