The stand-off in Ukraine cannot be understood in terms of European institutions, or “close links” with Russia. Its centre of gravity is the immense pressure being put on individual Ukrainian leaders, and in particular Viktor Yanukovich. A bloody crackdown will make him a pariah and even risks civil war. Moscow needs him to fear the Kremlin more than his own people, and it is upon Moscow that the West must focus its diplomacy. No wonder he has taken ‘sick leave.’ Let’s imagine, with the help of Kiev-born Mikhail Bulgakov, what might have happened in the last few days.
It’s 8pm. The phone rings on Viktor Yanukovich’s desk. “The Russian Ambassador, Mr President.”
“Very well. Show him in.”
Ambassador Koroviev was in no mood for pleasantries. “You’ve failed us twice already. You failed to clear the Maidan, and now you’ve allowed the anti-protest laws to be cancelled. We’ll only ask once more.” He took out a handkerchief, and spent a moment polishing his glasses, before turning to his colleague. “Azzazello, play that for the President.”
Azzazello took out his phone and turned on the speaker. Viktor heard his own voice, though a little indistinct; the recording was garbled by interference and marred by an echo.
“Yes, Baroness, that seems like a very generous offer….technocrats…immunity…2004 constitution…”
“How dare you record my—”
“ – Don’t be ridiculous. You’re starting to sound like Angela Merkel. Anyway, the Americans recorded it, but since June we’ve had a friend who’s given us access to their bugs.”
Azzazello went over to the window, and began to open it.
“But it’s minus 30 outside.”
“That’s why you need our gas. Now,” Azzazello indicated a door to the left of the President’s desk. “Let’s go in there.”
He had expected the bathroom, but the first thing that struck Viktor was the darkness, it was as dark as under ground. They started climbing some wide steps, and Viktor began to think there would be no end to them.
“You see,” explained Koroviev, “Messire gives a ball annually, and being recently divorced, needs a hostess, uh, host, host.”
They opened a door, and came into a small room, sparsely furnished with an oak bed and candelabrum with sockets in the form of a bird’s claws. In those seven golden claws burned thick wax candles. There was a huge black tom-cat in the room, about the size of Nicolas Sarkozy, playing with a gas lighter and wearing a bow tie. To its left was an old amphora, Greek or possibly Roman, recently fished out of the Black Sea.
A bald muscular man lay on the bed, bare-chested, cleaning his rifle. As he stood, drawing himself up to his full 5ft 7 inches, Viktor exclaimed “Mr Pu—”
“ – No no no,” interrupted the bare-chested man. “I’m Professor Woland, any resemblance to Vladimir Putin is entirely coincidental. And I assure you that no animals have been harmed in this production, including,” Woland waved an arm towards the cat, “Medvedev here. Medvedev! What the devil do you need the bow-tie for, when you’re not even wearing trousers.”
“A cat is not supposed to wear trousers, Messire,” the cat replied with great dignity. “But have you ever seen anyone at a ball without a bow-tie. I do not intend to risk being chucked out!”
“Ok, since you insist,” shrugged Woland, “Now, to the ball!”
A fine tailcoat was supplied and a great crown was now put on Viktor’s head; a sash and star pinned across his chest, and Koroviev and Azzazello assumed a new attitude of deference. “Allow me,” Ambassador Koroviev said “to give you one last piece of advice. Among the guests there will be different sorts, but no one, should be shown any preference. Even if you don’t like someone…I understand you will not, of course, show it on your face — no, no, it’s unthinkable! He’ll notice it, he’ll notice it instantly.”
Viktor saw himself flying down towards the Crimea, and then East across the Black Sea, and landing just near the border with Abkhazia, in Sochi. He walked through a huge figure-skating pavilion, past the snow-boarding hills, the luge-track and the curling lodge. Each one gleamed. A vast ski-jump assembly cast its shadow beneath the flood lights. A band played and fountains of champagne kept above freezing at exorbitant cost, bubbled and sprayed in time to the music. Viktor was led up the top of an immense stairway to a dais above which were suspended five enormous Olympic rings. On either side stood Azzazello and Koroviev, striking formal poses, and at his left foot he felt something warm and furry. It was Medvedev.
The guests began to arrive and ascended the great staircase to met the host. Each would pause, wait to be announced, then kneel down and kiss Viktor’s outstretched hand. A group of intelligence men came up together. Their names meant nothing to Viktor, so Koroviev filled him in that “they planted the bombs in 1999, just before the Russian presidential elections”. Viktor felt a little queasy, but beamed on “Delighted to meet you sirs. Delighted.” Then two very large, heavy-set men: thugs without question. Did Viktor catch that correctly, something about Politovskaya? “Welcome, gentlemen, welcome.”
Now Ramzan Kadyrov, warlord of Chechnya, who pretended to be a loyal official of the Russian Federation, bounded up, his pet leopard, straining at a chain, baring its teeth at a quaking Medvedev. Viktor fixed his grin: “Delighted.”
If he felt it was getting too much, he was sure not to show it. Customs officers at the Russian border had already started to hold up trade again. They would inspect every part and unpack every crate. Exports would evaporate.
The next guest wore a pink jumper and clutched a glowing box of sushi. “Who’s that?” “Andrei Lugovoy, he had dinner with Alexander Litvinenko.”
Decidedly nervous now, his arm beginning to ache: “How good of you to come.”
A gas cut-off would force factories to close. People would be thrown out of work. The country was nearly bankrupt. It would finish him.
Two more youngish men, still in big puffa-jackets with snow on their hats. “These chaps,” Azzazello began explaining, “dealt with Dimitry Bulatov.” One carried a bloodstained knife, the other a small piece of ear. Viktor grew very pale and began to sweat.
“Any more?” he asked, eyes wide and face white. “Yes, just one.” On the lowest step it was just possible to discern a tall man with all the appearance of a Syrian Basil brush.
As told to Garvan Walshe. With apologies to Mikhail Bulgakov, whose The Master and Margarita is available at Amazon and all good bookshops.