Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: The Big Lie: Alive and Well




While it was drowned out by the Chechnya crisis and the ongoing Kremlin power struggle, a relatively small but significant "blank spot" in Russia's recent history was cleared up this week. During an appearance on NTV's new program, "Vox Populi," Anatoly Chubais, who ran President Boris Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign, was confronted by a pro-communist audience member. This man asked about the June 1996 arrest of two top Yeltsin campaign officials who were smuggling $538,000 out of the Russian White House in a photocopier-paper box. Where did the money come from, the hostile questioner asked, and what was it supposed to be used for? Chubais - ever true to himself - evaded the question, but did offer this: "As the Prosecutor General of Russia reports in an official letter, the money was transferred to the budget of the Russian Federation."


Most reasonable observers at the time assumed the bucks in the Xerox box were a tiny part of the Yeltsin campaign's pool of illegal campaign funds, and Russian officials did, in fact, report later that the money had been turned over to the government (to go toward building orphanages or something of the sort). Back in June 1996, however, Chubais denied that the now-legendary Xerox box or its contents even existed. "I am deeply convinced that the so-called box with money is a traditional element of a traditional, Soviet-style KGB provocation," he pontificated shortly after his victory over the arresting authorities - the Presidential Security Service, then headed by Alexander Korzhakov. Immediately after defeating Korzhakov, Chubais held a press conference to herald the event as nothing less than a "victory for democracy" - winning applause (literally) from Western and Russian journalists.


Now Chubais has confirmed that the so-called money inside the so-called Xerox box was real. While it might be tempting to thank him for correcting the record, it is more likely that he simply forgot about his earlier explanation - or assumed that everybody else had.


Indeed, in watching Chubais and his leftist enemies this week excoriate one another and the systems they represent, it was striking how much they actually have in common. Such as a fondness for the Big Lie.


The central role of the Big Lie in Russian politics explains why contemporary Russia-watching strongly resembles old-time Kremlinology, with its emphasis on reading between the lines. Just take the chronology of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's relations with the Kremlin. In August, Yeltsin declares he has confidence in his new head of government and asks "those who go to the polls next July to be confident in him as well." The heir to the throne has been anointed - apparently. One fine day 2 1/2 months later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin says "the question of a presidential heir does not stand now," shortly after which Yeltsin himself calls media claims that he has cooled on Putin "lies" and declares his "respect" for the prime minister. Several days later, Igor Shabdurasulov, first deputy Kremlin administration chief, says that while Yeltsin "is very impressed with Putin's performance," Cabinet "changes" may "arise" after December's Duma elections.


So all this means that Putin is ... what? The head of state could clarify it, but he is now on vacation again at a country house just outside Moscow.


But first place in the Orwell sweepstakes goes to Boris Berezovsky's media. Last weekend, they warned in unison that the Fatherland-All Russia bloc has dispatched agents to the West to undermine both Putin's reputation and his pet project, the Chechen war. This week, these same media charged that Grigory Yavlinsky's Chechnya cease-fire proposal has the same nefarious aims. At the same time, the Berezovsky media itself published some of the most damning material yet on the Chechen conflict - testimony from wounded soldiers that up to 70 percent of some Russian units in Chechnya have been killed or wounded. On top of this, two Berezovsky-controlled newspapers reported Friday that a headquarters for Putin's presidential bid, manned by Kremlin insiders, will be set up before year's end. Putin immediately denied it, but mission accomplished: Yeltsin, as everyone knows, doesn't like overly ambitious heirs.


The message between the lines? That Putin, barring a systemic upheaval, is destined to become yet another ex-heir apparent.And that, until nature takes its course, an absent Boris Yeltsin will remain at the helm.


And that may be the only truth in Russian politics.