Let the Fox Guard the Roost

Once upon a time, long ago, my friend Christian produced two documentaries in Russia: one a film about the first rock opera ever staged in the country; and the other an attempt, in an hour and 20 minutes of screentime, to introduce Western audiences to Russian culture (He made a pretty good fist of it, too, though -- since I was working on the film with him -- you shouldn't perhaps take my word here as gospel.)

Anyway, ever since then Christian has adored Russia with the uncomplicated love of someone who simply accepts the way folks are. He's tickled pink that his (Christian) name means "peasant" in Russian, for that's how he likes to think of himself -- as one of those universal peasants who might as well have been born in Russia as in Saskatchewan in Canada, which is where he really hails from. Not even endless trips to the Crimea to work -- as the sound-recordist on a British series about a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars -- could diminish his enthusiasm for Russians or dent his sense of identification with them. The only thing that ever riled him in the Crimea was that the Russian members of the crew were paid a lot less than the British. So every trip he'd organize a whip-round among the technicians and as many of the actors as he could muster to see that his Russian (and Ukrainian) comrades had something more than their wages to take home to their families.

Bearing all this in mind, I went to see Christian the other day in London, to where he was filming (the same Napoleonic series) in the courtyard of a smart Regency building above the river Thames. When I arrived, they were shooting a complex exterior scene in the courtyard, with horses and carriages and 50 or so extras, all in costume. But with the polished ease of a crew which has worked together for a long while, the scene was soon done. And as the assistants packed up and the actors meandered off for a cup of tea and a sandwich, I wandered over to Christian.

"Hi, Jo," he said, pumping my hand and pulling me into an echt -- Russian embrace. "What's new?"

"Nothing much," I said, "that you haven't already read about in the newspapers. Except that they've finally done it: They've finally made Boris Berezovsky the No. 2 in charge of national security."

"You mean ...?" And then he dipped his head and began to laugh. "That's great, Jo. Really great." I asked him what on Earth he meant. "It means it's finally under way. The good old American road to capitalism. Bring the foxes in to guard the chickens, and they might make sure the other foxes out there behave. At least they know better than anyone who the other foxes are.""What do you mean, the American way?" I asked him, as he began to pack his microphones away. "Well, Jo," he said, standing, "look what happened in most of the American territories. They just put up a ring, handed out all the weapons anyone might need, and then came back a generation later to see who'd survived. The big guys who'd taken over the ring by that time they made senators and what-have-you. And in another generation everyone had forgotten that there was ever anything wrong. The children had gone respectable by then, see? They were endowing hospitals and symphony halls. They'd become the new aristocracy."

"But they never put outlaws in charge of the law," I said. "Sure they did, Jo. You've just forgotten. Half the marshals and sheriffs in the West were exactly that. Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp. Hell, who else would you want to guard you? So they hired all these hoods who were tired of being on the run or who thought that there was more money in the end in protecting people rather than stealing from them. It wasn't only the right thing to do. It was the healthy thing to do. The banks and saloons could now get on with making money.

"The exact same thing happened with central government," he went on, as the courtyard slowly cleared.

"Sooner or later, the American robber-barons got to run the show. Only difference in Russia, I suppose, is that the process has taken five years instead of 50 or 60. So I'd say hiring Berezovsky as deputy chief of national security is not only a masterstroke; it's historical inevitability being given a kick in the pants and told to get a move on. It's also the downright American thing to do. And if you love America, you've got to hand it to the Russkies for doing it."

"Yes," I said. "But Berezovsky's got double nationality. He's also an Israeli citizen." "Heck, Jo," said Christian, before closing up his soundvan and driving off, "nobody's perfect."