Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Brits have no love for liberal ex-KGB Russian oligarch

I'm a firm believer in the idea that the neo-KGB and the Russian state have extended their tentacles farther than most people realize (*cough*al-Qaeda*cough*), but the recent outrage in Britain over the Russian oligarch Aleksandr Lebedev's purchase of the Evening Standard is pretty ridiculous in light of his history with media companies. Along with Gorbachev, Lebedev owns 49% of the dissident Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the last bastion of oppositional print media in an increasingly authoritarian Russia. His company has been a vociferous critic of the Putin administration – at least four of its journalists have been assassinated for their work, and the rest are fearful.

Despite Lebedev's sponsorship of Russia's last remaining major print source of critical news and analysis, Britain's xenophones will not be convinced. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, prominent media figure at the Sunday Telegraph, can't be bothered to look past Lebedev's KGB pedigree, and thinks "it's one more example that we are no more a serious nation that we allow a serious paper to be taken over in our capital by a Russian oligarch."

Fortunately, not all in the British press have an instinctual repulsion to Lebedev – Luke Harding of the Guardian wrote fondly about Lebedev's sophistication and distinct lack of the typical oligarchical pretensions, as well as less superficial things like his anti-authoritarian streak. But I think that such things border on hagiography, as they ignore an obvious point of contention: the source of Lebedev's wealth. I don't know much specifically about Lebedev, but given what I do know (he was a KGB agent who became very rich in the Great Russian Plunder of the 1990s), it's likely that he's done some things that we in the West would consider outright theft – there was simply no other way to earn the money that he did otherwise.

But it's easy for us to sit hear and judge, when the entire Soviet state was for the taking, and ultimately I think he's probably one of the more honest and liberal of the oligarchs. He hasn't made peace with Putin, risking the fate of fellow politically-motivated über-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and has continued to bankroll the leading voice of Russia's liberal opposition. It's just sad to see that even in Britain, with its open press and history of being the setting of Russian political dramas, people are ignorant enough about the place to insinuate that Aleksandr Lebedev might still be sympathetic to Russia. On the other hand, it's important not to downplay the oligarchs' crimes, while always keeping in mind the institutional incentives that allowed the oligarchs to rise and led to the backlash that has resulted in the creeping re-nationalization of the Russian state.

No comments: