I often target The Times for my slings and arrows, lamenting that the formerly respectable paper has descended to the level of a tabloid both in physical size and intellectual content.
So much more pleasure it gives me now to say something laudatory about an article published in this receptacle for my bile: Matthew Syed’s piece It Is Roman Abramovich Who Shames Chelsea.
Mr Syed, who usually writes on sports, doesn’t talk about Chelsea’s catastrophic start to the season, its manager, players or tactics. Instead he fumes against “one of the great, unfolding scandals in English football. The money that has bankrolled Chelsea these past 12 years, which has brought many trophies while sanitising the image of one of the most dubious individuals ever associated with British sport, was corruptly amassed.”
‘Criminally’ would have been a more precise adverb, but let’s not quibble. At least Abramovich is no longer described as a ‘socialite’ or an ‘astute businessman’, rather than the gangster he really is.
As his barrister, Jonathan Sumption, QC, comments on the source of Abramovich’s wealth, “there was an agreement to support the president of Russia in return for privileged access to state-owned assets.”
Allow me to translate from the lawyerly: Abramovich and a handful of others were given a leasehold (never a freehold – that belongs to the KGB/FSB) over Russia’s vast natural resources. The quid pro quo was that they’d act as conduits for the money purloined by the KGB to flow into the laundries of assorted offshore havens.
Whenever Putin or one of his cronies needs a few billion for staging a sporting event, conducting a nice bombing raid, buying a 300-foot yacht or building another palace, Abramovich and a few others crack their chequebooks open with alacrity.
Abramovich, continues Mr Syed, “is a manipulative chancer whose money was gained through dubious means,” and he doesn’t know the half of it. Yes, Abramovich acquired most of his wealth through the rigged privatisation programme of the 1990s. But he already had to be wealthy and influential to be allowed to play the game of all those voucher schemes, collateral auctions and loans for shares.
Not to bother you with technical details, a group of young crooks (most of them drawn from the ranks of the Young Communist League nomenklatura) were given millions in public funds to ‘buy’ billions in public assets.
How Abramovich found himself in that privileged group is best described in Paul Klebnikov’s 2001 book Godfather of the Kremlin. Shortly after its publication the author, head of the Forbes Moscow bureau, suffered a rather extreme form of literary criticism.
He was riddled with bullets in the centre of Moscow. The hit (or ‘whack’ to use Putin’s favourite term) was done with two automatic weapons fired from a fast-moving car.
The authorities regretted that unfortunate event, which they attributed to the jealous rage of a wronged husband. Well, since there were two assault rifles involved, there must have been two wronged husbands, not one.
Mr Klebnikov must have been a real lothario, but his exploits in that area still don’t quite explain the mode of the assassination, which is quite rare in the annals of crimes passionnels.
Also, as any expert will tell you, it takes a high degree of murderous professionalism to hit someone by firing full auto from a moving vehicle in a crowded street – especially without sending bits and pieces of innocent pedestrians up in the air.
Klebnikov’s book accused Boris Berezovsky, the eponymous godfather, of all sorts of shenanigans, including the odd bit of murder. Abramovich was at the time Berezovsky’s partner, later to become his enemy.
Their feud was eventually resolved in a London court, and only one man, Abramovich, was left standing or indeed alive.
Mr Syed doesn’t go into such detail, but even what he does write makes his article the most honest and incisive piece of journalism I’ve ever read on this subject in the mainstream press.
Perhaps some of the accolades should go to the paper’s brave editor, and its legal department, which had the courage to allow this excellent article to run. Congratulations to all.