Friday 21 July 2017

Review: Garkov's Diary by Stephen Dewar

CreateSpace, available from Amazon. Paperback edition $18.00/£11.45; Kindle edition $10.56/£6.44

Alan Dukes

There was a saying in my youth, whenever something untoward happened -- such as a flood or a plague of wasps, for example -- that "the country isn't half settled". The same could be said of Oleg Garkov's Russia. For that matter, the same can be said of Vladimir Putin's Russia.





Garkov's Diary is an uproarious satirical send-up of today's Russia. Its central character, an oligarch whose wife despises him because he is only the 25th wealthiest man in the country, is so deeply corrupt that he has no idea what corruption is.

He has amassed vast wealth in a dysfunctional system in which the only function of power is to amass wealth by any means available. His concept of the ideal political system is one in which government is paralysed by internal rivalries and divisions, so that it is unable to interfere in the proper business of business, which is to amass yet more wealth.

He is deeply patriotic, which means that he is intensely loyal to the president and constantly seeks ways to gain favour with the one enduring figure who has the power to facilitate the accumulation of ... yet more wealth.

His adventures and misadventures are recorded in a lurid, fast-moving and bewildering sequence. His ex-wife broods malevolently in a provincial city. His wife is enraged when her girl-friends tell her that a diamond-encrusted dog collar is "vulgar". He is charmed when a 'teenage' mistress calls him a pig. He is so charmed that he puts down her frequent absences from the flat in which he installs her to laudable visits to her mother.

His son gets himself expelled from Eton for ... well, read it yourself. His daughter forms a militaristic youth group (well supplied with arms and explosives) in support of a failed woman candidate for the presidency (a real character in recent political life in Russia), much to Oleg's dismay. His Russian aide -- the only person in his Russian entourage with any sense of reality -- fears above all having to leave Moscow and return to the town where he was born. His American adviser on business ethics and governance is an ornament whose only function is to provide Oleg with the appearance of respectability and the words to maintain it -- and Oleg finds the way to corrupt him.

Oleg, of course, has a bodyguard. Similar characters can be seen waiting beside large black 4x4s with darkened windows lining the streets outside smart restaurants in Moscow and other Russian cities. Their bosses can be seen inside in expensive suits, showing off gold watches and neck-chains. They are accompanied by wives in luxurious furs and sparkling jewellery, or by slim, young, bored women, bedecked in minimal dresses and maximal jewellery.

The bodyguard's function is to protect the boss from other oligarchs who want to acquire the boss's wealth, usually by foul means. Oleg's Pavel is very good at his job, except when he goes soft in the head when Oleg introduces him to dogs and (later) Siberian tigers.

Good satire has an edge. Garkov's Diary has a ferociously sharp edge. It is extravagant in its descriptions, pathetic in its central character's egoism, tragic in his blindness and savage in its conclusion. Like all good satire, it is agonisingly close to the bone. The nearest thing we have had to this in Ireland was the late Dermot Morgan's glorious Scrap Saturday. Gross that up to Russian dimensions, those of a fabulously well-endowed and grossly misgoverned country, and you have Garkov's Diary.

This is a picture of the destruction of a great hope of 20 years ago, a picture of one of the greatest tragedies of modern political life. Dewar provides an introduction and end-notes, which set the context of this portrait of a deeply troubled country.

Garkov's musings on former Yukos oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky's letter from prison are a suitably camp version of a political scientist's analysis of the dangers of success in a dictatorial system. Khodorkovsky's undoing was that he became a politically significant figure from the "outside" in a system which sells its arbitrariness by appeals to the need for "strong" leadership.

It still happens, as evidenced by the current conflict between Mikhail Prokhorov (the deposed leader of the Right Cause party and reputedly Russia's third richest man) and Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin eminence grise who has achieved the astonishing feat of continuing as the deputy chief of administration for three successive presidents.

What secrets must he know? This book will help you to understand why you don't understand Russia.

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