Goodbye, Yuri Tuesday
Moscow’s all-powerful mayor is losing his job, and the scent of his approaching political death is as unmistakable and all encroaching as the rancid stench of a burning peat bog.
Like most Muscovites – and I use the term advisedly, for since only third generation dwellers of the Russian capital can claim the title neither I nor our soon to be former mayor qualify – I was pretty appalled at Yuri Luzhkov’s washing his hands of the smog crisis this summer. His defenders might be right that there was little he could have done to stem the fires causing it, but his departure on holiday at a time when the rest of us were choking was not, shall we say, politic. Even Stalin is meant to have stayed in Moscow as the Germans closed in, and they got as far as the IKEA store in Khimki. Luzhkov took a holiday in Austria when the flames were still a hundred kilometers off. Not a great image, that.
But public opinion has nothing to do with Luzhkov’s imminent departure. In fact, the first inkling ordinary Muscovites had of their mayor’s impending downfall was a documentary aired on the federally controlled NTV television channel last Friday night, which belatedly exposed all the corruption, callousness and eccentricities that Moscow’s taxi drivers have been chatting to their passengers about for years.
The smear campaign continued as other state owned channels tried to pretend they had only just noticed that the mayor is corrupt, until the attacks reached a hysterical fever pitch on Saturday night with a character assassination of Luzhkov’s wife (and Russia’s richest woman) Elena Baturina. It doesn’t take much to assassinate Baturina – she’s not the most photogenic lass, and she’s already universally maligned for pocketing billions through state contracts that her husband pushed her way. But the producers at NTV went one better: they found a gibbering alcoholic who claimed – in barely comprehensible sentences slurred between shots of brandy – to have been her first love in school.
Distasteful is not the word. The entire spectacle, in fact, has been simultaneously fascinating and revolting.
Fascinating because, as Russian television stations are not staffed by suicides, they don’t do hatchet jobs on singularly powerful members of the ruling elite just because they feel like it. So anyone who so much as watched the trailer for the NTV documentary knew immediately that they were witnessing political warfare in progress, a spectacle as gratifying in its savagery as in its novelty: the Kremlin had taken its quarrel with City Hall outside. Now it was Medvedev and Luzhkov in their shirtsleeves, slugging it out in a pub car park with their women screaming “Leeeve it, Yuri, he ain’t worth it!” Or at least as close as we’ll ever get to that.
Revolting because, like most pub fights, it comes down to who has the most mates and the dirtiest moves. The fight was never fair – the publicity campaign employed a combination of stale city gossip and gratuitous yellow “journalism,” and wasn’t even a bid to win over public opinion (this may be wrong, but it is quite legal – the mayor of Moscow counts as a regional governor, and regional governors are appointed by the president, not elected). It was more of an announcement that the mayor’s fate had been decided, an assertion of Medvedev’s muscle. Kremlin sources are already briefing journalists that Luzhkov is going. All he has been left with, apparently, is the choice of deciding the nature of his departure.
While he thinks it through, he has gone back to Austria, with his wife, to celebrate his 74th birthday. Editors are readying political obituaries and pundits are trying to work out what unknown bureaucrat the Kremlin will deem harmless enough to replace him. No one, of course, has bothered to ask the ten million odd people he will govern what they think.
Not that anyone’s going to miss him much. But it leaves Muscovites – and even, I tentatively claim, we transient visitors whose grandparents were not born in the city – with a conundrum. Luzhkov’s name has been synonymous with Moscow since 1992, running it through a political machine that I have it on fairly good authority even the Orthodox Church regards as a mafia, and was impenetrable to outside (read Kremlin) interference. He infamously (well, according to NTV) spent more on his saving his bees than on helping the disabled during this summer’s fires; but he has also made a crucial difference to Moscow’s elderly by paying them several thousand more rubles a month on top of their paltry federal pensions. He rebuilt the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed by the Bolsheviks; but cheerfully demolishes old Moscow to make way for (often his wife’s) sky scrapers. For good and ill, Luzhkov made hectic, glorious, menacing, overpriced, post-Soviet Moscow what it is.
Things just aren’t going to be the same without him.
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