Jacob Heilbrunn

Yuri Luzhkov Gets Stung By Medvedev

Set thine house in order, the prophet Isaiah recommends, and it sounds as though Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is aiming to do just that. His firing of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who criticized Medvedev for putting the kibosh on his St. Petersburg-Moscow plan for a highway, who apparently took off during the forest fire emergency this summer for his wife's Austrian chateau, and who likes to indulge in his hobby as a beekeeper, evokes memories of earlier housecleanings in Russian history--specifically, the Ryutin and Kirov affairs.

In 1932 Stalin consolidated his power by targeting the old Bolshevik Martemyan Rutin, who lived in Moscow and had issued a manifesto inside the communist party calling Stalin the "gravedigger of the revolution." Ryutin and his comrades were purged. In 1934 Stalin went on to engineer the assassination of St. Petersburg mayor Sergei Kirov. The great terror, the hunt for rightist and leftist deviationists, Trotskyists and fascists, began. As the redoubtable Anatol Lieven recently noted on this website, Russian history continues to loom large in the country's future.

Nothing of the kind will occur with the Luzhkov affair, which signifies the difference between an ideological state (Marxist-Leninist) and the corrupt state (oligarchic) constructed by Putin. For all the complaints about corruption in Russia, it's better than the alternative. Russia started to go soft when Nikita Khruschev was sent off to his dacha rather than executed. Stalin himself used to mock his inner circle, snarling that it would fritter away the empire he had constructed after his death. He was right.

Now Putin is trying to shore up the battered Russian state. Kremlinologists will continue to puzzle over the relationship between Medvedev and Putin. The real question will likely be who ends up replacing Luzkhov--Putin's man or Medvedev's?

Perhaps Luzhkov will be able to offer some insights. Dubbed the "last Mohican," he served as mayor for almost two decades, transforming Moscow as well as his own personal fortunes. Some men marry for money, but Luzhkov took a different approach, turning his wife into a billionaire. While Putin and Medvedev eye each other warily, he can go into his own kind of exile--on the French riviera. Now that he's suffered a stinging defeat, the amateur beekeeper may well decide that staying in overcrowded, gridlocked Moscow is for the birds.