FREEDOM OF THE PRESS—
A THING OF THE PAST IN RUSSIA
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS—
A THING OF THE PAST IN RUSSIA
After some ten years in and out of Moscow and Perm Russia, I can attest to the fact that there is no solid rule of law, even in an oil and gas joint venture with a Russian state company. We went there at the very beginning of the Yeltsin era facing rampant corruption and left under the Putin regime which was becoming much more uncomfortable and off the rails. The Russian state portion of our joint venture was privatized by a slick Russian, fluent in “no-accent” English, who happened to return from charm school to his remote hometown of Perm. He had most certainly spent his time away at a Moscow KGB polishing school. Perm was an isolated, closed city in the Urals some 600 miles east of Moscow which specialized in armaments manufacturing and prison camps. After some years, every time I met with our Russian associate, he asked if he could buy us out. Finally, I said the price was $50 million which is what the UK oil analyst community valued our interest in the oil properties.
He never responded but some six months later over Japanese food in London, he asked again, and I said the same price which he remembered vividly. He nodded, we shook hands and closed a couple of months later as we left smiling as one of the few foreign oil ventures to make money in Russia. We counted our blessings as we had survived death threats, extortion attempts, reciprocal hit contracts for life insurance purposes and went home never to return. Others in today’s world may not be so fortunate. In fact, the world in Russia has changed with oligarchs and Russian elite oil people being banished or even worse, executed following the economic turmoil created by the invasion of Ukraine. The chairman of the mothership Russian oil company that bought our Perm properties was in the hospital in Moscow earlier this year and just decided to fly out of his window. The entire executive suite of another Russian energy company just up and died one day.
The latest shock to the western world receiving extensive coverage by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal was the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Russia’s news agency announced that he had been detained and accused of espionage. Gershkovich, 31 years old, is the American son of Soviet-born Jewish exiles who had settled in New Jersey. He moved to Russia over five years ago and has been well-assimilated into the culture. The espionage charges could leave him facing a possible prison sentence of up to 20 years. Gershkovich, a graduate of Bowdoin College, is shown below being interviewed on a Moscow TV show a couple of years ago when he worked for the Moscow Times before moving on to the Wall Street Journal.
Putin lost no time getting a fresh and most stern image of himself out to the media as shown below. The irony is that there are numerous Western journalists working in Russia with the Kremlin’s formal approval who were granted visas and accreditation by the Foreign Ministry. Nonetheless, in Russia, anything is fair game even though the arrest of a journalist like Gershkovich is a throwback to the Cold War days of the past and indicative of Putin’s break with the West. Sadly, Gershkovich was chosen as the pawn to deliver that message.
Interestingly, many years ago it was necessary for me to pay my last visit to Perm and I chose to enter Russia through Yekaterinburg which is about 300 miles east of Perm. I had been one of the pioneer oil people going to Russia following Perestroika. As you might suspect, I was quickly contacted by a lovely lady in the U.S. intelligence world who asked if she could debrief me following each trip. I did so for several years until I read in Time Magazine that Richard Hansen of the FBI had given the names of all collaborators in Russia to the KGB. Since the U.S. citizens had to be cleared by the FBI, there was little mystery as to who might be on the list. I had deferred going back to Russia until that trip, but I could not avoid it. I concluded that the Russian entry would best be done through an outback location like Yekaterinburg rather than through Moscow. It worked and I never went back to Russia. A year or so later, we had a project in Libya that was coordinated by a KGB Colonel who told me I should not worry since we were working together. Nonetheless, take nothing at face value in Russia. By the way, my KGB associate is now living abroad.
Up to this point in time, Gershkovich seemed to fit in well and enjoy his life in Moscow which can be an interesting place to enjoy though Westerners have received a clear message that those days are long gone.
If anyone needs a reminder of that situation, have a look at an image of Gershkovich being escorted from a Russian court wearing a jacket with his hood pulled down. Fortunately, a Russian news journalist could capture this “proof of life” though his life has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. For any remaining westerners in Russia out there, time to “get out of Dodge” as it will only get worse.
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