Magazine article The Spectator

There's Something Rotten in the State of Russia

Magazine article The Spectator

There's Something Rotten in the State of Russia

Article excerpt

President Dimitry Medvedev was supposed to clean up his country but, says Owen Matthews, feudalism, lawlessness and corruption suit all those keen to hold onto money and power


There is a chilling sequence in Tsar, Pavel Lungin's dark and brilliant new film about Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan, played by the mercurial rock musician Pyotr Mamonov, steps out of his private chapel wild-eyed after a long session of wheedling and bargaining with his God. The Tsar walks, lost in thought, through a series of rooms. As he shuffles along grovelling boyars ceremonially dress him. One group gently places a cloth-ofgold gown over his shoulders. Another group presents an embroidered collar, then cuffs, a crown and staff. Finally the Tsar emerges into the winter sunlight, golden and terrible. The crowd of people who have been waiting for him since dawn prostrate themselves in the slush and the shit of the palace yard. Silence falls. The message is clear: for the grovelling boyars and the grovelling peasants alike, the Tsar is God's messenger on earth, the sole fount of worldly power and protection.

The nature of Russian governance has moved on somewhat since the 16th century.

But one thing has remained the same: postSoviet Russia is a profoundly feudal society. I don't mean that as a generalised insult denoting ignorance and backwardness. I mean really feudal, in its most literal sense. Feudalism is the exchange of service for protection. In the absence of functional legal or law enforcement systems, people's only real protection lies in a network of personal and professional relationships with powerful individuals. And so it is in Russia today - for every member of society with something, however small, to lose, from a market stall owner to the nation's top oligarchs. Your freedom from arbitrary arrest, fraudulent expropriation and extortion by bureaucrats is only as good as your connections.

Dmitry Medvedev understands this problem all too well. He puts it in different terms, of course, railing against the 'legal nihilism' which is rotting Russia from within. But we're talking about the same thing. It's precisely because Russia's legal system is for sale to the highest (or most powerful) bidder, because bureaucrats are above the law and because policemen are not only corrupt but actively criminal that Russians turn to older rhythms of social organisation - to personal, feudal relationships with individuals and institutions that can provide security. Russians buy the protection that the state cannot provide.

It's hard to overstate how serious and corrosive a problem this legal nihilism is - and how fundamentally it stops Russia from becoming a normal, functional society and economy. One recent case shows just how deep the rot goes - and how powerless, and ultimately unwilling, even Medvedev is really to change the system.

In November, 37-year-old tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died of pancreatic failure in Moscow's most notorious remand prison, Butirskaya. At the time of his arrest Magnitsky had been working for Hermitage Capital, once the biggest investor on Russia's stock market. Magnitsky's crime had been to complain about a $230 million tax refund scam apparently perpetrated by corrupt tax officials and police. These criminals had used companies stolen from Hermitage during a police raid as vehicles for claiming false tax refunds. Magnitsky and the Hermitage team had painstakingly documented the details of the scam and complained to every official body they could think of. Yet instead of pursuing the guilty, Russian authorities arrested Magnitsky. According to his heartbreaking prison diary, investigators repeatedly tried to persuade him to give testimony against Hermitage and drop the accusations against the police and tax authorities. When Magnitsky refused, he was moved to more and more horrible sections of the prison, and ultimately denied the medical treatment which could have saved his life. …

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