On a snowy Wednesday last week in Moscow, a 32-year-old Russian Senator named Rauf Arashukov was in a rush, driving to an emergency session at the Senate accompanied by his personal bodyguards, where an extremely important question was to be voted on. Russia’s upper chamber of the Parliament was stripping Arashukov of immunity that day, but he did not know that yet. He was running a few minutes late, but he finally made it to the gloomy Soviet building in Downtown Moscow. The Senate’s speaker, Valentina Matvienko—the Iron Lady of the Putin regime—announced that the session was to be held behind closed doors, and gave the floor to a set of special guests present in the chamber. Attorney General Yury Chaika took to the stage and read a resolution stripping Senator Arashukov of immunity, charging him with organizing two murders, stealing natural gas from Gazprom, and staging an attempted coup in his native region, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, in Russia’s Caucasus.
The Investigative Committee’s head Aleksandr Bastrykin, along with his deputy, were sitting in the front row coldly listening to Chaika, very much unlike Senator Arashukov. Having heard the criminal charges, the young Senator jumped from his seat and bolted for the exit, where, alas, law enforcement officers were already waiting, blocking the doors. The strict voice of Madam Matvienko ordered the youngster to come back and sit down. Arashukov obeyed, as if hypnotized, and walked over to Bastrykin, taking a seat next to him. Needless to say, the vote was almost unanimous: only one brave soul defied the consensus by abstaining.
After he had been stripped of his Senatorial privileges, Arashukov was arrested along with his bodyguards and the driver. The siloviki apparently got so carried away by executing their duties that they even arrested a wrong person—another Senator’s driver—who was in a car parked next to Arashukov’s. The poor man was later released.
It’s not that Arashukov was the first Russian Senator to ever get arrested; some twelve Senators have been charged with criminal offenses in the past ten years. There had been even one case of a Senator being stripped of immunity. But never in modern Russian history did a Senator get arrested so theatrically, right in the middle of a session, with the two highest-ranking silovik officials executing the arrest. This was a scene fit for Kim Jong-Un’s Pyongyang, not Putin’s Moscow.
The show trial was probably meant to scare or at least impress the public; instead, the performance only made everyone laugh (well, everyone except the rest 169 Senators). It was like a scene from Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, a black comedy about the last days of the Soviet dictator and the power struggle that ensued—a film that Russian censors ended up banning. Initially having issued a distribution certificate for the film, the Ministry of Culture changed its mind two days before its scheduled release date. They called it an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” and part of an “anti-Russian information war.” But anyone who saw the film understood what the real reason was: it depicted Joseph Stalin, lying face-down in his own urine as his Central Committee henchmen schemed and intrigued over who would become the next Soviet leader. A slew of high-profile arrests followed. The parallels to Putin’s regime, and the uncertainty surrounding succession, were impossible to ignore. God forbid Russians even contemplate what is forbidden!
And as if they were auditioning for a role in a Death of Stalin sequel, Russian celebrities rushed to distance themselves from the now-toxic Senator, a playboy who had lured them into his inner circle with his lavish and ostentatious lifestyle. A former opera singer, a former ballerina, a Russian pop-star, a famous journalist—all had either performed at or been spotted attending Arashukov’s family events as friends, and all said they did not know him or had ever heard of him. Iannucci could not have plotted the scene better: Bastrykin himself was spotted spending quality time at Arashukov’s luxury spa hotel in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The Investigative Committee told the press that these photos of Bastrykin “do not correspond to reality.”
What certainly does correspond to reality is that Asharukov’s arrest is yet another twist in the ongoing power struggle among the siloviki in Russia. What’s different today, as opposed to a few years ago, is that there have been so many of these struggles that it doesn’t seem to make much sense to establish who is against whom and why anymore. It’s everyone against everyone now, with participants picking and changing sides as the angles open up. A lot of interests were represented by Asharukov: he is considered a close friend of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, and his father was the CEO of a regional Gazprom subsidiary for many years. We may never know who Asharukov crossed, but what is certain is that law enforcement in Putin’s Russia works mostly as a tool of the powerful. They would only investigate a murder (both of the murders that Asharukov is accused of ordering were committed in 2010) if it can bring down a rival.
And that is a sad reality behind the sometimes-comical theatrical flourishes of the Putin regime. The only good news here is that we will probably get to enjoy another black comedy about Russian dictators some time in the future—hopefully not too long from now.