In the late 1980s, a scandal began to unfold in the Soviet Union that would ultimately engulf members of the highest levels of government and the military, a case of corruption that was astounding in its brazenness.
For decades, the leader of the Communist Party in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Sharaf Rashidov, had overseen Uzbekistan’s cotton production. With the help of Yuri Churbanov — Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law and a four-star general — and a slate of local KGB officers, Uzbek officials had fed the Kremlin a steady stream of statistics detailing excellent harvests, quotas met and exceeded, new fields planted, and irrigation networks created. Some 3 billion rubles in crop subsidies flowed back to Uzbekistan to help keep this agricultural bonanza flourishing; the state’s resources poured into the cotton fields to such an extent that the crop earned the moniker “white gold” among Uzbek elites, according to Mark Galeotti’s magisterial history of Russian crime, The Vory. There was just one problem with the Uzbek bounty: The harvests were faked in their entirety, as hollow as the “dead souls” once collected by Gogol’s hero Chichikov. In 1982, the new general secretary, Yury Andropov — on the warpath against corruption since succeeding Brezhnev — resorted to desperate measures to break through the cozy patronage networks and cheerfully shameless conspiracy that defined the gambit: He directed spy satellites to photograph the fields where Uzbekistan’s cotton wealth supposedly flourished. The photos turned up endless swathes of scrub and steppe. The cotton had never existed.
At the heart of the Uzbek scandal was a vastly overpromoted son-in-law, one with unprecedented responsibility over national security. Churbanov, who had worked as a security guard before marrying Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, served as the well-placed Moscow connection for the cotton scheme; he was sentenced to twelve years in a prison camp in 1988. But the Uzbek cotton scandal, while dramatic, was merely the natural outgrowth of a culture of corruption that defined late-Soviet life. From ordinary citizens bribing doctors and shopkeepers for basic necessities to the ostentatious black-market ventures of party officials, the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union thinly veiled an economy that hinged on under-the-table transactions. The state was the prime mover of that society while, at the same time, serving as the personal bank of its highest-placed stewards.
Here in the United States, bribery is a rarity in ordinary life; money is everything, but by and large it’s exchanged over the table. And yet over the past two years, we’ve watched an unprecedented culture of corruption take over the highest levels of the executive branch of our government. Unlike the Uzbek cotton conspiracy, American corruption is happening right out in the open. Our very own overpromoted son-in-law, Jared Kushner, takes in high-level national security information while raking in millions from outside ventures, including real estate deals with foreign countries. President Trump followed up on a disastrous NATO summit and a meeting with British prime minister Theresa May by spending a weekend at his own golf resort in Scotland, Trump Turnberry; the U.S. government reportedly paid nearly $70,000 directly to Trump’s private business for the privilege. As has become numbingly routine, Trump took advantage of his presidential audience to tout his own business: “This place is incredible! Tomorrow I go to Helsinki for a Monday meeting with Vladimir Putin,” he wrote on Twitter.
In Helsinki, sure enough, Trump and Putin stood shoulder to shoulder at identical podiums. Despite the effort by the United States Department of Justice to uncover Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election, and a punishing slate of sanctions leveled by the U.S. on Russia, there was a defiant intimacy between the two presidents; Trump’s open servility caused faces to blanch across the Atlantic. It was predictable, but still shocking: A U.S. president siding with a foreign adversary over his country’s intelligence community might suit Trump’s brawling temperament and personal pique, but it retained its power to appall, if only for a news cycle or two. It has become politically necessary over the past few days for Republican leaders to cluck their tongues in disapprobation, like a flock of startled pigeons, though, as ever, they have not acted.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, began to openly state a long-held suspicion among Trump’s political opponents: that he is beholden to Russia, and his actions smack of a Manchurian candidacy. “Millions of Americans are left wondering if Putin indeed has something over the president,” Chuck Schumer tweeted on Tuesday. Senator Tammy Duckworth openly stated that there was a possibility that Putin had “compromised” Trump and turned him into a “Russian asset.” This is not a new idea — the idea that an unsavory bargain, fueled by blackmail, exists between Trump and the Russian government has been floating around for years — but in the aftermath of Helsinki, a dam seems to have broken when it comes to the openness of such speculation.
What was most striking about the juxtaposition of Trump and Putin was not the suggestion of hidden conspiracy, but the open, undeniable parallels between the two men. The very issues that most enrage Trump’s opponents — his flagrant corruption, and his tendency to indulge in blatant lies — characterize Putin’s administration as well, and have been given ample time to flourish over the last two decades. It’s precisely Trump’s well-documented propensity toward graft and deception — honed over a boastful but tumultuous career in New York real estate and enmeshed with his ties to the mobbed-up construction industry in the Seventies and Eighties — that allow speculation about his ties to Russia to flourish. A president actively enriching himself via an opaque network of finances, and one who regularly indulges in overt and shameless deception, is one so untrustworthy as to be plausibly serving foreign interests over those of his own country.
Putin is all too familiar with the mechanisms of personal enrichment while in office. There have been persistent if unproven rumors over his nearly twenty years in power that his net worth has ballooned to enormity — critics have speculated that he may secretly be the richest man in the world, with a Bezos-eclipsing net worth of some $200 billion — despite his modest on-paper salary. What is certain, however, is that his close associates have profited enormously from their connections with him. The Panama Papers, a leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, revealed that the godfather of Putin’s daughter, cellist Sergei Roldugin, and a close childhood friend of Putin’s, Arkady Rotenberg, have each made millions from suspicious deals linked to a prominent Russian bank. During a brief marriage to Putin’s daughter, Kirill Shamalov acquired shares in Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, reportedly worth billions.
Putin, an ex-KGB agent, was formed in a Soviet system that ran on graft. Following the “wild Nineties,” in which criminal syndicates and unethical businessmen alike rushed to loot the wealth of the collapsed Soviet empire, petty black marketeers have prospered into oligarchs worth billions, and those oligarchs have been forced to submit to an increasingly centralized and brutal authoritarian regime. Systems of patronage, fealty, and rivers of illicit rubles flowing through Moscow have ossified into a state whose inequality is staggering and whose elite revel in ill-gotten gains — perhaps the most stratified the country has been since the abolition of serfdom. The massive scale of the corruption of Putin’s Russia makes the Uzbek cotton scandal seem quaint.
This system is propped up by a marvel of propaganda. Russian state television has been groomed into a state of such bullish defensiveness of Putin, and preening obsequiousness, that Rupert Murdoch himself would blush. Two decades of brutal repression of independent journalism, beginning less than a year into Putin’s presidency, have resulted in the unobstructed dissemination of state agitprop. The complete dominance of the Putin regime over most media is illustrated neatly by reactions to the Helsinki summit. Responding to Trump’s walk-back of his comments at the summit — intimating that a grammatical screwup had been responsible for his apparent coziness with Russia — an analyst on the Russia-24 channel explained that Putin’s charms had been responsible: “It may well have been dyslexia brought out by the charisma of our president.”
A state unaccountable to a free press is one that is unhindered in its ability to disseminate lies. Infamously, Putin insisted, against all available evidence and reams of documentation, that the Russian troops that began to invade Crimea in 2014 were actually native Ukrainian insurgent militias. Observers had noted that the invaders were carrying Russian military weapons; within months, after a sham referendum, Crimea had been annexed by Russia, an astonishing violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine. The blatancy of the deception, and its gleeful, winking nature, was such that Russians and Ukrainians alike began to joke that it was just as plausible that the invasion of Crimea had been carried out by aliens — and dubbed the troops “little green men.”
Over the eighteen months since Trump’s inauguration, the American populace has become accustomed to open graft and open lies. The president has a penchant for repeating baseless conspiracy theories, propagating maddening misunderstandings, and telling outright lies with alarming frequency. His administration is opaque to the point of deceptiveness with regard to even its most controversial policies — the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, refuses to release precise numbers about how many immigrant children have been reunited with their families after being separated at the border. Three cabinet officials have been ousted amid reports of lavish flights, vacations, and, in the case of Scott Pruitt, a raft of goodies, from Ritz-Carlton lotion to “tactical pants.” An array of officials and hangers-on who remain in the administration have also come under public scrutiny for alleged corrupt acts: from Ryan Zinke, currently under investigation for a shady deal with a Halliburton executive, to Wilbur Ross, senescent commerce secretary with an affinity for opaque financial dealings. The American taxpayer continues to subsidize Trump’s golf and real estate habits; foreign diplomats and lobbyists alike stay at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. and at Mar-a-Lago, depending on the season. All this has ossified into the status quo with alarming rapidity.
We can hope, if only faintly, to attain clarity at some point about Trump’s real relationship with Russia — a hope that a reinvigorated post-election Democratic Congress will engage in forceful investigation, and that the Mueller probe will continue its work. One hopes that whatever doesn’t pass the smell test will be found, rotting away, and scoured clean. But at the root of the Russia scandal are the parallels between Trump and Putin that animate all our president’s unsavory behavior: a willingness to loot and an eagerness to lie. Any solution must begin with enforced transparency with regard to the president’s finances, and continue with an unyielding commitment to deflect and debunk each lie. All this must happen before graft and deception calcify into a civic norm of open corruption; otherwise, any notion of public service in the United States will be our own version of that fictitious Uzbek cotton, a pale mirage over a barren steppe.