Palace coup in the Kremlin

Navalny’s film about Putin’s palatial monument to bad taste has now been seen by 100 million people – Hollywood, eat your heart out.

A friend in need

None of the Russian viewers gasped with incredulity. That sort of thing is par for the entire course of Russian history. In the West, rich men become politicians; in Russia, politicians become rich men. Everyone knows that.

Still, knowing it and seeing it are two different things. In a country where over 20 per cent of the population have no indoor plumbing, the room-by-room virtual tour of Putin’s palace came close to causing a scandal, and it was certainly a factor in mass protests.

Within hours of the film being uploaded, Putin’s spokesman Peskov told journalists Putin isn’t the proud owner. Who is then? Peskov clearly wanted to say “He hasn’t been appointed yet.” Instead, he said “I haven’t a clue”.

Now, even in Russia the circle of people who could afford such a monstrosity is rather narrow. And if we look at those who could have it guarded by a company of FSB thugs, protected by a cocoon of a no-fly zone and insulated by a 2km exclusion zone for sea traffic, then the circle narrows down even more.

Yet Peskov didn’t even venture a guess, and the inquisitive pundits left the press conference dissatisfied. Their frustration quickly worked its way into an outburst of mockery, mostly vented in foreign media. Rather than fearing Vlad, the world began to laugh at him. His attempts at pathos were becoming pathetic.

Something had to be done. Simply denying Putin’s ownership was no longer enough. A stand-in owner absolutely had to be named for verisimilitude, which caused a bit of a scramble in the Kremlin.

Urgent phone calls went out to the Abramovich types around the world, but none was eager to carry the can at first. “Really, Vlad,” they must have been saying. “Who on earth could believe such a thing?”

“I don’t give a monkey’s what they could believe!” Vlad must have objected. “It’s what they could prove that matters. And I’ll make it worth your while.”

It says a lot about the grotesque unreality of the situation that it took Vlad all of 10 days to find a stand-in owner. But find one he did.

His childhood friend and judo partner Arkady Rotenberg finally agreed to go before the press. “It won’t remain a secret any longer,” he announced.

“I’m the owner. The project was complicated, there were many investors involved, but I managed to take over. It’s quite a find: the location is terrific.”

For a cozy retreat? No, for the apartment hotel that the palace will become. “I like this hotel business a lot,” said Rotenberg. “Especially since it can become tourist business.”

According to him, he bought the estate several years ago. Then why did he keep his ownership secret and, once the news broke, have to wait 10 days before acknowledging it?

“Because of the purely human factor,” explained Putin’s pal, one of the Russian gangsters under sanctions in the West. “Insinuations are being written.”

That’s where he lost me. I would have thought that precisely for that reason Rotenberg should have come forward within minutes of the film’s first run. Why wait 10 days while his best friend and benefactor was dragged over the coals of worldwide ridicule?

After all, but for Putin, Rotenberg would still be an obscure judo trainer in Petersburg, with perhaps a side line in some small-scale crime. It was Vlad who picked him and his brother out of obscurity and made them billionaires within a couple of years.

It was Vlad who gave him 30 per cent of the vodka business (Russia’s sole growth industry), a bank with 100 branches all over Russia, a construction company with an inside track to the juiciest state contracts and God only knows what else.

So why leave his friend and godfather so exposed for so long? The answer is, Rotenberg didn’t. It simply took Vlad and Peskov a while first to come up with this transparent lie and then to appoint the right figurehead.

My heart bleeds for Vlad. For even he won’t be able to get away with keeping the palace for himself now. He’ll actually have to give his retirement bolthole to Rotenberg, who’ll then have to convert it to an apartment hotel.

Considering the existing layout, that would probably mean gutting the palace and redesigning it from scratch. But hey, what’s a billion or two among friends? There’s always more where that came from – the impoverished, browbeaten, tyrannised Russian people.

Why do so many Christians hate Jews?

And, even more bizarre, why do so many atheists defend their anti-Semitism on supposedly Christian grounds?

Back in Russia, I used to hear fervent communists refer to Jews as Christ-killers. So you believe in Christ? I’d ask innocently. Since in those days that sounded like a ringing denunciation, they invariably replied “Of course not, he’s a figment of bourgeois imagination.”

With my characteristic pedantry, I’d then wonder why they hated Jews for having killed Christ. You can’t be charged with killing a figment, can you?

Yet what interests me here isn’t anti-Semitism in general, but specifically Christian anti-Semitism, which is flagrantly incongruous in a religion of love. The principal genres of Jew-hatred in the West are currently racial and ethnic, but these too may be legitimately traced back to Christian roots.

Post-Christian hatred of Jews is largely rooted in Christian hatred of Judaism, which sentiment represents a tragic historical accident. The history is ancient, going back to Jesus’s earthly lifespan, when, according to popular mythology, the Jews rejected Christ and killed him judicially. This is indeed a myth.

The Jews as a whole didn’t reject Christ; only a few hundred Jews in Jerusalem, led by the Sanhedrin, did. The rest couldn’t possibly have rejected Christ simply because they were unaware of his existence.

Hence even at that time hatred of all Jews went contrary not only to Christ’s teaching of love but also to basic arithmetic. Those early anti-Semites should have remembered that even God was willing to spare Sodom if there was a single righteous man found among its denizens.

And by Christian standards, Jews had many not just righteous but saintly men at the time. It was they who first heard and recorded Christ’s message, followed him, mourned his death, rejoiced in his resurrection and died for their faith.

Some disciples carried the message outside Palestine, and Paul in particular was known as Apostle to the Gentiles. Yet at first the word mostly meant Hellenised Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, and much of Paul’s mission was trying to reconcile their old beliefs with the new faith.

It’s only when Paul began to strike farther afield, all the way to Rome, that Christ’s message reached communities with no Jewish background. Hence Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, not by following the Mosaic law and its rituals, particularly circumcision.

It was then that Paul began to preach Christian universalism, rising above ethnicity, social status and sex: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

However, it was also the time when Christians became hostile to Jews and, by way of reciprocity, vice versa. The reasons for that animosity are rooted in human psychology activated by a theological error on the part of the early Christians and the contemporaneous Jews.

Any religion claims exclusive rights to the ultimate truth, which is integral to the very definition of religion. Similar claims of other creeds are usually regarded with indifference and perhaps mild condescension. Hatred is rare, and it’s typically caused not by the theology of an alien creed but by its hostile actions.

Hence I’ve never observed any Christian hostility to, say, Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, Taoism or pantheism. Many Christians do dislike Islam, but mostly in response to objectionable acts perpetrated by Muslims.

Purely religious, if you will theological, hatred does exist, but it’s almost exclusively reserved for heretics and apostates: none so hostile as divergent proponents of the same creed. It follows that, the closer two creeds are perceived to be to each other, the more likely they will be to treat each other as implacable enemies.

The relationship between the Jews and early Christians could have followed the principle that sociologists call “both… and…”. Instead, tragically, it was “either… or…” that conquered.

Both parties overemphasised the undeniable fact of Jesus’s Jewishness. In his earthly life he was indeed a Palestinian Jew, who delivered his sermons in an Aramaic replete with references to the Pentateuch and other holy books of the Jews.

Even his dying words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, are a quote from Psalm 22:1. And Jesus’s living words were couched in Jewish scriptural terms.

The Book of Daniel in particular is a regular thesaurus of Jesus’s divine claims, oblique and recondite to outsiders, but instantly understandable to his audience, weaned as it was on metaphorical expression. To them, Jesus stated his divine nature as clearly as he would have done with a straightforward message along the lines of “I am God thy Lord”.

Jesus used a roundabout idiom because no communication can be effective unless put in a language the audience can understand. It’s for that reason that Jesus often referred to himself as Son of Man, a phrase his listeners associated with the Messiah.

Yet the Messiah isn’t God. In Judaism he is a human king from the Davidic line anointed by God to rule the Jewish people and ease their path to the kingdom of God. Had Jesus been nothing but that, no Christian universalism would have been possible, no Hellenised Christian theology and philosophy would have appeared.

However, they did appear, which shows that Jesus’s Jewishness, while important to his earthly life, isn’t essential to Christianity. Had both parties to the argument realised that at the time, they could have seen their way clear to theological peace and even friendship.

The Jews were chosen by God, but that didn’t preclude the possibility that God could have also chosen another group within their ranks and destined it for a different mission. In their turn, Christians could have gratefully acknowledged the virtue and wisdom of Judaism, borrowing many of its key tenets.

They could have adopted, for example, the Jewish cosmology, the Ten Commandments, the teaching on the soul, and the concept of a single, merciful God – all without claiming that Christianity had absorbed Judaism, thereby making it redundant.

Since that claim amounted not to adaptation but to usurpation, an historic opportunity was missed. Instead of seeing the Jews as adherents of another, strictly discrete religion with a parallel claim to unique status, the early Christians began to regard them as heretics and apostates, whose claims were inherently subversive.

The Jews committed the same tragic error. Rather than acknowledging the Christians as another Chosen People related to the Jews but following an entirely different fideistic and theological path, they treated them as traitors to Judaism.

That bilateral intransigence activated the psychological mechanism I mentioned earlier. People may forgive faithfulness to another religion, but not apostasy to their own.

Since, unlike Judaism, Christianity has no biological obstacles to its spread, it went on to become the religion of the West, with the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and then Christendom. The original enmity grew in scale and intensity, eventually acquiring a life of its own even after the West severed its Christian roots.

This hatred has hurt the Jews physically, the Christians morally, and both sides theologically. Hence neither religion found itself at peak strength to resist the onslaught of ruinous secularism, otherwise known as modernity.

Count your Leave blessings

It’s not only beauty but also ugliness that’s best appreciated from afar. Now we can observe the EU from a distance, the former recedes into the background, while the latter comes to the fore.

“You’ll live to regret Leave, André”

The latest proof of this optical phenomenon was kindly provided by Manny Macron, a simple soul who doesn’t always realise what he’s saying, especially when his foster mother Brigitte isn’t in attendance. The interview he gave Andrew Marr is a case in point.

By way of backdrop, I don’t regard democracy as an unqualified synonym of political virtue. Hence I’d have little quarrel with Manny if he openly said that the EU supersedes democracy for the sake of more effective and enlightened government.

I might take issue with ‘effective and enlightened’, but I’d mark him up for honesty. Anyway, since the EU is ruled by an unelected body, it would be a statement of self-evident fact, but one that could engage people in a rational debate.

Yet EU functionaries make no such admission. They want to have it both ways: rule by fiat while at the same time paying lip service to democratic rectitude. That’s cheating, and Manny is good at such legerdemain tricks.

The subject of Brexit came up in the interview, and Marr asked Manny if a similar French referendum would yield the same result. “Yes, probably, in the same context”, came the reply.

Meaning what? Oh well, explained Manny, “It’s a mistake when you just ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’, when you don’t ask people how to improve the situation and to explain how to improve it.”

This is a recurrent theme among EU lovers, certainly in France. I wonder what part of referendum they don’t get.

Any meaningful referendum asks for a simple binary answer, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or else in this case ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. Again, I’d probably agree with Manny had he honestly said that government by plebiscite runs against the grain of representative government.

Moreover, the elitist in me would probably even nod if he said that most people are ill-qualified to make seminal decisions about how their country should be governed. But if Ben Franklin lived today, especially in France, he’d never say that honesty is the best policy. Certainly not as far as Manny is concerned.

What he’s talking about is fudging up the issue, befogging it in a smokescreen of obfuscation. In his nimble hands a Frexit referendum wouldn’t ask the French whether they want to leave or remain.

Instead it would invite them to erect a tall pile of malodorous suggestions on how to improve the unimprovable, what is colloquially described as polishing a turd. Buried underneath such a pile would be the whole issue of Frexit, which is Manny’s whole point.

The will of the people and consent of the governed clearly don’t even play a peripheral role in his calculations. France shall be kept in the EU by hook or, if must be, by crook. How the French feel about it is immaterial.

Any referendum will be designed with that purpose in mind. And if the people still vote wrong, the referendum will be annulled, and they’ll be told to vote again and keep doing so until they get it right. The EU has form on such chicanery.

Since I love France and, until Covid, spent half my time there, I’m sad to see her governed so badly and, more important, dishonestly. And I’m staggered by Manny’s nerve to comment on Brexit and our impending demise as its result.

His understanding of Brexit, he said, “is that middle classes and working classes decided that the recent decades were not in their favour”. For the likes of Manny, support from such lowly quarters ipso facto invalidates the results morally and intellectually.

He then highlighted his own moral and intellectual credentials by explaining what it was that those British hoi polloi disliked about the EU: “I think one of the reasons was precisely an organisation of our EU which probably gets too far in terms of freedom without cohesion. Towards free market without any rules and any convergence.”

I get it. This giant intellect thinks that Britons voted Leave because they felt there was too much economic and other freedom in the EU, and not enough single-state integration. Give them a giant Leviathan with a command economy and they’ll be falling over themselves to join the ranks of the EU.

The cheek of this statement is as refreshing as its idiocy is stultifying. For the truth is exactly, diametrically, totally opposite. By voting Leave, the British expressed their loathing of an unwieldy, dictatorial, protectionist bloc dead set on creating a single European state run by the likes of Manny.

They know their own government may be incompetent, but at least it’s indeed their own, accountable to them if only every few years. They may not have any say in what it does, but they can punish it at the ballot box if it’s not to their liking.

Conversely, submitting to the rule of motley continental powers defies the British national character, the country’s entire political history and ethos. That’s not what les Anglo-Saxons do, what they’ve never done.

Such is the simple truth, but it’s too simple for Manny to understand. Perhaps he should ask Brigitte, she may be able to tell him what’s what.   

An army marches on its pronouns

Frederick the Great, who in common with many historical figures failed to anticipate modern sensibilities, believed an army marched on its stomach.

If it works in South Korea, why can’t it work in the US?

That proves yet again the irredeemable crassness of every prominent member of any generation before our own. Frederick must have laboured under the misapprehension that a successful army must be well-fed, well-armed and well-drilled.

While admitting that such things are still marginally important, we today know that the most essential aspect of battle-worthiness is heightened sensitivity to… well, everything we must be sensitive to.

Such as personal pronouns. Never mind that a soldier may be short of food, ordnance and training. Just arm him/her/it/them/zie/hir with sensitivity to personal pronouns, and the army will vanquish in any cultural battlefield, if no other.

Such is an inference from another instalment in the saga of Joe and Kamala, showing it’s not just great minds who think alike. Since Joe Biden is the Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces and VP Kamala Harris is effectively his deputy, it’s good to see they are in agreement.

Kamala spearheaded the attack by publicly specifying that her own pronouns are she/her. The cosmic significance of that announcement at first escaped me. In my naivety, I’d address a woman by those pronouns without being encouraged to do so.

I forgot that, the way language works nowadays, it’s not denotation but connotation that matters. And in this case the connotation signals sensitivity to institutionalised and ideologised transsexuality.

It stands to reason that, if people can choose their sex from a menu currently including 74 offerings, they should also be entitled to choose the pronouns that reflect their new sex.

Here the menu is somewhat limited, but it’s growing. Thus a transsexual may prefer to be addressed in the plural, as ‘they’ and ‘their’ (“John is weird. They wear their sex on their sleeve.”)

Actually, following a singular antecedent with a gender-neutral plural pronoun is now par for the course – even when the person’s sex is in no doubt. Thus, “This striker needs to work with their coach” is now the norm in sports reportage, even though one can confidently expect any Premiership player to be a man.

What’s still less common is the growing use of impeccably neutral pronouns, such as ‘zie’ and ‘hir’. This proves the tremendous elasticity of English and its capacity for endless expansion.

Also constantly updated are the titles of address. The first step in the right direction was taken decades ago, when ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ were ousted by ‘Ms’, laudably erasing the distinction between married and unmarried women.

Yet a step in the right direction still falls short of the ultimate destination. Progressive though ‘Ms’ is, it’s still distinct from ‘Mr’ and therefore does nothing for gender neutrality. That oversight is being widely corrected by the growing use of a gender-neutral title of ‘Mx’.

There’s only one progressive alternative to starting a letter with ‘Dear Mx Smith’: dropping the title altogether. ‘Dear Smith’ would have the additional benefit of looking as if the correspondents both went to a good public school, where addressing one another by the surname is common.

That was the signal Mx Harris sent and I initially missed. But Mx Biden, the Commander-in-Chief, heard it in every tonal detail and acted accordingly. Yesterday he overturned Trump’s ban on recruiting transsexuals in the army.

The ban didn’t cover the 8,980 transsexuals already on active duty; it only precluded adding to that number. That’s no longer good enough: “President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” said the White House statement.

Without disputing the source of America’s strength, one should still ponder whether it’s indeed diversity that makes an army strong. Even if it does, one would think this factor is rather low down on the list, below things like physical and tactical training, discipline, marksmanship, esprit de corps and other aspects traditionally seen as essential to martial glory.

Actually, armies thrive not on diversity but on uniformity, with each unit bringing together a number of men thinking, acting and fighting as one. Why, soldiers aren’t even allowed to express their individuality sartorially, with everyone clad in identical fatigues.

They go into battle with an understanding of one for all, all for one. That requires seamless cohesion in every unit, with the collective subsuming the individual. A good soldier still has to think for himself, but only within the uniform framework of regulations, manuals and orders.

Moreover, soldiers are by their nature aggressive types whose purpose in life is to kill anyone who wears a uniform of different design. This fosters a laddish atmosphere with a strong flavour of machismo, and all armies are similar in that respect.

Now, the US army doesn’t normally attract arty types hanging out in Greenwich Village or Rodeo Drive. Most recruits are simple (as distinct from simple-minded) lads from the backwater of Iowa, Alabama, Arkansas and other such places.

Sensitivity to those they describe as ‘preverts’ can’t possibly be high on their list of masculine virtues. Now imagine their reaction to him/her/it/them/zie/hir turning up in the barracks of their infantry platoon.

I’d venture a guess that him/her/it/them/zie/hir would have a life similar to the canvasses of Hieronymus Bosch, not those of François Boucher. Him/her/it/them/zie/hir would be certain to suffer an ordeal for which bullying will be an inadequate description.

That means the platoon would have to undergo an extensive programme of sensitivity training, supplementing and in due course possibly replacing the kind of training traditionally associated with infantry units.

Normally I’d bemoan the erasure of the line separating decadence from degeneracy. However, taking Mx Biden’s word, I’m willing to accept that America will become stronger as a result of his new law. But, dollars to doughnuts, as him/her/it/them/zie/hir might say, the army won’t.

Putin or out?

As that great philosopher Joseph Stalin once said, “There’s a man, there’s a problem. No man, no problem.”

Good to see English making inroads into Russian politics

Too bloody right, thinks Vlad Putin. Alexei Navalny, that hireling of the CIA, MI6 and George Soros, is definitely a problem. And one that Vlad has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to solve Stalin’s way. But you can’t get decent help these days. Today’s FSB nincompoops can’t even poison a man so he stays poisoned.

So what do you know, that underpoisoned rat produces a worldwide sensation with his film about Vlad’s Gelendjik palace, so far seen by 80 million people. Odd, that. What’s the big deal? A man has a right to get a little retirement bolthole to brighten up the twilight of his life.

And what’s this with hundreds of thousands braving Covid, frost and police truncheons to scream “Putin is a thief!” and “Putin out!”? Stalin, that sainted father to his people, would have spanked them with tanks and orders to fire at will. But Vlad can’t afford that sort of thing, not yet anyway. So what’s a chap to do?

Oh well, it’s hard to second-guess another man’s thoughts. So I’d better tell you my own, always the safer option.

To begin with, I was one of the 80 million viewers of the Navalny film. As I found out, Vlad’s estate is 39 times the size of Monaco, ruled by a prince. Could this make Vlad a prince 39 times over?

Now there’s a thought. If Vlad resigns, as the demonstrators demanded on Saturday, he could declare his bailiwick a sovereign principality, with himself as its hereditary monarch. Perhaps he could strike a deal with Navalny. You become president of Russia, I became prince of Gelendjik, no hard feelings. And especially no legal proceedings. Okay?

I’m impressed with Vlad’s palace – Albert of Monaco, eat your heart out. Yes, aesthetically Vlad’s retirement bolthole makes the sets of Bollywood films look like paragons of subtle refinement. But I love the eclecticism of the place.

If it’s true that a man’s house reflects his personality, then one has to admire the vast expanse of Vlad’s soul. Nice to see the sacred and profane dovetailing so seamlessly.

The sacred is served by a detached mock-Byzantine church for Vlad to offer genuflecting devotions to his recently acquired God. The profane is caressed by a pole-dancing room for Vlad to pay manual tribute to his favourite art genre. Pure Hegel, that, the unity and struggle of opposites. It’s all good, provided Vlad remains sufficiently compos mentis to match the right rituals with the right place.

As to the billion-pound cost of the cottage, that’s no reason to tar Vlad with the corruption brush. And stop trying to calculate how much and for how long a man on £99,000 a year has to save to end up with a billion quid. It’s not Vlad’s money, is it? His own billions are safely tucked away in numbered offshore accounts all over the world.  

The palace money came from friends expressing their gratitude for Vlad’s sage leadership. A hundred or so do a whip-around, 10 mil each, pocket change really, and Joe’s your uncle, Nikita’s your aunt. Up goes the palace. Happiness all around.

However, as the weekend events showed, happiness isn’t really all around. Some 250,000 Russians came out to demand that Navalny get out of prison and Putin out of the Kremlin. That doesn’t seem like a lot in a country of 140 million, and neither are the sheer numbers unique: Moscow alone has been known to field over 100,000 protesters in the past.

But there’s the rub: this time Moscow wasn’t alone, far from it. Demonstrations took place in 112 cities, and if in the past Moscow accounted for 80-90 per cent of all protesters, on Saturday she only boasted a quarter, if that.

Moreover, the action was perfectly coordinated. Protesters carried all the same posters everywhere and shouted all the same demands, none strictly local. Such things don’t happen by themselves – coordination bespeaks coordinators.

Even far-away places now seem to have a core of 100-200 anti-Putin activists capable of organising mass action – and inspiring people to fight the police and the elements. That is a promising development, unprecedented during Putin’s reign.

The elements were inclement on Saturday. The temperature in Yakutsk dropped down to -50C, which still didn’t keep hundreds of protesters off the streets. Yekaterinburg had a balmy -30C, and the turnout was higher, upwards of 10,000.

It’s not only geography that matters, but also demography. Anti-Putin protests used to feature mostly old codgers with a durable anti-Soviet chip on the shoulder. This time around, about two thirds of the protesters were young, in the 18 to 35 bracket – Putin’s children fancying parricide.

The police treated the protests with customary brutality, yanking people out of the crowd and busting their heads with truncheons. Photographs of such unlawful treatments of lawful protests have filled the net, with blood flowing freely. One middle-aged woman had the temerity to ask the cops why they were beating up a youngster. The reply came in the shape of a mighty kick that put her in a coma.

But, in another new development, this time some of the violence was reciprocated. Fights were breaking out, and one photograph shows two young lads playing footie with a policeman’s helmet (his head wasn’t in it). The police still had the upper hand in violence, but they no longer had the monopoly on it.

What’s going to happen now to all the players, Navalny, Putin and the people? Here I have to leave reportage for speculation, which is a notoriously soft ground to tread on. However, some things are reasonably clear.

Navalny certainly has a talent for what some may describe as inspiring the masses and others as rabble-rousing. He has become the focal point of dissent, and the only political figure seen as a plausible challenger to Vlad.

He is trying to unify various factions in what may become a sustained protest movement, to which end Navalny is uttering plenty of liberal phrases. But his heart lies elsewhere.

Navalny’s problem is with Putin’s epic corruption, not his declared political sentiments. While Putin’s may indeed be only declared and Navalny’s deeply felt, the sentiments are similar: Russian nationalism, empire building, suspicion (if not hatred) of the West and so forth.

Hence one hopes that Navalny will only act as a battering ram breaching the wall surrounding the kleptofascist regime, not as its one-for-one replacement. But such hopes are often forlorn.

Navalny may not get the chance to challenge Putin in earnest. Vlad has shown that he doesn’t mind turning Navalny into a martyr, and he may still feel Navalny is more dangerous alive than dead. After all, another plausible challenger, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead 100 yards from the Kremlin six years ago, and no mass opposition has rallied around his body.

Hence I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Navalny suffering a sudden heart attack in prison. Or else being released and then run over by a runaway driver in an unlicensed car. Such things do happen.

However, there are signs of Putin preparing an orderly retreat from power. Rumours of his deteriorating health, if not fatal illness, abound in Russia, and Vlad’s energy conspicuously falls short of that of the youthful protesters.

Two months ago he pushed through the Duma a constitutional amendment guaranteeing lifelong legal immunity for former presidents, which is to say himself. That he needed such an amendment was taken by many as a sign of impending retirement plans. The palace itself is another such sign: Vlad doesn’t really need it while still in power.

Then again, there exists the Stalin option of unrestrained terror. Vlad may indeed ratchet up oppression, but I don’t think the River Moskva is likely to foam with much blood: Vlad is no Stalin, and, more important, today’s Russians are no Soviets.

They may share Vlad’s resentment of the West, and they may buy the imperial myth of Russian spirituality trumping Western materialism. The Russians may even accept some thievery on their rulers’ part. As any reader of Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy and such great historians as Karamzin, Soloviov and Kliuchevsky will confirm, that’s nothing new.

What is new, however, is wide and instant availability of data in an Internet age. And the official data show that at least 20 million Russians live below the poverty line of £170 a month – the actual number may be twice as high.

Against that backdrop the palaces of the ruling gangsters, even more modest ones than Putin’s purloined fiefdom, may arouse justifiable and exploitable resentment. If what we are seeing is indeed an inchoate protest movement, rather than isolated outbursts, then it can’t be short of suitably incendiary messages.

The ruling junta, on the other hand, isn’t short of truncheons, bullets and prison cells. History shows that these sometimes triumph over messages, and sometimes they don’t. I wouldn’t want to venture a guess which way it’ll go this time.

However, if you insisted, I’d suggest that Putin’s political days are numbered. But whether or not his kleptofascist regime will be replaced by something better is a different story altogether. I refer those interested to Russia’s entire history.

Was Robert Maxwell murdered?

John Preston asks this question in today’s Mail, and then proceeds not to answer it over the subsequent thousands of words.

Maxwell with his author cum employer

Since not one of those words is ‘Russia’, it’s no wonder the question only acts as a teaser for Mr Preston to advertise his biography of Maxwell. However, without that key word the question can’t even be properly asked, never mind answered.

Now, I hardly ever recycle my old pieces, but this morning I can’t resist. For almost eight years ago (and doesn’t time fly even when you aren’t having fun?) I wrote an article Cap’n Bob of the KGB on this very subject.

The facts I cited were all real, even if the prima facie evidence of the murder was, and still is, lacking. However, only a court jury requires ironclad forensic evidence to convict. Intellectual inquiry often makes do with a plausible theory, and the one my old article puts forth is very plausible indeed:  

Newly published archival data show that as early as in the 1950s Robert Maxwell was investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Soviet agent. The conclusion was that he wasn’t, yet this conclusion was wrong.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone: both the FBI and MI5 were notoriously inept at flashing out Soviet spies. One of them, Kim Philby, almost became head of the Secret Service; another, Aldrich Ames, ran the CIA Soviet desk for years; yet another, Robert Hanssen, was one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence officers – this list can become longer than anyone’s arm.

The FBI was probably correct technically: Maxwell didn’t “transfer technological and scientific information to the Soviets”. Of course he didn’t. He was much too valuable to risk on such trivial assignments.

Maxwell was what the Soviets called ‘an agent of influence’, perhaps the most important one next to the American industrialist Armand Hammer. Said influence was exerted through both individuals and ‘friendly firms’. One such firm was Maxwell’s Pergamon Press.

Maxwell, a retired captain in the British army, bought 75 percent of the company in 1951 and instantly made it an unlikely success. Actually, it’s also unlikely that a poor Czech immigrant could have found the required £50,000, which was serious money then, about £1,000,000 in today’s debauched cash.

If the original investment miraculously didn’t come courtesy of the KGB, the overnight success did. Maxwell signed a brother-in-law deal with the Soviet copyright agency VAAP (a KGB department) and began publishing English translations of Soviet academic journals.

Making any kind of income, never mind millions, out of that venture would have been next to impossible. On the one hand, Soviet science at the time was hardly cutting edge stuff, and those parts of it that were didn’t publish their findings in journals – they were (and still are) strictly classified. Interest in the Soviet academic press was therefore minimal, while the cost of having it translated and published was immense.

Publishing even English-language academic periodicals is an extremely laborious and low-margin business requiring much specialised expertise. That’s why it’s usually done by big and long-established firms, which Maxwell’s wasn’t. Add to this the cost of translation and one really begins to wonder about the provenance of all that cash.

Subsequent close ties between Maxwell and the Soviets dispel any doubts. He became a frequent visitor to Moscow and a welcome guest in the Kremlin. There he met every Soviet leader from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, and they didn’t just chat about the weather.

As an MP, Maxwell made speeches defending the Soviet 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, bizarrely portraying it as some kind of recompense for the country’s betrayal at Munich. The Soviets were beginning to get their money’s worth.

In the ‘70s Pergamon Press prospered by churning out such sure-fire bestsellers as books by Soviet leaders. On 4 March 1975, Maxwell signed another lucrative contract with VAAP and published seven books by Soviet chieftains: five by Brezhnev, one by Chernenko and one by Andropov, then head of the KGB.

Under a later 1978 contract he also published Brezhnev’s immortal masterpiece Peace Is the People’s Priceless Treasure, along with books by Grishin and Ponomarev, the former a Politburo member, the latter head of the Central Committee’s International Department.

All those books were published in huge runs and, considering the nonexistent demand for this genre, would have lost millions for any other publisher. But Maxwell wasn’t any old publisher and these weren’t any old ventures. The translation, publishing and printing were paid for by the Soviets, who then pulped almost the whole run.

In 1981 the Central Committee of the CPSU passed a resolution authorising direct payments to the French branch of Pergamon Press for publishing English translations of Soviet leaders’ books.

In the ‘80s Maxwell met Gorbachev three times, the last meeting also involving Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB boss. As a result, Pergamon Press began publishing the English-language version of the Soviet Cultural Foundation magazine Nashe Naslediye (Our Heritage), along with the writings of both Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (Charles Dickens and Jane Austen they weren’t).

One objective pursued by the Soviets was propaganda, but this could have been achieved with less capital outlay and greater effect. The real purpose was the old Soviet pastime: money laundering and looting Russia in preparation for ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union’. And the core business of Pergamon Press played only a small role in this enterprise.

Between 1989 and 1991 the KGB transferred to the West eight metric tonnes of platinum, 60 metric tonnes of gold, truckloads of diamonds and up to $50 billion in cash. The cash part was in rubles, officially not a convertible currency. But the Soviets made it convertible by setting a vast network of bogus holding companies and fake brass plates throughout the West.

The key figures in the cash transfer were the KGB financial wizard Col. Leonid Veselovsky, seconded to the Administration Department of the Central Committee, and Nikolai Kruchina, head of that department.

The focal point of that transfer activity in the West was Maxwell, the midwife overseeing the birth pains of the so-called Soviet oligarchy. We know very little about the exact mechanics of this criminal activity, perhaps the biggest one of its kind in history. The actual engineers knew too much, which could only mean they had to fall out with the designers.

Specifically, in August 1991 Kruchina fell out of his office window. Two months later Maxwell fell overboard from his yacht. Veselovsky, who handled most of the leg work, managed to leg it to Switzerland, where he became a highly paid consultant. Obviously he knew quite a bit not only about his former employers but also about his new clients, which knowledge enhanced his earning potential and possibly acted as a health insurance policy.

Thus ended Cap’n Bob’s illustrious career, during which he was a Czech immigrant, a British officer, a publisher, an MP, The Daily Mirror owner, purloiner of its pension funds. And a Soviet agent by anyone’s definition but the FBI’s.

We’re all epidemiologists now

Covid isn’t only a deadly contagion but also a symptom of another highly communicative disease: institutionalised idiocy.

“I’m entitled to my ignorant opinion!”

This malaise has its own symptoms, such as distrust of (even contempt for) expert opinion, proud ignorance, smugness, debauched intellectual discipline, and a propensity for saying “I’m entitled to my own opinion” and “Let’s agree to disagree”.

It was Aristotle who first observed, and C.S. Lewis who later repeated, that one unfortunate and unavoidable by-product of democracy is a widespread belief that, because all citizens are equal before the law, they are equal in every respect. And, if they are all equal, then so are their opinions on any subject, no matter how involved or specialised.

Such misconstrued egalitarianism (this is a tautology: all egalitarianism is misconstrued, but we’ll let it slide for now) has been elevated to a cult, a surrogate religion our comprehensively educated masses find easier to follow than any other.

Suddenly the opinion of an illiterate believer in multiple universes becomes as valid as the judgement of a Nobel prize winner in quantum physics. Or even more valid actually: the ignoramus’s mind, unsullied by recondite knowledge, is more open to new ideas.

Generally I avoid citing my own example, but this one is germane to the theme. Anyone who can gain access to the Salisbury Review archives from the early ‘90s will find many of my articles dousing the universal enthusiasm about the ‘collapse of communism’.

What was happening, I wrote, wasn’t a triumph of democracy, but merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB, fused with organised crime. In the past few years, dozens of people who read those pieces or simply discussed the subject with me at the time have acknowledged that I was right – the evidence before their eyes is hard to ignore.

But they have conveniently forgotten the vehemence with which they argued with me at the time, upholding their right to their own opinion and insisting that my naysaying was caused by a chip on the shoulder. In that spirit, the publisher of a book of mine was fighting every word I wrote about Russia, to which he used to have an ideological attachment.

Then, a couple of years ago, he admitted graciously if begrudgingly that my guess turned out to be lucky. Not wishing to gloat over a fallen foe, I dismissed the surrender. Yet I could have told him there was neither luck nor guesswork involved. I simply knew more about Russia than he did – and, at the risk of sounding conceited, just about anyone else in this country.

In addition to possessing native knowledge of Russia, whose enigmatic nature is, according to Churchill, impenetrable for outsiders, I’ve probably read more books on the country than most professors of Russian studies. And I’ve been following Russian news sources for decades, without missing a beat.

My publisher’s knowledge of Russia exceeded that of an average passer-by randomly plucked out of a crowd, but he still wasn’t qualified to argue with me on the subject. Yet many chaps who knew even infinitely less than he did screamed their disagreement with me at the time – and some still do, but there we’re talking of clinical cases.

None of this is to say that I’m the ultimate authority on the subject – only that I am indeed an authority, and those who aren’t will argue with me at the peril of coming across as ignoramuses with an infirm grasp of what constitutes knowledge.

Epidemiology is an easier subject to learn than Russia, but it too demands vast experience in acquiring and applying a large corpus of knowledge. Such knowledge lies even deeper beneath the surface than Russian topics do. After all, until a year ago stories about epidemics hadn’t exactly been inundating print, electronic and broadcast media.

And yet a staggering number of people insist on proving that a derided Mr-Know-All has been thoroughly displaced as an enunciator of opinions by a Mr-Know-Sod-All. They open their minds wide, empty them of brains and fill the vacated space with the travesty of knowledge they pick up from Google, newspapers or – at best – articles in popular science magazines.

Suddenly they feel equipped to take on professional epidemiologists in polemical jousts. Rather than asking respectfully what the experts think, they pooh-pooh the experts as being biased, in the pay of the state or Big Pharma or generally corrupt. Laudably, these neophytes bring to the task a complete absence or prejudice or indeed any other judice worthy of the name.

One reads and hears ignoramuses pitting their expertise skimmed off the top of news stories with that of men who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of that discipline. The arguments usually end with the sacramental flagship phrases of modern barbarism: “I’m entitled to my own opinion” and “Let’s agree to disagree”.

The blighters don’t even realise how pathetic they sound. By contrast, a friend of mine is a medical doctor, but not an epidemiologist. Even though he’s highly erudite in every branch of medicine, not just his own, he refrains from voicing strong opinions on this specialised discipline – and he isn’t generally known for such reticence.

It hardly needs saying that we can, indeed must, take experts to task, asking them probing questions and querying about their sources. But we can’t argue with them – unless we too have put in the time studying the discipline with professional dedication.

This isn’t about epidemiology, Russian studies, quantum mechanics or any subject in particular. The problem is wider than any of them, and it has left the domain of epistemology or sociology to penetrate those of ontology and anthropology.

The very nature of modern man is changing before our eyes, with his intellect receding into the background. Coming to the fore instead is ignorant, aggressive rodomontade that in the past would have made most people wince. Today they applaud and cheer.

Is Potus Catholic?

Nothing sleepy about this Joe, let me tell you. Last week I wrote it would take him just a few months, perhaps even weeks, to reverse every one of Trump’s best policies.

The mask didn’t stay on for long

Proving yet again that I’m incapable of keeping pace with progress, Joe made a good start in hours, not in months, weeks or days. Belying his age and dwindling cognitive ability, Potus began to swing his pen like an axe directly he gained access to the White House.

With nary a moment’s hesitation he put his flourish on the executive orders Kamala put on his desk. These will push America back into the Paris Accords, commit the country to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, pave the way to legalising the reputed 11 million illegal aliens, remove restrictions on Muslim immigration, swing the doors of women’s loos open to reidentified men, force schools to admit ex-boys to girls’ athletic events and so on.

No signs of somnolence there, assuming that Joe had actually read the documents he signed. However, observant fans have detected other signs, those of the invisible hand of Catholicism moving Joe’s pen.

Thus Prof. Kate Ward of Milwaukee’s Marquette University, says: “Many of Biden’s stated priorities do align with the Church’s social teaching. These include supporting poor and working families, protecting the environment, and offering a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants.”

Allow me to translate: “supporting poor families” means increasing welfare budgets and squeezing, if not expropriating, productive citizens; “protecting the environment” means damaging the economy in the name of unscientific ecofanaticism; “offering a path to citizenship” means… well, you know what that means without my translation.

I’ll spare you even a cursory foray into theology to show that none of this has anything to do with Catholicism. It has everything to do, however, with the appetites of the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party, which is gradually becoming the Democratic Party.

Many benevolent commentators have pointed out that Biden’s ideas are similar to Pope Francis’s. Inasmuch as His Holiness is a man of the Left, that’s true. Inasmuch as he is still a Catholic, that’s false.

For example, much as the pontiff would probably like to bless homomarriage, abortion and transsexualism, he has so far managed to desist. Each time his viscera demands such a development he remembers at the last moment that he leads a world church, not the World League for Sexual Reform.

No such compunctions for Joe, who not only supports all such things but actively promotes them – to the accompaniment of loud declarations of his faith. Now, a champion of abortion, homomarriage and transsexualism may be many different things, some of them even good. But one thing he can’t be is a Catholic – even (especially?) if his views overlap with this Pope’s take on the Church’s social teaching.

Biden supports abortion not just in theory but in practice. Specifically he plans to provide federal funding for ‘elective’ abortions on a vast scale. What, not for enforced ones?

Oh well, Joe is fast, but he isn’t that fast. Give him a month or two in office. His plans, incidentally, go where even Obama didn’t dare tread – and no one ever accused him of being a Catholic in good standing.

It’s reassuring to see a man who practises what he preaches though. In 2016 Biden signalled his unwavering support for gender-bending by officiating a transsexual marriage.

Inter alia this shows an understated commitment to the sacramental aspect of marriage. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Joe hasn’t yet taken holy orders, as a good Catholic he should have demurred from officiating any nuptials, even normal ones. But religion is but a figure of speech for today’s political figures.

It’s worth mentioning that not all Catholics see Biden as one of their own. For example, a church in South Carolina barred him from receiving communion in 2019. In other words, he was excommunicated, if so far only by a church, not the Church.  

Biden is a ‘moderate’ socialist, who will almost certainly be controlled by immoderate ones. Socialism may at times add the modifier ‘Christian’ to its nomenclature, but that has as much to do with its core tenets as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has to do with democracy, republicanism or indeed the Korean people.

Biden’s other plans, already enunciated but not yet acted upon, include conferring statehood on the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s guaranteed to perpetuate the Democrats’ hold on power, ensuring a triumph of woke socialism.

Oh well, at least Puerto Rico is Catholic. Unlike Potus.

Himmler portrait adorns Berlin police station

How likely is this headline to be true to life? On a scale of zero to minus ten?

Genrikh Himmler

Correct. Even if a German were a crypto-Nazi, he’d never advertise that so blatantly. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell whether he’d be thrown out first, or the portrait.

If, on the other hand, both the cop and his take on interior decoration remained intact, wouldn’t we be justified to draw some far-reaching conclusions not only about him and his immediate superiors, but also about today’s Germany?

This brings me to Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on his arrival in Moscow. The dissident flew in from Germany, where he had undergone extensive treatment after being poisoned with a toxin produced by the FSB poison lab.

That Putin’s junta arrests, murders, maims and in general harasses dissidents isn’t news to anyone who has the minutest of interests in Russia. My interest in it is more than minute, and one would think nothing about that place could still surprise me. Yet something did.

Everybody knew Navalny would be arrested on arrival. No surprises there. It was also predictable that his plane would at the last moment be rerouted from Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of his supporters had gathered, to Sheremetyevo, where he was greeted only by cops and FSB.

Reading about that, I almost had to stifle a yawn. But then I came across a telling detail, of the kind where the devil lives: the wall of the nearby police station where Navalny was taken prominently exhibited a portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, head of the OGPU/NKVD in the 20s and 30s.

It’s hard to compare this ghoulish mass murderer with Himmler on any moral criteria. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. But Genrikh (the Russian version of Heinrich) probably outscored his near namesake in the sheer number of victims.

Heinrich Yagoda

Yagoda became OGPU’s deputy head In 1926, but his boss, Menzhinsky, was permanently incapacitated. Hence it fell upon Yagoda to build that sinister organisation, later known as the KGB and now as the FSB, to its worldwide prominence.

His achievements in that post were numerous, but one of them ties him symbolically to Navalny. For Yagoda supervised the OGPU poison laboratory, which by the looks of it keeps his legacy alive.

Yagoda himself liberally used its products in his daily work. Thus in 1934, on Stalin’s orders, he dispatched Menzhinsky who, though ill, was stubbornly hanging on to life. Yagoda is also widely credited (if this is the right word) with the poisoning of the writer Gorky and his son Max, whose wife was Yagoda’s mistress.

It was then that OGPU became NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), with Yagoda as its head. So in fact he was in charge of the Soviet secret police for about 10 years until his dismissal in 1936. And, compared to his overall achievements, a few poisonings here or there aren’t even worth mentioning.

During the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Churchill commiserated with Stalin about the millions of Soviet casualties during the war. Stalin waved the condolences away: “We lost more during the Collectivisation”.

He was referring to the effective enslavement of the Russian peasants, whose land was nationalised and who were all attached to collective farms. In the good Russian tradition, the dispossessed and enslaved peasants resorted to jacquerie, with dozens of revolts dotting the country’s map.

It was under Yagoda’s leadership that these were suppressed with inhuman brutality. How many died? No one knows – the Russians aren’t big on actuarial practices. But if Stalin said that the number was greater than the 20-odd million killed in the war, he ought to have known.

As part of this campaign, Yagoda engineered Holodomor, the 1932-1933 artificial famine that didactically killed at least 5,000,000 peasants in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The survivors learned their lesson on the benefits of collectivised agriculture.  

It was Yagoda who turned a few scattered concentration camps into what Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, whose islands densely covered the country. How many millions died there? No one really knows, and in any case I wouldn’t be able to count that high.

Yagoda was the first who spotted the vast economic potential of Gulag as an endless supplier of slave labour, the mainstay of the Soviet economy. One of his most spectacular, but perhaps least significant, coups was the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal built on the bones of the tens of thousands of GULAG inmates.

Add to this massive purges complete with the first show trials, organised and supervised by Yagoda, and the full scale of his toil begins to emerge. But he wasn’t all work and no play.

Unlike the ascetic Himmler, Yagoda was no stranger to the fine things in life. He and his comrades staged regular drunken orgies, where, on top of the usual orgiastic activities, they used priceless icons for target practice. When Yagoda himself was arrested, found in his possession were hundreds of pornographic films, piles of similar literature and a small collection of dildos.

By the time Himmler made his first tentative steps, Yagoda had already established himself as one of the most evil personages in world history. Yet it’s wrong to ascribe all those crimes to his own villainy. For Yagoda wasn’t a free agent – he was an agent to Stalin, a blunt instrument in the tyrant’s hands.

Again, those who follow Russian affairs know that Stalin’s reputation is being gradually rebuilt in Putin’s Russia. His portraits and busts are popping up like mushrooms after the rain, and he’s widely extolled as an empire builder and victor in the war.

Putin’s propaganda portrays Stalin as a harsh but fair leader, who sometimes had to resort to tough measures out of dire necessity. Though it’s impossible to conceal Stalin’s crimes altogether, they tend to be dissociated from him and externalised in his hangmen, such as Yezhov, Beria – and Yagoda.

That’s a variation on the old Russian theme of good-tsar-bad-ministers: the executors of Stalin’s orders are vilified, while he himself is glorified. This is all par for the course.

But the prominent display of a Yagoda portrait at a Moscow police station signals a new development: it’s not just the Butcher-In-Chief but also his junior butchers who are now being put on the pedestal.

That gets me back to my original question. If we’d be hypothetically worried about seeing a Himmler portrait in Berlin, shouldn’t we be worried for real about seeing an actual Yagoda one in Moscow? And shouldn’t those of us who still harbour illusions about Putin’s Russia wake up and smell the novichok?