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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin's Modern Rasputin

According to an eyewitness account, Rasputin, the priest who became the power behind the Romanov throne, proved supernaturally difficult to kill. The palace conspirators who had decided to end the mystic's sway over Tsar Nicholas II and his family first spiked Rasputin's wine with enough arsenic to kill a horse.

When that didn't work, they shot him repeatedly, but were stunned when he leaped up and sprinted across a courtyard. Finally, they beat him, rolled him up in a carpet and dumped him in the Neva River. Despite the icy waters, it took him a surprisingly long time to drown.

One year after Rasputin's murder, the ancien regime was swept away by revolution. A year after that, Nicholas and his family were executed by the victorious Bolsheviks. Rasputin, it is said, had predicted the tsar's assassination.

Alexander Korzhakov, formerly Boris Yeltsin's chief bodyguard, has often been compared to Rasputin. It's something of a stretch, but Korzhakov's election last Sunday to a seat in the State Duma representing the Tula region was both testimony to the ex-bodyguard's stubborn unwillingness to leave the political stage quietly and a bad omen for the "party of power."

Korzhakov's victory contained many ironies. He ran as a populist critic of the status quo, attacking presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, the man responsible for his ouster from the Kremlin inner circle last June, and promising to expose the allegedly corrupt practices of Nikolai Sevrugin, Tula's governor. Yet the ex-KGB general, previously de facto head of the shady National Sports Fund, pledged he would use his Moscow connections for Tula's benefit.

Korazhkov's campaign, which included rock concerts and freebies, looked very much like the one Chubais organized for Yeltsin last summer. Indeed, the pro-Kremlin media, which denounced the Tula electioneering as "a circus," seemed to have forgotten about Yeltsin doing the twist and promising a new Lada to a miner -- not to mention his promises to increase pensions and give tax breaks to big business. And while NTV this week suggested Korzhakov's win might be annulled due to irregularities in his campaign's finances, it is unlikely that the Kremlin, which last summer exceeded official campaign spending limits by as much as a factor of 100, will really want to open that can of worms.

What is really bugging some of the current big-wigs in the party of power, of course, is Korzhakov's threat to go public with kompromat, compromising material which he collected during his many years as Yeltsin's bodyguard and confidant. The ex-KGB general -- who won, along with his Duma seat, parliamentary immunity from prosecution -- told Kommersant Daily after his victory that he had "not yet started" his war against Chubais.

NTV anchorman Yevgeny Kiselyov warned portentously that the expected flood of dirt from Korzhakov would lead to "a new spiral of political instability." This was characteristic Kiselyov chutzpah, given that his Itogi program recently ran a series of reports on the corrupt links between ex-First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovyets, a Korzhakov ally, and a pair of metals industry mafiosi. Those who live in glass houses...

Some might argue that the main lesson of the Tula contest is simply that the candidate who is the best at providing bread and circuses will inevitably win. But that would be an insult to the Russian voter.

Yeltsin's victory last summer, in spite of how the Kremlin stacked the deck, showed that a majority of Russians reject a return to the past, no matter how badly the country's "transition" has gone. Likewise, Korzhakov won not simply because he outspent and out-glitzed his weak and disorganized opponents.

Many voters in Tula, as one commentator put it in the daily newspaper Segodnya, "voted not for Korzhakov, but against Chubais," meaning against the privations they have had to endure as a result of the last five years of governmental mismanagement.

What is sad is that the voter must often choose between products of the same corrupt system, whose ideological declarations or stands on the issues simply mask a naked power struggle. This is nothing new in Russia: one need only think back to the intra-Party struggles of the early Soviet period.

Or to Rasputin. In terms of classifying court intrigue, he was a "Slavophile," while his assassins were "westernizers."