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From: "Gideon Lichfield" <gideonlichfield@economist.com>
Date: Sun, 13 Jul 2003 21:06:09 -0000
Subject: Gideon-Moscow 32 - How a journalist gets at the Truth

The exactly one year that I've spent in Russia feels like a lot less. One reason, I think, is that however much I may have learned, the process of untangling what is really behind each new story is still the same. Whether it's the battles for control of TV stations, the ins and outs of diplomacy over the Iraq war, the reasons why 1one company bought another, or - last week's perfect example - the political intrigues behind the arrest of a powerful businessman, I inevitably progress from childlike innocence to penetrating insight in the space of a few days, only to end up back where I started.

The process goes something like this. You read a few press reports in English about the story. You feel that you have gotten a rough handle on it. You then read a couple in Russian. These either utterly cloud the issue by dressing everything in euphemism a relic of the cautious reporting of Soviet days - or else illuminate it with a thousand details that no foreign journalist, screened from the inner workings of Russian reality, could have hoped to find out. You feel proud that you read Russian and make a mental note to do it more often.

You toddle off to your first interview, with someone who professes expertise in the matter. This person lays the story out before you like a coroner opening a corpse, and you realise that the press reports you read completely missed the point. They were all superficial prattle and wild surmise; this is the real deal. You feel proud to be an important journalist to whom it falls to be privy to such knowledge. You make a mental note not to believe anything you read in the press again.

Your next interview proves to you that what the first one told you was, in fact, completely off the rails. So irrelevant as to be nonsense. So far from the truth as to be laughable. So superficial that you wonder how your first interviewee got to be where he is in the first place. You make a mental note not to believe the first thing anyone tells you again.

Interviews three and four, with people who are ever closer to the action itself, proceed in like fashion, each blasting to smithereens the vision you had constructed previously and reassembling the same facts in a new configuration. To someone with a physics background it is unnervingly like seeing the universe bifurcate into several parallel ones, as predicted by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. (The most unnerving bit is that, according to the theory, you're not supposed to be able to see more than one parallel universe at a time.) By now your excitement at the sense of discovering a story has been replaced by despair at the feeling that you will never, ever get to the bottom of it. The more veils you pull aside, the more tangled they become. You make a mental note not to believe anything but your own eyes ever again, and those only half the time, and to get out of journalism as soon as is feasible.

By the fifth or sixth interview and beyond, however, the parallel universes are beginning to converge again. Different versions of the story are starting to have parts in common. Those parts acquire solidity and something approaching the status of fact in your mind; the bits that don't coincide you mentally strike off, and they melt away into your unconscious, to resurface only as bad dreams after a heavy night of drinking.

And another thing happens. Some of the people who are closest to the story, and ought to know everything about it, are telling you versions not so different from the first ones you heard. You realise two things: one, that the truth is like a quantum superposition state (see Bulletin #22): it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them. And two, that nobody knows the whole story, and a good many of those who claim to know lots of it know almost none of it.

You start to feel a little better. You sit down with your various versions to construct the definitive, analytical, weighed and balanced account of what really happened. But a strange thing occurs. Again, the story becomes like the quantum superposition state: once you start analysing it, it dissolves in your fingers. You cannot make all the bits and pieces quite fit together. What's more, you don't have the evidence to prove three-quarters of the things you think you now know. And indeed, if you think about them hard enough you realise you don't know them at all; some of your so-called facts are themselves just interpretations, the same way that a red chair is only red and a chair in your mind, while in reality it is just a bunch of wood molecules in a certain arrangement covered with a layer of chemicals that reflect radiation of certain wavelengths.

You work through the material, teasing out what certainties you can and regretfully leaving aside the rest. The selected pieces fall slowly into place. You hammer and shape and tweak and polish until you have a fine, strong, clearly-argued story.

You realise that it is virtually the same as all the ones that so misled you at the beginning.

You groan. You shrug. You press "Send".

The day after it is published you have lunch with someone who makes it clear that you got completely the wrong end of the stick. You make a mental note to do more interviews next time.

Below is the article I wrote on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Kremlin after going through just such a process (followed by a shorter one about the suicide bombings). First, for those of you who are following the issue, a brief list of all the hypotheses I have so far come across for why Khodorkovsky is being put under pressure, roughly in the order that I encountered them. For a fun exercise, try to guess which ones I had heard when I wrote the article.

1. The simplest, and the one most people jumped to at first: he overstepped the lines of the oligarchs' deal with Putin, wherein Putin would overlook their misdeeds if they (a) committed no more of them and (b) stayed out of politics.

2. The one Khodorkovsky professes to believe: there is a power struggle between rival groups (the Yeltsinites, or "Family", and some of the St Petersburgers, whom I'll call "Petes"), for the "second echelon" of power. The Petes fear that big businesses like his will, given their connections to the Family (and especially after Yukos's tie-up with Sibneft, whose boss Roman Abramovich was once very close to Yeltsin), strengthen their rivals' position in the Kremlin. One version of this theory has it that the Petes are specifically trying to prevent Alexander Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration and a Family man, from getting too powerful.

3. A twist on the rivalry theory is that the Petes are doing this for Putin's benefit: either to convince him that Khodorkovsky is a threat, or to demonstrate the effectiveness of oligarch-bashing as a vote-winner. Either way, they will win more influence. A twist on the twist is that with United Russia, the pro-Kremlin coalition, doing poorly in the polls, it could all be part of the publicity campaign by Boris Gryzlov (interior minister and United Russia leader) to boost the party.

4. An alternative to this line of reasoning is that this is not at all about power struggles between the Family and the Petes, but that the government in general, perhaps with Putin himself in the lead, fears that Yukos-Sibneft combined will be so powerful that it will be able to resist demands (for, say, under-the-table campaign finance contributions). This would be even truer if a foreign firm buys it out. Hence the anti-monopoly commission's unexplained delay in approving the Yukos-Sibneft merger.

5. A further gloss on both (3) and (4) is that that the administration may be trying to scare other oligarchs into obedience and squeeze campaign donations out of all of them. A rather more optimistic version of this has it that Putin, displaying King-Solomon- like wisdom and goodness, is going to extract one final massive payment from the oligarchs which he will put into pension funds for everyone in Russia, while the oligarchs themselves, having at last atoned suitably for their asset-grabbing, will be granted full and final immunity from further prosecution in the form of a statute of limitations on all embezzlement committed before, say, 1998.

6. The next theory is that the government is worried that Khodorkovsky, by funding political parties, is not merely buying himself support in the Duma but potentially weakening the pro-Kremlin majority. A more far-reaching version of this theory - one that Yukos itself would like people to believe - is that Khodorkovsky is not merely weakening the pro-Kremlin majority but encouraging the spread of free markets, democracy and the rule of law, which of course terrifies those evil bureaucrats who cower vampire-like in the Kremlin, trying to avoid being fried alive by the bright light of liberalism.

7. Then there are the theories that leave politics aside altogether. One, which I've heard more from Russians than foreigners, invariably employs the catchphrase peredel' sobstvennosti, or "redistribution of property". In other words, certain people among the Petes want a slice of the pie that the oligarchs got and feel this could be their last chance to get it. On this theory they will find legal grounds to relieve Yukos of a few choice assets and leave it at that.

8. A variant of this is that it is a vengeful redistribution: ie, certain people who feel that Khodorkovsky cheated them out of certain deals in the past are now trying to get their share back. One particular feud between Yukos and Rosneft has erupted into a criminal investigation already, and there is (so it is said) bad blood over several other things.

9. Yet another theory is that Khodorkovsky, rapacious capitalist that he is, is trying to expand his empire further, into markets held by certain state-owned firms (chief among them the gas monopoly, Gazprom), and the political levers are being used to keep his economic power in check.

10. Finally there is the theory that it is all an anti-Semitic conspiracy that began with the ousting of Berezovsky and Gusinsky two years ago and is determined to rid Russia of Jewish businessmen (after which it can safely sink back into tsarist medievalism).

Non-Economist articles Copyright 2003 by Gideon Lichfield

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