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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Symbolic Connections

Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo member in charge of ideology who has been called the architect of perestroika, died last week. One month earlier to the day, the former editor of the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, Yegor Yakovlev, passed away. Yegor Yakovlev was known as the foreman of perestroika.

In the interim, Moskovskiye Novosti was sold for the third time in the past two years. The new owner made immediately clear that he regarded the newspaper as a status symbol, and that he could just as well have bought an elephant or a dirigible and stuck his name on them in order to generate a little publicity.

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Meanwhile, former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky was transported to a penal colony in the distant Chita region where he will serve out his eight-year sentence, and oligarch Roman Abramovich was sworn in for a new five-year term as governor of the Chukotka autonomous district in the Far East. A number of papers opined that Abramovich had been sentenced to another five-year hitch up north.

There is a symbolic connection among these seemingly disparate events. It has frequently been remarked in the days since Alexander Yakovlev's passing that without him Mikhail Gorbachev would have been far less committed to the cause of democracy; while without Gorbachev, Yakovlev would never have broken into politics in the first place.

Much the same could be said about the relationship between the two Yakovlevs. If not for Alexander, Yegor would never have become editor of Moskovskiye Novosti or lasted so long in the job. Yegor, in turn, consistently pushed Alexander in the direction of glasnost and freedom.

If not for Yegor, Moskovskiye Novosti, created to serve Soviet foreign policy propaganda needs, would never have emerged as the progressive voice of perestroika. And the newspaper would never have become a brand name recognized around the world.

As a reward for Yegor Yakovlev's service in the cause of democracy, Moskovskiye Novosti was granted a luxurious building on Pushkin Square, in one of Moscow's most expensive neighborhoods. For years the newspaper rented out portions of the building, and the financial independence that this afforded allowed Moskovskiye Novosti to keep its distance from both the regime and the oligarchs. After acquiring a controlling stake, the president of the company respected the newspaper's editorial independence.

As he expanded and diversified his business holidings, however, he began to consider his support of the newspaper as a form of philanthropy, and finally as a burden. Two years ago, he sold the Moskovskiye Novosti "brand" to Leonid Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky but kept the building for himself.

Under its new ownership, Moskovskiye Novosti degenerated into a Yukos propaganda rag. This position may have matched the convictions of the editorial staff, but it didn't make for terribly appealing reading. Soon infighting split the editorial staff, and Nevzlin sold the paper to a Ukrainian businessman, who resold it a few months later without even appointing a new editor.

Khodorkovsky, meanwhile, found himself interned at a labor camp in a uranium-polluted area near the Chinese border. What does he have in common with Abramovich, whom President Vladimir Putin has once again dispatched to the frozen north as governor of Chukotka? They both made their fortunes in identical fashion. Both were part of the group close to former President Boris Yeltsin to which he sold the country's national resources for a song back in the mid-1990s.

What's the difference between the two men? Khodorkovsky got the idea that he was a free man who could dispose of his newfound riches as he saw fit, for which he was duly punished. Abramovich behaved properly and was rewarded when the state paid him $13 billion to buy back what it had given him for next to nothing 10 years before. Did all this money make Abramovich a free and happy man? The inauguration ceremony at which he was sworn in as governor of Chukotka looked more like a funeral. Clearly the regime can make even a billionaire an offer he can't refuse. Then again, thousands of Chukchi worship Abramovich like a god.

Is this what Alexander and Yegor Yakovlev dreamed of 20 years ago?

Alexei Pankin is opinion page editor at Izvestia.