The only foreign phrase that managed to lodge itself correctly in the brain of Ronald Reagan, before he developed Alzheimer’s disease but after he became president of the United States, was “doveryai no proveryai.” As he never tired of explaining, that’s Russian for “trust but verify,”
Reagan and his successors always meant to apply that maxim to treaties on arms deployments and limitations. Bankers and other businessmen mean to apply it to every form of financial or commercial contract that can be signed with Russian counterparts, especially since the government and the leading commercial banks defaulted on their obligations in 1998.
“Trust but verify” is the reason most foreign investment agreements with Russians contain a clause that places the jurisdiction for dispute resolution outside Russia in countries like Sweden, Britain or the United States. It is also the reason why both Russians and foreigners, who have lost assets and money to Russian raiders, are increasingly turning to the U.S. court system to apply the U.S. racketeering statute, with its triple-damages clause. Among the Russian corporations now in the dock facing racketeering charges are LUKoil, Russian Aluminum, Alfa-Bank and Tyumen Neftegaz. The list is growing fast.
Back when Reagan was getting out his bit of Russian, John Le Carre published a novel called “The Russia House.” It’s a tale about a minor publisher from Scotland whom British intelligence, and then the CIA, use to obtain secrets from a high-level Soviet military scientist. The go-between is Katya Orlova, but the Scotsman falls in love with her. To save her, he has to dupe his British and American handlers and make a deal with the KGB.
In the 1990 film version, Sean Connery, playing the Scotsman, tells a panel of KGB officers, after he’s delivered the secrets of the Anglo-American team: “We have a deal, and I expect you to honor that deal. I am talking about honor, not ideology.” The climax of the film comes when Michelle Pfeiffer, playing Katya, steps off a Russian boat and into Connery’s arms, proving that Russians honor their commitments, even when Westerners don’t.
Fast-forward to a new film version of a similar moral predicament. This is the recently released “Birthday Girl,” in which Nicole Kidman plays Nadia. She is a Russian girl who answers a lonely English banker’s request for a mail-order bride, and establishes herself in his home. John the banker is then set up by Nadia and two Russian accomplices, who move into the house and use John to steal 90,000 pounds from his own bank, before making their getaway.
“Don’t feel too bad,” Yury, the mastermind of the scam, tells John after gagging and tying him up. He then shows him photos of all the other Western men Nadia and her gang have duped.
But that isn’t the end of the story. John pursues the trio, who start fighting among themselves over the money. Having betrayed John, Nadia then betrays her accomplices, taking all the money for herself -and also, it seems, for John. With Nadia and the money, he climbs on board the return flight to Moscow, improbably equipped with a Russian passport in the name of one of the accomplices.
What will happen to John at Sheremetyevo isn’t of interest to the filmmakers, who think they have tied up their flick with a happy ending in midair. We can guess what the airport officers will do to John on arrival – and what Nadia will do once she’s home.
In the new film, there’s a lot of talk about love, as there was in the earlier movie, but not a word about honor. What a difference the decade between the two films makes, at least to the image of Russian women and Russian honor.
In that decade I’ve known many Russian women, including one who is the wickedest individual of any gender I’ve known. She’s exceptional. But as a general rule, in the decade between “The Russia House” and “Birthday Girl” it has turned out that Russian women lost their honor, as did the other gender, as well as almost every type of Russian organization from the KGB on up, or down, depending on your point of view. The dishonoring process has been so thorough, you have to wonder whether it was a mistake to have imagined it, when Le Carre thought so, in the Soviet period.
We have arrived at a time when Russian dishonor is a topic for comedy, and honor, in the old-fashioned sense, is laughable.
The honor of Joes (spy jargon) and Johns (sex-business jargon) may be misplaced enough to amuse. But, of course, bankers to Russia can’t afford the luxury. When one of the largest banks in the world decided (this month) that it won’t even review the state of the Russian metals sector because it doesn’t want to lend any money to the companies that occupy it, that suggests how fundamentally flawed the methodology of trust-and-verify has become. After all, Russian metals producers are among the market leaders and pricemakers of the world. If bankers judge they can’t trust them, because they can’t verify their financials, then the small sums of credit that are trickling through on short-run, high-price terms won’t be anywhere near enough to sustain the growth and competitive edge these producers need.
This is no joke, unless Russian metals producers think they can outlive their bankers. Now, that’s funny.