Boris Berezovsky and the Bizarro Effect

When I first put forward my thesis that we are suffering from what I call the Bizarro Effect – the inversion of moral laws as well as the rules of logic – it was just a hypothetical, a tentative assessment of the consequences of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I wasn’t absolutely sure that the sheer force of those planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had torn a hole in the space-time continuum and plunged us into a Bizarro World alternate universe, where up is down, right is wrong, and Satan sits on the throne of heaven. But the evidence kept piling up, as the Bizarro Effect spread outward from its starting points in lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C. It is now a worldwide phenomenon and spreading fast. Let’s take a tour, then, of the world’s hot spots, where the Effect is accelerating beyond anything yet seen…

First stop – London, site of the world’s first nuclear terrorist attack, where one Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent turned whacked-out conspiracy theorist, was poisoned with radioactive polonium. From his deathbed, Litvinenko pointed the finger at Russian President Vladimir Putin and the FSB, the Russian intelligence service.

Never mind that this makes absolutely no sense – that Putin would have to be crazy to order or countenance such an attack, that Russia had nothing to gain from it and everything to lose. Kindly disregard the total lack of evidence implicating the Russian state, and please do your best to ignore the shady character of the victim and his billionaire Russian oligarch patron, whose criminal career was well-documented by the late Paul Klebnikov. (After his fascinating exposé, The Godfather of the Kremlin, was published, Klebnikov was knocked off by unknown assailants.)

As Ayn Rand once said: Don’t bother to examine a folly – ask yourself only what it accomplishes. Litvinenko’s bizarre death has launched a tidal wave of Russophobic hysteria: editorialists the world over are virtually frothing at the mouth, demanding Putin’s head, and the politicians aren’t far behind. Fox News interviewed Senators Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham the other day, and here is what they had to say about the Litvinenko affair:

“Question, and I’ll start with you, Senator Biden: Do you believe – I understand it’s speculation, but do you believe that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is involved? And whether we can prove that or not, how should it affect our relations with Russia?

“BIDEN: Well, I don’t know whether he’s involved, but our relations with Russia have to get straightened out to begin with. Russia is moving more and more toward an oligarchy here. Putin is consolidating power. He’s been doing it for the last six years. We have basically been giving him a bye. I think that Russia is sliding further away from genuine democracy and a free-market system and more toward a command economy and the control of a single man. So I’m not a big fan of Putin’s, and I think we should have a direct confrontation with Putin politically about the need for him to change his course of action.

“GRAHAM: I think Joe is right on.”

This trope of “I don’t know if he did it, but…” is the common thread running through this particular bout of war propaganda, and it’s everywhere: read this commentary by Anne Applebaum and see if you don’t catch the same theme of factual ambiguity and moral certitude.

The first half of her piece is devoted to sketching out the complexities of the case, and she has the best line so far in the coverage of l’affaire Litvinenko: “Though we don’t know who killed Litvinenko, we have learned that London is a more exciting place than we thought it was.” Despite this admitted lack of evidence tying Putin and his government to Litvinenko’s prolonged martyrdom, it turns out that that Putin is guilty regardless of facts or evidence:

“As the investigation progresses, I’m sure many more wonderfully shady characters will emerge, along with many theories about who was trying to discredit whom. But though it’s doubtful that he ever gave an actual order to an actual thug, in this deeper sense, Putin is certainly responsible for Litvinenko’s death: He presides over this web of old intelligence operatives; indeed he sits at its hub. And he approves of their methods. One of his first acts as prime minister in 1999 was the unveiling of a plaque to Yuri Andropov, the former KGB boss best known for his harsh treatment of dissidents. Last year, Russians built a statue to Andropov. No one should have been surprised when the former KGB’s harassment of modern ‘dissidents’ subsequently grew harsher with every passing year – or that it culminated in this strange murder.”

Putin is responsible, even if he isn’t. Because, you see, he “presides” over a mysterious “web” of “operatives.” What more proof do we need but that plaque dedicated to Andropov? To the Anne Applebaums of this world, that is evidence enough. No need to get more specific than that: please don’t bother us with any unpleasant details. We have a new Cold War to win…

That’s what it means to assume Putin’s guilt “in a deeper sense.”

Applebaum tells us that the career trajectories of ex-KGB “operatives” took many turns after the fall of the old Soviet Union. The “stupidest,” she says, citing Oleg Gordievsky, a high-ranking Cold War-era KGB defector, chose to join the reorganized FSB or its overseas equivalent, while the others went into business, entered politics, or joined the Russian Mafia. What she doesn’t mention is that people like Litvinenko formed yet another faction: those who joined with the Russian oligarchs in a bid to retake the Kremlin after their expulsion by Putin. (Yes, the oligarchs overlap with the Mafia, but are differentiated from it in that they are giving themselves a political cover for their criminal and “business” activities.)

There is a reason why Boris Berezovsky, the Russian billionaire who looted his country’s economy during the corrupt Yeltsin era, took Litvinenko under his wing. Berezovsky is wanted in Russia on charges of murder, extortion, and massive theft, and is fighting extradition. He has also called for the violent overthrow of the Russian government, which earned him a rebuke from Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary. The Russian oligarch found Litvinenko useful, and thus published his book that blamed Putin for practically every ill under the sun, including the existence of al-Qaeda, the Beslan massacre (supposedly staged by the KGB), and the bombing of Russian cities in the 1990s (deeds actually carried out by Chechen Islamists).

If Litvinenko had blamed Putin and the FSB for the falling Russian birth rate, I wouldn’t be at all surprised – and neither would any Russian, which is why he had zero credibility in the motherland. He was a marginal figure, unworthy of such a spectacular hit. As many have pointed out, if the Russkies had really wanted to kill him, why would they bother with such an exotic, prolonged death agony – which gave Litvinenko and the PR company employed to blacken Putin’s name plenty of time to point the accusing finger at Russia – when a simple car “accident” or fatal run-in with a “mugger” would have done the job?

An entire platoon of ex-KGB types have sprung up to point the finger at Putin, including not only Gordievsky, but also Mikhail Trepashkin, who was arrested in 2003 and charged with “divulging state secrets” to British intelligence and possession of an unregistered firearm. Trepashkin now claims, from his jail cell, that he knows all about Litvinenko’s death and has vital information for investigators. An old Moscow News story reports that Trepashkin, Litvinenko, and Berezovsky are old buddies:

“In a prison note obtained by The Moscow News, Trepashkin said his case began when the security directorate – an agency that oversees police and FSB activities – contacted the FSB about a meeting that had taken place between British intelligence, the exiled oil tycoon Boris Berezovsky, and fellow FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. According to Trepashkin’s note, Litvinenko apparently told of a planned demarche ‘of disinformation in connection with FSB activities and the apartment bombings in Moscow.’ The security directorate said Trepashkin was the one who had gathered all the information.”

No, Putin does not “preside” over this little group of ex-KGBers; Berezovsky does. The Russian tycoon even has a connection with the prime suspect in the Litvinenko murder case, the elusive Andrei Lugovoi, who had a hand in busting Berezovsky’s buddy, Nikolai Glushkov, out of jail. Glushkov, former head of Aeroflot, was convicted of embezzling millions and funneling the cash into a Swiss bank account controlled by none other than our old friend Berezovsky. The common link here is the Russian oligarch, not the Russian president.

It’s interesting how time changes one’s opinions. Why, it seems like only yesterday Comrade Gordievsky wrote the following in the British Telegraph:

“Litvinenko has hinted that he has ‘information’ which shows that Vladimir Putin was behind the bombs which killed 300 people in Moscow more than a year ago. Those bombs, blamed on Chechen terrorists, gave Putin the excuse he needed for a new offensive in Chechnya. That propelled him to victory in the presidential election. If you ask the question, who benefited, the answer is simple: Putin did.

“Planting a bomb which kills 300 civilians merely to increase your popularity would set a new record for cold-blooded callousness, even by the standards set by Russia’s past leaders. It would mean Putin is capable of the kind of Caligulan cruelty which would raise serious questions about his sanity. Not even Stalin deliberately blew up blocks of flats containing his own citizens. Could Putin have done it? My own belief is that it is very unlikely. Even supposing Russia’s president to be without any moral scruples … he has a certain intelligence. In today’s Russia, it would be impossible to keep such an operation secret, and Putin would know it. He’s well able to calculate that the risks of exposure would guarantee the operation was not worth its possible benefits.

“It is more difficult to dismiss Litvinenko’s allegation that the KGB has been assassinating political enemies, especially as he says he was part of the hit-squad. Nevertheless, there are some strange elements in the story. Boris Berezovsky is a very odd target. Yes, he’s rich and had made most of his billions by acquiring, legitimately or illegitimately, state assets – then exploiting them or selling them on at a huge profit. Yes, his ownership of media means he has, to his enemies, a disturbing power. …

“Even in Russia, however, it is difficult to see how any of that constitutes a reason for having Berezovsky killed. Stalin’s KGB was famous for assassinating opponents, with or without the slightest pretext. But by the time I joined the KGB, such ‘wet jobs’ were very rare. … It would be a major policy reversal for the KGB to go back to murdering people in the way it did in the Stalinist era. On the other hand, if Litvinenko’s allegations are not true, it is mysterious why he should have made them. Gossip in Moscow says he was given a huge bribe by Berezovsky, who simply wanted a way to discredit the KGB.”

The above was published on Nov. 5, 2000. Today, however, in the very same newspaper, Gordievsky forgets all about his skepticism of Litvinenko’s outlandish accusations, drops his contention that Putin would have to be mad to carry out overseas assassinations of his political enemies, and dispenses with his implication that Berezovsky bribed Litvinenko to smear Putin:

“The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, could order the assassination of all his exiled opponents in Britain, including me, unless Tony Blair and George W. Bush end their appeasement of his authoritarian regime. I have no doubt that the man who tried to kill my friend Alexander Litvinenko is back in Moscow and will walk free in its streets for as long as the current regime, which is dominated by ex-members of the KGB, controls the Kremlin.

“Alexander was a high-profile critic of Moscow who often spoke in strong language of the state’s abuses of power. His most recent investigations were driven by his belief that Mr. Putin had ordered the execution of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was shot in the doorway of her apartment building last month.

“The attempt to kill Alexander, who had only last month been granted British citizenship, could not have been carried out without the express approval of the president.”

So which is it: are KGB-style “wet jobs” a thing of the past, or a feature of the future? Is Putin sane, or is he a madman? Is Berezovsky still a scheming, unscrupulous oligarch, who bribed Litvinenko to play the role of sock-puppet? The only mention of Berezovsky is in passing:

“When I spoke to Marina, Alexander’s wife, she was convinced that the assassination attempt was carried out by a man I shall not name but his identity is widely known in Russian business circles. This man was for a time a close associate of Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire businessman driven out by Mr. Putin who now lives in exile in Surrey. After a spell in prison, the former subordinate emerged as a KGB agent and became very rich.

“By arranging a meeting with Alexander and administering a dose of the deadly poison thallium, he has repaid his debt to the state. He is now safely back in Russia and is thus safe from any attempt to hold him accountable for his actions.”

Gordievsky is here accusing Lugovoi – and, presumably, the other two Russians who met with Litvinenko that fateful day, Vyacheslav Sokolenko and Dmitry Kovtun – of murder. Evidence? Who needs evidence? After all, according to Gordievsky, “Mr. Putin is eliminating his opponents with the same ruthless determination displayed by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.” Putin is Hitler, and Lugovoi is his agent: case closed.

Yet Lugovoi, according to another article in the Telegraph, was acquitted of all charges, and there is no evidence that there had been a break with his old friend Berezovsky. Lugovoi held several meetings with Litvinenko over their 10-year relationship, and, although they were not close friends, they weren’t enemies, either.

In 2000, Litvinenko was dismissed by Gordievsky as a bit of a kook, and Putin was portrayed by him as possessing “a certain intelligence” – and in full possession of his sanity. In 2006, the Russian president has suddenly become a neo-Nazi madman who is out to kill anyone and everyone who gets in his way, no matter where they are. Sure, people can change their minds, but this complete reversal requires rather more of an explanation than Gordievsky bothers to give.

Which brings us to the larger question of the reason for the current anti-Russia campaign being waged in (or, rather, by) the Western media. The answer, I believe, is to be found here. Also here, and here. Putin is pursuing an independent foreign policy, one that does not conform to Washington’s dictates, and this rankles – especially when it concerns the Middle East. Putin’s lack of enthusiasm for the campaign to impose sanctions on Iran, in particular, has roused the Americans and the British to take out after the Russian bear. Suddenly we are hearing a familiar refrain about Russian “imperialism” – this from the citizens of a country that has invaded and occupied Iraq, and threatens to export its idea of “democracy” at gunpoint all across the globe!

As I have warned for the past couple of years, Russophobia is the latest and most dangerous trend in Washington, and it is now a bipartisan fashion, as Senators Biden and Graham demonstrated on Fox News (where else?) the other day.

Yes, Senators, that’s just what we need: another confrontation with an even more formidable foreign enemy, this time a nuclear-armed one. And to think that Biden is running for president! Ah, but that’s what’s so great about this country: even the mentally challenged can dream of the White House. God bless America.

There is zero evidence that Putin ordered Litvinenko’s “liquidation,” yet our leading politicians and pundits are all set to liquidate the Russian president and launch a new “clash of civilizations” between the Slavic world and the West.

What to do when you’re bogged down in an unwinnable war, beset on all sides by terrorists while a wave of anti-Americanism sweeps the world? Why, you add the Russians to your growing list of enemies, while inciting yet more anti-Americanism – because it’s the “right” thing to do in Bizarro World.

We live in a world where criminals are good guys and patriots are villains: where Berezovsky is a liberal “human rights” activist and Putin is a moral monster. And that’s why they call it Bizarro World…

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].