Painted Russian wooden dolls of decreasing size one inside the other used to be a symbol of Russia as a mysterious and menacing place. This was the unmistakable message carried by the dolls in the opening credits of the original television version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
But this symbol of Russia is now being replaced by a picture in which an oligarch’s giant yacht rides at anchor off some Mediterranean resort. This provides an easily recognisable visual sign of the vast wealth obtained by the oligarchs, often corruptly acquired through looting the Soviet state of its most valuable assets after its collapse in 1991.
Putting their great fortunes so blatantly on display in the shape of yachts, mansions and football teams reflects a need on the part of the Russian super-rich to highlight their elite status, while obscuring the semi-criminal means by which they acquired their wealth.
It is extraordinary that they should have got away with mass theft for so long. After all, the allegations about how people like Roman Abramovich acquired their billions are nothing new – as is now being shown by a well-sourced documentary on the BBC’s Panorama programme. Abramovich’s lawyers deny he amassed very substantial wealth through corruption or criminality.
Litigation by oligarchs was one way of keeping such allegations out of the public eye, but a deeper motive was a desire in the West not to admit that Soviet communism had been replaced by a sort of bandit capitalism that resembled the anti-capitalist caricatures published in the early days after the Russian revolution.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, questions are now being asked about Russian oligarchs that should have been asked 30 years ago.
Nestor Makhno, the rural anarchist whose movement established its rule over a large part of Ukraine during the Russian Revolution, has hardly been a name to conjure with in recent decades. But this Monday a group of activists called the London Makhnovists stormed the £50m London mansion said to be owned by Oleg Deripaska, the aluminium magnate. He denies owning it and says it belongs to members of his family.
It is comic to watch those in London and other Western capitals who until a few weeks ago were profiting hugely from meeting every whim of some Russian oligarch but are now running for cover, expressing shock as they go at actions of the evil regime in Moscow.
Deeply satisfying it may be to see yachts, palaces and other assets belonging to the Russian super-rich being seized in Europe and the US. But this will not necessarily do serious or terminal damage to Vladimir Putin’s regime because, just as the power of the oligarchs used to be underestimated, it is now often exaggerated. Ever since Putin took power more than 20 years ago, it is the siloviki – the “people of force” or “strongmen” – drawn like Putin from the old KGB – who have controlled the Russian state.
Like the oligarchs, the siloviki have stolen a great deal of money and have their palatial villas in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. A French activist this week broke into the €4.5m villa in Biarritz, with marble bathrooms and eight bedrooms, belonging to Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova. As with other takeovers of properties owned by the Russian super-rich, videos of the luxurious furnishings and paintings are likely to do them a lot of damage.
The corruption of the Russian state has received wall-to-wall coverage in the Western media over the last few weeks to the point that it would appear that criminalised elites are a distinctly Russian phenomenon. In reality, the state as a looting machine has put down deep roots across the world, particularly in resource-rich countries where the politically well-connected can secure control of oil, gas, metals and other natural resources.
The mechanics of this are well-covered by Tom Burgis in his book The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth. Much the same is true of the oil states of the Middle East, which are all looting machines on behalf of a parasitic elite to a greater or lesser extent. The only difference between countries is how far a ruling class syphons off all the money or distributes part of it in jobs and services. I well remember once being caught in a grey-brown flood of sewage and rain water in Baghdad because there was no drainage system, though the municipality had supposedly spent $7 billion installing a new one.
This is further reason why the Russian oligarchs got away with their mass thefts for so long – they were part of a phenomenon that had become an accepted part of the international landscape. Too many well-connected snouts were stuck in too many troughs for anything to be done about it.
In these looting-machine-type states, there is deep popular anger against the predatory elites, which in times of peace can be suppressed. But the governments of such places suffer from hubris and ignorance that may hide from them one imperative: that they should never go to war, and this is for two reasons.
The first reason is that corruption will not have stopped at the steps of their defence ministry, and in a real war their generals will find that many expensive weapons do not work, have not been maintained, or do not exist. A survey by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta some years ago showed that, against stiff competition, the defence ministry was the most corrupt department of the Russian government. This may be one reason why the Russian army has so far performed so poorly in Ukraine.
The second reason why the leaders of a state as corrupt as Russia should hesitate before going to war is that their soldiers may be averse to getting themselves killed on behalf of a ruling elite with mansions in Belgravia and yachts in the Cote d’Azur.