The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: How Moscow became the new Las Vegas

    Foreign secretary Philip Hammond

    Foreign secretary Philip Hammond has spoken out about Russia's threat to the rest of Europe

    Published: 24 March, 2015

    THE foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, looks like a man suffering from a permanent cold. Recently he roared about Russia, characterising it as “the greatest threat to Europe”. 

    It must be hard to prepare ourselves for another Cold War, although the armaments industry has warmed to the idea, and those who see Vladimir Putin as the Anti-Christ have clapped. What goes on in the Russian Federation beneath the surface? Since the slump in oil prices this is a challenge to any investigative journalist.

    Peter Pomerantsev lived in London and writes for the London Review of Books. His parents fled Russia in 1970. 

    Here he worked in television in a very minor post. His style is fast fast fast. In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible he returns to Moscow, where he uncovers an unpleasant picture of graft, bribery, corruption and nepotism. 

    He visualises Moscow as having the ethos of Las Vegas. Marxism is the banned religion of yesterday. 

    It is crowned by a ruling élite of murdering psychopaths. Property developers are the untouchables and high buildings are now the religious totems of the ruling class. 

    Whether it be Moscow, London or Dubai, height rather than size matters. Only a few individuals try to stem the march of the bulldozer. 

    Old Moscow no longer exists. 

    Three years ago saw a sensational civil action between Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. 

    The claim was for $6.5billion, perhaps best explained by the progress at the Stock Exchange of the Russian oil giant Sibneft. In 1966 it produced a profit of £66million. By 2006 it was £8billion. Four days after his court defeat, Berezovsky hanged himself.

    This was the financial background to Boris Yeltsin’s and now Putin’s Russia. The politics of the casino and personal profligacy swept the old system away. Lifestyles of unprecedented luxury became known. This rape of Aladdin’s Cave could produce scenarios in which Russians could stay in the Hyde Park hotel Bulgari. A room is £725 a night, although that was for the lowly. The penthouse was yours for £16,600 a night. The West hadn’t seen wealth like this for many, many years. 

    Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin

    But back to the wars, and threats of wars. 

    Wars are often ignited by staged incidents. Germany, for instance, contrived an attack on its frontier from Poland. Which leads me to an excellent history of the sinking of the Lusitania. On May 8 1915 a German U2 submarine came across her accidentally and sank her; 1,195 people were drowned, including 123 US citizens. But it was the deaths of 100 or so children which shocked the world. Yet British hopes of an American intervention failed. it took two more years for them to arrive singing The Yanks are Coming. 

    Here is the interesting point: Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had indicated privately that it would be a good thing to lure neutral ships into the danger zone.

    David Niven, everybody’s romantic hero, spent some time with Churchill in 1941 while on leave. Times were desperate, but Churchill told him when they were out walking that something would happen in the next two months. Well it did, at Pearl Harbor. America declared war on Japan, Hitler declared war on America. Suffice to say, it is possible that Churchill had very good information about Japanese intentions. 

    If you are sceptical, think about weapons of mass destruction. We went to war on the assumption that these weapons could be released and be delivered to vital targets 45 minutes away. 

    As a little postscript to this story, I noticed that Tony Blair left by a side door after the Afghanistan service at St Paul’s last weekend. His behaviour sends signals to those of us who do not believe in conspiracy, but look at the evidence. War is good for some people.

    Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber and Faber, £14.99 paperback).
    Dead Wake, the Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Doubleday, £20).