The power of narrative

Putin's daughter

Here’s a strange article:

Since Vladimir Putin began cementing his grip on Russia in the 1990s, many of his friends have grown famously rich.

Not so the president himself, say his supporters, who insist Putin is above the money grab that has marked his reign. His public financial disclosures depict a man of modest means. In April, Putin declared an income for 2014 of 7.65 million roubles ($119,000). He listed the ownership of two modest apartments and a share in a car parking garage.

His daughter Katerina is doing considerably better, supported by some of the Russian president’s wealthy friends, a Reuters examination shows.

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity, a senior Russian figure told Reuters that she uses the surname Tikhonova. Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of Russian lender Gazprombank, said he had met Katerina when she was little and more recently, and that Tikhonova was Putin’s daughter.

Reuters has also learned that earlier this year Katerina, 29, described herself as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of the president. Shamalov senior is a shareholder in Bank Rossiya, which U.S. officials have described as the personal bank of the Russian elite.

As husband and wife, Kirill and Katerina would have corporate holdings worth about $2 billion, according to estimates provided to Reuters by financial analysts. That wealth stems mainly from a large publicly disclosed stake in a major gas and petrochemical company that Kirill acquired from Gennady Timchenko, another longtime friend of Putin…

(It goes on at some length, for the rest, follow the link.)

So what’s strange about it? Surely a story about a despot in some shonky foreign land enriching his family by corrupt practices is the sort of thing you read every day?

Well that’s what’s strange about it. Given how many things there are to dislike about the Putin government, picking on the showbiz lifestyles of his children seems rather like complaining that there aren’t enough photos out there of him engaging in manly outdoor pursuits semi-clothed. It may well be your considered opinion, but I’m going to look at you in an odd way nevertheless.

wtf dog

The fact is that the family as a whole has consistently strived for anonymity in a way that – if you or I did it – would amount to something close to paranoia. Oddly, and extremely frustratingly if you work in the media, barely any information exists about the daughters, who both hold somewhat humdrum jobs under false names and almost never appear in the press.

In fact, even the Reuters article recognises this much:

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity… There is no indication she has made any personal financial gain from this work… Katerina, Maria and  Kirill Shamalov all declined to comment for this article… We have no information whatsoever about the personal life, family connection… Katerina has largely escaped public attention… Little else was known about her adult life…

But wait, there’s more: “under the name Tikhonova, she is listed as an author, along with other academics, of a chapter in a maths text book and at least six scientific papers”.

It’s like the last days of Rome.

So, in conclusion, both daughters lead disappointingly ordinary lives as academics, probably helped somewhat by family connections but almost certainly to a lesser extent than is commonplace within the former USSR. But you’d really need devote some time to deconstructing the article to work that out. The overarching narative is one of decadence and corruption, to the extent that you really have to make an effort to notice that there’s no actual decadence and precious little corruption (take no notice of those network diagrams – I can produce similar ones for the elite of any country you care to name; that is how elites work).

And this is not necessarily because Reuters is an evil anti-Russian propaganda organ of the US authorities. More likely, it’s just that when you investigate the families of the Russian leadership you go in looking to find decadence and corruption, and if it turns out that they’re actually extremely discreet and – frankly – a tad boring, well that just proves that they have something to hide, doesn’t it?

If you want to criticise Putin for running an oppressive police state, destabilising his neighbours and presiding over a country-wide web of corrupt local fiefdoms, be my guest. If you want to criticise his kids’ lifestlyes, however, you should probably take a look at what people like Chelsea Clinton and Euan Blair have been up to lately first.

See also under: “that’s just not what crime does

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2 thoughts on “The power of narrative

  1. Hmmm… I see what you’re saying but a lot of people (Russians and Ukrainians so, arguably, people prone to conspiracy thinking) believe that quite a few of Putin’s friends and family’s wealth is really Putin’s wealth – they are just acting as fronts.
    Obviously, we won’t know until/unless he’s booted out.

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    • Which is fair enough, probably he has (though if things go really bad will they be all that willing to hand it back?). On the other hand, his kids do genuinely seem to lead quiet, everyday lives doing academic things and participating in the occasional dancing competition.

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