Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

One of the joys of writing a book about authoritarian capitalism is that I am spoilt for choice. My travels have taken me from Singapore to Luanda to Moscow to Rome and in the next few days I am off to the Gulf. Later in the year comes China. Last week I was back in Russia, for the annual Valdai conference, where experts from around the world are given red-carpet treatment. This time we were offered two for the price of one. Vladimir Putin indulged us with a three-hour lunch in Sochi. Not to be outdone, we were given similar treatment by Dmitry Medvedev in the bizarre setting of a banqueting hall on the top floor of Gum, the department store that overlooks Red Square. Prime Minister Putin was at his rhetorical best, wondering out loud if Russia should have fought back the Georgian hordes with catapults, and whether its soldiers should not have simply wiped the 'bloody snot' from their noses. President Medvedev did his best to sound like the real boss (that he isn't). But as Putin helpfully pointed out, the West had, by supporting the Georgians, blown any prospects of a more liberal shift in Russia. In my 30 years of visiting this place, I have never seen the politics of grievance as strong as it is now.

Conspicuous consumption seems just to reinforce it.

I hadn't been to Chechnya since the early 1990s. For much of that time it has been bombarded and besieged, and in the hands of either local warlords or the Russian military. We were flown in to Grozny for a few hours to see how the city has been rapidly, and impressively, rebuilt. Moscow has put its faith in Ramzan Kadyrov, a man barely 30; it will spare him no rewards for his endeavours. Kadyrov's official residence, a dozen miles outside the capital, is nearly complete. The grounds include his very own horse-racing track, a man-made lake on which he can race his jet skis, and a personal zoo where, he told us, he likes to unwind communing with the tigers and cheetahs.

State-run television devoted much of its prime time news to our group's schmoozing with the leaders. It came as no surprise that cameras were absent from our discussion with Garry Kasparov, the closest Russia gets nowadays to an opposition figure. A mercurial man, Kasparov continues gamely to predict the demise of Kremlin power. He seemed strangely unversed in the details of brutality against difficult journalists. I was particularly keen to grill him on this, as I have just taken over running Index on Censorship. The organisation (at which a young M d'Ancona was once an intern) was set up to promote the cause of dissidents in the Soviet era. …

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