“There are two famous last words,” Charles Bohlen, a US Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War, once warned. “One is ‘alcohol doesn’t affect me’. The other is ‘I understand the Russians’.” Russians who confidently say they know what the Kremlin is about to do fall into both categories. Russia’s remaining oligarchs – those who are not in prison, or in foreign exile -understand Bohlen’s warning. That’s what makes them especially nervous these days.

One reason for the uncertainty is that the Kremlin, like staffs of the head of state the world over,is overwhelmed with too much work, too little coordination, and too many enemies to be dealt with all at once. A second reason is also common to the rest of the world: clever politicians never telegraph their punches. A third reason is a Russian particularity, which is the legacy of former President Boris Yeltsin. In the name of wrecking the Communist Party, Yeltsin near-destroyed the apparatus of command and control on which the state depends. To the end of preserving his personal power, he initiated divide-and-rule tactics that continue to pit Kremlin faction against faction, in a fashion that President Vladimir Putin is hard-pressed to rule.

Putin therefore allows it to be known that he needs help in his campaign to recapture the state from the hands of the oligarchs who took it from Yeltsin. This is one reason why Sergei Stepashin, head of the Accounting Chamber, is mounting an independent strike against Roman Abramovich, after checking first with Putin to see if he would say no. Not all Kremlin factions favour the move; some, because their priority is to deal with the President’s political enemies, or with the state’s security threats; and some, because they have their hands full managing the campaign against just one oil company Yukos. So long as Abramovich was telling Putin how helpful he could be against Yukos shareholders Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, there has been an unwillingness among some of Putin’s advisors to start a campaign against Abramovich.

Not that there isn’t enough documented material in security agency files to spearhead such an attack. However, the problem for the Kremlin is that its intelligence resources are better suited to assembling the cashflow evidence for indictments of money laundering, fraud, grand larceny, and other charges – after the crimes have been committed. They are not well adapted to predicting in advance what the oligarchs are planning to do with their foreign bankers and lawyers, or how they are spiriting their cash beyond Russian means of control.

The President’s men can read in newspapers that Mikhail Fridman, head of the Alfa banking group, and Victor Vekselberg, the TNK oil and SUAL aluminium oligarch, want to cash out their $3.8 billion stake in British Petroleum shares; but they don’t believe the money will return to Russia. They can speculate on what Vekselberg was recently doing in South Africa, but they don’t know for sure.

The Kremlin staff was not able to anticipate major offshore transactions, such as Vladimir Potanin’s $1.2 billion purchase of a 20-percent stake in the South African goldminer, Gold Fields, in March; or Oleg Deripaska’s sale this month of the Samara and Belaya Kalitva aluminium rolling plants to the US corporation, Alcoa; small though that looks, compared to most other oligarch cash-out deals. What seems certain is that Potanin and Deripaska didn’t ask the Kremlin for permission in advance. What is now up in the air is whether the President will be advised to let them get away with it, or not.

How the Kremlin is directing the outcome of the Yukos affair is indicative of the likely answers to that question. What is already in evidence is that the Kremlin has chosen to install its own trustee in charge of the Yukos board of directors. Victor Gerashchenko’s role will not be to dismantle Yukos, and sell off its assets. He is likely to do a better job of keeping the company together than he did, under Yeltsin’s direction, of preserving the rouble zone, a decade ago. But let there be no mistake. Gerashchenko has not been engaged to use his own initiative or entrepreneurship. He will follow Kremlin orders. These are likely to include the separation of Yukos from Sibneft.

But just as Gerashchenko will oversee the new Yukos, Sibneft is likely to find itself under a similarly appointed guardian, with a similar mandate. Selling off large stakes in either oil company to foreign oil companies won’t be allowed. Just in case the new board chairmen cannot keep their eyes on everything at once, loyal Kremlin men with forensic accountancy backgrounds will be placed in charge of the oil cashflows.

It takes years to train and test such expertise. It cannot be hired from international firms, whose well-known names have become synonymous in Russia with qualified account statements and misleading balance-sheets that conceal the trading and tax avoidance schemes which the Putin administration has pledged to stamp out. There is no reason for the Kremlin to stop with Yukos and Sibneft. There are already signs that Norilsk Nickel, Potanin’s preserve, will follow suit, as tax reparations owed by Potanin to the state are transformed into a golden state shareholding, supervised by a Kremlin appointed chairman of the board.

Russian Aluminium (Rusal) – the creation of Abramovich and Deripaska – cannot be immune to this process, if and when it begins. But those qualifiers are big ones.

For reasons particular to those involved inside the Kremlin, it may happen that Abramovich and Potanin negotiate a stay of judgement, and Deripaska goes first. But when the President needs help, knowing what will happen next is far from a sure thing.


MOSCOW – Roald Dahl, the English humorist, once wrote a tale about a man who had acquired the secret of seeing through cards. Naturally, he had to conceal it, if he was to make a killing at casinos. As professional gamblers all know, casino managements are constantly on the lookout for players with systems that can beat the odds of losing. It’s also entirely legal for them to build systems for insuring their clients lose; and to ban those clients smart enough to overcome them.

Alisher Usmanov is a Russian businessman who thinks like a casino. He enjoys the reputation for big-stakes gambling, because that attracts other people’s money. But he doesn’t like the risk of losing his own. Last month, Usmanov suffered the biggest loss ever, despite what many judged to have been a cleverly managed entry into the casino that is the City of London financial market. But had Usmanov studied more closely, he would have known not to gamble, unless you have bought the casino first.

Usmanov’s loss came after a year of steadily buying up shares in the ailing steelmaker, Corus, an Anglo-Dutch company. As Usmanov bought, he also tipped off the UK press to his ambitions for Corus — a bigger shareholding he intended to accumulate, he said, in order to take a seat on the Corus board of directors, and to build a link between Corus and the steel plant and iron-ore mine, which he controls in Russia. The more he publicized himself, and the more shares he bought, the higher the share price went. Over a year, Usmanov’s offshore holding called Gallagher accumulated almost 14 percent of Corus to become the second largest shareholder in the steelmaker. The share price rose in that interval from a low of 4 pounds on March 13, 2003, to a high of 45 pounds on March 9, 2004. Usmanov could count tenfold profits, at least, on his early stake purchases, if not on the later ones. He refuses to provide details, but it is possible to estimate that he has outlaid on his gamble not less than $200 million.

The Corus management repeatedly replied to Usmanov’s press statements by denying him their endorsement for a seat on the board of directors. But apart from vague generalities, they never explained why. They also rejected Usmanov’s attempts to link the two steel making groups. Gallagher’s share buying was good for Corus; Usmanov, the company decided, was not.

After booking his initial gains, it is unclear what Usmanov had to gain financially by continuing to spend more money to chase shrinking gains in a rising market. His iron-ore mine, Lebedinsky -the largest in Russia – is already producing at close to maximum capacity, and exporting almost a third of its production outside n Russia. It is virtually impossible for Usmanov to offer more iron-ore to Corus. As for Usmanov’s steel plant, Oskol Electro-Metallurgical Combine, its range of products doesn’t suit Corus’s range of needs.

Usmanov himself, and his spokesmen, have been fast on the press release making claims they then refuse to clarify. Accordingly, there are three theories of what Usmanov really wanted from Corus. The first is that he viewed the Corus board as his route to a seat in the Anglo financial establishment. Usmanov needed the ticket to respectability, so the theory goes, because his reputation in Moscow has been that of a corporate brawler, who muscled into assets on behalf of his sponsors in the Gazprom management, or in alliance with LUKoil CEO Vagit Alekperov. The biggest dent in Usmanov’s reputation came from his raid on a diamond-mine discovered in the Arkhangelsk region in 1996 by Archangel Diamond Corporation (ADC), a small Canadian company that now belongs to De Beers. In court papers filed in the United States, Usmanov (and Alekperov) has been accused of massive fraud. Initial rulings have rejected US jurisdiction, and are on appeal. The charges against Usmanov remain untried, not only in the United States, but also in an arbitration proceeding in Sweden.

The second theory of Usmanov’s campaign against Corus is connected to the first. He is greenmailing Corus — that is, he is positioning his newly acquired shareholding, or his Russian steelmaking interests, or both, for sale back to Corus, and not for buying into Corus. The Moscow opinion of Usmanov is that he is a financial investor, not a steelmaker. His objective, according to this interpretation, is to oblige Corns into relieving itself of the pain of his attacks by making him an offer to exit. This could take several forms, including a joint venture between the Russian smelter, the mine, and Corus; or it could be a simple cash transaction. Usmanov’s raid on the ADC is viewed in similar light by De Beers; Usmanov has hinted that for the right price, he might let go. Like Corus, De Beers has chosen to fight, not pay.

The third theory of Usmanov’s intentions go back to problems Usmanov admitted he was having at Gazprom, when the Putin administration began its reorganization of the company almost three years ago. It was then that several of Usmanov’s friends at Gazprom followed the sacked CEO, Rem Vyakhirev, out the door. Usmanov conceded at the time that he was feeling potential pressure on his assets from the new Gazprom management, led by Alexei Miller, which had started an investigation of what Vyakhirev had done with Gazprom’s assets and asset disposals. Through Gazprominvestholding, which Usmanov directed on Vyakhirev’s behalf, Usmanov had taken control of the steel plant and the mine. If Miller had wanted, he could have retrieved the assets from Usmanov. But that that was then. The situation at Gazprom has now changed, and Usmanov believes he is no longer under threat. In the interval, it stands to reason that if his control of Osko! and Lebedinsky was at risk, Usmanov should try to cash out into offshore assets. Corus, so this theory goes, was Usmanov’s cash-out vehicle — and an easy, lucrative one at that.

On March 16, Usmanov thought he would rap hard on the casino door, and threaten to blow it down if he wasn’t admitted on his terms. The threat to take “strategic and tactical steps” against Corus was issued in the March 16 issue of the Financial Times. Usmanov thought that Corus would be as intimidated by the newspaper as he is impressed by it. Employing also as his corporate chairman the former Liberal Party leader and ex-Foreign Minister, Lord David Owen, Usmanov might have calculated that he had both pen and sword on his side.

He was able to recruit a handful of sound-bytes in the media, but he failed to make a dint in Corus’s resistance, or in the opposition of other shareholders. They refused to accept the nomination of Usmanov to the board at the annual shareholders’ meeting, scheduled for April 22. Usmanov then proposed a palliative. If you won’t take me, he announced, I offer my nomination of a man you once trusted to run Corus, retired executive Adrianus van der Velden. A Dutchman for a Russian purpose was the proposal. But on the eve of the vote, Usmanov learned that neither the Financial Times, nor Owen, had swung a significant number of votes. Indeed, so small was his apparent gain over the 13.39 percent he already controlled, Usmanov decided it was better to retreat than to allow the magnitude of his defeat to be recorded. Van der Velden’s nomination was withdrawn before the shareholders’ meeting could vote it down. All four of the other nominees to board seats received more than 98 percent of votes in favor.

“We are not going to go away” was the riposte Usmanov’s spokesman made, as he retreated. Corns fired back, intimating that Usmanov had been unable to overcome his Russian dossier, “Gallagher’s challenge to UK corporate governance principles,” aCorus statement said, “has proved a distraction to the management of the company.”

Muffled though Usmanov’s defeat was, it was the first counter-attack on a major Russian businessman to succeed in the London market. From Usmanov’s point of view, the defeat needs to be camouflaged if he is to make good on either the ticket to respectability or the greenmail objectives. He has already made a success of the cash-out ploy, and will probably not waste any more money adding Corus shares to his holding.

But there is a lesson too, for the other major Russian businessman, who is presently keeping the London market in thrall – Roman Abramovich, owner of Russian oil and metal assets, the Chelsea Football Club, and England’s richest man. For him, as for Usmanov, there may come a time when the Russian dossier will catch up with him, no matter how many peers and other establishment assets he has bought. For there is one other lesson that Russian gamblers have yet to learn about the City of London — you can rent, but you can’t buy the casino.


In the snow, Russian peasants still say, the law is like a sleigh. A clever judge can steer it either way.

Vladimir Potanin, the controlling shareholder of Norilsk Nickel (NorNickel), Russia’s largest mining company, ought to know. In a decade of acquiring the assets that comprise his Moscow-based, multi-billion dollar holding Interros, he has had his share of success in the courts fighting off legal challenges to his takeovers. His methods, which were accepted by ex-President Boris Yeltsin, and the size of his wealth, combined with his political clout, have led Potanin to be publicly dubbed one of Russia’s oligarchs.

According to a filing last year with the US Federal Trade Commission to support a takeover bid for Stillwater Mining, NorNickel disclosed that Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov, his partner and CEO of NorNickel, held joint and equal stakes amounting to about 57% of the company. A January 2004 report by Renaissance Capital indicates that 62% of the company’s shares are held by Interros; 4% by NorNickel employees; and 34% by institutional shareholders. The free float was estimated at 34%. There is currently no state shareholding, which was acquired by Potanin in 1995 for $170.1 million. Sales by NorNickel last year were $4.9 billion. The market capitalization of the company as of April 30 was $12.8 billion.

Last week, Potanin also got the message that he might be on the receiving end of Kremlin investigation. A powerful rumor swept Moscow and international markets that he had been called for questioning by the Procurator-General, the federal law enforcement arm of President Vladimir Putin. Rumors about the Russian oligarchs are common; but formal investigations of their business activities by the prosecutors are rare. The Moscow market believes that there can never be smoke from the latter, without someone in the Kremlin stoking the fire.

In two days of share trading, Norilsk Nickel lost more than two billion dollars in market capitalization. In the past two weeks, following the global downturn in metals prices, it has shed $4.5 billion. Whatever is happening, Potanin and Prokhorov are decidedly poorer.

The federal prosecutors first issued a refusal to confirm or deny the rumor. Then one of the prosecutors told me in carefully chosen words that “currently we don’t have information that Potanin has been in our office.” That left open a map of other geographical possibilities for the get-together – and it left an ominous warning for Potanin, as well as Prokhorov and NorNickel.

Not that this was the first warning they have received. In February, President Putin intervened to halt the implementation of a law, which he had earlier signed into effect. If implemented, it would allow NorNickel to declassify hitherto state secret data on reserves, production, sales and stocks of platinum group metals.

This data release, promised for early this year, is one of the requirements for NorNickel and its two controlling shareholders to offer the company shares on western stock exchanges, or for Potanin to swap his shares for another internationally listed company. Declassification had been lobbied by NorNickel for years. But state opposition to opening up the company to foreign buyers blocked the legislative move. It was then rushed through parliament by Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, and signed by Putin last November. But the president was preoccupied at the time with parliamentary and presidential elections; he changed his mind when he learned what was at stake.

Kudrin was demoted in the cabinet reshuffle a few weeks ago.

When the law was suspended, Potanin was warned that a major cash-out transaction that would transfer sizeable wealth in NorNickel to foreign hands – in return for the offshore enrichment of Potanin – would not be permitted.

Potanin apparently didn’t listen. Nor did he pay attention to a second warning, also in February, that blocked the planned issue of a $1 billion convertible bond by Interros. That move would have allowed Potanin to take the cash, and leave in the hands of foreign bondholders the right to claim NorNickel shares.

Undeterred, Potanin and his dealmaker, Leonid Rozhetskin, deputy chairman of NorNickel, got the idea of buying into Gold Fields, using mostly borrowed funds; and then later – they told banking associates in Moscow — to merge their gold assets in NorNickel into a majority takeover of Gold Fields shares.

The first deal was a boon for Anglo American PLC, which had been looking to sell its Gold Fields stake for months. In five days Potanin had agreed, and in fourteen Anglo had its cash. Unbeknownst to Gold Fields, it was about to become a hostage in Potanin’s power play with the Kremlin.

Citibank, lender of $800 million to fund most of the April transaction, is also a hostage of sorts. If the Kremlin’s shadow falls on Potanin, it is unlikely another bank would agree to join a lending syndicate after Citibank’s six-month deadline is reached. Citibank would have to demand its money back. Potanin would have no alternative but to sell out of Gold Fields, quickly. Over the next month, the prosecutors do not have to say any more to make credible their warning that Potanin may not be permitted a cash-out deal.

Framing a charge-sheet against Potanin, and then compiling a multi-count indictment isn’t necessary for this warning to stick. Besides, there simply aren’t enough staff to prepare such documents, so heavily are they already committed to the prosecution and upcoming trials of the two leading Yukos oil company shareholders in prison since last year – Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. They are in prison, because they attempted to cash out a stake of about 40% in Yukos by selling it to ExxonMobil or ChevronTexaco. President Putin warned them not to; they ignored the warnings. The charges against them, and against Yukos, are different. They relate to a myriad of shareholding and cash transfers, tax avoidance schemes, fraud, and forgery. Independent legal assessment of the indictments suggests the two men are likely to be convicted.

Since February, Potanin has been courting the same fate. The rumor that he has met it doesn’t require much substantiation, in order to have the effect that high-ranking officials and advisors to the President, and possibly Putin himself, want to produce. The question for Potanin, therefore, is whether he should reconsider the Gold Fields deal, or proceed with the planned acquisition, and call Putin’s bluff.

Potanin began by reassuring Gold Fields at meetings last week with CEO Ian Cockerill in Moscow. Next, Potanin must pacify Citibank, lender of the lion’s share of NorNickel’s payment to Anglo American. Questions about the security of the deal, and the lack of government approval (which Potanin had sought, and received, when he took over Stillwater Mining in the US last year) have made it difficult for Citibank to find other banks willing to take over the $800 million loan when it expires in September.

The NorNickel oligarch’s biggest concern right now is to find out what Putin is really thinking, and whether last week’s rumor and reports were started to test Putin’s will, or Potanin’s nerves. In this game, as in last year’s Kremlin attack on Lebedev and Khodorkovsky, there is no telling what Putin intends until after he has moved, and the oligarch’s assets are in danger. The Gold Fields transaction may thus be no more than the trigger. What is near-certain is that Potanin’s control of NorNickel may be about to change.

That some of Putin’s advisors want this to happen was signaled by Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute, and an advisor to the president on resource policy. He recently said he favors giving the state a “golden share” in NorNickel. He has yet to elaborate on that. But if the precedent of Yukos’s fate is any guide, that could presage the filing of billion-dollar tax claims against NorNickel or other Potanin companies, and criminal charges against him, and possibly Prokhorov too. To save himself and pay NorNickel’s bills, Potanin may agree to sell at least part of his stake to the government. The transfer of a 17% shareholding in NorNickel, currently worth about $2.2 billion, would be enough to deprive Potanin and Prokhorov of majority control of the company, and allow the Kremlin to dictate new management strategy.

It is the market’s understanding of this vulnerability that has given last week’s rumor of trouble for Potanin legs to run. Whatever Potanin says or does next, time will tell whether Putin has already made up his mind; and whether NorNickel’s resale of its stake in Gold Fields will be either necessary, or sufficient, to satisfy the President.

There are many shadows on the snow right now. An investigation leading to a tax claim or an indictment would be curtains for Potanin, though not for Gold Fields. On their recent visit to Moscow, Gold Fields thought they were meeting the man in charge of their fate. But in reality they missed him. Putin may not mind the Russian government being an indirect stakeholder in Gold Fields; he is unlikely to want a takeover.


By John Helmer, Moscow

Agatha Christie’s whodunit entitled And Then There Were None – the concluding words of the children’s counting rhyme — is reputed to be the world’s best-selling mystery story.    

There’s no mystery now about the war of Europe and North America against Russia; it is the continuation of Germany’s war of 1939-45 and the war aims of the General Staff in Washington since 1943. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and President Vladimir Putin (right) both said it plainly enough this week.

There is also no mystery in the decision-making in Moscow of the President and the Defense Minister, the General Staff, and the others; it is the continuation of the Stavka of 1941-45.  

Just because there is no mystery about this, it doesn’t follow that it should be reported publicly, debated in the State Duma, speculated and advertised by bloggers, podcasters, and twitterers.  In war what should not be said cannot be said. When the war ends, then there will be none.  



By John Helmer, Moscow

Alas and alack for the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 (Berliner Luftbrücke): those were the days when the Germans waved their salutes against the unification of Germany demilitarised and denazified; and cheered instead for their alliance with the US and British armies to fight another seventy years of war in order to achieve what they and Adolf Hitler hadn’t managed, but which they now hope to achieve under  Olaf Scholtz — the defeat of the Russian Army and the destruction of Russia.

How little the Germans have changed.

But alas and alack — the Blockade now is the one they and the NATO armies aim to enforce against Russia. “We are drawing up a new National Security Strategy,” according to Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. “We are taking even the most severe scenarios seriously.”  By severe Baerbock means nuclear. The new German generation — she has also declared “now these grandparents, mothers, fathers and their children sit at the kitchen table and discuss rearmament.”  

So, for Russia to survive the continuation of this war, the Germans and their army must be fought and defeated again. That’s the toast of Russian people as they salute the intrepid flyers who are beating the Moscow Blockade.  



By John Helmer, Moscow

Last week the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board of governors voted to go to war with Russia by a vote of 26 member countries against 9.

China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Senegal and South Africa voted against war with Russia.  

The IAEA Secretary-General Rafael Grossi (lead image, left) has refused to tell the press whether a simple majority of votes (18) or a super-majority of two-thirds (23) was required by the agency charter for the vote; he also wouldn’t say which countries voted for or against. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres then covered up for what had happened by telling the press: “I believe that [IAEA’s] independence that exists and must be preserved is essential. The IAEA cannot be the instrument of parties against other parties.” The IAEA vote for war made a liar of Guterres.

In the IAEA’s 65-year history, Resolution Number 58, the war vote of September 15, 2022,  is the first time the agency has taken one side in a war between member countries when nuclear reactors have either been attacked or threatened with attack. It is also the first time the IAEA has attacked one of its member states, Russia, when its military were attempting to protect and secure a nuclear reactor from attack by another member state, the Ukraine, and its war allies, the US, NATO and the European Union states. The vote followed the first-ever IAEA inspection of a nuclear reactor while it was under active artillery fire and troop assault.

There is a first time for everything but this is the end of the IAEA. On to the scrap heap of good intentions and international treaties, the IAEA is following the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the UN Secretary-General himself.  Listen to this discussion of the past history when the IAEA responded quite differently following the Iranian and Israeli air-bombing attacks on the Iraqi nuclear reactor known as Osirak, and later, the attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sites.



By John Helmer, Moscow

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) decided this week to take the side of Ukraine in the current war; blame Russia for the shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP); and issue a demand for Russia to surrender the plant to the Kiev regime “to regain full control over all nuclear facilities within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, including the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.”      

This is the most dramatic shift by the United Nations (UN) nuclear power regulator in the 65-year history of the organisation based in Vienna.

The terms of the IAEA Resolution Number 58, which were proposed early this week by the Polish and Canadian governors on the agency board, were known in advance by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when he spoke by telephone with President Vladimir Putin in the late afternoon of September 14, before the vote was taken. Guterres did not reveal what he already knew would be the IAEA action the next day.  



By John Helmer, Moscow

Never mind that King Solomon said proverbially three thousand years ago, “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  

With seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, Solomon realized he was the inventor of the situation comedy. If not for the sitcom as his medicine, the bodily and psychological stress Old Solly had to endure in the bedroom would have killed him long before he made it to his death bed at eighty years of age,  after ruling his kingdom for forty of them.

After the British sitcom died in the 1990s, the subsequent stress has not only killed very large numbers of ordinary people. It has culminated today in a system of rule according to which a comic king in Buckingham Palace must now manage the first prime minister in Westminster  history to be her own joke.

Even the Norwegians, the unfunniest people in Europe, have acknowledged that the only way to attract the British as tourists, was to pay John Cleese of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers to make them laugh at Norway itself.   This has been a bigger success for the locals than for the visitors, boosting the fjord boatman’s life expectancy several years ahead of the British tourist’s.  

In fact, Norwegian scientists studying a sample of 54,000 of their countrymen have proved that spending the state budget on public health and social welfare will only work effectively if the population is laughing all the way to the grave. “The cognitive component of the sense of humour is positively associated with survival from mortality related to CVD [cardio-vascular disease] and infections in women and with infection-related mortality in men” – Norwegian doctors reported in 2016. Never mind the Viking English:  the Norwegian point is the same as Solomon’s that “a sense of humour is a health-protecting cognitive coping resource” – especially if you’ve got cancer.  

The Russians understand this better than the Norwegians or the British.  Laughter is an antidote to the war propaganda coming from abroad, as Lexus and Vovan have been demonstrating.   The Russian sitcom is also surviving in its classic form to match the best of the British sitcoms, all now dead – Fawlty Towers (d. 1975), Black Adder (d. 1989), You Rang M’Lord? (d. 1988), Jeeves and Wooster (d. 1990), Oh Dr Beeching! (d.1995), and Thin Blue Line (d. 1996).

The Russian situation comedies, alive and well on TV screens and internet streaming devices across the country, are also increasingly profitable business for their production and broadcast companies – not despite the war but because of it. This has transformed the Russian media industry’s calculation of profitability by removing US and European-made films and television series, as well as advertising revenues from Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mars, and Bayer. In their place powerful  Russian video-on-demand (VOD) streaming platform companies like Yandex (KinoPoisk), MTS (Kion),  Mail.ru (VK), and Ivi (Leonid Boguslavsky, ProfMedia, Baring Vostok)  are now intensifying the competition for audience with traditional television channels and film studios for domestic audiences.  The revenue base of the VOD platforms is less vulnerable to advertisers, more dependent on telecommunications subscriptions.

Russian script writers, cameramen, actors, designers, and directors are now in shorter supply than ever before, and earning more money.  “It’s the Russian New Wave,” claims Olga Filipuk, head of media content for Yandex, the powerful leader of the new film production platforms; its  controlling shareholder and chief executive were sanctioned last year.  



By Olga Samofalova, translated and introduced by John Helmer, Moscow

It was the American humourist Mark Twain who didn’t die in 1897 when it was reported that he had. Twain had thirteen more lively years to go.

The death of the Russian aerospace and aviation industry in the present war is proving to be an even greater exaggeration – and the life to come will be much longer. From the Russian point of view, the death which the sanctions have inflicted is that of the US, European and British offensive against the Soviet-era industry which President Boris Yeltsin (lead image, left) and his advisers encouraged from 1991.

Since 2014, when the sanctions war began, the question of what Moscow would do when the supply of original aircraft components was first threatened, then prohibited, has been answered. The answer began at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1947 when the first  Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) or Parts Manufacturing Approval (PMA) was issued by Washington officials for aircraft parts or components meeting the airworthiness standards but manufactured by sources which were not the original suppliers.   

China has been quicker to implement this practice; Chinese state and commercial enterprises have been producing PMA components for Boeing and Airbus aircraft in the Chinese airline fleets for many years.  The Russian Transport Ministry has followed suit; in its certification process and airworthiness regulations it has used the abbreviation RMA, Cyrillic for PMA. This process has been accelerating as the sanctions war has escalated.

So has the Russian process of replacing foreign imports entirely.



By John Helmer, Moscow

The weakest link in the British government’s four-year long story of Russian Novichok assassination operations in the UK – prelude to the current war – is an English medical expert by the name of Guy Rutty (lead image, standing).

A government-appointed pathologist advising the Home Office, police, and county coroners, Rutty is the head of the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit in Leicester,  he is the author of a post-mortem report, dated November 29, 2018,  claiming that the only fatality in the history of the Novichok nerve agent (lead image, document), Dawn Sturgess, had died of Novichok poisoning on July 8, 2018. Rutty’s finding was added four months after initial post-mortem results and a coroner’s cremation certificate stopped short of confirming that Novichok had been the cause of her death.

Rutty’s Novichok finding was a state secret for more than two years. It was revealed publicly   by the second government coroner to investigate Sturgess’s death, Dame Heather Hallett, at a public hearing in London on March 30, 2021. In written evidence it was reported that “on 17th July 2018, Professor Guy Rutty MBE, a Home Office Registered Forensic Pathologist conducted an independent post-mortem examination. He was accompanied by Dr Phillip Lumb, also an independent Home Office Registered Forensic Pathologist. Professor Rutty’s Post-Mortem Report of 29th November 2018 records the cause of death as Ia Post cardiac arrest hypoxic brain injury and intracerebral haemorrhage; Ib Novichok toxicity.”  

Hallett, Rutty, Lumb, and others engaged by the government to work on the Novichok case have refused to answer questions about the post-mortem investigations which followed immediately after Sturgess’s death was reported at Salisbury District Hospital; and a cause of death report signed by the Wiltshire Country coroner David Ridley, when Sturgess’s body was released to her family for funeral and cremation on July 30, 2018.  

After another three years, Ridley was replaced as coroner in the case by Hallett in March 2021. Hallett was replaced by Lord Anthony Hughes (lead image, sitting) in March 2022.

The cause-of-death documents remain state secrets. “As you have no formal role in the inquest proceedings,” Hallett’s and Rutty’s spokesman Martin Smith said on May 17, 2021, “it would not be appropriate to provide you with the information that you have requested.” 

Since then official leaks have revealed that Rutty had been despatched by the Home Office in London to take charge of the Sturgess post-mortem, and Lumb ordered not to undertake an autopsy or draw conclusions on the cause of Sturgess’s death until Rutty arrived. Why? The sources are not saying whether the two forensic professors differed in their interpretation of the evidence; and if so, whether the published excerpt of Rutty’s report of Novichok poisoning is the full story.   

New developments in the official investigation of Sturgess’s death, now directed by Hughes, have removed the state secrecy cover for Rutty, Lumb, and other medical specialists who attended the post-mortem on July 17, 2018. The appointment by Hughes of a London lawyer, Adam Chapman, to represent Sergei and Yulia Skripal, opens these post-mortem documents to the Skripals, along with the cremation certificate, and related hospital, ambulance and laboratory records. Chapman’s role is “appropriate” – Smith’s term – for the Skripals to cross-examine Rutty and Lumb and add independent expert evidence.

Hughes’s appointment of another lawyer, Emilie Pottle (lead image, top left), to act on behalf of the three Russian military officers accused of the Novichok attack exposes this evidence to testing at the same forensic standard. According to Hughes,  it is Pottle’s “responsibility for ensuring that the inquiry takes all reasonable steps to test the  evidence connecting those Russian nationals to Ms Sturgess’s death.” Pottle’s responsibility is to  cross-examine Rutty and Lumb.



By John Helmer, Moscow

The US Army’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been firing several hundred million dollars’ worth of cyber warheads at Russian targets from its headquarters at MacDill Airforce Base in Florida. They have all been duds.

The weapons, the source, and their failure to strike effectively have been exposed in a new report, published on August 24, by the Cyber Policy Center of the Stanford Internet Observatory.  The title of the 54-page study is “Unheard Voice: Evaluating Five Years of Pro-Western Covert Influence Operations”.

“We believe”, the report concludes, “this activity represents the most extensive case of covert pro-Western IO [influence operations] on social media to be reviewed and analyzed by open-source researchers to date… the data also shows the limitations of using inauthentic tactics to generate engagement and build influence online. The vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, and only 19% of the covert assets we identified had more than 1,000 followers. The average tweet received 0.49 likes and 0.02 retweets.”

“Tellingly,” according to the Stanford report, “the two most followed assets in the data provided by Twitter were overt accounts that publicly declared a connection to the U.S. military.”

The report comes from a branch of Stanford University, and is funded by the Stanford Law School and the Spogli Institute for Institutional Studies, headed by Michael McFaul (lead image).   McFaul, once a US ambassador to Moscow, has been a career advocate of war against Russia. The new report exposes many of McFaul’s allegations to be crude fabrications and propaganda which the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been paying contractors to fire at Russia for a decade.

Strangely, there is no mention in the report of the US Army, Pentagon, the Special Operations Command, or its principal cyberwar contractor, the Rendon Group.



By John Helmer, Moscow

Maria Yudina (lead image) is one of the great Russian pianists. She was not, however, one who appealed to all tastes in her lifetime, 1899 to 1970.

In a new biography of her by Elizabeth Wilson, Yudina’s belief that music represents Orthodox Christian faith is made out to be so heroic, the art of the piano is diminished — and Yudina’s reputation consigned again to minority and obscurity. Russian classical music and its performers, who have not recovered from the Yeltsin period and now from the renewal of the German-American war, deserve better than Wilson’s propaganda tune.


Copyright © 2007-2017 Dances With Bears

Copyright © 2007-2017 Dances With Bears

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