Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Millionaire Deflation

E!Sharp, 1st January 2011 12:58

Russian Revelation

A view on the EU’s eastern neighbour by Andrew Osborn

I remember Moscow’s first Millionaire Fair well. The year was 2005, the venue an exhibition centre on the city’s tower-infested outskirts, and Russia’s economic boom was gathering pace.

The spectacle reminded me of one of those over-the-top scenes in a James Bond film. There was the bedspread hewn from hundreds of dead Arctic foxes, a chained-up panther meant to whet one’s appetite for metal luggage, and a clutch of bikini-clad blondes lazing in a whirlpool to show how much fun you could have in it.

The items were all for sale and the message was that Russia had arrived. As well as prospective buyers there were crowds of ordinary people ogling at how the other half, or in Russia’s case the other 0.001 percent, live.

So it was with no little interest that I returned to the same event this autumn. This time it reminded me of a girlfriend’s take on Moscow’s upmarket supermarkets. There are so few people in the supermarkets and the food so pristine, she likes to say, that they resemble “museums of food”. This was no different. The same luxury goods were on display as five years ago but as I wandered past the Ferraris, the racks of fur coats and the girls selling diamonds, I felt like I was watching a shopping channel without viewers. In 2005, the punters were falling over themselves to open their wallets. This year, the vendors seemed desperate.

It was a reminder that the global downturn has taken some of the glitz out of Moscow. Or as the Dutch founder of the Millionaire Fair event told me with a mixture of delight and despair: Russians just don’t save for a rainy day.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, is of course a proud former KGB spy. Indeed turn on the TV here and you will be treated to a steady diet of war films and spy flicks. Both themes play to and reinforce a key part of the Russian mindset: that the country is surrounded by hostile forces.

But since the FBI caught and deported ten Russian agents from the US this summer, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, the narrative has changed. Not, admittedly, on tightly controlled state TV, which is where most Russians get their news, but in the printed press. For the first time in living memory Russia’s spies are on the receiving end of some pretty blunt criticism on the home front. How, horrified commentators ask, could Russia’s spooks have suffered such an embarrassing setback on the soil of their old Cold War enemy? And how on Earth were they betrayed by one of their own?

As ever in Russia though, things are not quite what they seem. Putin’s old employer, the FSB domestic security service, wants to swallow up the country’s SVR foreign intelligence service and is using the Anna Chapman debacle as a means to that Machiavellian end.

Meanwhile, Chapman herself remains elusive. While she has agreed to strip to her underwear for various photo shoots and launched an iPhone poker application, it seems she is not willing or able to talk about her alleged life as a Kremlin agent in New York.

Or maybe she just hasn’t been offered enough money yet. Last time I communicated with her she asked me to get my bid in. When I wrote that I couldn’t pay for an interview she didn’t respond. If she changes her mind, I have agreed to interview her for free. That was quite a few months ago.

There is something about Russians and exotic animals. Though ordinary Russians can and often do treat one another rather rudely in the metro they have a real soft spot for animals. The more exotic the better.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin has made no little political capital from joining high-profile campaigns to save endangered species such as bears, whales and tigers. At a recent summit devoted to saving the tiger, he quoted Mahatma Gandhi as saying that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

I once knew a girl who loved animals so much that she turned her parents’ Moscow flat into a stuffy menagerie. It was a daunting experience especially when visiting her bathroom, where a pensive bird of prey would eye you from atop the toilet cistern.

Being kind to animals is undoubtedly a good thing but I am not sure Gandhi was entirely right. Muscovites are for example on the whole compassionate towards the Russian capital’s 25,000 plus stray dogs. They throw them scraps, and they don’t insist on their mass sterilisation let alone their extermination.

But as charming as some of these creatures are, surely the way a nation treats its citizens is a better barometer of its greatness or morality. In that respect, Russia definitely still has a way to go.