(Image courtesy:The New Yorker)

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December 25, 1991 Moscow

The stocky chubby-cheeked man walked across the hall from his Kremlin office and paused in front of a door, his fingers absently patting the dark purple port-wine stain that had run across the right side of his forehead ever since he was born, in a hick town called Privolnoye, in western Russia.

The man took a deep breath and entered the room, it’s walls panelled with pecan-coloured woodwork. Two large windows at the far end were covered with heavy drapes. Usually this room was reserved for receiving visitors but that evening a television crew was waiting.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, President of the USSR, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, seated himself behind a heavy mahogany table and when Kremlin chimes had completed seven peals, he began his final address as President of the USSR. In the past, most of his addresses were taped in advance but that night he was going on live.

In his customary matter-of-fact monotone, Gorbachev began his address to the nation, which lasted 30 minutes, ending with, “….therefore, I am ceasing my activities as President of the USSR”, his words implying that while his presidency was finished, the USSR was still alive and would go on.

Nothing could be further from the reality. In fact, by the time Gorbachev had walked back to his office, the Soviet flag outside had already been lowered from the Kremlin flag pole. The Russian tricolor of red, white and blue, now billowed in the winter gust.

Back in his office, Gorbachev waited for the arrival of Boris Yeltsin, for the handing over of the devices and codes for the Soviet nuclear arsenal, but Yeltsin did not show up. Instead it was the Minister of Defence, Air Marshal Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, who explained that Yeltsin had been offended by some portions of Gorbachev’s farewell address and had refused to meet him. Gorbachev decided that there was no point in prolonging the agony and handed over the briefcase with the nuclear button to Shaposhnikov.

Just a few kilometres from the Kremlin on Mokhovaya Street however, nothing had changed . It was the same Moscow, in deep freeze with drab, shabbily dressed workers shuffling along in the snow, reeking of cheap vodka, hurriedly stepping aside as a massive black six-door Zil swept by. Seated in the back were two gruff men with heavy Slavic features, astrakhans on their heads, staring stonily out the darkened windows.

In precipitous haste, without any preparation or planning, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics finally passed into history. If ordinary Russians believed that they would now enjoy western lifestyles and freedoms, they were mistaken. They didn’t figure anywhere in the new Russia where another age had begun – the age of the oligarchs.

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December 2003, Moscow

There was the same bone chilling cold, the same shabbily dressed factory workers shuffling in the snow. Only this time it wasn’t a clunky Zil that passed them by. It was a gold Lamborghini which eased to a stop under the porte-cochère of the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel where 13 years into the future, a low-life called Donald Trump would be video-taped by the FSB having high priced Georgian prostitutes urinate on each other, for his pleasure.

In front of the Ritz, a crowd had gathered, eager to see who stepped out of the Lamborghini. The gull-wing doors swept upward and a swarthy man in sunglasses stepped out. He had on a quilted Farah Grey jacket which he had picked up on a whim in Beverly Hills a month back. The jacket glittered in the street lights with 390 carats of flawless diamonds that had been sewn into it. His fingers had enough gold on them to buy up an African country. As the man walked through the large armored glass doors of the hotel, he was surrounded closely by four large men, probably ex-Spetsnaz. Personal security had become a necessity.

Back in the mid-1990s, the man that the bystanders were gaping at used to be a trusted aide to the Deputy Mayor of St.Petersburg, Vladimir Putin. That unswerving loyalty had paid off, as he now sat at the head of the $230 billion oil and gas giant Rosneft. He was the face of the Nouveau Russe, close confidant and the foremost of Putin’s oligarchs – Igor Sechin.

Like Sechin, today there are 118 other Russians, looting and murdering their way with complete impunity to the top of the heap.

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The term “Oligarch” is derived from the 17th Century Greek term “oligarkhēs”, which in turn is a combination of two words – oligoi (few) and arkhein(to rule). The ancient Greek elite realized that it was easier to carve up and lord over territory in a group than to be alone at the top and have to fight off challenges all the time. The Oxford dictionary definition of oligarchy says it is… “a social system that is under the complete political control of a small elite.” No longer.

The early 20th Century Italian-German sociologist, Robert Michels, believed oligarchy was inevitable. After years of studying different political and social systems that existed in the world during his time, Michels developed what he called the iron law of oligarchy which made the following blunt observations…

– All complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they are, will eventually develop into oligarchies.

– Direct or proxy rule by an elite group is inevitable and a tactical and technical necessity, for any democratic organization to function successfully.

– No society can function successfully for long as a pure democracy. Power within will always eventually gravitate to a few individuals.

– Social systems become oligarchical because ordinary folk find governance too complicated and generally prefer to let others make decisions for them.

– Those who achieve authority are then unwilling to give up the resulting privileges and prestige and thus try to consolidate and extend their power in order to keep those privileges.

– No matter how successful an oligarchy is, there will always be one individual among the elite who will begin to think of himself as supreme leader, capo-di-tutti-capi, boss of bosses. This will inevitably lead to battles for succession, the very eventuality that oligarchies wish to avoid.

In short, as per Michels, we are doomed to fail as a species.

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History is replete with oligarchies. The world’s first recorded oligarchy was the 1st Century BC Roman triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. Caesar later vanquished the other two and was set to become supreme leader when he was assassinated.

My own country of birth, India, has been in a vicious stranglehold by a cabal made up of the Ambanis, Birlas, Goenkas, Hindujas, Ruias, Mittals and Adanis, each having carved out a niche segment of the nation’s economy, each busy jerking off politicians and screwing the public.

The US too has been an oligarchy, though in a slightly different sense. Unlike Russia, America didn’t suddenly switch to oligarchy. From the time of it’s birth, America has been governed by oligarchs, beginning with it’s robber barons – immensely wealthy industrialists and businessmen who reigned between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries. They made and bent laws to reflect their will and made Presidents beholden to them. They lorded over vast tracts of land and owned virtually every large business within hundreds of miles. Andrew Mellon, J.P.Morgan, Marcus Goldman, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Patrick Joseph Kennedy were all robber barons. When the late Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, was asked if he had really ordered the killings of many on his way to riches and why he couldn’t be like American billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who got rich through legitimate means, he said with a deadpan, “Don’t compare me with 1990s American billionaires. Compare me with 1890s American billionaires.”

America’s criminal underbelly too has had it’s oligarchs, starting in the early 1920s with the organized crime families founded by hoods like Joseph Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano and then hardening into an oligarchy of crime families – the Gambinos, Bonnanos, Colombos, Genoveses, Luccheses, Trafficantes, Dragnas and the Magaddinos. You can’t pick a pocket without being shaken down by these men.

And lording over all in America is the oligarchy that runs the United States of America – the laughably farcical two-party Republican/Democrat political system and it’s wealthy donors and lobbyists, all together forming this rotating oligarchy. In public they hold bitter debates over widely different ideologies but in private they are partners, their only aims – to jerk off ordinary Americans and ensure the status quo of white Anglo-Saxon primacy. An unarmed black man in America will be murdered by a police officer, regardless of who (Republican or Democrat) is in power.

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By and large, Robert Michel’s iron law of oligarchy rings true, except that he didn’t foresee the emergence of another kind of oligarchy, one where an elite group of individuals own immense wealth – vast bank accounts, palatial real estate and billion dollar businesses – with the implicit understanding that while they can enjoy their wealth, it is not really their’s. They are simply ‘place holders’ for the real owner – one man, who sits atop everything. All their wealth can be swiftly taken away by him if they don’t do his bidding.

In return for their unquestioning loyalty, their supreme leader gives them “крыша” – pronounced “Krisha”, a word which in Russian means ‘roof’ – shelter from competition, protection from prosecution, freedom from the bureaucrats who implement the rules.

All of those elites who have remained loyal have thrived. Those who thought they didn’t need the ‘крыша’ are either in exile frightened of their own shadows or have died horrible deaths. One fell to his death through an elevator shaft from the 20th floor of a high rise. One was found hanging in his bathroom. One jumped off his yacht and went for swim from which he never returned. One fell from his helicopter 500 feet into scrap metal that was being readied to be compacted in an automobile scrapyard.

Welcome to the Putin Oligarchy.

(Watch out for Part-2)