A friend of mine just got arrested for arms dealing. From whom he was buying the arms, to whom he was selling them, or, indeed, whether he ever bought or sold any, I haven’t the slightest idea. But the raid, by the Italian police and intelligence, on Sasha Zhukov’s five-million dollar villa in Piccolo Romazzino, on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, made front page news in London and in the Italian papers. It was in London, in fact, that we had first met, and a year later, Sasha came out to a dinner party in Venice in the company of his fiancée, a rather glamorous Miss Greece. (Too thin for my taste, mind you, but then again, with the Greeks, time is on your side.)
We were introduced by Galya Berezovskaya, whose ex, the Russian entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky, keeps an apartment in the same fortified enclave on London’s embassy row where Sasha has a penthouse overlooking Kensington Palace. Bv way of a brief digression, the reader may as well hear what the vituperative Doubting Thomas and bilious helpmate of White Counterrevolution, the so-called writer and self-styled nonconformist Navrozov, is doing running around with people of that peculiar stripe. Would Louis Farrakhan choose to dine with his natural enemies? Would Norman Podhoretz pay for dinner? Is there no such thing as principle?
The answer is that, in the early 1980’s, when Andropov’s secret-police apparatus relaunched Beria’s old plan for the restructuring of Soviet totalitarianism—to be marketed at home and abroad as the “fall of communism”—Russia’s ruling junta needed a human face for their emerging system. Like an Identikit portrait, this was to be made up of a few predictable elements, including free elections to a legislative body (without any power), independent media with a material base controlled by the state, and unlimited business opportunities for those chosen to enjoy them. Not much in the way of verisimilitude, but if you are the president of a multinational corporation desperate to sell your country down the river, it’s more than enough to bring round the stodgiest shareholder.
Anyway, punters like Berezovsky and Zhukov were among the lucky ones. I’m not saying that they had got a head start by keeping their distance from the secret police, or that they had been picked to play the part of entrepreneurs in the pantomime of Russian capitalism just because they had a firm handshake and an engaging smile. But by the time auditions were held, the specific loyalties of the men who were going to make up what would soon be popularly known as the “Russian mafia” hardly mattered. The premise was that a certain percentage of the country’s wealth, say five percent, would be turned over to them—as had been done once before during the New Economic Policy of the 1920’s — and their inborn greed, human vanity, and a modicum of effort would do the rest. In a matter of a few years, the simulacrum of capitalism in Russia would have a pockmarked but convincingly human face. As for controlling this mafia, since when does a 95-percent stakeholder worry about how to control the small fry?
So much for the digression, the point of which is that people like Sasha Zhukov are basically good fellows, living high on the hog, and endowed with a mentality very much like the lottery winner’s. The only problem is that, like many lottery winners, they tend to reassess their lives ex post facto, reorganizing everything from kindergarten on into a logical chain of causes and effects that lead inexorably to the moment when they picked the right numbers and received their reward from the hand of fate. It never occurs to them that they are mere extras, expendable and replaceable, in a political production the likes of which the West has never dreamed possible. How could it ever occur to them? They take the West, with its Kensington penthouses and its Misses Greece, very seriously. So when they get taxed in Moscow, or shot in Cannes, or arrested in Piccolo Romazzino, they are very surprised.
The news of Sasha’s arrest reached me at the Grand Hotel delle Palme in Palermo, where I have since decided to spend the coming summer. I had never visited Sicily before, and had it not been for the unexpectedly and fortuitously acquired friendship of the G —, a family of hereditary Palermitani, I would never have made the effort of tearing myself away from Venice at a time when the crab season was just beginning. Besides, like the Red Army of old, I only go where I am invited.
Alfredo G— brought me the day’s Corriere delta Sera with a happy smile on his face: “Friend of yours?” On seeing Zhukov’s photograph next to the grim headline, I told him that I would normally regard the poor rich sucker as a passing acquaintance, but now that he was behind bars, and rather more probably put there by the hubris which is the nemesis of the lucky than by any real malfeasance, yes, I was more than happy to regard him as a friend. Afredo signaled his approval of my reasoning with a Masonic wink and, standing in a Palermo street and craning our necks like two Superenolotto savants scrutinizing the village-by-village distribution of the weekly jackpot, together we read the article.
The Milanese take on the news did not contain any references to arms smuggling, international intrigue, Russia, or the Balkans. The crux of the story was that, in August of last year, Sasha gave a party for 600 guests at his Sardinian love nest, where his immediate neighbors include Italy’s George Bush, Silvio Berlusconi. Present among the celebrities were Alba Parietti (in American terms, roughly speaking, Martin Peretz trapped in the body of Vanna White), Prince Carlo Giovannelli (Taki Theodoracopulos minus the wit, I regret to say, as well as the charm and the money), Marco De Benedetti with his wife Paola Perrari (Sonny & Cher, if Sonny had made three billion dollars selling mobile phones), Robero Cavalli (Italy’s most feted fashion designer cannot have an American counterpart), and so on down the length of the Roman social edifice, which was decorated for the occasion with a number of “girls with crystal tattoos sent over by an escort agency in Milan” and topped with a vase “containing twenty-two kilos of Beluga caviar.”
“I already told the television people I don’t know anything about him,” said one grandee, Ignazio La Russa, “so what do you want me to say? This story shouldn’t be making the papers.” “I don’t really know who Signor Zhukov is,” said another guest, Paolo Cirino Pomicino, “but why should I feel embarrassed? I was just there by chance. I came with friends. I was staying with Daniela Santanchè…. You know how she is, I always go where she tell me.” In her turn, Daniela Santanchè told the Corriere: “No, we had no idea who the Russian was. You know how it is in the summer here, it’s like a caravan, one group just follows another. We dropped by only for a few minutes.” Supposed to have crowed thrice in the story, the cock of the Gospels was by now more like a galvanically oscillating dead frog.
“You see? That’s your Venetians for you,” muttered Alfredo. I tried to explain that the perfidious gobblers office caviar were Roman, Milanese, Bolognese, anything but Venetian, that Venice was less responsible, from the strictly ethnographic point of view, for the complexion of Italy’s beau monde than just about any other Italian city you could mention—all to no avail, because to Alfredo the distinction between any two places on the mainland, even as utterly dissimilar to the mainland dweller’s mind as Rome and Venice, was dwarfed by their basic northernness, their cold and calculating northern baseness. If I had come from Florence, Alfredo would have said that leaving friends in a lurch was a Florentine trait. “They are all alike,” he said. “That mafia. Not a grain of loyalty.”
As for Palermo, I will have to wait and see.