By Adam Taylor January 28 at 2:33 PM
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets the Cabinet in Moscow's Kremlin on Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
In the West, many think of modern Russia as near synonymous with corruption. We know all about the oligarchs, the mafia and the "Wild East" capitalism of the 1990s. One recent poll found that Russia was considered one of the more corrupt countries in the world, placing 119 out of 168 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (where a lower ranking indicates a higher perceived level of corruption).
If the U.S. Treasury is to be believed, that corruption goes all the way to the top of the Russian world. Speaking on a recent episode of BBC Panorama that tried to calculate Vladimir Putin's alleged secret fortune, a Treasury representative explained that the Russian president was himself corrupt and that Washington had known this for "many, many years."
The Kremlin quickly called the charge a "total fabrication" and demanded evidence.
What could possibly explain this disagreement about corruption? One potential explanation has been put forward by Russian journalist Anton Orekh, who, writing for the Yezhednevny Zhurnal, explained that Russians don't really have a word for corruption. While the Treasury may well have found what looks like corruption "from an American-European point of view," Orekh explains, Russians simply don't see it that way.
If that sounds like a remarkable argument, it's worth noting that Orekh is known as a progressive journalist and the Yezhednevy Zhurnal is an independent publication that Moscow has tried to ban in the past. Orekh isn't justifying or excusing corruption; he's making an observation about Russian attitudes. More of Orekh's article is below, as summarized by the longtime Russia-watcher Paul Goble on his blog:
For Russians, what was shown is “not corruption” but rather a manifestation of friendship and a kindly responsiveness to the needs of those around him. “Corruption is some kind of imported word,” Orekh says; and that may be why Russians can’t really fight against it because they do not understand this phenomenon the way the West does.
“In the West,” Orekh continues, “money gives power, but among [Russians] it is just the reverse: power gives money and also takes money away as well.”
Putin doesn’t need billions in cash or stocks, “if he owns the entire country!” the commentator continues. “The extent of his wealth is in fact equal to the size of the budget of the country, or even more to the size of all its national wealth. At any moment, he can get absolutely everything he needs and practically in any quantity.”
Allegations of corruption have long swirled around Putin, and over the years some have tried to estimate the Russian leader's personal wealth. In 2007, one estimate suggested that Putin had a fortune of $40 billion, making him the "richest man in Europe." That number then jumped to $70 billion in 2012, pushing him into the global top spot. Last year Bill Browder, a former fund manager in Russia and a major Putin critic, suggested the real number should be closer to $200 billion — a figure that would make him more than twice as rich as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, currently estimated to be the richest man in the world by Bloomberg.
For reference, Putin's official salary in 2014 was a relatively meager 7.6 million rubles (around $150,000), and he only lists fairly modest personal assets. However, Putin's lavish lifestyle — which is alleged to include a $700,000 watch collection — has led many to suggest that Putin has a little more available cash than he is letting on.
Orekh's argument that money is ultimately irrelevant for Putin is supported by others. In 2012, a group of Russian dissidents published a report that looked at the luxuries Putin's office affords him. It was sarcastically titled "The Life of a Galley Slave." Among the many perks were a lavish estate called Constantine Palace that had recently been renovated at a cost of millions of dollars and 43 aircraft worth an estimated total of $1 billion.
That report reasoned that one of the reasons Putin clung to power was because of the “atmosphere of wealth and luxury he has become accustomed to, and categorically does not want to part with.” Orekh's article reaches a different, but no less dramatic conclusion. Putin hasn't amassed a corrupt personal fortune in foreign bank accounts because he has no plans to ever really relinquish office and all the perks it entitles him to.
“The meaning of his rule is that it is conceived as being for life," Orekh writes, according to Goble's translation. "And even if there will be somewhere in his old age assigned yet another Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev], Vladimir Vladimirovich will be in it our Russian Deng Xiaoping," he adds, referring to the Communist Party leader who held sway over China until his death at the age of 92.