Have you ever noticed how silly, disingenuous and outright wrong TV documentaries are on any subject you know much about? It’s an easy extrapolation that they are just as hopeless on all subjects, especially since one hears similar comments from experts in many different fields.
That’s why I tend to give documentaries a wide berth. However, the other day I went against my better judgement and watched a Channel 4 offering whose title caught my eye: Putin: A Russian Spy Story.
Though, or rather because, the subject is close to my heart, the effort did little to improve my assessment of the whole genre. That first instalment of a three-part series dealt with Putin’s career in the KGB and then his years in Petersburg, as Deputy Mayor to Anatoly Sobchak.
The documentary correctly described Sobchak as corrupt, while Putin only rated the soubriquet of his ‘fixer’. His principal function, it was alleged, was to keep Sobchak out of prison.
The only oblique reference to Putin himself perhaps not being impeccably pristine was a short sequence of an obsequious Russian journalist asking him if, in his position as Deputy Mayor, he was offered bribes.
Looking shiftier than anyone I’ve ever met, Putin replied that yes, such overtures did occur. “And?” asked the interviewer. “What do you want me to do?” asked Vlad with a mirthless smile. “Acknowledge that I take them?” The hack apologised so profusely that it was clear such a seditious thought had never crossed his mind.
The thought did cross the mind of Marina Salye, the Petersburg councillor who investigated Putin’s own machinations. She compiled a thick dossier of hard documentary evidence proving that, compared to Putin, Sobchak was a babe in the woods.
The Municipal Council was particularly interested in “Putin’s activities in issuing licenses for the export of raw materials.” In particular, the investigation dealt with export licences to barter raw materials, mainly hydrocarbons, for food. Such materials dutifully left Russia. No food came back – that, at a time of severe shortages in the city.
According to documents cited by Russia’s then-Deputy General Prosecutor Mikhail Katyshev, Putin also used the children’s home of Petersburg’s Central Borough to ‘export’ children abroad, a practice outlawed in Britain since 1807.
Then there was the small matter of casino licences that Putin issued only after his palm was greased to the tune of $100,000 to $300,000. From 1992 to 2000 Putin also sat on the advisory board of the German real-estate holding Petersburg Immobilien und Beteiligungs AG, which German authorities have since investigated for money laundering.
The dossier also documents Putin’s naval activities, in cahoots with Vice-Governor Valeri Grishanov, ex-Commander of the Baltic Fleet. Putin had a former naval base converted to a port called Lomonosov. This was used for two-way contraband activities, with various goods entering Russia and natural resources leaving it.
Warships, including submarines, were also sold at bargain prices to unidentified foreign buyers. The organisation nominally in control of the warships didn’t always go along with the racket, as witnessed by the murder of its deputy general manager in 1994.
Sobchak lasted longer: he and his two FSB minders all died simultaneously under mysterious circumstances in 2000, during Vlad’s first presidential campaign. His former mentor knew too much, which in Russia is a condition more fatal than coronavirus.
All in all, Vlad’s own shenanigans in Petersburg earned him a tidy sum conservatively estimated at $100 million, which lay the foundation for his present fortune allegedly falling within the range of 20 and 250 billion dollars.
The higher end looks more realistic, considering that he owns 4.5 per cent of Gazprom, the world’s largest gas producer, 37 per cent of the oil company Surgutneftegas and a majority interest in Gunvor, the world’s fourth largest oil trader.
Until recently, Gunvor operated in Switzerland under the stewardship of Putin’s confidant and former KGB colleague Gennady Timchenko, affectionately known as ‘Gangrene’ to his friends. But Gangrene hastily sold his shares a couple of days before Western sanctions went into effect in 2014 – forewarned is forearmed.
I’ve seen the facsimiles of the documents making the Salye dossier bulge, and a good read they are too. Yet clearly the producers of the documentary didn’t think so, although they had to know the facts. After all, the Russian talking heads appearing on screen (one of which belongs to a chap I know well) could have given them every detail chapter and verse.
Talking about Putin’s years in Petersburg without as much as mentioning the Salye dossier is like talking about Al Capone’s years in Chicago without mentioning organised crime. Something fishy is clearly afoot, but then the Russians have form in cultivating Western media.
Someone ought to investigate our investigative journalists, especially those covering Russian subjects. However, such inquests may well uncover nothing more sinister than staggering incompetence and a slapdash treatment of facts. That’s better than being on the take, but not by much.