Gerard Depardieu lumbered around the stage of a provincial Russian town, brandishing his new Russian passport, before being bundled into a traditional regional smock. Hours earlier, he had dined with President Putin. Russia was embracing an exile, driven to their country by punitive state legislation. Or so they would like to have us believe. The arrival of Depardieu was undoubtedly a coup for the government, a sign of the new appeal of Russia to those disillusioned with the West, a sign of their legitimacy as a world power. Eighty years earlier, a series of Western intellectuals had come to fete the Soviet Union and engender it with a similar validity. Yet the gulf between the visits is more than simply chronological. The “fellow-travellers” saw the USSR as an attempt to create a new civilisation; Depardieu and the modern celebrities who fawn on dictators around the world see low taxes and the loosening of an oligarch’s purse-strings.
The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s was heralded as a triumph of democracy, free markets and free elections liberating the long-suffering people. In reality, the chaotic nature of the decade led to many countries returning to more authoritarian leadership, or merely retaining Soviet-era apparatchiks in power. They invariably became incredibly wealthy and ran corrupt and abusive states. The Turkmen leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, renamed himself Turkmenbashi, Father of the Turkmen, and became known for his personality cult – he had a gold-plated statue of himself erected in the capital, Ashgabat. It revolved to always face the sun.
If Turkmenbashi was the apotheosis of venal Central Asian dictatorship, he set an example for others. Islam Kamirov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, becoming notorious for a series of alleged human rights abuses, as has Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who ascended to the presidency from the ruin of the wars there. Kamirov and Kadyrov, as well as the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate, have played host to a number of American and European celebrities, often singers performing at exclusive concerts. Their defence when questioned about the allegations against their patrons is often ignorance, a sense that politics interferes with artistic freedom, and therefore can be overlooked. The irony of citing such rights to perform as an excuse for appeasing governments such as Putin’s is evident in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot case. However, the artists represent a new global citizenry, an elite whose fame has transcended national boundaries, and are therefore free to do the same. The supranational nature of football is an example: the Dagestani club Anzhi Makhachkala has persuaded world-class players to join them, despite their location in a volatile region of the country that requires the players to make a thousand mile commute from Moscow to play, through the wealth of a local oligarch.
It is now far simpler for wealthy individuals to choose their nationality and residence. However, the contrast between this and the intellectuals who pledged their support to Stalin’s Soviet Union is noticeable. Authors may have been flattered – their books were placed in libraries and scholars discussed them in public – but this was merely securing the bargain. Those who lent their support to the USSR saw it as the future, a new civilization in the process of attaining enlightenment and perfection. They invested a secular faith into the project; modern fellow travellers are more likely to pay lip service to an individual for their personal gain. Apologies are forthcoming when their actions are noticed – Hilary Swank donated her fee to charity after appearing in Chechnya for Kadyrov’s birthday – but the motivation is plainly financial. Russia has a flat income tax rate of just 13%, and Depardieu moved there shortly after President Hollande announced a new 75% top rate for France. Many also seek the privacy of a new nationality, away from prying media attention.
Moreover, the status of those who are able to transform their national identity, and move freely, is notable. If one has sufficient wealth, it is possible. If not, one is stranded, no matter their need. When the Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky claimed political asylum in Britain, there was no detention centre and debate over status. He was accommodated, his wealth and position overriding any concerns. For your average asylum seeker, the flight for their lives could hardly be different. A two-speed system has been created, whereby national borders are erased to ease the lives of the wealthy, whilst limiting the opportunities of the global poor. Russia’s tax rate benefits only a tiny minority of the population; Depardieu’s citizenship lends needed credibility to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Either way, as in the 1930s, we all suffer from the transcendence of social norms by a global elite.