A Kremlin Feast During a Financial Plague

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When I opened the Nov. 27 issue of Kommersant, I was shocked. After taking out the glossy "Style" pullout section devoted to watches, I saw a full-page photograph of Svetlana Medvedeva, Russia's first lady, on the cover. Her picture was adorned by a Breguet watch that was conspicuously displayed on her left hand.

The centerspread of the insert described which expensive watches the leading female leaders and first ladies wear. Those featured included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. first lady-to-be Michelle Obama, French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, acting Israeli Prime Minister Tzipi Livni and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Medvedeva's photograph was first on the list and was accompanied by a short description: " ... the daughter of a military serviceman from Leningrad sports an eye-catching watch from Breguet's Reine de Naples collection that includes the phases of the moon, a small second hand, a pearl face set in a gold casing and colorful Chopard earrings from the Copacabana collection. But as the photo on this page shows, she also wears more modest Breguet watches from the Classique collection."

Was the cover photo of the first lady intended to make Medvedeva -- and by extension President Dmitry Medvedev -- look bad? Unlikely, since it is commonly believed that the owners of Kommersant publishing house are good friends with the presidential couple.

It is interesting to put this episode into historical context. Even during the most liberal years of Boris Yeltsin's leadership, when the media fearlessly discussed all of the president's decisions and actions, even the most courageous editor-in-chief would think 10 times before printing anything about the personal lives, habits or predilections of the president and his family members.

In addition, the context of today's worsening financial and economic crisis is also very important. People who are having trouble making ends meet are not likely to read Kommersant, much less glossy inserts about luxury watches. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 20 percent of the working population have faced cuts in their salaries, delays in getting paid or being laid off during the crisis. Nevertheless, imagine what thoughts would go through the mind of a person who, after just losing his job, happened to pick up the glossy style section of a leading newspaper and saw that Russia's first lady loves Breguet watches. You can also imagine how thrilled he would be when he found out, after doing a simple Internet search, how much Medvedeva's watches cost -- both the fancy model and the more "modest" one.

The Kommersant piece is also surprising, given that many fashion magazines are saying that styles are quickly moving toward simplicity and modesty. An increasing number of celebrities, such as Ksenia Sobchak, believe that "dressing to impress" is no longer considered good taste.

History is full of examples of how quickly the people's attitude toward their rulers can turn from love to hate the moment hard times hit. It can be very precarious for leaders to show themselves basking in luxury while large parts of the population are having trouble making ends meet during a deep economic crisis.

Recall the episode from late 18th-century French history that was the subject of the film "The Affair of the Necklace." Court jewelers crafted an opulent, exquisite necklace, but it was so expensive that King Louis XVI refused to buy it for his wife, Marie Antoinette, on the grounds that the royal treasury could not afford it during an economic crisis. A group of opportunists led by Comtesse de la Motte tricked one of the richest men in France, Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan, into thinking that Marie Antoinette dreamed of acquiring the necklace and was willing to make the Cardinal prime minister if he would lend money to the queen to buy it. Once he was in possession of the necklace, de la Motte began selling the jewels. But the fraud was exposed, and the players were arrested.

The whole affair could have been resolved privately, but the king and queen wanted to clear their own reputations by holding a public trial. Nonetheless, the royal pair's reputation was terribly besmirched. Although Antoinette was completely innocent in this case, the public did not believe it. The affair only strengthened the people's belief that the royal court was rife with reckless freeloaders who led a life of debauchery and extravagance while the people lived in a state of poverty and suffering. Although the royal family was clearly victims in the scheme, historians believe that "the necklace affair" helped undermine the authority of the monarchy and bring on the French Revolution.

There is another example of this phenomenon from the 20th century. In the early 1980s, Galina Brezhneva, daughter of the decrepit, unpopular Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, was purportedly involved in a case of stolen diamonds. Rumors about it ran rampant in Moscow. Brezhneva's lover, a Gypsy singer, was sent to prison and died shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances. It is possible that the Brezhneva "diamond affair" was a well-orchestrated operation -- perhaps ordered by Yury Andropov -- to frame Brezhnev. Whether or not it was true, a major blow had been dealt to the Kremlin, and this undoubtedly set off a chain of events that ultimately led to Mikhail Gorbachev's ascension to power and the start of reforms.

The last example is the current crisis. Duma deputies from the Just Russia party issued the following statement: "Holding the Millionaire Fair exhibition of luxury goods and services in Moscow during an economic crisis with mass layoffs looks like holding a feast during a plague." These words would have been expected from the liberal opposition, but in this case the criticism came from one of the parties most loyal to the Kremlin. This is a typical phenomenon during a plague, because while the people in power are still enjoying a feast, opportunists -- including both friends and foes -- are busy planning schemes to take advantage of the leaders' weakened position.

The leaders in the Kremlin, however, are so removed from reality and so confident of their infallibility that they don't have the slightest idea of the political danger that they are in. That could prove to be their fatal mistake.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.