New Republic on Londongrad

Kim Murphy, a veteran Moscow correspondent from the Los Angeles Times, has published a long article on the impressively large expatriate community of Russians living in Londongrad (her new beat) in the New Republic. Kim poses the question as to whether having large numbers of expatriates living in a wealthy, liberal democracy would help translate some of these values back home to encourage a positive change in Russia. bigben.jpg April Fool’s joke of the week: London’s Mayor Announces that one face of Big Ben will now display the time of day in Moscow…. Here’s the argument for:

Looked at another way, though, it may be that the growing links between the Russian power elite and one of the most liberal, international cities on earth will ultimately lead to a more democratic Russia. “So many people now have this double life between Britain and Russia,” explains (Alexander) Terentyev. “This experience can’t help but influence the Russian development, and in a Western direction.”

Here’s the argument against:

What (Boris) Kagarlitsky has put his finger on is not all that surprising: The oligarchs are ultimately less interested in shaping Russia’s future than their own. London has become a place where they can play out their fantasies, preferring to run with the wolves on English estates rather than from Putin back at home. But they’re not the only ones. Many of those who no longer have the Kremlin’s ear, including even former members of Putin’s own administration, are quietly stashing their nest eggs in London. “Most Russians don’t want to be identified as having a safe haven,” said one banker familiar with the Russian community. “They all want to be seen as happy patriots in their own country. But … they’re all scared. Because, in Russia, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out. There’s no rule of law. Anything could happen.”

I think it is fundamentally problematic to pose the question like this, and plays right into the fallacy of Vladislav Surkov‘s “sovereign democracy,” which is really nothing more than rhetorical window dressing to deprive Russians of their political freedoms and seize power based on the excuse that those freedoms represent the nefarious imposition of a foreign model. I think it is unlikely to expect that a democratic Russia will look exactly like the UK or the United States, and while we shouldn’t demand that Russia’s path toward liberalization mimic that of the West, it is insulting to suggest that the birthplace of the great Andrei Sakharov needs to borrow our playbook to build their own free society. If you want to find the real culprits behind Russia’s escalating authoritarianism, look at who lives next door to London’s Russian émigrés, holding chairs on the boards of BP and the London Stock Exchange, pumping out funds from top banks in New York and Paris, and crafting foreign policy in Rome, Budapest, and Brussels. Do you really think it’s fair to blame President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s crackdown on civil liberties without taking some responsibility first in the West? Until we stop handing out irresistible economic incentives which encourage the Kremlin’s current path, criticism of Russia is just an exercise in hypocrisy that ideologues like Surkov can adroitly exploit to no end.