If I had to choose the event in my adult lifetime with the greatest historical import it would be, hands down, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2005, then president of Russia Vladimir Putin was not exaggerating when he called it “the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century.”
In 2007, another man who witnessed it wrote of the “profound traumas” caused by the fall of empire, but added that Russia “emerges anew on the world arena as a powerful key-player in politics and economics.”
That other person is none other than Yuri Mikhailovich Luzhkov, until last month the mayor of Russia’s capital, Moscow, and himself a powerful key-player in world politics and economics. When, on Sept. 28, President Dmitry Medvedev, at 8 a.m. no less, issued his terse ukase “effective immediately” that Luzhkov was being relieved of his duties as mayor “in connection with the loss of trust (in him) by the president of the Russian Federation,” I was overwhelmed by an intense deja vu moment, accompanied by loud strains of the 1968 Beatles’ song “Back in the U.S.S.R.” assaulting my neurons.
One empire collapses and another rises up . . . and a political culture comes back, if not with a vengeance at least with a rush of nagging nostalgia. So, let’s go back momentarily to the U.S.S.R. The time is 1964.
I made my first trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of that year, traveling from Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and Moscow in the north down to Kiev, Kharkov, Yalta, Sochi and back up to Riga, which was then the capital of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. The first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the nation’s premier was Nikita Khrushchev. I heard many jokes from ordinary Soviet citizens about how managerially incompetent First Secretary Khrushchev was. In such a tightly controlled society, the more jokes told about leaders, especially to foreigners, the more precarious their hold on power is.
After a month of travel in the country, I returned to the United States to do a master’s degree in Soviet politics at Harvard University when, on Oct. 14, 1964, First Secretary Khrushchev was ousted from all official posts by the duumvirate of Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin. This was hailed in and out of the Soviet Union as the triumph of expertise over ideology. Brezhnev and Kosygin were presented as technocrats; and, for a short time, Soviet citizens lived in hope that they would be ruled according to the pragmatic principles of the late 20th century and not the pseudo-scientific dogmas of the late 19th. It wasn’t long, however, before the dream of real progress faded and a stagnation set in that would lead eventually to the breaking apart of an empire held together by intimidation and force.
The ousters of Khrushchev in 1964 and that of Luzhkov in 2010 have more in common than meets the eye. Khrushchev was a product of the same political culture of browbeat and exile (or, in the old days, execution) that produced Brezhnev and Kosygin. It was personal loyalty and the threat of political oblivion that defined the political culture of the Soviet leadership. While the system and the society have become much more open since 1991, the same bells are ringing in the Kremlin. Had Luzhkov seriously asked himself for whom the bell was tolling this time, a voice would have told him, “It tolls for thee.”
Balding and portly, Luzhkov is himself a product of the system. He’s a technocrat with the heart of a Bolshevik and the mind of a capitalist, the perfect type to slither, along with thousands of oily oligarchs, from the top of one system to the top of another. A graduate of what is now called the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, founded in 1930 and named after geologist I.M. Gubkin (1871-1939), Luzhkov joined the Communist Party in 1968. Like many other born-again former Soviet officials, he traded in his party card for a cross. Now an ardent believer, one of his many major construction projects was the rebuilding of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a colossal church destroyed on Stalin’s orders in 1931.
But Luzhkov, like many highly successful Russian politicians, mastered the strategy of keeping one foot in each camp. He made a move to display posters of Stalin at this year’s parade celebrating the end of World War II, called “The Day of Victory” in Russia. He relented in the end and withdrew them, but the message of respect for the old dictator’s “achievements” was not lost on the old guard. Back in 2002, he put up a bust of the dreaded terrorist Felix Dzerzhinsky, founding leader of the Cheka, or secret police, in the courtyard of Moscow police headquarters.
As mayor of Moscow for 18 years, Luzhkov was a very effective, if reputedly corrupt, strongman. He was popular with Muscovites. Think of him as a Berlusconi without the hair transplant. When Russians get the chance, they invariably close their eyes to corruption and open their arms to strength.
But all was not well this summer. Beginning with NTV, the national television channel owned and controlled by Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, the media went on the attack, both of Luzhkov and his billionaire wife, Elena Baturina, whose construction and plastics company, Inteco, has profited enormously from the nuptial nod.
What was going on in the Kremlin? After all, Luzhkov was reappointed by then-President Putin in 2007. And on the occasion of Medvedev’s birthday, a mere two weeks before the mayor’s sudden dismissal by him last month, Inteco sent, “on behalf of Elena Baturina” greetings, calling him “a strong and wise politician” and wishing him “happiness, good health and new achievements for the benefit of Russia.” Displays in Russia of what might be called “affectionate comradery” are often followed by a kiss of death. Medvedev keeps a sharp eye on the presidential elections in 2012; and Putin carries around binoculars so powerful he can see the patterns on Sarah Palin’s curtains.
Just as prior to Khrushchev’s lightning ouster in 1964, jokes about Luzhkov abounded, some of them in the media. (This marks a difference with the old days. In the Soviet Union, jokes about leaders appeared in the media only after they disappeared from view.) The NTV program showed the mayor, an ardent bee-keeper, infusing hives with smoke, juxtaposed with sights of the poor residents of his city trudging through the thick smog caused by this summer’s rampant fires, during which the mayor and his wife were all-too-conspicuously on vacation.
Luzhkov had made the mistake of criticizing Medvedev in print and calling for “stronger leadership.” He was, it is said, lobbying support for a Putin bid for the presidency in 2012.
Whether Putin will be “the Comeback Comrade” or not is something no one knows. But, Yuri Luzhkov and Elena Baturina were playing both sides against the middle. The trouble is, there is no middle in Russian politics. And we will all have to wait two years to find out which end is up.