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By John Helmer, Moscow

When Karl Lagerfeld (lead image, centre)  died this week, the Financial Times epitaph was that he “helped build up the French fashion house [Chanel] into a business that generated revenues of $9.6bn in 2017. Lagerfeld was unmatched in his output and at one point during the 1990s was designing collections for four brands — Chanel, Fendi, Chloe and his signature brand — simultaneously.”

The Chanel sales figure speaks for itself.  But now that Lagerfeld and Chanel can’t threaten to ruin the critics by pulling advertising from their media,  Lagerfeld’s real contribution to Chanel’s profit line, and his cost, can be tested by investment analysts. They report that Lagerfeld was profitable as a brand salesman but lossmaking as a designer.  As the Latin in the title says: if you seek his monument, look very carefully*. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the programme for the special form of Russian governance which Vladislav Surkov (lead image, right*) calls Putinism for the next hundred years, there is no power-sharing with businessmen (oligarchs or merchants), social classes, intelligentsia, the Russian Orthodox Church, political parties, parliaments,  the Constitution or  the civil and criminal courts. Rule will be by the military, the security services, and the state corporations advising the supreme leader. He in turn will be trusted by Russian people to convey their wishes, settle disputes, balance rights from wrongs, and check the state from corruption. Mostly, he will be trusted to listen.

To those whom Surkov, a Kremlin adviser since 1999, removes from power,  in order to make Russia combat-ready against the US and the NATO alliance,  this is a revolutionary manifesto.  (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

No ambition in Russia runs wider and higher than that of Igor Sechin, 58, chief executive of Rosneft.

To help fill the Venezuelan treasury, deter attacks on President Nicolas Maduro, reinforce his army,  and show the world he’s the Russian who can defeat both types of war the US is waging against the world – sanctions war and regime-change war – no bill would be too expensive for Sechin to pay. And if he can do that, he will show that he’s the natural successor of President Vladimir Putin. In point of cost for Rosneft, the Venezuelan strategy is relatively cheap.   

For the Russian military, who have created the most powerful army in South America (also a match for Canada ),  with a decade of deliveries of air and ground weapons,  the Venezuelan front is a fresh tester of American warmaking at low money cost and little risk of Russian casualties.  The combination of Sechin and the Russian General Staff  to defend Venezuela is a potent weapon to demonstrate to the world that US threats are bluff.  

So, win or lose on the battleground of Venezuela,  at home Sechin is showing his Russian allies that he’s their winner in the presidential power contest ahead.

Not everyone agrees. “Yes, the presidency is a matter of Sechin’s ambition; it’s also a condition for his survival,” comments a source who has known Sechin well. “As to who his allies are, I am not able to tell because he has managed to come into conflict with everyone around Putin. But if Sechin becomes the Kremlin’s lead on Venezuela, then Sechin will lose his battle for the Kremlin.” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

In February 1989 I started the Moscow Bureau with a first despatch to Ta Nea, then Greece’s leading daily newspaper. That was thirty years ago, a generation in time and several generations in Russian politics.

A generation is the time it takes for individuals to grow into adulthood acquiring the shared understandings which come as their life cycles run together. Knowing more than the generation around you understands can make you into a celebrity or a pariah; reward you with power, medals and money or turn you into a pauper. Knowing too much about Russia has been a life-or-death story for me. How to survive to tell the story, so that you can anticipate the future we hope to share – this is what Chris Cook, host of Gorilla Radio in Vancouver, asks in today’s broadcast. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Leonid Lebedev (lead image, centre), a Russian oil and electricity trader and patron of  Cyprus President Nikos Anastasiades (right),  is set to lose his multi-billion-dollar claim for a stake in the sale of TNK-BP to Rosneft, according to papers  released by the New York State Supreme Court. The Rosneft deal, priced in March 2013 at $55 billion,  created Russia’s dominant oil producer, and one of the world’s most valuable petroleum companies by revenue and market capitalization.  Its current market value is Rb4.4 trillion ($66 billion).

Lebedev has been claiming in the New York court since 2014 that he is owed $2 billion for a 15% share he once held in the Russian oil company, Tyumenneftegas (Tyumen Oil Company); TNK was the Russian acronym until British Petroleum bought into the company and it became TNK-BP between 2003 and 2013.

Lebedev has sued Victor Vekselberg and Len Blavatnik, alleging that their agreement for the sale of his shareholding for $600 million between 2001 and 2003 had not been completed or paid up.  Vekselberg, who is Russian,  and Blavatnik, Anglo-American,  say they paid Lebedev his money, and that he has been lying and fabricating evidence ever since.

In a hearing held by Judge Salliann Scarpulla on November 14, but kept sealed until a month ago, the judge strongly hinted that she will not allow the case go to trial. She has already dismissed  Lebedev’s claims of fraud and deceit by Vekselberg and Blavatnik. That left Lebedev’s claim for breach of the sale contract.

Scarpulla told lawyers arguing Lebedev’s case that she didn’t believe he had not agreed to the $600 million sale through the Cyprus-based company he had created to act his agent, Coral Petroleum.  After concealing Coral Petroleum’s bank transaction records and accounting records for years, they were discovered last year at BNP-Paribas.

The discovery was “explosive”, the lawyers declared in court. “We literally have hundreds, a box full of directions signed by Mr. Lebedev to spend money on Coral’s behalf. This was all before the defendant’s [$600 million] money even came into Coral.”

“You can imagine how this sounds,” the judge declared in court. “I have an agent, I tell my agent to sign the Agreement, the Agreement contains very broad language, and because later on I find out that the Agreement is not helpful or useful to me, all of a sudden, one, my agent didn’t have authority, which I don’t know how you [Lebedev’s lawyers] can really argue that because if the agent [Coral Petroleum] signs the Agreement, the law in New York is you’re bound. You haven’t shown me anything that would let the defendants [Vekselberg and Blavatnik] know that the agent [Coral Petroleum] didn’t have apparent authority to sign the Agreement. Two, the Agreement [between Lebedev’s Coral Petroleum and agents for Vekselberg and Blavatnik] says what it says and you admit that either your client [Lebedev] or your client’s representatives negotiated it. It was everything in that Agreement then. Your client had the ability to change or at least to discuss or do whatever. So, again, I’m at the position where you’re asking me to sort of find an ambiguity in something that seems not that ambiguous.” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

For the first time in Oleg Deripaska’s 95-lawsuit history in the British High Court, the aluminium oligarch has been judged by the court to be a liar, a thief, and a thug.

“By force or threat of force,” Justice Sir Nigel Teare declared in a judgement published last week, Deripaska had seized a valuable site in central Moscow, evicting its lawful owner, Vladimir Chernukhin,  in 2010. About his business dealings over the property Deripaska “gave false evidence” himself in court as well as inducing his employees and business associates to do the same in their testimony. “Mr. Deripaska has given dishonest evidence to the court as he did to the arbitrators,” the judge ruled. “What his motive was for doing so is known only to himself.” “I formed the view that it would be wholly unsafe to rely upon his evidence.”

The result of the judgement is that Deripaska must pay about $100 million to Chernukhin, a former deputy finance minister and runaway state banker, who has lived in London since 2004. 

In a statement issued in Moscow last week by one of Deripaska’s companies, Russian Aluminium (Rusal), he called the judgement “biased and unfair”.   (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, the triad of Tsar Nicholas I (lead image, left), is no longer as dead as tsardom. It has been revived by Patriarch Kirill (right), leader of the Russian Orthodox Church; backed by the Kremlin; and is now unopposed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and its leader, Gennady Zyuganov (centre). (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (lead image, 2nd from left) , has proclaimed his church the sovereign  equal of the Russian state, and himself the political equal of the Russian president. The power transfer took place at a Kremlin ceremony last week in front of President Vladimir Putin (left).

“For the first time in Russia’s history,” Kirill’s declaration was reported by the state news agency Tass, “such a relationship has established itself between the Church and the state. Because even in the times of the Russian Empire, the church did not have an equal partner in the face of the government. It had always been subordinate to certain government institutions.”  

Russian politicians and constitutional lawyers are slow, and also fearful, to publicly challenge the combination of Kirill and Putin. From a survey of these sources in Moscow, one responded: “Does  the Pope claim to be the equal of the Italian President or Prime Minister? The Archbishop of Canterbury the equal of the British Queen? The Saudi King in a power-sharing deal with the Grand Mufti? Or Netanyahu the equal in Israel of the Chief Rabbi? The answer is obvious. Only in Russia would a churchman dare to make this claim, and violate the rights of all Russian citizens in the Constitution.”

“Nobody may usurp power in the Russian Federation”, proclaims Article 4 of the Russian Constitution. The Church may regard the patriarch as divinely appointed, but Vladimir Gundyayev, the civil name of Patriarch Kirill, qualifies constitutionally to be that nobody. So too are his senior associates on the Church’s ruling body, the Holy Synod  – Metropolitans Varsonofy (Anatoly Sudakov,  2nd left), Chancellor of the Synod and Finance Minister; Tikhon (Georgiy Shevkunov, 3rd left) , National Security Advisor; and Hilarion (Grigoriy Alfeyev, right), Foreign Minister. According to the Constitution, “the seizure of power or usurpation of State authority shall be prosecuted under federal law.”

Constitutional experts also believe Kirill’s declaration violates the Russian Constitution’s Article 14:  “The Russian Federation shall be a secular state. No religion may be established as the State religion or as obligatory.” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sergei Skripal poisoned himself by accident on March 4, 2018, in the centre of Salisbury. At the time  he was engaged in an operation, freelance or official, which was known to the British intelligence agency MI6. The two Russians, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, who visited Salisbury on March 3 and during Skripal’s fateful afternoon,  were a signal from the Russian  military intelligence agency GRU that the Russians knew in advance what Skripal was doing, and wanted the British to know they knew. The two Russians never made it to the front door of the Skripal house in Salisbury; the door-handle wasn’t poisoned; there was no contact between Skripal,  Chepiga,  Mishkin.   Their affair had nothing to do with the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess after she was poisoned at her companion’s home in Amesbury, near Salisbury, on June 30.

By British legal standards of proof beyond reasonable doubt or the balance of probabilities, there is no case to answer of either attempted murder or chemical warfare.

There is another, more ancient standard for coming to this conclusion.  In the mid-14th century William of Ockham, an English born and Oxford educated cleric, promulgated the maxim that deduction from multiple and competing hypotheses should be made as simple as necessary. His idea has been called, metaphorically, Ockham’s razor. Strop the razor on this dossier,  and then try the razor on the Skripal case for yourself. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

A bad smell is emitted by those who go about their business claiming to be more virtuous than others when they are not. Take Keith (Konstantin) Gessen’s (lead image) newly published autobiography cum novel about his time in Moscow. The word for the book is a cross between the noun fart and the adjective virtuous; that’s to say, fatuous.

Six blurb endorsements covering the dust-jacket can’t improve on this because the endorsers have no expertise or experience of Russia, and are obligated to Gessen personally, institutionally or commercially, by way of Harvard University, Columbia University, the New Yorker, and Gessen’s personal magazine N+1.  In short, they are back-scratchers, log-rollers.

In New York Yiddish, the term for them is mishpocha. That means the family of people who understand what the word means; for them it’s a mitzvah (good deed required by religious duty) to help each other make money.  If you know the meaning of both words, you are ready for the Woody Allen world in which Gessen makes his money. Make that the Woody-Allen-world-before-the-sex-and #MeToo-scandals.

If there’s a difference between that world and the Russia which Gessen’s book claims to be about, this  doesn’t matter to him, and especially not to the mishpocha, whose mitzvah it is to tell you to buy this book.  If you are resisting, there’s a reason for those of you who don’t belong to the mishpocha and who don’t come from New York, to continue reading this review. That’s because Gessen, Russian born and Russian taught though he is, is a perfect example of the American inability to understand two vital lessons for American-Russian relations for the foreseeable future.  

Lesson No. 1:  Americans, the alt-right, alt-left, Clintonites, Trumpies, CIA, FBI and Pentagon  — all of them have failed to understand Vladimir Putin, particularly his weaknesses. Lesson No. 2 follows: the war the US has launched against Russia, a war no American is capable of stopping now, or even slowing down, will produce the very opposite of its regime-changing goal. This opposite, this outcome, is the Stavka – a military regime which has the capital, the force multiple,  the intelligence,  and the relative lack of corruption to defeat whatever Russia’s enemies  throw at it, and enjoy popular approval for doing so.  By the way, the Stavka will have an articulate civilian for spokesman – that’s Vladimir Putin.   (more…)