Today’s column by Joe Nocera on Russian justice got me thinking about Putin, the current leader, in fact, if not nominally, of Russia. His grandfather was a cook in Stalin’s household, and he himself was brought up through the communist security organs. He presides over Russia with something like Louis’ attitude of L’etat, c’est moi. No Versailles, no lavish costumes, but he holds near absolute power, and he wields it as the champion of the Russian state against the Russians themselves.
Nocera’s column is about the tycoons who grew rich looting the crumbling USSR – nobody says they were good guys! – and who have now run afoul of Putin’s blueprint for the greatness of Russia. Independent billionaires represent a power center not under state control, and a potential threat to it, and so must be brought to heel. Some of these oligarchs, as they are called, have gained some perspective on the nature of a functioning good society as they have lived their lives of luxury. And they have, or had, the means to do something about it, such as supporting opposition political figures and parties, or founding them! The most prominent of them have been brought to trial on trumped-up or highly dubious charges, and are invariably found guilty. The state confiscates their property.
Not exactly the Great Purge of Uncle Joe, but times have changed. The great show trials directed by Stalin do come to mind: after all, Putin obviously feels the need to present the appearance of legality. Putin is plowing the field cultivated by Louis XIV who orchestrated his own great show trial against his former minister Fouquet, a valuable servant who acquired too much wealth not to excite the jealousy and fear of Louis, and all of which he lost to the Sun King.