The Death of an Oligarch Reminds Us How Much We and the Russians Have Changed

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), March 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Death of an Oligarch Reminds Us How Much We and the Russians Have Changed


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


The death of Boris Berezovsky is a timely reminder that Cyprus isn't alone in providing a convenient haven for Russian oligarchs. We may tut disapprovingly over how the Cypriots allowed Russian funds of dubious provenance to distort their economy and particularly their banking system. However, the story is not so different here, where an indulgent tax system has made it seem the most natural thing in the world for rich Russians to buy up large parts of London, take over football clubs and newspapers, use the courts to sue each other (and anybody anywhere who says something disobliging about them), distort the housing market and employ armed bodyguards.

Unlike Berezovsky, many (probably most) of them are on good terms with Vladimir Putin's Kremlin and don't mind a little espionage on its behalf. They just find the UK a pleasant and convenient place to live.

We always welcomed Russians, whether they were fleeing from tsars or Bolsheviks. Those we welcome today are not always refugees and they are hardly ever poor. That says something about how we, as well as the Russians, have changed.

Lay down your burden

One of the sillier arguments against press regulation is that it will encourage foreign governments to clamp down on their journalists. You could argue as well that the nastiness of our tabloid papers will encourage imitators. While it is true that some repressive press laws were left intact from colonial rule, I don't recall dictators quoting their British authorship to justify retaining and extending them. The belief that rulers in the developing world take their lead from London--a belief strangely shared by some African journalists--is extraordinarily patronising and at least 5o years out of date.

Objections to regulation should be considered on their own merits. Arguing that we should stoically bear the worst excesses of the Daily Mail, Express, Star, Mirror and the Sun lest lesser breeds be led astray carries the white man's burden to ridiculous extremes.

Lady's nuts for turning

The late-night negotiations that led to agreement on press regulation were discredited by reports that takeaway pizzas had been served. Brian Cathcart, Hacked Off's executive director, insists that the negotiators ate Kit Kats, not pizzas. Yet the damage is done. Certain kinds of food are thought too proletarian to consume while great matters of state are considered, so that any agreement that emerges is doomed from the start. It is as though we (or the journalists who report these things) believe that unhealthy, mass-market food turns political leaders into more fallible mortals.

The beer and sandwiches allegedly served when Harold Wilson invited union leaders to No 10 ended prime ministerial involvement in industrial disputes. …

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