No Comment — November 5, 2010, 5:05 pm

Letter from Moscow

At the end of part I of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol presents a romantic vision of his country as it hurtles to its destiny:

And you, my Russia–are you not racing like a troika that nothing can overtake? Is the road not smoking beneath your wheels, do the bridges not thunder as you cross them, and is everything not left in the dust, the spectators, struck with the very show of it, stopped with amazement and wondering if you are not some bolt from heaven? What does that awe-inspiring progress of yours foretell?… Whither, then, are you racing, O my Russia? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes–only the weird sound of your collar-bells.

Gogol it seems has no idea where his country is headed; he sees it careening to the left and right, between reformers and reactionaries, Westernizers and Slavophiles, religious fanatics and nihlists. The keepers of modern Russian history would certainly grant Gogol one thing: it has been a wild ride. The image of the troika, in the sense of a trio, has also recurred in Russian politics.

In the anxious months that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, the government of the Soviet Union in fact fell into the hands of a troika, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrentiy Beria, and Georgy Malenkov. Nikita Khrushchev of course emerged as party leader and ultimately outflanked and liquidated Beria, the core of the troika. In the early politics of the Russian Federation there has also been a troika of sorts. The three most powerful political offices of the nation have consistently been the president, the prime minister, and the mayor of Moscow. Ultimate power rests more with the first two, and the power balance between them has always had more to do with personality and craftiness than with the constitution. On the other hand, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, began his political climb in earnest as the first “mayor” of Moscow in the late Soviet era (actually he was first secretary of the Communist Party’s Moscow City Committee). From 1992 until earlier this month—a term of 18 years—the office was held by Yuri Luzhkov.

A dynamic political figure, Luzhkov drew renown as a “builder.” Under his administration, Moscow experienced an unprecedented building boom—treasures of the Tsarist era were renovated and covered with miles of gold foil, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (removed by Stalin to make way for a swimming complex) was lovingly restored, public spaces throughout the city were burnished. Building developers generally have loved Luzhkov; NGOs and historic preservationists, not so much. He was guilty of “bulldozing Moscow’s architectural heritage, and replacing it with mock-palaces,” The Guardian wrote. Throughout this period, Luzhkov was the target of insinuations of corruption, especially related to construction contracts, but none of them was ever borne out. His role on the national political stage was, however, wily and effective. Luzhkov’s efforts to launch a political party are generally seen as having triggered Vladimir Putin’s formation of the Yedinaya Rossiya political party which then trounced Luzhkov’s effort in 1999. In a move that says much about the nation’s political culture, Luzhkov then led his party to a combination with Yedinaya Rossiya. Luzhkov was, in the mind of most Kremlin-watchers, the clear potential rival to Putin inside the Russian power structure.

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But of the three horses pulling the Russian troika of state in the last few years, one has clearly been tugging in a different direction: Yuri Luzhkov. He has carefully charted a course to the right of Putin and Medvedev, making a strong appeal to the more xenophobic and chauvinist elements in the Russian political world. This emerged in his tough rhetoric against migrant workers in Moscow, most of whom come from the southern frontier of the former Soviet Union, as well as his continuous gay-baiting. One of the decisive and distinctly liberal policies of the Putin presidency had to do with immigration. He recognized Russia’s need for the skilled and semi-skilled labor of its “near abroad” to fuel the construction industry. When the Russian construction industry sputtered with the global financial downturn at the end of 2008, these policies created an opening for Luzhkov. Difficult as it may be for Americans to understand, in the domestic political sense, Putin has been a liberal—though in the tradition of Pyotr Stolypin, not John Stuart Mill. Putin seeks the creation of a rule-of-law state of sorts, albeit with an autocratic core. And he has promoted a new class of economically privileged professionals and entrepreneurs and the development of a middle class. Luzhkov has a consistent knack for feeling out the space just to Putin’s right as a fertile bed for political rhetoric and propaganda.

The final crack-up came over efforts by the Kremlin to relieve Moscow’s hopeless automotive congestion on the way to and from the prime international airport at Sheremet’yevo by building a new relief highway to St. Petersburg. Luzhkov opposed the routing of the effort. Suddenly the airwaves in Russia were filled with insinuations against him, many of them suggesting that Luzhkov’s opposition to the path of the new motorway was routed in the business interests of his billionaire wife. Luzhkov stood his ground, denounced the attacks as “rubbish” and said he would not be pressured to resign.

Among the followers of Russian politics, it was a classic struggle. President Dmitri Medvedev either had to remove Luzhkov or be viewed himself as weak. He acted in the traditional manner of Russian autocracy, by presidential ukaz. Moscow’s new mayor is Sergei Sobyanin, who was Putin’s chief of staff, a man unlikely to buck the leadership from the Kremlin.

After the Russian Revolution, deposed leaders fled west, a number of them writing their memoirs and taking positions as professors at American colleges. Today, however, exile from the center of power in Russia either means prosecution and imprisonment under challenging conditions in Siberia or flight from the rodina to a comfortable home in a London garden district, and maybe a house or two on the continent as well. Yuri Luzhkov is still testing the political waters in Russia, but he clearly has laid plans for a nest abroad when the time comes. His wife, Yelena Baturina, is reportedly the owner of Witanhurst, the second-largest freestanding residence in London (exceeded only by Buckingham Palace itself), acquired for £50 million in 2008.

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