In Russian business a killing doesn’t just mean making a lot of money. It’s a way of settling disagreements, enforcing contracts, collecting debts or just gaining a competitive advantage.
I don’t know which of those motives inspired the murder of the Moscow furniture tycoon Mikhail Kravchenko, and frankly I don’t care. Life has always been cheap in Russia, and it’s now even cheaper than it was, say, 50 years ago. People these days can be murdered for most trivial reasons, making it hard to second-guess the real one.
I only wish that members of our royal family didn’t get embroiled, however tangentially, in the murky world of Russian gangland. That’s precisely what the Russian business world is – and what it can only be in a country that has little tradition of legality. Without a just, independent and enforceable legal system, free enterprise is gangsterism. To this rule there are no exceptions.
That doesn’t mean that every rich man in Russia is a crime lord. Some are, some aren’t. But even those who aren’t have to play the game whose rules are set by the Mafia, operating under the aegis of that ultimate protection racket, the country’s government.
That’s how it always is everywhere: the dominant system imposes its ethos on all others. Our own NHS and the National School Curriculum exert their gravitational pull even on private medicine and education; otherwise honest Western bankers have to bribe Third-World politicians; the Russian Mafia will bend to its will even those entrepreneurs who ostensibly have nothing to do with it.
I don’t know much about the late Mr Kravchenko. If newspaper accounts are to be believed, he built his chain of furniture stores on the Ikea model. No direct Mafia links have been mentioned, but every Russian millionaire is tainted, if only by association. A pub landlord who pays protection money to the local hoodlum is unwittingly tarred by the same brush.
That’s why those British figures who stand for something other than just themselves should steer clear of any personal association with so-called Russian businessmen. One realises that this would be too much to expect from the likes of Lord Mandelson, whose financial shenanigans even within Britain have twice got him sacked from the government, and who is now friends with the Russian aluminium king Deripaska. But one is entitled to expect probity from members of the reigning dynasty that’s supposed to embody the historical sagacity and virtue of its realm.
Yet Prince and Princess Michael insist on hobnobbing with various Russians whose power and wealth by definition have a dubious provenance. Speculation has been rife that the Princess’s relationship with Kravchenko went beyond the ‘close friendship’ to which she owns up. I really don’t care one way or the other – though most men would be upset if their wives were photographed holding hands with a younger man in Venice. Venice isn’t Milan; one doesn’t go there on business. But let the gossip columns ponder this. For me a ‘close friendship’ is bad enough.
It may be entirely coincidental that Princess Michael’s ‘close friend’ got riddled with bullets during the same week in which it was revealed that Prince Michael had accepted a gift of £320,000 from Boris Berezovsky. Then again, it may not be.
Berezovsky, Putin’s friend and patron in the past, is now his worst enemy. This means that Boris can’t show his face anywhere near Russia and has to live in England with a platoon of bodyguards in close attendance. Occasionally peeking out from his assorted fortresses, he’s still meddling in Russian politics, usually by financing Putin’s opponents.
Berezovsky has claimed that his gift to Prince Michael was just a friendly gesture, offering help to a man in need. The extent of the grace-and-favour royal’s deprivation is neither immediately obvious nor particularly important. What is significant is that, even if the Russian exile had been driven by uncharacteristically noble impulses, the Prince acted imprudently by accepting money whose origin is in some eyes questionable. And Putin isn’t above sending a not-so-subtle message to the princely family: stay away or else.
Nor is it out of the question that this KGB colonel may see the Prince as a potential rival. The monarchist sentiment is strong in Russia, and it’s getting stronger. And Prince Michael has often been rumoured as a possible tsar, what with the immediate Romanov dynasty having been wiped out in 1918.
In all fairness, it has to be said that the Prince does little to dispel such rumours. He doesn’t mind, for example, emphasising his already remarkable resemblance to his second cousin twice removed, Tsar Nicholas II. To that end His Royal Highness has grown a beard styled à la Nicholas and has taken the trouble of learning Russian to a reasonable standard. His consultancy has had business dealings with Russia for many years, and the Prince has been awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship, a decoration for particularly friendly foreigners.
Being friendly to Russia is one thing; being friendly to her ruling regime is quite another. Apart from its transparent criminality, this regime is fickle in its affections. That it awards a medal to the husband today doesn’t at all preclude the possibility that it might ‘wack’ (to use Putin’s favourite word) the wife’s ‘close friend’ tomorrow.
I’m not speculating whether it did or didn’t. All I’m saying is that it’s best not to come in close contact with dirt, for some of it may rub off on one. It’s best to exercise prudence – unless of course the Prince and Princess wish to strike yet another blow for republicanism in Britain.