Russians on the run

Russians on the run

Masha Gessen

MOSCOW–Russia has seen several distinct groups of emigres over the past century: members of the nobility and intellectuals in the 1910s and ’20s, Jews in the 1970s, economic fortune seekers in the ’90s. The latest group may be the “oligarchs,” the wealthy businessmen who profited from dubious privatization deals and close Kremlin ties in the 1990s.

Consider two of the most famous–media barons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. As recently as six months ago, many Russians believed these tycoons were secretly running the country. Now, both are running away, fearful of criminal investigations on what they assert are trumped-up charges. Says Berezovsky, from refuge in the United States, “I would rather be a political exile than a political prisoner.”

Vague charges. Gusinsky, founder and majority owner of the Media-Most television and publishing empire, was jailed for three days last summer on vague financial charges and left the country as soon as the charges were dropped in July. Last month, the Russian prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant after a wary Gusinsky–who now shuttles among homes in England, Spain, and Israel–was unwilling to return home for renewed questioning. For his part, Berezovsky is under investigation for allegations (which he denies) of embezzling from the Russian airline Aeroflot.

The two oligarchs have been rivals for power–there even were media reports of each plotting to have the other assassinated. Now their predicaments seem strikingly similar. Both created media empires in Russia: Gusinsky started the country’s only national private television network while Berezovsky effectively controlled Russian Public Television, a state channel (both also own newspapers and magazines). Both men used their media empires to help get Boris Yeltsin re-elected in 1996. And now both are fighting to stay out of jail and to retain control of their business empires.

While Gusinsky has not sought publicity since leaving Russia, Berezovsky has taken his fight public. He told U.S. News that he spent millions of dollars to create and campaign for now President Vladimir Putin’s Unity bloc, which he also claims to have thought up. Within three months of the presidential election, however, he says he realized that “Putin simply does not understand the basics of a democratic state. It took a while to realize because he always used to agree with what I said.” What now? He asked Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov’s widow, Yelena Bonner, to join in organizing opposition to Putin; she declined but accepted a $3 million gift to save the destitute Sakharov Museum and human rights center in Moscow. Next, says Berezovsky, he might even join forces with Gusinsky. The oligarchs may rejuvenate the Russian emigre tradition of fighting the regime from without.

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