Some 300 years ago, Peter I set out to westernise Russia, “to chop a window into Europe” in Pushkin’s phrase.
The mission has been variably successful. While there’s no gainsaying the glory of Russia’s literature, manifested for roughly 100 years between the third decades of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, neither can one deny that her propensity to murder and enslave millions is more indigenous to other continents.
So much more the reason to be proud of the ease with which my former countrymen are adapting to Western ways in some vital areas of quotidian life.
When in the West, it takes Russians no time to grasp the essence of their adopted civilisation: money. For example, when I arrived in America 44 years ago, even bank accounts didn’t exist in Russia, never mind credit cards.
Yet I was amazed to see how quickly my fellow émigrés learned the basics of credit card fraud and related financial activities. They brought to the task their nimble minds combined with the kind of fresh outlook that was beyond jaded locals.
One popular trick, simple like most greatness, was to acquire a full pack of credit cards, then give them to a friend departing for Europe. The friend would then buy up as much valuable merchandise as the card limits would allow, after which the owner of the cards would report them stolen.
I was observing such shenanigans with a mixture of squeamishness and envy: it took me several years to obtain my first credit card, and even then I only ever used it in most uncreative ways.
When the iron curtain was lifted, I doubted that the Russians would ever learn the ways of the West, especially in business and finance. Today I’m both proud and humble to admit I was wrong: the Russians’ native ingenuity has triumphed over all practical obstacles.
Trillions in beautifully laundered cash have travelled from Russia to various offshore havens, London taking pride of place. Before finding a secure home, the money meandered through such an intricate labyrinth of bogus holding companies and brassplates that even a Sherlock Holmes would be unable to trace its origins.
Yes, everybody knows that the trillions originated with Putin’s kleptofascist regime. But knowing is one thing and proving is another – especially since the urge to find proof is understated. Contrary to Emperor Vespasian’s famous statement, when counted in the trillions, money smells very sweet indeed.
Yet it’s the small entrepreneur who drives the economy, and Russian immigrants show the requisite private initiative blended with fecund creativity.
Even Russian terrorism displays Western pragmatism rather than Eastern fanaticism. Not for them Muslim ‘Allahu akbar!’ fanaticism. When a Russian blows up a bus, it’s strictly business – and isn’t that what the West is all about?
Witness the enterprising German Russian so far identified only as Sergei W. I’m proud of Sergei. He’s an astute businessman, uniting in his person the Russian understanding of business and the Western techniques of conducting it.
Sergei got a legitimate bank loan that he used to short the shares of Borussia Dortmund football club. To spare you the tedious details of financial trivia, that means he bet on those shares taking a plunge.
The bet was heavy: if successful, it would have made Sergei €3.9 million – not Putin’s institutional trillions but better than the proverbial poke in the eye. He then set off three bombs near the Borussia team bus, injuring three people and sending several others into shock.
With their characteristic bias based on racial prejudice and statistical probability, the German police at first thought that the crime had been committed by jihadists.
I’m sure they were as relieved as I am to find out that the motives were pecuniary rather than ideological. Having established that, they nabbed Sergei, who has been charged with attempted murder. I think he deserves a medal for being the quintessential New Russian hero.
Another such champion of Russo-Western free enterprise is Roman Seleznev, who has just been sentenced to 27 years in the US.
Roman has made millions by hacking into retail point-of-sale systems and installing software devices that enabled him to steal millions of credit card numbers. He then sold the data on the so-called dark web, proving that the Russians can master the latest technological advances with the best of them.
Incidentally, Roman’s father Valery is a member of Russia’s parliament, the Duma. He protested vigorously against his son’s imprisonment, which to him is tantamount to “cannibalistic torture”. I agree: rather than being imprisoned, his son should be awarded a Hero of New Russia medal, if there is any such thing.
Wherever Peter I is, he must be looking on Putin’s Russia with pride. The westernisation programme hasn’t been quite completed, but such things take time. True, the Russians haven’t yet grasped such aspects of the West as the rule of law, pluralism, civil liberties and the difference between free enterprise and gangsterism.
But, as their Western fans will tell you, one has to start somewhere. The Russians have made an auspicious start in Western-style crime. Give them another couple of centuries, and they may well learn the rest of it. Or not, as the case may be.