Magazine article The New Yorker

Putin and the Exile

Magazine article The New Yorker

Putin and the Exile

Article excerpt


--David Remnick

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the singular Russian poet of his generation, delivered a lecture in Vienna entitled "The Condition We Call 'Exile.' " He began with a gesture of humility. Brodsky had been forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972, but it was his good fortune to reside in the Russian language no less than he did in his apartment on Morton Street. Working for the dictionary, he called it. He got academic jobs, won prizes, made new friends. Cruel fate, soft berth. So when he began his talk in Vienna it was with an overture to the "uncountable" exiles: the Turks in Germany, the Mexicans in Southern California, and the Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia searching for menial work; the Vietnamese boat people, "bobbing on high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian outback."

A week ago, as agents of Vladimir Putin's regime made every crude effort to provoke civil war in eastern Ukraine, Sergei Guriev, a leading Russian economist, who had felt compelled to flee Moscow for Paris last year, made a similarly humble gesture. He was in a privileged exile of his own--April in Paris--stirring a cafe creme at Les Deux Magots, the pleasant redoubt of intellectual ghosts and museum-weary tourists, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. He has secured a tenured position at the esteemed Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris--the Sciences Po--and taken an apartment in town. His wife, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, who is also an economist, and his two young kids are thriving. Before fleeing, he wrote to a friend, "Better Paris than Krasnokamensk," the site of a notorious Russian prison. "If you are going to be an exile," he said at Les Deux Magots, "this is a very pleasant place to do it."

Guriev left Russia after being subjected to a series of interrogations, search warrants, and dark warnings concerning his person. Before that, he led one of the most prestigious academic institutes in Moscow, served on numerous corporate boards, and gave frequent counsel to the Russian leadership, including Putin. He was a member of the credentialled, globalized Moscow elite. But he put it all at risk by giving his support to leaders of the anti-Kremlin marches of 2011 and 2012; by speaking up for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who spent a decade in prison; and by praising the anti-corruption crusades of Alexei Navalny, who is now under house arrest in Moscow.

Vladimir Putin listened to the counsel of Sergei Guriev until that counsel, inflected with notes of disapproval and an urge for profound reform, became intolerable. So now, in Paris, Guriev, a slight, handsome man in his early forties, sat in the sun and provided a convincing assessment of the ominous transformation that has led to masked thugs in the streets of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Lugansk; xenophobic propaganda on the Russian airwaves; a wholesale rejection of the West and an increasingly close alliance in the United Nations with the likes of Assad's Syria and Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Putin came to office in 2000. Russia was at its nadir: an economy in ruins; a political system with no authority; fourteen per cent unemployment. His timing was uncanny. Energy prices rose. G.D.P. growth shot up to as high as nine per cent. Unemployment dropped by more than half. A financial sector developed, which brought greater investment and productivity. …

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