Post-Soviet Russia: Just Like 15th Century England?

Yesterday I noted that I would blog a bit this month about the rule of law in Russia.  Today’s Wall Street Journal carries a front-page feature article by Guy Chazan that offers a rare look into the world of Russia’s oligarchs.  I’m interested in the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, now its most famous prisoner.  Chazan’s story focuses on two more oligarchs: Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a decade in which vast fortunes could be made in the chaos of the new Russia.  These men (and they were all men) built empires from scratch on unstable legal foundations in the rubble of post-Soviet society.  The strength or permanence of the law didn’t matter much to the oligarchs; indeed, they relied on its weakness to amass their wealth.

Now that those empires need protecting, however, it is to law that the oligarchs turn.  Berezovsky, once the éminence grise behind Boris Yeltsin, now lives in luxurious self-imposed exile in London.  The WSJ reports that he is worth about $750 million.  Abramovich owns the Chelsea Football Club and the world’s largest yacht; his worth is estimated at about $16.5 billion.  Berezovsky has sued Abramovich for $6 billion, alleging that the latter violated oral agreements about various oil and metal companies in Russia.  Berezovsky claims he left his stake in them in Abramovich’s hands after he fled to London to escape the wrath of then President Vladimir Putin.

According to Abramovich’s attorney, Jonathan Sumption, there is nothing to this claim.  The dispute arose, he says, in a “society without law,” and the deal the two men made was itself “corrupt.”  That might seem like a strange legal defense but, as Sumption continued, “the reality was that that was how business was done in Russia at the time.” 

The case is being heard at London’s High Court.  To help the judge understand the millieu in which the oligarchs did business, Sumption told the court: “In our own national experience, we have to go back to the 15th century to find anything remotely comparable.” 

Maybe.  But the average Russian citizen observing this legal squabble might note that 15th century England had something that 21st century Russia lacks: Robin Hood.

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