Journalist, author, and poet laureate of Russophiles Oliver Bullough on Russia’s finest whisky, the London kleptocracy tour, and the world’s dark, dirty money and the dirty tricks people use to hide it.
Oliver Bullough, among other talents, helped create one of my favorite walking tours on earth—the Central London kleptocracy tour, which he runs with a handful of other journalists and activists. It’s a breezy, funny, but appropriately outraged tour of the highlights of London’s great financial crimes: the way the city, like my city of New York, has opened itself up as a cynical dark money haven for ill-gotten gains of prime ministers and pimps and pushers alike from around the world. The luxury goods market Harrod’s, where much of this wealth seems to be spent on marmalade and caviar, is a particular touchstone for me. Anthony Bourdain held the place in special contempt. In fact, long before he died, he went on record to say he didn’t want a public funeral, instead he just wanted his body to be fed into a woodchipper in Harrod’s at rush hour. Alas, that seemed to be against CNN’s repatriation of remains policy, so we could not achieve that for you, Tony, and that’s a damn shame. It was a helluva idea.
But we can sit and drink with Oliver, one of my favorite journalists on earth, author of Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World. He is an expert at plainly describing the complex ways we’re all currently being worked over by the shadowy billionaire economy. So we met up at Bankside Hotel and had something of a Slavic hard alcohol and snacks party.
Here is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Oliver from this week’s episode of The Trip: Drinking around the World with Exceptional People. You can listen to the episode by signing up at Luminary Media, and if you do so by May 31 you’ll get a free 3-month trial.
Nathan Thornburgh: We’re going to do vodka. I asked you to bring some vodka on the condition that it was cheap.
Oliver Bullough: Can I tell you why I bought this vodka? This vodka is called Glen’s. It’s a product of the finest Russian distillery in Scotland. But the reason I thought it was funny was because when I was living in Moscow, there was a period when some genius corrupt official involved in the alcohol trade managed to lose all the excise stamps. And for months there was no imported alcohol. So the local producers had a complete monopoly and made a fortune out of it. But, one form of whiskey that did mysteriously appear was called Glen Clyde. And Glen Clyde is just not a thing, it’s like you’ve just got two Scottish words and added them together and made Glen Clyde. But Glen Clyde somehow managed to find its way through this blockade, and I was forced to drink it.
Bullough: Na Zdorovie.
Thornburgh: So we’re here in London, but tell me about 1999, September, Saint Petersburg.
Oliver Bullough: It was brilliant. I was a recent graduate from university, I studied history. I always had a bit of a Russia obsession in the ’90s, when I was stuck in mid-Wales. I mean, everything that was happening in the world was happening in Eastern Europe. It was so exciting. There was this new wave of democratic transformation and there were wars, and there was all this stuff happening in the news all the time. It just looked so exciting. So I left university and I moved to Saint Petersburg. And I did work as a journalist, but not because I really wanted to be a journalist, but just because I needed to work somewhere. And my main thing was just trying to experience the transformation of it. This was going to be like being in Paris in the 1920s, this is my Hemingway thing, you know, one I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I was there. The Saint Petersburg ska scene was unbelievable. I mean, hard to imagine now, but the Saint Petersburg gay club scene was just off the charts. It was so fun and so cheap. I was earning $200 a month, and I lived pretty well on that. I mean, I rented a flat for $75 a month, and then I had a $125 to spend, and that was fine. I got to go out, and you’d go out and buy beer, or you’d go and listen to ska music. Saint Petersburg was epic, I loved it.
There’s nowhere like Russia, it’s just the most fun, glorious, crazy place to be
But just before I got there, unbeknownst to me, unnoticed by me because I was more interested in ska music, a gentleman called Vladimir Putin, who also was from Saint Petersburg, became prime minister of Russia, and changed the whole trajectory of the place. So I didn’t end up writing about democratic transformation over the next another eight years. When I was in Russia, I ended up writing about the war in Chechnya and democratic reversal and all that.
Thornburgh: And there was this kind of rueful note in your book talking about how 1999, as you said, sort of unbeknownst to you, those moments had already passed?
Bullough: Yeah, I missed the train, if the train had ever existed.
Thornburgh: And then I think the way that you wrote it, is, “What I ended up doing was spending about a decade experiencing paranoia and harassment.”
Bullough: Yeah. That’s not to say that the post-Communist thing was bad everywhere. Places like the Czech Republic and Slovenia were doing pretty well. But in Russia, it was more about being followed by FSB officers and strip-searched and having to pay off corrupt coppers, and less about cheering as a democratically elected president was sworn in. I’m not going to say it was depressing, it wasn’t, it was brilliant. I mean, there’s nowhere like Russia, it’s just the most fun, glorious, crazy place to be. But it wasn’t what I’d gone there to find. I’d found something else entirely, which was craziness and great friends, and amazing travels. But tragedy, a lot of tragedy.
Thornburgh: So, Russia is if anything more momentous than the love-in that I thought that I would be getting. I was there in 1990, which was the moment when everybody was handing flowers to Americans like they were soldiers returning from war, even though we were just like a bunch of bullshit teenagers. And then I went back in ’95 to live and found that my friend’s uncle had had his throat slit while he was driving a gypsy cab. Another friend was hiding from the authorities because they were trying to send them down to Chechnya to die. I mean, it was like the mirror had flipped.
Bullough: I think that Russia never really had a chance to be honest. I think it opened up and Western well-meaning Peace Corps volunteers, and NGOs people turned up, but also some really quite cynical and clever bankers, accountants and lawyers turned up.
Thornburgh: Yeah, these shady Harvard fucks that came and like helped Russia gut itself.
Bullough: Yeah, I mean not only, I mean from all over. And they turned up and they said, “You see that? You want to steal that? We’ll help you do that.” And then once you’ve stolen it, we’ll help you hide that so no one will very find it. And once you’ve hidden it, so no one will ever find it, we’ll help you use the income to buy yourself a big house in London. Or a big house in New York.
Thornburgh: I’m talking to you Larry Summers, don’t at me.
Bullough: This is it, right. The point is that they had this great opportunity to make Russia something different and more open and generous than it had been for so long, and has ever been. And we … by we, I mean our two respective countries in particular, but not only but mainly us, screwed them. We’re like, you know what, let’s just take all the stolen money and invest it in yachts, and that’s gonna be great. It’s so disappointing. And it was this, actually what Moneyland grew out of, was this discovery, which was a discovery only to me.
But it’s just the realization that to the extent to which these assholes have ripped off Ukraine, and Azerbaijan, and Russia, and all the other countries of the former Soviet Union, didn’t do it on their own, they had their hands held every step of the way by highly intelligent and well-remunerated Westerners. And that story needs to be told, and told, and told, and told again.
Money crosses borders freely without hindrance, to wherever it wants to go, but laws don’t follow it.
Thornburgh: Well, and I’ve literally had this conversation maybe four times in the last couple weeks about people, obviously to date this, this is now we are a few days after the Mueller report came out on a Friday, and people are still trying to wrap their heads around what exactly is happening with Russia and the United States. Anybody who had ever had any questions about just the vast sort of vague shadiness of that world, in particular the [Paul] Manafort connection, Moneyland is the thing that I’m like, “Oh, well this book will tell you what’s actually happening.”
It’s not an intensely stripped down, black and white, like here’s the bad guys, here’s the good guys, it’s not even that simple. But it’s some very opportunistic motherfuckers who are exploiting some very lazy laws to create an environment where you have access sold and real estate, and all used to the point of kind of like government plunder. There’s such breathlessness in the United States right now. So many millions of headlines being written about Russia and collusion. What is actually happening, is everything that’s in Moneyland.
Bullough: Yeah, I mean it’s much worse. Russia collusion is like a James Bond plot. There is somewhere a big room with one of those big high-backed black leather chairs with a dude in it, with a white cat. And he is to blame for Russia collusion, right. It’s him. And that’s not the case. It’s a system which has come into being and has been very, very profitable for a large number of people. And it is incredibly hard to think what you can do about it, but it’s basically, money crosses borders freely without hindrance, to wherever it wants to go, but laws don’t follow it.
So if you own money, you can pick and choose what laws your money lives under. And that is an incredibly obvious observation. But incredibly important and something that we don’t discuss nearly enough, which is that us normal people, you know, you and me, people who don’t frankly own enough money to maybe even have a pension let along an offshore bank account, we financially live our lives under the rule of one government. But if you’re rich enough to afford the services of lawyers and accountants who can arrange it for you, they live a totally different way. They don’t have borders. Borders for them are barely an annoyance. In fact, they’re an opportunity, because they allow them to pick and choose jurisdictions to be served in different ways.
And this is the thing, if you make it easy to steal stuff, people will steal stuff. And that’s what’s really interesting about the Paul Manafort affair. Because, I suppose there might be an argument that corruption, this sort of kleptocracy in Nigeria, or Afghanistan, or Malaysia, or Ukraine, is just a culturally specific phenomenon, right, that these places people steal, because that’s what they do.
Thornburgh: I guarantee you that that’s the image that people have in their mind.
Bullough: Of course it is. You know, you say, “Oh, well they’re just foreign and they steal.” Some people do. But what’s really interesting about Manafort is, you take him, you put him in Ukraine, and he behaved in exactly the same way as a Ukrainian politician. Right down to the location of the shell companies he used to own the bank accounts that he spent money with to buy these frankly really ugly designer clothes that he bought. And these shitty condos.
Thornburgh: Let me say, that mother fucker is kleptocrat from the crib. Like he, as you pointed out in the book, he had bought a brownstone in Brooklyn, which is supposed to be a declasse, low-key kind of rich, expensive place. And he had just like gone insane with it, and filled it with $80,000 worth of Iranian rugs and all of this stuff. So that style, it feels like he might be a transnational asshole.
Bullough: Yeah, I mean he’s up there in the first division of transnational assholes. But why he is so valuable, as an example, is he shows that if you put someone in a situation where they can nick as much money as they want and hide it, and never get caught. Because, had he not got involved with the Trump campaign, let’s face it, he never would have got caught. Then you’re gonna do it, why wouldn’t you do it? You know, if someone said to me, “Here’s a billion dollars, and you’re never gonna get caught.” I’d like to think I’d turn them down. But I know quite a large bit of me would be like, “A billion you say?” And then you think about what you can buy with a billion dollars. And all the good you could do, right? Yeah, because you’d be doing good with it, because you’re not bad like these other people.
Nathan: Exactly. I’m the hero of my story.
Bullough: Certainly, everyone is. No one’s bad in their own story. And that’s it. And so, all these people, they’re looking after their families, you always have to come up with some kind of justification. It’s bullshit, but it works in your head, and that’s it. So you nick the billion, and you stash it in Nevis, or Panama, or Vanuatu or whenever, and then you get to buy houses on Central Park West. Win.
Thornburgh: So, I don’t want to gloss over your first two books, which in my mind made you something of the poet laureate of our generation of Russophiles. Let Our Fame Be Great, is an incredible book about a terribly unnoticed and unloved in the literary marketplace, I guess kind of group of people, Circassians primarily, but also the Caucasus in a larger sense. It was the one that just kind of absolutely flipped my lid. I mean the Caucasus has gone through something over the last 30 years that no people should ever have to go through, and will be the stuff of legend in that fucking region for a thousand years, because it’s just been so brutal and so I think magnificently cruel. All of the different twists and turns. And then your second book, The Last Man In Russia, was about alcoholism as a lens through which to mark and define the dissolution, particularly of rural Russia.
Bullough: So alcoholism as a coping strategy, it’s a bad coping strategy. It’s an incredibly, to be honest—it’s my book so I can say it—it’s a pretty bleak book.
Because it’s happening undetected and unpunished, there’s absolutely no reason anyone would stop.
The Russians have been much experimented on, and the sort of collectivization, the crushing of the Russian peasantry, was one of the cruelest of the many cruel experiments of the 20th century. So the book is about the aftermath. What happens after your entire society has been destroyed. What happens to you. And there’s no acknowledgement, and no recompense. It’s pretty depressing.
Thornburgh: I think from my perspective what I found really fascinating in re-reading Moneyland yesterday, was that you had made an arc between those first two books, and essentially documenting different facets of extreme suffering. There are bright moments and the writing is very light and humorous and it’s not like a dirge of a book. I mean, these things are very entertaining to read. But what you said with Moneyland, was that this was your attempt to really in a new way figure out what the root causes of all this crap were?
Bullough: I mean, so the first two books were kind of describing what went wrong, right. I’d gone to this place and was expecting to find sort of a glorious flowering of democratic freedoms, and actually I’d found Putin, right. What went wrong? And so here’s Chechnya, and then Chechnya led me to looking into it.
But it was only in Ukraine in 2014, after the revolution there, when I had this sudden blatantly obvious realization that actually maybe we’re not the good guys, and that maybe the people who ruined these countries and made a fortune while they were bombing the hell out of Grozny, maybe these people who then ended up putting their money in London and New York, hadn’t done it without help. And that was what Moneyland was about.
It was this sudden realization that, actually, the problem was a different league of problems than what I was thinking it was. It’s not enough to just describe the symptoms of a disease, you need to describe the virus that’s causing the disease. And the virus was this: I call it the dark side of globalization. It’s this unimpeded movement of dirty money through these back channels of the global financial system, and the fact that this is happening undetected. And the money is being spent on luxury property, and luxury goods. And because it’s happening undetected and unpunished, there’s absolutely no reason anyone would stop.