I’ve only read the introduction so far and I already know that this book is going to be tough, not because it is hard to understand but because it is easy to understand, hard not to believe and heartbreaking to recognise as true.
Although Sarah Kendzior’s focus is America, many of the things she’s describing apply to my own country, the UK as well.
She starts with simple definitions of terms we hear all the time.
‘Oligarchs are extraordinary wealthy business men who both buffer and are protected by the Kremlin and other dictatorships in the former USSR.
The word oligarch is usually used with reference to Russia but oligarchs are transnational operators.’
Then she tells us what oligarchs do:
‘Oligarchs and government officials have a synergistic relationship aimed at streamlining state corruption and facilitating white-collar crime.Their American analogs are Plutocrats, the millionaires and billionaires who wield undue influence over the American political system, making it less democratic in the process.’
I knew this but it’s shocking to see it written clearly, without any caveats or reservations. Part of the shock comes from the recognition that the BBC would never air this definition, even as a quote.
Oligarchs have a lot of influence in the UK where they are major donors to the Conservative Party:
- The Open Democracy advocacy group said Russian donors have donated almost £490,000 ($631,000) to the Conservatives between November 2018 and October 2019.
- Alexander Temerko, who has worked both with Russia’s Defense Ministry and the defunct oil company Yukos. donated £1.5 million ($1.9 million) to the Conservatives in seven years.
- Lyubov Chernukhina, the wife of former deputy Russian Finance Minister Vladimir Chernukhin, donated £450,000 ($579,000) to the Conservatives in 2019.
You have to wonder what the oligarchs were using that money to buy.
But the power of Sarah Kendzior’s book is that she goes beyond analysis to the emotional impact of living in a time when democracy is under attack.
In 2017, just after Trump’s inauguration, she asked people to write down what they value and what things they would never do. She did this because she knew that totalitarian regimes attack those values and put pressure on you to change what you’re prepared to do and she wanted people to have a baseline to compare against that was written while they still remembered how the world used to be.
She then made this plea to her fellow Americans:
Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal, even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave and it is often hard to be brave, be kind but most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value.
That’s hard advice to ignore. I don’t think I’ll know if I can be brave until the moment comes but I hope that I can stay focused enough to remember to be kind.
Finally, she talks about how Trump’s assault on America and the losses he is imposing and will impose make her feel:
I don’t have longing for the past, I have nostalgia for the future because, I’m a mother and whatever system wins will be the one my children inherit.
See what I mean about heartbreaking?
In my own country, I’m already aware that the future I’d always imagined I’d live in has been taken away from me and is being replaced by one where we isolate ourselves from our neighbours, we accept that millions of people live in poverty, we have a large section of the working population who live in fear of losing their jobs, and we are encouraged to do what we can to look after ourselves because we are now a country where admitting to needing help turns you into prey.