Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Checking the Reform Clock

, two things happened. First The Times of London appeared complete with a supplement on the Russian Federation. And second, I had a visit from my old friend, the oil dealer.

The Times' supplement was, as you might have expected -- and as it had to be (it was, after all, paid for by the advertisers) -- a fair old piece of window-dressing. There was a picture on the front of a striding, smiling Boris Yeltsin "leading Russia into the future," and inside he was to be found intending "to set the country on a firmer economic footing for the next parliamentary elections." (He'd better hurry.)

The economy was described as (maybe) "growing at a healthy 5 percent a year," and its fantastic success was all down to -- you guessed it! -- privatization, which planted an "[irrevocable] desire for ownership in the minds of ordinary individuals." (Ha!) The Duma, it went on, is now busy with amendments to 2,000 trade laws to bring Russia "in line with internationally accepted norms;" and economic reform "in short" -- I like that -- "cannot be arrested."

As for politics, the supplement was benignly, magisterially even-handed: Grigory Yavlinsky was described as "charismatic," and Viktor Chernomyrdin had (though not charisma, perhaps) "a good understanding of the economy. He formerly ran an important gas utility before entering politics and continues to wield considerable clout in that industry."

I was still falling around with mirth at this description of the relationship between Chernomyrdin and Gazprom, when the oil dealer arrived. You may recall that it was he who a while back described to me how consultancies had taken the place of bribery, etc., in the Russian oil business, and who persuaded me that by this means it had been made "absolutely standard." (It was the businesses around it, transport, shipping, handling, loading, that were dodgy, he said -- but that's another matter.)

Anyway, he was not in good shape. An oil deal had just fallen through on him, he said -- not because it wasn't a profitable deal all round, but because there'd been no oil at all to go along with it. There'd been contracts, yes; there'd been money; there'd been ships from the West; there'd even been guarantees from producers, transporters and harbor-masters. But when the time for delivery came nothing at all happened -- nothing, except the gradual eating up of money he didn't have for the hire of the ships waiting for the nothing offshore.

I was kind: I didn't even mention the words "absolutely standard" to him -- well, only once. Besides, I was soon concerned for his mental health: After tearing his hair and saying "I can't believe it" a few thousand times, he started pacing up and down, excitedly invoking the good old days, when the "Reds ran the show" and "at least they could deliver."

Here, in other words, was a man who -- even though he'd profited greatly from what The Times' supplement refused to see as the smash-and-grab of privatization -- was suddenly reduced, with one setback, to nostalgia for the old days, "when you knew who was boss, and business was business."

So who is it exactly who says ("in short") that "reform cannot be arrested?" The truth is that millions upon millions of Russians who haven't had my friend's considerable advantages feel exactly the same way that he did last Friday. And who's to say that Gennady Zyuganov and his fellow Communists -- for all their soothing noises -- aren't convinced of it too. They may have made deep piles of scratch out of privatization themselves. But that was when they were in the political wilderness -- and there's nothing so lucrative as running the whole show under the cloak of principle, as they did in the old days.

There wasn't, of course, a hint of this possibility in The Times' supplement. Nor was there any mention of Russians' nostalgia, irrationality and hatred for foreigners: one of the few issues you can build a party on in this country -- witness the success of Zhirinovsky's the last go around. There was only strictly-for-export sweetness and light: "The clock of economic reform cannot be turned back," it announced with confidence, "no matter who controls parliament or who sits in the presidential chair."

This, in the end, was the only comfort I could offer the oil dealer in his hour of need. I read the passage out loud to him -- and he laughed and laughed. By the time he left, he was quite cheered up -- and by that time believing that perhaps his wish might indeed come true. If foreigners, after all, believed that the present economic dispensation couldn't be reversed, then the fact that it would be was a virtual certainty. He was on his way to get out all his old address books.