Moscow on the Thames

In 2006 Paul Khlebnikov, the American editor of the Russian edition of Forbes, was killed in the centre of Moscow. The Russian police immediately spread rumours that the journalist had fallen victim to a jealous husband. The story didn’t quite ring true, considering that the drive-by murder involved two submachine guns. Even assuming that two wronged husbands had got together, one still doubts they would have chosen submachine guns to exact their revenge. Automatic weapons are hard to come by even in Russia, and it takes some training to know how to use them.

Whoever put a short burst into the torso of the Russian exile Gherman Gorbuntsov in the Isle of Dogs yesterday was clearly a competent man. The same adjective could be applied to our police who, unlike their Russian colleagues in the Khlebnikov case, instantly stated that they were treating the case as attempted murder. And there we were, thinking it ought to be treated as a tax-disk violation.

One has to say that, by the standards of the Russian finance industry, the ex-banker Gorbuntsov had it coming. After all, he broke the laws governing that and other businesses in Russia by ratting on his ex-partners who had allegedly been involved in a gun attack on another banker, Alexander Antonov. As a result of Gorbuntsov’s transgression against the Russian answer to omerta, the case against his colleagues was reopened. Clearly, a submachine gun was the only possible response. Wouldn’t our own pinstriped City folk do the same thing?

Not by way of countenancing the attempted murder, one has to say that Mr Gorbuntsov himself can hardly be confused with your average altar boy. Before becoming a ‘businessman’ he had served some prison time in Russia. Though the papers don’t specify his offence, I have this inner voice that tells me it wasn’t dissent against human-rights violations.

Gorbuntsov is clearly part of the unholy alliance between the KGB and the criminal underworld that has been running Russia since the ‘collapse of communism’. Wise to the ways of his country’s business life, after having given his testimony against the other bankers Gorbuntsov escaped to London, shedding billions along the way. ‘Had I stayed in Moscow, they would have killed me,’ he told his friends.

Alas, little did he know that London is becoming an extension of Moscow, and what our papers insist on describing as ‘business disagreements’ can be settled here just as easily as in the Russian capital. The manner of settlement can sometimes involve our courts, currently featuring the protracted litigation between Berezovsky and Abramovich, and about to feature another one, starring Lord Mandelson’s best friend and sometime host Deripaska.

Barring that, it is radioactive substances that may act in the role of judge, jury and executioner. Or else the more traditional submachine gun can see the light of day. One wonders how long before Russian businessmen, bankers and entrepreneurs turn London into the Chicago of the prohibition era, with law-abiding Englishmen scampering about, trying to evade the hail of bullets unleashed by parties to a business dispute.

Lest you might get the impression that the Russians discriminate against their own land by exporting their fun and games to England, rest assured: they keep enough back. Several cases have caught my eye in the last few days.

On March 17, an off-duty sergeant in the Moscow police was touched by the fender of a car driven by a man who clearly hadn’t mastered the art of parking (which isn’t surprising, considering that a bribe is the only qualification required for obtaining a driving licence in Moscow). After a heated argument involving the two men and their wives, the policeman pulled out a gun and killed the hapless driver where he stood. Suddenly one begins to look at our own traffic wardens in a new light.

Two days ago, two Daghestanis were arrested in Moscow and charged with four homophobic murders. Apparently, their victims had been tied up, gagged, beaten and strangled. As a nice touch, they had also been raped, suggesting that, unlike our own yobs, the Daghestanis express their homophobia in ways that are not only hair-raising but also somewhat illogical.

Another interesting case occurred in Kazan, the capital of the federal republic of Tatarstan. There a man with a bit of previous was wrongly accused of stealing a mobile phone. In trying to get him to confess to that heinous crime, the policemen raped him with a champagne bottle, kept in the station specifically for that purpose. The victim died of internal injuries as a result, and this has turned out to be only one of many identical cases. In each, the murderous policemen were ethnic Tatars and their victims ethnic Russians, which should teach the EU that federalism isn’t without its pitfalls.

The reports didn’t specify the brand of champagne, but I bet it was neither Krug nor Dom Perignon. In all likelihood it was the undrinkable Russian variety, which for some unfathomable reason the Russians are allowed to call champagne. The Italians and Spaniards have to call their Astis, Proseccos and Cavas ‘sparkling wine’, but the Russians seem to be above such restrictions.

I too use a full bottle of the Russian stuff for purposes it wasn’t designed for. Having been given it some 15 years ago, I’ve been using the bottle ever since to pound meat, on the wrong assumption that this is all it’s good for.

I do apologise for my levity in commenting on these events. A way of preserving my own sanity, I suppose. And yours, come to think of it. One thing for sure — in Russia neither their business life nor their law enforcement is quite like ours. I hope we keep it that way.




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