MOSCOW BLOG: The life of a beekeeper

MOSCOW BLOG: The life of a beekeeper
Yuri Luzhkov, who was the mayor of Moscow for nearly two decades, died on December 10.
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 11, 2019

When I first arrived in Moscow in 1993 you had to be careful driving in central Moscow after it had been raining. Deceptively innocent looking puddles on the Boulevard Ring that encircles the heart of Moscow could actually be potholes deep enough to rip a wheel off the car if you drove through them.

Those were the days when drivers would detach their windscreen wipers when they parked and lock them in the car, as they were expensive, hard to find and hence prone to being stolen. And everyone had a soda can with the top cut off strapped to the dash with an elastic band to use as an ashtray, despite the fact that all Volgas and Zhigulis – and there were only Volgas and Zhugulis on the road – had a perfectly good ashtray installed.

Over the next decade I watched Moscow transform. It was like one of those time-lapse films of a flower blooming but in real time. I would go and spend a few months somewhere else in the former Soviet Union like Central Asia or the Baltics, but I always returned to Moscow and it had completely changed each time while I was away. The Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who died yesterday in a Munich hospital at the age of 84, was largely responsible for rebuilding Russia’s capital.

Luzhkov was a consummate political player and comfortably existed at the top of the tree during Russia’s most chaotic and dangerous years. But at the same time he was cut from the classic old school Soviet manager’s cloth.

Genuinely popular with most Muscovites, he diverted part of the city’s revenues to social payments and programmes for residents. Under Russian tax rules a company pays the regional part of its taxes, like income tax, not where its assets or production facilities are, but where its headquarters are located; every self respecting owner and senior manager lives in Moscow to be close to the government. Moscow commands about three quarters of Russia’s corporate tax revenues and is one of only two cities that are counted as regions in their own right. (St Petersburg is the other.)

For all of the nineties and the noughties the cliché was: “There are two Russias: Moscow and everywhere else.” Life in Moscow was incomparably better than in the rest of the country and that is only starting to change now, three decades on.

But Luzhkov had his foibles too, such as his support for the Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli, planting his gaudy statues all over the city, including a giant statue of Peter the Great standing on a ship in the river Moscow. The statue is so hated by the locals a Russian war vet once rowed out to it at night with a boat full of explosives and tried to blow it up.

And Luzhkov hated gays. He consistently rejected the many attempts at holding a gay pride march in Moscow. I interviewed prominent gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev who tried every year for years to get permission. One year he arrived at the start of the year and applied to hold a pride march with a separate application for every day of the year as he kept getting refused as the city was “busy” on any particular day Alekseev asked for.

In the end Alekseev managed to hold one small-scale illegal march by running a disinformation campaign: publically announcing one venue but secretly organising the march at another.

Still, despite the official homophobia, ironically the Luzhkov era was a golden age for Russian gays as homosexuality was decriminalised and the authorities just ignored the numerous gay clubs that sprang up. The famous ones were Kameleon, Three Monkeys and the legendary Chance, where the entire wall of the dance floor was a giant aquarium complete with beautiful naked men swimming about in it. Boy George of Culture Club fame came and DJed there once.

Today Russia has the same policy: it is actually fairly tolerant of gays; just the authorities and society don't want have their noses rubbed in it with public or official displays of alternative sexuality. Luzhkov hosted Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s first openly gay mayor,  several times and the two men reportedly got on very well, which is typical Russian doublethink on the issue of gay rights.

This was also the era of the Moscow nightclubs that sprang up at the end of 1993, starting with Manhattan Express in the foot of the Hotel Rossiya (now gone thanks to a Luzhkov real estate deal that went awry) and peaked with the infamous Hungry Duck, dubbed “the craziest bar in the world” by the Washington Post. Luzhkov’s Moscow was chaotic in the 90s, but every weekend was a wild party.

Luzhkov also had a thing against the prostitutes who used to gather in football-crowd numbers at the bottom of Moscow’s main thoroughfare Tverskaya in the evenings during the very hardest years in the early 90s. A game developed where the police would raid the area around the Intourist hotel that used to stand where the Ritz Carlton is now, arresting or moving the girls on. In a uniquely Luzhkovesque move, at one point he sent the police to arrest all the girls one night, put them on buses, took away all their money and dumped them on the road outside the MKAD ring road that encircles Moscow. They spent the rest of the evening trying to trade blowjobs for rides back into the city.

Breakfast bombs and dodgy dealing

Luzhkov’s tenure coincided with the introduction of capitalism to Russia and nothing personified the change more than the city itself. He quickly fixed the roads, which soon filled up with Mercedes and Audis and businessmen launched into the get rich quick business of real estate.

The business was deeply corrupt. Russia is still deeply corrupt but not like it was in the 90s. Today’s corruption is a civilised version involving backhanders and BVI shell companies. Then it was brutally corrupt where the payoffs involved suitcases stuffed with hundred dollar bills and “breakfast bombs”. Bombs were left under cars and blew you up in the morning on the way to work, or hand grenades were left at your steel reinforced front door, before the assassin would ring your bell, pull the pin and run away.

I used to go regularly to Tverskaya 13, the official seat of the Moscow City government, to meet with city officials. The building is just up the road from where the crowds of prostitutes used to gather, which was one reason Luzhkov launched his running war against them as they lowered the tone of his neighbourhood.

The deputy mayors were all cut from the same Red Director cloth. I met with deputy mayor Valery Shantsev several times, a huge bear of a man with a red face and an very expensive suit, who was one of Luzhkov’s main sidekicks, but eventually went on to be appointed the governor of Nizhny Novgorod between 2005 and 2017, and he even ran against the current mayor Sergei Sobyanin in 2010 for Luzhkov’s old job. The epitome of post-Soviet apparatchiks, city hall was full of people like this. But they got things done in their gruff way.

Moscow real estate sector was a gravy train they were all feeding from. Luzhkov’s own wife Elena Baturina is famously the richest woman in the country but the whole team reeked of money. Another deputy mayor arrived at work one day in the late 90s in his work Mercedes only for an assassin to open up on him in front of Tverrskaya 13 with a Kalashnikov in broad daylight in the middle of the most important street in the city. No one was killed (the car was bullet proof), but the assailant was never caught and the attack was widely assumed to be just a business deal gone wrong.

Maybe a better illustration of the madness of those years is my friend and reporter at the Moscow Times Bronwyn McLaren discovered that the black leather cap that Luzhkov habitually wore was lined with steel.

Luzhkov gets into politics

But probably the most important moment in Luzhkov’s career was when he teamed up with former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and attempted to launch a political party in 1999.

President Boris Yeltsin was clearly on the way out as he had disappeared from public and everyone was thinking about what would come next. Vladimir Putin was already prime minister, but it was not clear that he would take over, or was even in charge, as the country was being run by the “Family”, the clique headed by oligarch Roman Abramovich and Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana Yumasheva.

It could have been a pivotal moment in Russia politics. Luzhkov and Primakov had made the bold decision to set up what was in effect an opposition party that was at the same time a Kremlin faction, by gathering regional heavyweights into the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) bloc. Primakov was supposed to become president and Luzhkov prime minister.


Primakov would have been a very interesting choice for president after Yeltsin. An Arabist by training, he was erudite and competent. He was also the preferred choice of the westernised elite; Stephen Jennings, the owner of leading investment bank Renaissance Capital, had been wooing him. Primakov understood the need to encourage western investors and started turning up to meet with them at Rencap events at this time.

OVR recruited some of the most progressive liberals in the government like George Boos. The economy had already stabilised after the 1998 meltdown, oil prices were recovering and Russia was about to set off on a decade-long boom. There was the smell of big change in the air and OVR looked like it could even win the elections.

But it was not to be. Oligarch Boris Berezovsky had attached himself to the Family (Abramovich was his protégé) and mounted an effective spoiler campaign to keep the Kremlin under the control of the Duma ahead of the change of president that would soon come.

On election night my wife and I chose to go to the OVR headquarters to watch the results come in and spend the evening with Luzhkov, who passed the time chatting with everyone in the room. OVR still thought it might win. Luzhkov gave a little speech and ended it as he always ended all his speeches by shaking his clasped hands over his head and shouting “Urrah!”

But the atmosphere quickly soured as the reports started and it became clear that while OVR had done well, it had been comfortably beaten by the Unity Party of Russia, a Kremlin project organised by Berezovsky, that later became the current ruling party United Russia.

Luzhkov’s face fell and he stood at the side of the room with his hands in pockets and his legs akimbo. As he watched the monitors announce the results I believe he started to realise the dangerous position he had put himself in. He had opposed the Kremlin in the belief that he had a real chance of winning the elections, which he had assumed were going to be largely free and open. But the results clearly illustrated the hold the Family still had over the process. Luzhkov had been outmanoeuvred and he now found himself on the wrong side of the fence.

Luzhkov’s face fell as the the 1999 State Duma elections results came in showing his party Fatherland All Russia had lost

In the next month Luzhkov rapidly backtracked to cut his losses. Within a few months OVR had merged with Unity to create United Russia that has been in power ever since.

Luzhkov didn't attempt to get involved in federal level politics again. Primakov was made prime minister by the newly elected President Putin, and promptly started stripping Berezovsky of his assets; he soon fled into exile.

Luzhkov remained the mayor of Moscow until 2010, when he was dismissed by then president Dmitry Medvedev. He occupied himself with many large infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the Moscow City office district, a new ring road and rebuilding the Christ our Saviour cathedral just along the embankment from the Kremlin that was knocked down by Stalin and replaced by a swimming pool. He also made his wife a billionaire by awarding her company Inteko hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts. On the eve of Luzhkov’s resignation, in the summer of 2010, Forbes estimated Baturina’s fortune at $2.9bn. A year after Luzhkov’s resignation, Baturina sold Inteko to Binbank owner Mikail Shishkhanov.

Luzhkov’s wife wasn’t the only person close to him who made a huge fortune: his Moscow colleague was the future billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenko, whose AFK Sistema grew from the Moscow Committee for Science and Technology that originally was part of City Hall. Luzhkov also helped media oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky along the path of riches by authorising his Most Bank to handle the city’s accounts.

For the last nine years Luzhkov has spent most of his time in Europe where he reportedly has houses in the Baltics and Germany, indulging his passion for bee keeping.