The great & the good are the objects of public interest in any country. When that country happens to be Russia – a nuclear superpower with a notoriously wealthy and powerful elite – the great & the good become objects of global intrigue: “The western media employ the term “oligarch” to describe super-wealthy Russians in general, including those now wholly or largely resident in the west. The term gained traction in the 1990s, and has long been seriously misused. In the time of President Boris Yeltsin, a small group of wealthy businessmen did indeed dominate the state, which they plundered in collaboration with senior officials.”
Indeed, one of the drivers of Vladimir Putin’s rise (and one of the reasons he’s an object of study/admiration by politicians in other countries) is how he has lorded it over the Russian elite by disrupting their power: “Three of the top seven “oligarchs” tried to defy Putin politically. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were driven abroad, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed and then exiled. The others, and their numerous lesser equivalents, were allowed to keep their businesses within Russia in return for unconditional public subservience to Putin. When Putin met (by video link) leading Russian businessmen after launching the invasion of Ukraine, there was no question of who was giving the orders.”
So how did Putin do what most other political leaders cannot i.e. break a business elite and make them beholden to him. Answer: he used the organisation he belonged to – the KGB. As a result, the majority of the new Russian elite are from the KGB (or its associates including the armed forces). These people are called the ‘siloviki’ i.e. men of force: “This group have remained remarkably stable and homogenous under Putin, and are (or used to be) close to him personally. Under his leadership, they have plundered their country (though unlike the previous oligarchs, they have kept most of their wealth within Russia) and have participated or acquiesced in his crimes, including the greatest of them all, the invasion of Ukraine….”
So what drives the new Russian elite? What are their motives for doing what they do? “Although they have amassed immense power and wealth, Putin and his immediate circle remain intensely resentful of the way in which the Soviet Union, Russia and their own service collapsed in the 1990s…” Apparently, Putin was reduced to moonlighting as a taxi driver in the 1990s as he sought to supplement his meagre income from the KGB. Now, he and his colleagues do not have to suffer in that manner any more: “The siloviki have been accurately portrayed as deeply corrupt — but their corruption has special features. Patriotism is their ideology and the self-justification for their immense wealth. I once chatted over a cup of tea with a senior former Soviet official who had kept in touch with his old friends in Putin’s elite. “You know,” he mused, “in Soviet days most of us were really quite happy with a dacha, a colour TV and access to special shops with some western goods, and holidays in Sochi. We were perfectly comfortable, and we only compared ourselves with the rest of the population, not with the western elites.
“Now today, of course, the siloviki like their western luxuries, but I don’t know if all this colossal wealth is making them happier or if money itself is the most important thing for them. I think one reason they steal on such a scale is that they see themselves as representatives of the state and they feel that to be any poorer than a bunch of businessmen would be a humiliation, even a sort of insult to the state. It used to be that official rank gave you top status. Now you have to have huge amounts of money too. That is what the 1990s did to Russian society.””
So here are the names of the men of who run the second-most powerful country in the world: “The inner core includes defence minister Sergei Shoigu (former emergencies minister and not a professional soldier); Nikolai Patrushev, former head of domestic intelligence and now secretary of Russia’s National Security Council; Sergei Naryshkin [foreign intelligence chief]; and Igor Sechin, the former deputy prime minister appointed by Putin to run the Rosneft oil company. Insofar as top economic officials with “patriotic liberal” leanings were ever part of this inner core, they have long since been excluded.”
Now, if you are a liberal expecting to see democratic institutions holding the siloviki accountable, you need to think again: “The Duma, or lower house of Russia’s parliament, was succinctly described to me by a Russian friend as “a compost heap full of assorted rotten vegetables”. This is a bit too unkind — the Duma does contain some decent people — but it would be futile to look to it for any kind of political leadership.
The army, which elsewhere in the world would be the usual institution behind a coup, has been determinedly depoliticised, first by the Soviet state and now by Putin’s, in return for huge state funding.”
As Western opinion turns hostile, no prizes for guess which country is now the role model for Putin’s men of force: “They are becoming impressed with the Chinese model: a tremendously dynamic economy, a disciplined society and a growing military superpower ruled over with iron control by a hereditary elite that combines huge wealth with deep patriotism, promoting the idea of China as a separate and superior civilisation.”
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