6 October 2021
Martin Dewhirst reviews Hunt the Banker: The Confessions of a Russian Ex-Oligarch by Alexander Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait. Hardback. 256pp £20. ISBN 978-1-84689-303-2. (Quiller, Shrewsbury, 2019)
Last month I was astounded to discover, completely by chance, that this invaluable volume, rendered into English by one of the very best translators from Russian into English, had come out two whole years ago, and that the original text had been published in Russia four whole years ago.
How could this be? Was there a Conspiracy of Silence around it?! I have found only two substantial English reviews of the contents: one by Anne McElvoy and Jim Armitage in the Evening Standard and the other by Luke Harding in The Guardian. Unlike the latter reviewer, I don’t blame Dr. Lebedev for not criticising Putin: too many people, brave or foolhardy enough to do so, have come to a premature and tragic end. What also amazes me is that Dr. Lebedev is totally absent from Karen Dawisha’s magnificent Putin’s Kleptocracy (2014) and gets only one passing mention in Catherine Belton’s splendid Putin’s People (2020). At least, unlike Ms. Belton, Dr. Lebedev has apparently avoided being taken to court for questioning the integrity of some of the people he writes about here. He may not criticise Putin, but he does not spare several people whose honesty and decency he questions in this book. I am not going to give any examples here and, as there isn’t a Name Index, potential litigants will have to (find someone to) go right through the text and discover whether they have been unjustly maligned or not.
I began to read this memoir just as the results of the recent Russian ‘General Election’ were coming in. Yabloko, long the only pro-European Party, gained less than 2% of the votes (as miscounted), and it looks as though the new Russian Parliament, like the previous one, won’t have a single openly pro-Western member. And I finished reading the book just as the latest sensational revelations of the Panama/Pandora Papers were being released. A few examples of Russian corruption are provided, but this is a very serious worldwide phenomenon, and it would be grossly unfair to concentrate one’s attention on any particular country.
For details of the corruption in Russia that Dr. Lebedev revealed two and four years ago, please use the two links provided above. I think it would be more valuable to use the short remaining space to ask how, why and when Russia acquired its (unjust?) reputation as an exceptionally corrupt country. One explanation (here oversimplified) goes back to the dvukhkhodovka, the two-stage coup and counter-coup in Moscow in August, 1991. The outcome was that Gorbachev (who, had he managed to cling on to power for a bit longer, would have chosen the more sensible Yavlinsky ‘500 Days’ plan for economic renewal) was succeeded by Yel’tsin (and elements of the KGB behind him), who preferred the more dramatic Gaidar plan for the Russian economy. This led logically, in due course, to the ‘loans for shares’ operation, which in turn led to the megacorrupt oligarchic, security-services-led regime headed by Putin, which and who are, alas, still in power today.
In the Russian-language Wikipedia entry on Dr. Lebedev it’s mentioned that he served in the KGB from 1984 until he resigned in 1992, and became an expert on the problems of preventing (italics added) the [secret] outflow of Soviet capital abroad. Unfortunately, it has long been widely rumoured (no proof or sources have ever been made available to outsiders like myself) that facilitating the movement of some of the Communist Party’s metaphorical ‘Gold’ from Moscow to the West was one of Dr. Lebedev’s tasks when he was stationed in London in the late 1980s. The resulting regime, still headed by the Oligarch-in-Chief, Mr. Putin, is running (and ruining) Russia today. Could Dr. Lebedev now safely come out and prove that he is not, and never has been, as the Russians say, a camel?