A few months ago, when word of an article of mine about the events of September 11 went round the Russian community in London, I received a telephone call inviting me to a private meeting with Boris Berezovsky. (A relevant question to ponder is whether those Westerners who are unfamiliar with the name have somehow missed out, since it may well be argued that many people who quietly went about their business in the 1930’s without bothering to ask who Trotsky was, and why he was ever so cross with Stalin, were emotionally better prepared for the paradox of an approaching world war that would align the West with Soviet Russia. To the writer, to the historian, and to every other species of freethinking pest that troubles our society, however, the perfect emotional equilibrium of a man shoved into the cattle car that bears him to an unspecified destination has not always been the consummate ideal. This worrisome, often lonely, unshaven or bespectacled human-type wants to ferret out the very worst of what there is to learn of his epoch, and what I write here is addressed to him.)
At home, Berezovsky is vilified as an “oligarch” by the secret-police junta that has borne President Vladimir Putin, which means that the label is intentionally misleading and can be discarded. I have previously written in this space that setting up these bigwigs was an early initiative of that selfsame junta, with the objective of staging a pantomime of free enterprise attractive to Western investment not unlike the simulacrum of constitutional liberty embodied by the Duma and other democratist institutions in post-perestroika Russia. Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who had been chosen almost at random to receive the bounteous rewards of various privatizations and shareouts, only a couple—Berezovsky most prominently—went bad in the end and began biting the hand that fed them. At present, there is an order for his arrest, and those who sympathize with his plight will not be surprised to hear of the man’s imminent extradition to Russia, nor, for that matter, of his tragic death in a car crash.
In the West, Berezovsky has been called an entrepreneur, a tycoon, a billionaire, and a mafioso. The last appellation was given him by Forbes, whereupon he successfully sued the magazine for slander in Britain, where he resides, in a case that went all the way up to the House of Lords. But whatever the label, it is evidently less political than it is prosaic, leading one to ask why on earth anybody so described should be touted as the Trotsky of our time. A flippant answer is that we live in prosaic times. A more substantive reply would acknowledge that, in the 21st century, as George Orwell foresaw back in 1948, big books, big words, big ideas, and all the rest of the romantic mise-en-scène of political rebellion that endured until Trotsky’s day, count for nothing or next to nothing. Big money, on the other hand—that is to say, money measured in hundreds of billions of dollars—is, if anything, more politically pivotal and historically momentous than ever before. A crucial caveat to this last, however, is that while modern money is certainly mightier than the modern pen, the modern sword is still the mightiest thing on earth, and those who suppose that world dominion can be bought with paper money are quite as deluded as the many ordinary Americans who will happily tell you that their planet is safe for democracy so long as its denizens drink Coke and watch CNN.
Jumping ahead to the conclusion of our chat over tea with biscuits, I must say that Berezovsky’s inability to accept that crucial caveat is one of his most notable intellectual limitations: “Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” I kept thinking during the three hours of conversation, “than it is for a billionaire to admit that economics is not the answer to everything.” So, in his own day, it was quite impossible for Trotsky to accept the notion that his own cultural capital—his education, his oratory, his knowledge of foreign languages, or, for that matter, his penmanship or his fashion sense—might not entitle him to the eminence of Stalin, apparently a Georgian bandit with only a pockmarked face and a soldier’s tunic to his name, who had nonetheless attained, and would always retain, that eminence with his subtle cunning, his will to power, and his way with the ice pick. “The most outstanding mediocrity in our Party,” as the great Kulturträger Trotsky once ridiculed him, Stalin understood that culture was not the answer to everything.
We plunge into the interview in medias res, with Berezovsky stating that he has assembled an archive of documentary evidence, and prepared for release a documentary film based upon it, demonstrating that the notorious apartment-building bombings in Moscow two years ago were perpetrated by the secret police on Putin’s orders and not, as Putin has maintained, by Chechens unknown on the orders of shadowy Muslim warlords. This had been a working assumption of mine when I published my article on the events of September 11, if only because Putin’s clamorous insistence on the political and religious consanguinity of the two groups of conspirators—starting on the very day of September 11, before any investigation of the hijackings had taken place—proved such an important lever for cranking up public opinion in the West in favor of a new strategic alignment with the Kremlin. “We are now all of us victims of the menace of Islam,” Putin has, in effect, told the United States and Britain,
but if Continental Europe is absorbed into Russia’s sphere of influence—finally creating the “common European home” first proposed by President Gorbachev to President Bush—then Russia will serve the West as the shield, and if need be the sword, against the Muslim hordes.
Producing conclusive evidence that Putin’s agents were behind the Moscow bombings would be tantamount to proving Putin’s complicity in the September 11 operation, which all too easily centered on the shadowy Osama bin Laden, who, like many of the mujahedin commanders allegedly fighting the Russians during the Soviet occupation—some of them later joining, and betraying, Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s only credible anti-Taliban force apart from the Moscow-controlled Northern Alliance—may have been a Soviet double agent from the beginning. But Berezovsky, who expects to use the material he has gathered to shame the Russian parliament into an investigation of the Moscow bombings, goes a good deal further. He is convinced that the timing of the bombings is a clue to the time scale of the planning of the September 11 operation. Hence, he believes, it is utterly implausible that, during the nearly two years of worldwide terrorist preparations for the attack, involving hundreds of amateur conspirators, neither the CIA nor the Israeli intelligence services operating in the Middle East knew anything of the conspiracy. In other words, even though Franklin D. Roosevelt’s probable foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor remains unproved as a matter of historical fact, the Pearl Harbor of our epoch, meant once again to align Washington with Moscow in a war over the future of Europe, is likely, in Berezovsky’s opinion, to be laid bare to international scrutiny in the weeks, months, or years to come. Then Putin falls.
What falls then, in my own mind, is a long, wide shadow. It is the shadow between Berezovsky’s deeply informed premise and his naively wishful conclusion, suggesting that the pen, to say nothing of the money, is mightier than the sword. Because the weapon in question—the modern totalitarian weapon now wielded by Putin—is not the ice pick, the gun, the tank, or the rest of the rusting paraphernalia of individual vengeance and territorial conquest from Genghis Khan to Stalin, but the 21st-century nuclear superpower whose immensely sophisticated and cunning leaders have successfully lured their only credible opponent into an all-but-irreversible policy of lackadaisical fraternization, market interdependence, and unilateral disarmament. Moreover, if, as Berezovsky must logically accept, the relationship between the intelligence establishment in Russia (where it has overtly constituted the ruling class since the death of Brezhnev) and in the United States (where it has been augmenting its power clandestinely since the Kennedy assassination) exists on another, still deeper and closer—perhaps symbiotic—level than that of their respective foreign policies, then his dream of busting open the Pearl Harbor of our time is more than a little absurd.
Thus we get philosophical. What is modern totalitarianism? And again, I think of how difficult it must be for him to see the future through his billions, as he tells me what I have heard on countless other occasions, in both the United States and Europe, from prominent businessmen who unswervingly believe that all is for the best (except antitrust legislation and capital-gains taxes) in this best of all possible worlds (where big money makes even bigger money). Thus, liberty will surely triumph the world over (because it is more ergonomic). Tyranny will inevitably fall away (because it hinders innovation). Freedom of speech is important (after all, somebody makes money selling newspapers). And democracy is the worst form of government except all the others (because they nationalize industries and print funny money).
But what has any of it to do with modern totalitarianism, the system now being perfected by Putin’s junta with tacit approval from the rest of the world once called free? Nothing. Indeed, how can any of the rich man’s inside-out Marxism—or, for that matter, the average man’s knee-jerk Thatcherism—so much as refer to something so fundamentally new, uncharted, and unknown? For, while it is clear that, among others, the new system recombines and reconstitutes some known elements of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Stalin’s practice of strategic deception, Beria’s concept of political tolerance, Khrushchev’s cultural liberalism, Mussolini’s compromesso with the Church, Hitler’s laissez-faire with respect to small and medium-size business, New Communist China’s openness to foreign investment, the European Community’s principle of transnational bureaucratism, and America’s own 40-year experience with the taxidermy of democratic institutions, not a single study of that system as a whole has yet been published. Just because Berezovsky is product enough of it to understand its potential for deception and evil does not mean that he is in a position to appreciate its actual, for all intents and purposes infinite, vitality and strength.
And so we part and go our separate ways—he, a new Trotsky with all the panache of a warrior on a white charger; I, with the crooked smile of a tired old unbeliever under the bleak lamps of the No. 14 double-decker bus.