Putin as Murakami’s Boris the Manskinner

Vladimir Putin

Tuesday

To understand why the Russians intervened to help Donald Trump, experts consistently advise us to “follow the money.” More than anything, Vladimir Putin hates the Magnitsky sanctions, which prevent corrupt Russian officials from taking money stolen from Russia out of Russia. Their hope has been that Donald Trump will suspend the sanctions, thereby reopening the escape routes.

I’ve been teaching Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and finding unsettling parallels between Putin and “Boris the Manskinner,” a truly frightening character. My only consolation is that Putin is not quite the mastermind that Boris is. More on Boris in a moment.

First to the Magnitsky Act, which is named after a Russian tax accountant who was murdered after he began investigating tax fraud by Russian officials. According to an Atlantic article last July, there are understandable reasons why Russian officials responded so violently:

What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?

As far as I can tell, here’s the simplest explanation for what has happened. The Russians were apparently willing to forgive Paul Manafort his $60 million debt to them if he could get them inside access to the Trump campaign. That’s why he offered to run Trump’s campaign for free. The Russians wanted Manafort to set up the Russian meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kusner, and others in order so that they could trade their “dirt” on Hillary Clinton (the stolen e-mails) in exchange for promises to lift the sanctions if Trump were to win the election. The Russians delivered on their promise of assistance and now Trump would like to lift the sanctions. It appears a fairly simple case of quid pro quo, albeit one involving a lot of actors.

Experts consider the Magnitsky Act to be brilliant because it targets, not the people of Russia, but the kleptocrats. Canada has passed its own Magnitsky Act, as has Estonia, and there’s a chance that Europe will follow suit. One has only to follow the money to see why Putin is furious.

Boris the Manskinner is a Stalinist who finds himself imprisoned in Siberia after a misstep. He turns the situation to his advantage, however, in ways that Putin would envy. Lieutenant Mamiya, a Japanese prisoner and Boris’s accountant, describes how he operates:

Boris had been helping himself to a good forty percent of the foodstuffs, clothing, and medical supplies being sent to the camp by Moscow and the International Red Cross, stashing them in secret storehouses, and selling them to various takers. He had also been sending off whole trainloads of coal through the black market. There was a chronic shortage of fuel, the demand for it endless. He would bribe railroad workers and the stationmaster, moving trains almost at will for his own profit. Food and money could make the soldiers guarding the trains shut their eyes to what he was doing. Thanks to such “business” methods, Boris had amassed an amazing fortune. He explained to me that it was ultimately intended as operating capital for the secret police. “Our activity,” as he called it, required huge sums off the public record, and he was now engaged in “procuring” those secret funds. But this was a lie. Some of the money may have been finding its way to Moscow, but I was certain that well over half was being transformed into Boris’s own personal fortune. As far as I could tell, he was sending the money to foreign bank accounts and buying gold.

Putin is purportedly the richest man in the world, his $200 billion fortune more than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos’s fortunes combined. If his political fortunes change, however, Russia could claw the money back, which is why he must squirrel it away.

We never learn what happens to Boris the Manskinner although we can imagine him riding out the various changes in government, just as the former KGB agent Putin has managed to do. Boris’s secret is his ruthless and relentless focus on power and money:

My own country is hopeless. It was almost better under the czars. At least the czar didn’t have to strain his empty head over a lot of theory. Lenin took whatever he could understand of Marx’s theory and used it to his own advantage, and Stalin took whatever he could understand of Lenin’s theory (which wasn’t much) and used it to his own advantage. The narrower a man’s intellectual grasp, the more power he is able to grab in this country.

Could that be the key to Trump’s success, that he doesn’t care about anything other than grabbing power? Does he hold Paul Ryan in thrall because the Speaker of the House doesn’t have a sound system of values that can stand up to him? If the Ayn Rand-loving Ryan believes in nothing higher than Randian self interest and tax cuts for the wealthy, then no wonder he is being exposed as an empty suit. The same goes for Mitch McConnell, the win-at-any-cost Senate Majority Leader.

In the novel Mamiya, a man without a vision, finds himself unable to take down Boris when he has the chance. A representative of Japan’s World War II generation, he is judged to be not “qualified.” Are we qualified to stand up to Trump and Putin?

Happy Halloween.

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