Going for Some R&R Down in Kiev-Town

This story almost ran away from me – the big game of hide-and-seek came to an end yesterday when Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin telephoned his family and campaign staff in Moscow to say that he was alive and well and in a hotel in Kiev. That’s what I get for allowing myself to be distracted by the current controversy over George W. Bush’s performance of duty (or lack thereof) for the Texas or Alabama National Guard back in 1972 and 1973. But is the mystery over what happened to Rybkin really cleared up yet?

It’s too bad that I don’t read Russian very well. On the other hand, while gaining that facility would enable me to read Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and the like in the original (something worth being able to do, and I’m certainly not being ironic), it wouldn’t do much towards helping me read independent political commentary in the Russian press, since there’s precious little of that to be found anymore under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. The Polish press is therefore a substitute that may very well be better than the original. Poland is close-by (much too close, in the historical sense, most Poles will tell you) and certainly has a free press. An additional advantage may be that that history brings forth a suspicious, even hostile attitude towards Russian motives that can’t help but foster an ultra-critical perspective towards any Russian government pronouncements.

(A disadvantage, though, is that, once again, really only Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita have anything to say on the Rybkin case. Isn’t there any other national newspaper out there, and on-line, that will deal with events beyond Poland’s borders? Sorry, Zycie Warszawy just doesn’t seem to cut it. Grzybek! Help!)


Let’s first go back to the “pre-discovery” stage, when Rybkin had seemingly just walked out of the Moscow apartment he shares with his wife last Thursday evening, and no one knew where he could be found. When the news got out, it hit Moscow like “a stone thrown into water,” as Marcin Wojciechowski writes in Gazeta Wyborcza, in All of Moscow Searches for Ivan Rybkin – speculation soon became rampant over what could have become of him. Wojciechowski quotes the chief editor of the radio station Echo Moskvy, Aleksey Wieniediktow, as hoping Rybkin would just “be found in a little hotel on the outskirts of Moscow with some woman,” but that he rather feared the worst. (Echo Moskvy is the first media representative Rybkin contacted, to explain himself, upon re-surfacing in Kiev, by the way.)

Those like Wieniediktow fearing the worst found justification for their worries in interviews Rybkin had conducted just before he disappeared. “I’m being shadowed and intimidated,” he had complained (Wojciechowski uses “I am” but not quotation marks here – this may be an indirect quote or paraphrase) by “special services” who were making his campaign for the Russian presidency difficult. Then, the same day that he disappeared, Rybkin gave another interview to Radio Svoboda (“Radio Freedom”) and Nova Gazeta (“New Gazette”) in which he called Vladimir Putin Russia’s biggest oligarch and named some businessmen who have used their closeness to the president to advance their commercial interests improperly. (“Oligarch” is a big political insult in Russia, since it refers to all those businessmen who got themselves obscenely rich in the 1990s by gaining the inside track on the privatization of state assets. Sorry, Chelsea fans: that’s also how Roman Abramovich got his cash to buy your football club and bring in the likes of Hernan Crespo, Damian Duff, and Claude Makalele. Putin’s official stance is that he is fighting against the oligarchs.)

So did Rybkin go too far, and pay the consequences? Many people thought so. (Actually, given the confused nature of what Rybkin was really doing in that Kiev hotel, many people still think so.) Among those people numbered the editor of “Nova Gazeta” who had conducted that last interview, one Orchan Dzemal; in this brief piece in Gazeta he sets forth his opinion that “of course killing him would be a mistake, because after all he’s a presidential candidate. For sure he is sitting in some bar and someone is explaining to him what it is not permissible to say publicly about the president. When Rybkin understands this, then he will miraculously be found again.” But others thought that this was just a publicity stunt, done to put him more in the public eye and boost his faltering presidential campaign. Boris Bierezovsky, in exile in London (speaking of oligarchs), who is known to be the main funder of Rybkin’s “Liberal Russia” political party, denied this possibility.


Now for “post-discovery,” and Rzeczpospolita brings up a number of curious questions about the case in its article Rybkin Was Relaxing in Kiev. First of all, Rybkin was staying at that hotel in Kiev, the Hotel Ukraina, under an assumed name; why would he do that? And then remember that, after all, the Ukraine is a separate country these days, so there is the question of crossing the border: no record there of any “Rybkin.” Meanwhile, the Moscow prosecutor had gone so far as to start preparing a case of premeditated homicide. And Bierezovsky himself apparently cannot believe what has gone on; in an interview with Echo Moskvy he warned “if Rybkin cannot convincingly explain the motive for his disappearance, then his political career will be through.”

Gazeta Wyborcza, though, begs to differ. In its article Rybkin Is Found!, our friend Wojciechowski advances the thesis that what Rybkin was actually looking for in Kiev was money for his campaign, specifically money from Bierezovsky. Bierezovsky, remember, is also an oligarch, perhaps the biggest and richest of them all (although, again, stuck in exile in London, not daring to return to Russia), so that Rybkin couldn’t just accept money from him directly, as President Putin would surely find out about that and publicize it, surely reducing further Rybkin’s already-meager political support. Much better to funnel that money via figures in the Ukrainian political opposition, representatives of which Rybkin is said to have been meeting in Kiev.

The man himself just says that he needed a break, that “I have the right to two, three days of private life,” as he told Echo Moskvy. He claims he was surprised and alarmed when he finally read in the papers about the uproar his disappearance had caused, and that’s when he decided to get back in touch. Really? You’re also married, Mr. Rybkin, and your wife is clearly not very happy with your recent behavior, telling the press (from the Washington Post) “Poor Russia if this kind of man is trying to run it!” So that’s one vote lost; another one is that of his campaign manager, who resigned (also female, and so naturally less inclined to understand a man’s natural yearning for some time out with the boys). But really, what sort of “boys” was Rybkin spending time with? In V. Putin’s Russia, will we ever really know?

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