Body language

Editorial Notebook

July 30, 2005|By Will Englund

NOT SO LONG AGO, there was a certain sort of Russian man who liked to sport tattoos of Lenin and Stalin, in profile, on his biceps. You could be sitting in the kitchen of some burly Siberian, a siberyak, and he'd be across the table in his undershirt, with a newspaper full of greasy fried fish and a bottle of homemade samogon vodka in front of him, and he'd be flexing his muscles so that Lenin's pointy beard was thrust even more aggressively forward, pointing and jabbing toward a better future. Stalin would swell right behind.

Those days are gone. Of course. Russia veered off into a different future altogether. Now a newspaper called Moskovsky Komsomolets has turned up a modern siberyak, a minibus driver in the city of Omsk with a tattoo of Vladimir V. Putin. He has the Russian president on his shoulder, which is right, somehow. Lenin and Stalin were driving forces, piston-like men, suited for the muscles of a worker who wields a sledge hammer. President Putin is more removed, quiet and watchful, like the KGB agent he once was. He's always looking, and he keeps an eye on you, and on what you're up to.

The unnamed driver told the newspaper that images of Mr. Putin seem cartoonish unless he's made to appear angry. "Only if he is depicted frowning, or squinting, it does not look funny," he said.

Fortunately, the Russian president has plenty to frown about. Russia is a naturally anarchic place, and Mr. Putin is about as archic as a person can be, if that's the right word. His government has spent two years dismembering the Yukos oil company and gathering up the charges to throw its chief, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, in prison, and for a long time. Although the ruthless Mr. Khodorkovsky came by his wealth dishonestly, that was not his crime. The Kremlin put its foot on his neck when he started to think he might be interested in politics.

Now Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, has made the same mistake of allowing the Kremlin to think he might have political ambitions. He is a politician, so he should have known better. A prosecutor has discovered some shady dealings involving a government dacha, a "cottage" in the woods. Might Mr. Kasyanov have strayed outside the law? Suffice it to say that if every government official who found himself in possession of a lovely dacha had to contend with a prosecutor, there would soon be empty dachas from one end of Russia to the other, and no government.

But all this squashing may have had an unexpected side effect. A survey by a good-government group called the Indem Foundation found that bribery in Russia is up nearly tenfold since Mr. Putin took office, with most of the increase taking place since late 2003 when the Khodorkovsky case began. The head of Indem, Georgy Satarov, thinks the persecution of Yukos was seen by Russia's bureaucrats as a signal that it was now open season on business.

Politicians who are not as careless as Mr. Kasyanov about their careers have been quick to dismiss the allegation that lawbreaking might have increased under Mr. Putin's watchful eye. The total amount of bribery Indem calculated - $316 billion - is more than the entire budget of the Russian government and almost as much as the market value of all Russian corporations, they pointed out. This makes such a figure absurd, they argued, though no one has actually spelled out why bribery couldn't be the largest sector of Russia's economy. Anyone who has driven a car in the vicinity of a Russian traffic cop should at least be open to this possibility.

Maybe this is what that minibus driver out in Omsk had in mind. The next time a police officer pulls him over in search of violations, he can pull off his shirt and reveal the ever-vigilant scowl of the president. But that would be wrong. It's the ambitious cop who should be scared of Mr. Putin, not the crooked one.

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