They Made Putinism: Alfred Koch, the man of Privatizations and NTV

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Vladimir Putin did not create and build Putinism alone. Historian Cécile Vaissié presents in Desk Russie the fourth part of her series “They made Putinism”. This time, she tells the story of a man who has the reputation of “speaking the truth” without mincing his words. You might also find him ill-mannered and arrogant, as he seems to find it hard to admit his own mistakes. But if Alfred Koch is universally hated in Russia, it’s mainly because he’s associated with the privatizations and economic changes of the 1990s, which had painful consequences for so many Russians. Less so because, as a “capitalist shark”, he contributed to the destruction of free media under Putin.

Alfred Koch said he wanted “all his life” to be a writer and, like Surkov and Pavlovsky, he wrote several books. He also lost his government post in what came to be known as the “writers’ scandal” and demonstrates that the definition of a writer can be broad and flexible in Russia. But in 2004, he assured that he had finally understood that he was and always would be “a kulak”. And he added: “I’m not a great capitalist. I’m Russian. Koch. Alfred. Son of Reinhold. The joy of loving you. My Homeland.” Touching, but complex. Since, for any Russian, Koch, Alfred and Reinhold are German names. In any case, as his friend the journalist Igor Svinarenko noted in 2005, while views on Koch may differ, he “really is one of those who built the present country. Whatever it may be. We’re living there.” Or, rather, they were living there. Igor Svinarenko, born in Mariupol, died on May 10, 2022, aged 64. And Alfred Koch has lived in Germany since 2015. So much for “My Homeland”.

A meteoric rise

His name is German, as was his father’s: Alfred Koch descends from these Germans who settled in Russia from the 18th century onwards. The place, he was born in in 1961, confirms it and implicitly points to one of the Soviet tragedies: the future politician came to this world in Zyrianovsk, Kazakhstan. During the Second World War, Stalin deported to this republic the Germans established in Russia, whom he suspected — for no other reason than their distant origins — of wanting to collaborate with the Nazis. Reinhold Koch remained there and married a Soviet woman of Russian nationality, so that by 2003 their son could barely speak German. At school, Alfred was called a “fascist”, although, in Kazakhstan, distinctions were based on a different criterion: there were the children of former camp prisoners, and those of camp guards.

At the age of eight, Alfred Koch followed his parents to Togliatti, where the future politician completed his secondary education. Later, he said that he had no good memories of this period, apart from his first love stories: “The rest was just survival tactic.” Then he studied economics in Leningrad (LFEI: Economic and Financial Institute) and began there a kandidate thesis, which he defended in February 1987. He wanted to teach and worked for a few years as a researcher in Leningrad.

From 1988 onwards, Koch organized economics seminars with Anatoly Chubais: the latter was born in 1955 and his father, a colonel in the army’s Political Directorate, held the philosophy chair at a higher military institute. As early as 1978-1979, Anatoly Chubais had set up a semi-clandestine study group on economic reforms in the USSR and some Central / Eastern European countries. Nonetheless, at the age of 25, he joined the CPSU, defended his economics thesis and became a researcher at a less-than-prestigious institute. Since 1980, he had been in contact with a group of Moscow economists led by Yegor Gaidar (1956-2009), who was the grandson of an extremely well-known Soviet writer and later became Yeltsin’s Prime Minister. Yegor Gaidar and future oligarch Pyotr Aven attended Koch’s and Chubais’ seminars, as did some twenty specialists in finance and sociology. Because of such meetings, Westerners believed that the transition and break with the Soviet system were prepared and led by young, well-trained and dynamic academics, and they failed to realize that the KGB was very much in control.

In 1990, Alfred Koch entered politics: he was elected the mayor of Sestroretsk, remained in that position for a year, then chaired the executive committee of the Council of People’s Deputies in Leningrad, before leaving his institute. In April 1991, he was appointed chairman of the commission responsible for implementing locally a ruble reform, and that same year he joined a structure set up by Gorbachev to oversee all State assets in Leningrad and its region. Koch was thus in charge of what some consider to be the core of his career: privatizations, and it was at this time, it seems, that he met Vladimir Putin, who was responsible for foreign investments at Leningrad City Hall.

That year, at the age of thirty, Alfred Koch, already married with children, obtained his first apartment as one of his job’s perks. Until then, he had had a room in a communal apartment. Almost all of these future “elites” had lived in the Soviet mire, and suddenly new prospects, including material ones, were opening up for some of them, who were in the right circles, had the needed skills and were young enough to adapt flexibly. Why do some Westerners talk of “humiliation”? The Russians in the right circles enjoyed their new possibilities. They had fun. For a good twenty years. And they cared about themselves, their families and the enrichments they could draw from this period of change. And, sometimes, about the country. As Koch pointed out in 2004: “Money doesn’t mean happiness, it means freedom.” This is not untrue, but many then reduced freedom to money.

Privatization of the Russian economy

The USSR disappeared in December 1991, or rather, gave way to fifteen independent, sovereign countries. In January 1992, Boris Yeltsin’s government launched reforms aimed at transforming the Russian economy into a non-State, market economy. This meant privatizing some of the State’s assets.

In practice, this privatization had begun, very discreetly, during the last years of the Soviet era. According to sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a specialist of this question, the first wave of privatization took place between 1986 and 1989: hundreds, if not thousands, of companies were set up under the aegis of Komsomol organizations and KGB control, and entrusted to young, dynamic Komsomol officials, who reaped the profits, even though the capital remained with the State. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who would become, some fifteen years later, Russia’s richest man, was one of the beneficiaries of this operation. The second wave of privatizations began in 1989 and ended in 1992: civil servants privatized for their own benefit the public assets they managed, and did so with the authorities’ approval. For example, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Minister of Gas, transformed his ministry into a joint-stock company, Gazprom, of which he became CEO. A number of banks also emerged from State-owned banks, while others were initiated and financed by the State, without the latter showing its support.

In 1991, even before the USSR demise, some Soviet people were already wealthy, endowed with initial capital that they owed, for the most part, to their links with State and Party structures. What was still “control” and “management” soon became “ownership”: in 1993, Khodorkovsky realized that the company he ran could be considered his own. Those who, like him, had business experience, initial capital and good contacts would be able to earn even more money, thanks to the reforms undertaken by the Yeltsin government.

Alfred Koch with a privatization voucher

Alfred Koch with a privatization voucher // His Facebook page

At the beginning of 1992, Alfred Koch was still living in Leningrad, and, as vice-chairman of the Municipal State Property Committee (Goskomimushchestvo), he organized the sale of State property. However, on June 1, 1992, his friend Chubais was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and Koch became his deputy, overseeing at federal level the third wave of privatization, which was launched in the summer of 1992 and seemed to concern the entire population. It was based on the distribution of a ten-thousand-ruble voucher to every Russian citizen, who was supposed to use it to buy company shares. In reality, the population hardly benefited from these processes, while well-placed and well-informed individuals — including Boris Berezovsky — acquired major companies.

A year after his arrival in Moscow, Koch was given a new apartment to go with his new job. One of his biggest operations was still to come: “loans against shares”. This was the fourth wave of privatizations, and it had been conceived by two men: Boris Jordan, an American banker of Russian origin, and Vladimir Potanin, a future oligarch and son of a Soviet Foreign Trade Ministry official. In 1995, Yeltsin’s entourage concluded an agreement with a number of bank-owning oligarchs. These banks — created with the support and financing of the State — were to lend the government two billion dollars and receive shares in Russia’s top industrial companies as guarantees. In 1997, once the presidential election would be over, these banks would be allowed to organize themselves, for their own benefit, the auctions at which the pledged companies would be sold. And everything was to be supervised by Alfred Koch, who was in favor of massive privatizations: for him, the State should not own anything.

On March 30, 1995, Potanin, accompanied by two other bankers, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Aleksandr Smolensky, presented his plan to the Russian government, and this plan was supported by Koch and Chubais. As Chubais would explain twenty-five years later, they aimed to tie the business world closely to Yeltsin and the reformist government. On September 25, 1995, Alfred Koch signed the list of companies to be auctioned off. According to him, these auctions took place within one month, and so discreetly that most of the Russian population only heard about them afterwards. Fewer than a dozen trusted businessmen were able to acquire industrial flagships at very low prices: public assets, which would be worth $14 billion on the stock market in July 1997, were sold for less than one billion. The main beneficiaries were structures linked to Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky and Potanin. With Alfred Koch’s approval.

After Yeltsin’s re-election, Chubais became head of the presidential administration, and on September 12, 1996, 35-year-old Alfred Koch took over as head of the Federal State Property Committee (Goskomimushchestvo), with ministerial rank. On March 17, 1997, he was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. This position lasted until August 13, 1997, and was brought to an abrupt end by the “writers’ scandal”, which also had consequences for Putin’s stifling of the media.

Svyazinvest and the “writers’ scandal”

Koch had not yet been nominated Deputy Prime Minister when, around January 1997, businessman Vladimir Gusinsky went to see him and complained that he hadn’t benefited from the fourth wave of privatization, even though he’d helped Yeltsin a great deal. Therefore, he wanted Svyazinvest, Russia’s telecommunications monopoly, to be privatized for his benefit. Koch later claimed that he and the government’s “young reformers” had decided, however, that Svyazinvest would be sold “honestly” — which is a way of admitting that this had not always been the case within the “loans against shares” system.

Gusinsky also wanted Vladimir Potanin, then Deputy Prime Minister, to be excluded from the auction, which Koch refused. Koch was warned by Gusinsky and Berezovsky that, if Potanin were allowed to take part in the auction, the two men would use their media against Koch and Chubais. Chubais agreed to exclude Potanin, but in March 1997, the latter left the government. Chubais took his place and declared that, since Potanin was no longer in government, there was no reason why he shouldn’t take part in the sale of Svyazinvest, scheduled for July 1997. The consortium including Potanin, Soros and a few other investors won the bid: their offer was higher, but Gusinsky, furious, felt that there had been favoritism. Later, Koch considered that he had been violently attacked by the businessman’s media during the “writers’ scandal”, because Gusinsky wanted to take revenge on him.

Even today, this scandal remains obscure. Five leading figures from the government and presidential administration, including Koch and Chubais, received advances of at least $90,000 each from a publishing house controlled by Potanin’s bank, for then-unwritten books on the history of privatization in Russia. Such excessive kickbacks could conceal bribes, including for the sale of Svyazinvest. The media scandal was such that Chubais lost his post as Finance Minister, although he remained Deputy Prime Minister. As for Koch, he was accused of abuse of office and had to resign as Deputy Prime Minister on August 13, 1997. He claimed, however, that these perquisites were normal and had been donated to a fund for the defense of private property. The matter is all the more unclear since, according to Koch, there were in fact two sources of funding, including a New York publisher. And at least one collective book was published in 1999 by Vagrius: the legal case was closed that year.

Demonstration in Moscow in support of the NTV channel in 2001 // NTV, screenshot

Demonstration in Moscow in support of the NTV channel in 2001 // NTV, screenshot

The scandal did not end, however, when Koch left the government and took the helm of an investment company, Montes Auri. This company, claimed political scientist Dmitry Simes who was referring to rumors, made “enormous profits” by investing in the Russian stock market, and benefited from insider information from Chubais and Potanin. The legal machine was set in motion and, from September 1997, Koch had to face interrogations and searches “lasting ten hours, in the presence of the children”, for this “writers’ scandal”, but also for another concerning the allocation of his Moscow apartment. According to him, all this was done on the orders of Gusinsky, who orchestrated the attacks in the press against him, and had him followed and bugged.

While it’s hard to get to the bottom of these rumors, accusations and denials, it appears that, at the time, bribes of less than $100,000 seemed a good enough reason to remove someone from government and prosecute him, which would not be the case a few years later. Nevertheless, a wide variety of motives seem to have been involved, from the most legitimate to the pettiest ones. Koch claimed to have been attacked with particular violence by the NTV television channel, which belonged to Gusinsky. The question of motives came up again when, in 2000-2001, Koch oversaw the sale of NTV to Gazprom, marking the beginning of the disappearance of non-State-controlled media in Russia.

Another question pops up: where does Koch’s apparently substantial fortune come from? He was a State civil servant until 1997, and in 2003 he claimed to have earned his millions between 1997 and 2001, which was his way of denying any personal enrichment from the privatizations. But he immediately added that he had lost “almost everything” during the 1998 financial crisis. Did he earn his millions between 1999 and 2001? Not impossible in the Russia of the time, but Koch would not explain how, whereas he assured that he never received a “single kopeck of State funding”, never “took anything” and “sacrificed eight years” of his life “to create the necessary conditions for business in the country”.

His friend, the journalist Igor Svinarenko, pointed out to him in 2003 that many in Russia saw him as “someone who owed his rise to his relations with the authorities and used information he had as an insider to buy and sell treasury bonds (GKOs)”. Or even as someone who was biased in the “loans against shares” deal. But Koch assured that he was able to explain “to the competent bodies” how he earned his first million, although he had nothing to say to public opinion: “Fuck them.” With the same elegance, he added that he didn’t want to discuss his relations with “law enforcement agencies” either. Which leaves a few grey areas. Especially as Koch did not disappear after the “writers’ scandal”.

NTV’s “gravedigger”

As soon as Vladimir Putin took over the Russian presidency, he and his teams set out to regain control of the media. Gleb Pavlovsky recounted how the campaign staff met, on the evening of December 30, 1999. The vodka flowed freely, and one of his friends, “a very liberal journalist who had made a dazzling career” and who had no links “either with Putin, St Petersburg or the FSB” — the three main access networks to Putin circles — said to him: “The first thing we’re going to do is crush NTV!” Pavlovsky pretended, he was surprised, but he admitted to having himself suggested attacks in the spring of 2000 “against one or two oligarchs”: Gusinsky, then Berezovsky. Taboos had been lifted.

In fact, according to Igor Malashenko — one of NTV’s founders, who was very active in supporting Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 and belonged to the team that prepared the 1999-2000 elections — Gleb Pavlovsky played a key role, at Boris Berezovsky’s request, in convincing the Kremlin that NTV and other media owned by Gusinsky were “the enemies who [wanted] to stifle Vladimir Putin’s political career”. Pavlovsky admitted that, as early as 1999, a “war to death” had been declared between NTV and the presidential administration, and, as he claimed, he understood only later that their then relationship with the media would spawn “the whole system of later on censorship”. One NTV program in particular irritated Putin’s team: the Kukly (The Puppets), inspired by the French Guignols de l’info. More generally, the channel’s news was of high quality and fairly critical of the government on certain points. It did not support the wars in Chechnya, either the first or the second.

Created in October 1993, NTV had one weakness: during the Yeltsin years, the channel benefited from “credits” by Gazprom. According to the famous journalist and humorist Viktor Shenderovich — a former NTV employee — these “credits” were a kind of bribe paid “for Yeltsin’s re-election”, as everyone involved apparently knew. Nevertheless, on paper, NTV owed Gazprom money, and Putin’s election on March 26, 2000 changed the previous rules of the game. On May 11, several establishments of Media-Most — Gusinsky’s group — were raided, and a Kremlin official set out in writing the conditions for ending the attacks: NTV had to change its editorial line on Chechnya, stop its attacks on Boris Yeltsin’s closest circle, and remove from the Kukly Putin’s puppet, a small, skinny and cruel monster.

The puppet did indeed disappear, but a new episode of the satirical program showed Alexander Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration, listening to instructions from an invisible God. God. The Lord God. In Russian: Gospod’ Bog (K)GB. After decades of Soviet censorship, everyone deciphered the message. Then, around April-May 2000, Alfred Koch met Mikhail Lesin, Gleb Pavlovsky’s associate and now “Minister of the Press, Television and Radio Broadcasting and Mass Media”, at the Russian baths. Lesin made him a proposal: the Media-Most group, of which NTV was a part, owed Gazprom almost half a billion dollars; Gazprom had therefore asked Lesin to recommend someone who could try to recover part of this debt; Lesin had thought of Koch: would he agree? Koch understood that this proposal did not come from Gazprom only, and that the new minister had undoubtedly been entrusted with this “project” by the new administration: “New master in the Kremlin, new rules”, wrote Koch, de facto recognizing the political dimension of this case. He also understood, as he admitted, that he was being approached because he had a vendetta to exact against Gusinsky. The journalist Shenderevich also understood it: “The authorities knew who to put in charge of destroying NTV.”

So it was very consciously that Koch accepted his mission: “To confiscate a man’s media without touching him.” The next day, Lesin promised him not to appear too involved in this negotiation, so that it wouldn’t seem political — which it was… — and could not be presented as an attack on freedom of expression. Money was no object: Koch could hire anyone he needed. Noting that the debts had been guaranteed, Koch decided to demand these guarantees, if the debts could not be repaid. On June 12, 2000, he was appointed Director of Gazprom-Media. Because he had accepted this mission.

The day after this appointment, Gusinsky was arrested, and Koch said he heared about it in Lesin’s office. Both were reportedly very surprised, and Koch, he said, did not approve of the arrest, which was — it’s not impossible — an initiative of the security forces. Or of Putin. Vladimir Gusinsky was accused of embezzlement, to the tune of ten million dollars, and abuse of power. Seventeen influential political and business figures — including Anatoly Chubais and Vladimir Potanin — took up his defense in a letter that Alfred Koch also signed: he could claim that he was involved in an ordinary financial mission and not in a repressive trap.

At the same time, Igor Malashenko, Managing Director of NTV, negotiated with Lesin. The latter then told Koch that, according to Malashenko, Media-Most and all its assets were worth a billion, while debts to Gazprom amounted to 700 million. Malashenko therefore proposed that Gazprom wrote off the debts and bought Media-Most for 300 million. Koch believed that Media-Most was not worth a billion and had debts other than those to Gazprom, but the new minister assured him that it was not important: he had already spoken about it “where necessary”, “in particular to Gazprom”. He added: “If they’re willing to pay 300 million, the issue is closed forever; there are no more debts, and no criminal cases.” Otherwise, Koch would continue his work.

Vladimir Gusinsky was released after three days in detention. In exchange for his freedom, he had agreed to sell NTV to Gazprom. So it was not without cynicism that Alfred Koch sighed, a few years later: “O, the vegetarian era of the early Putin years! Such things were still possible!” In fact, they soon wouldn’t be possible in the Putin system that Koch had helped to build.

Boris Nemtsov then proposed that Koch met with Gusinsky and, according to Koch, an agreement was reached with the businessman: to draw up a repayment plan in two stages, and, if the debts were not repaid, Gazprom would recover the guarantees. Except that this doesn’t really fit with the version according to which Gusinsky agreed to sell his company. For it was during these negotiations that “annex number 6” was drawn up, a piece of paper that guaranteed Gusinsky his personal freedom and security, provided he sold the assets belonging to him. Here, too, the situation remains unclear: NTV officials assured that this annex was drawn up by the Kremlin along the lines of “your actions for your freedom”; Lesin and Koch claimed, that it was drafted on Gusinsky’s initiative. Accusation of lying could be heard on all sides.

In any case, Koch was the first to sign this “annex number 6”, followed by Lesin, then Gusinsky, and the charges against the latter were dropped. In July, the businessman left for Spain, becoming, according to journalist Masha Gessen, “the first political refugee from the Putin regime, just five weeks after the inauguration”. There, he denounced the agreement which, he said, he had signed under threat. The reaction was swift: on September 19, 2000, Gazprom — headed by Alfred Koch — filed a complaint against Media-Most, stating that it wanted to recover new shares in NTV, in exchange for the “credits” granted and not repaid.

Here again, Koch gave a rather different version of these events. According to him, Gusinsky had taken refuge in London, as had Malashenko, who then asked Koch for not 300, but 500 million. Koch refused, and it was then, he said, that Gusinsky claimed he had been forced to sign an agreement. Koch cynically claimed, that Gusinsky counted on the reaction of the West, ready to “defend freedom of speech in Russia”. So Koch filed a complaint. But a similar raid was already underway to seize the media owned by oligarch Boris Berezovsky: the aim was to take control of the media.

On November 13, 2000, an international arrest warrant was issued against Gusinsky. The businessman was arrested, but Spanish justice refused to extradite him. On December 15, the Russian tax authorities demanded the liquidation of Media-Most and NTV. The tax authorities would also be responsible for bringing Khodorkovsky’s oil empire under State control.

Koch claimed to have seen Gusinsky in London beforehand, and a new contract was signed in mid-December 2000. However, the businessman refused to sell his shares and filed a complaint in London against Gazprom-Media. On January 29, 2001, NTV’s journalists were received by Putin, and said on leaving they had “no more illusions”. However, some of them tried to save NTV, and demonstrations were organized. American media magnate Ted Turner even offered to buy the channel, but, when Gusinsky informed Koch of this proposal by telephone in early February, the latter retorted that this was not the issue. It was then — he recalled — that Gusinsky told him: “You, Alfred Koch, are completely destroying yourself as a democratic figure.” That’s right. Except that, as it is often repeated, “reputation is not an institution in Russia”.

Koch visited the United States in early 2001, in particular to give his version of recent events. According to him, suspicion quickly disappeared, and he noted that he was being helped by “many people”: those “who didn’t take seriously freedom of speech ‘à la Gusinsky’, and who considered that such freedom of speech could not justify non-payment of debts”. Among them was political scientist Dmitry Simes.

Shortly afterwards, a Russian court recognized that Koch’s team had the right to seize the debt guarantees. The shareholders met on April 3, 2001: Gazprom took control of NTV, and Koch was appointed Chairman of the Board and Deputy Director of the channel. A nice toy. He even hosted a game show on the channel on two occasions, but said he had to stop due to lack of time. Boris Jordan, the American banker who devised the “loans against shares” system, replaced journalist Yevgeny Kiselev as NTV CEO. In a show of solidarity with Kiselev, NTV journalists occupied their premises, while two new demonstrations took place against what many understood as an attack on freedom of expression. Nevertheless, Mikhail Zygar noted that “only the somewhat older members of the intelligentsia” took part in these demonstrations, while “the middle class, young successful people, didn’t care about the fate of the channel”. They did not approve, but let it happen.

Alfred Koch met Viktor Shenderovich, a key figure at NTV. He was “correct and kind”, and assured him that he was “completely independent of the Kremlin” — which was not true. According to the journalist, Koch deplored the heated controversy, expressed his desire to be trusted, outlined his plans for the channel and proposed that Shenderovich took a part in it. The latter tried to explain the difference between their positions: “For you, it’s a business. For us, it’s about our reputation, and that’s all.” The journalist recalled that “something amazing happened then”. Koch, hearing the word “reputation”, switched to English: “Mother fucker! — he shouted — Reputation! Mother fucker!” Shenderovich concluded, “It seems I hadn’t said the right thing.”

On April 14, 2001, three days after this conversation, the new NTV management — Koch’s management, that is — moved in. At night. Koch recounted this episode in a very light-hearted way: “When our patience ran out […], we simply entered the company by night, having bought […] Gusinsky’s security service, and we began to run it”. Such procedures were not uncommon at that time, and in 2005 Koch still didn’t seem to grasp what they had opened the door to.

In addition to NTV, Gazprom restructured the Media-Most group: the newspaper Segodnia was no longer financed; the editorial staff of Itogui was thrown out and this magazine, published in collaboration with Newsweek, disappeared for good in 2014. Today, Shenderovich lives Poland, Koch in Germany, Kiselev in Ukraine (at least, before the 2022 aggression) and Vladimir Gusinky has long been living in Israel. Igor Malashenko committed suicide in 2019. Koch and Kisseliov cross paths, at least occasionally, at opposition forums.

Having played his part, Koch was fired from NTV in October 2001. According to Shenderovich, obtained, as a reward for his good work, a plot of land near St. Petersburg and abandoned the media for the construction and management of a commercial port.

A “capitalist shark” in the 2003 elections

In 2003, Alfred Koch set up his own company and explained that, as a service provider, he carried out “hostile takeovers”, taking over companies at the request of his clients. Claiming to be “a capitalist shark”, he claimed to have seized some thirty companies, including twenty-four belonging to Gusinsky, and thus presented the attack on NTV as an ordinary, legal and legitimate, action of capitalism, and not as an operation to stifle press freedom in Russia.

He went even further, claiming to have performed “a social task”. Indeed, for him, “the press” had “a serious impact on our freedoms”, and “it turned out that Mr. Gusinsky’s interpretation of freedom of expression was disturbing a lot of people”. He admitted, of course, that no one in the former Soviet Union really knew what freedom of expression meant, and he scoffed at the intelligentsia who claimed to appreciate it. A process had been set in motion, and not just by Koch: ironizing when some tried to defend democratic values. But this didn’t stop the former minister from asserting that he had “always considered [himself] to be profoundly democratic by nature”, and loved “all civil liberties”. Furthermore, he was “useful to the economy”: “For the economy, it’s preferable for companies to move from the weak to the strong.” This seemed to be his conception of the world: the law of the strongest.

That year, Alfred Koch headed the SPS [Union of Right Forces] campaign staff for the parliamentary elections and, together with Yuri Gladkov, headed the party’s list for St Petersburg. The elections took place just after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, to which SPS had hardly reacted, and Koch reportedly told journalist Elena Tregoubova that he was not bothered by this near-silence. SPS won 4.3% of the vote. Who wanted to fight for a “liberal” party whose candidates were involved in the destruction of Russian freedoms?

Koch’s political career was over.

In 2004-2005, he published several books of conversations with his friend, the journalist Igor Svinarenko, and these books provide valuable factual material for the study of Russia in the years 1989-2002. They are also useful for identifying certain psychological processes. One passage in the second volume is particularly striking. Rather childishly, Koch says he wants to go to Crimea: “It’s unfair! We conquered [Crimea] and the Ukraignos (khokhly) are using it. I want it to be ours.” Svinarenko comments, “You’re waiting for us to be given Crimea sooner or later.” And Koch continues: “I’m even ready to organize an invasion! If we conquer Crimea, what will be done to us? Nothing. I’m also in favor of justice. It doesn’t belong to the Ukraignos! Nikita [Khrushchev] gave it to them.” The same arguments that Putin will use from 2014 onwards… How does the self-proclaimed “democrat” differ from the autocrat he served?

Svinarenko suggested taking the case to an international tribunal, but Koch answered: “First you have to conquer [Crimea], then file a complaint. And by the time justice is done, Crimea will be ours. And everyone in Crimea will be happy. And we have to take Odessa at the same time.” He seemed convinced: “Crimea is ours, and we need it. Give it back to us. I’m all for justice.” It was also these expectations, Koch’s and others’, that Putin fulfilled, or believed he fulfilled, when he illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Yet Koch spoke of the Russian regime as a “dreadful Asian despotism”, and his assessment of Putin’s actions was negative in 2005: the president had only strengthened the “verticals” and lowered taxes. But what did the former minister do to change this situation?

Because he saw himself as an intellectual, he published other books. In one, co-authored in 2013 with the oligarch Pyotr Aven, they interviewed political figures involved in Gaidar’s reforms and attempted to understand how Russia had become what it now was. Elmar Mourtazayev, then first deputy editor-in-chief of Forbes Russia, remarked: “When you listen to the interviewees, you get the impression that they’ve all fought hard, refused to compromise… But when you look out of the window, you want to ask: if you’ve made so much effort, why is there this mess all around us?”

Yes, why?

Alfred Koch was spending more and more time in Germany, and in 2015 he settled there permanently. Should we speak of a “return to the historical homeland”, to use the Soviet and Russian formulation? Of a flight from what was happening in Russia since the annexation of Crimea? Of a more prosaic flight? Koch was under indictment at the time: he had been accused of smuggling into Germany a painting, the value of which was disputed by Russian customs. This was a warning.

The man who privatized Russia opened a small real estate and construction business in Bavaria. And, in August 2015, to celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day, he laid flowers on Stepan Bandera’s grave, as if in a final, rather futile provocation.


Alfred Koch is now a regular speaker at the “Free Russia Forums”, that are organized by Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Vilnius, and that Navalny’s supporters did not attend in 2021 and 2022. He is also invited by Russian-speaking opposition media, which sometimes provokes indignant reactions from those who remember his role in the Media-Most destruction. If a real union of Russian opponents seems so difficult in today’s diaspora, it’s also because some unspoken of ghosts haunt the last thirty years and raw wounds remain.

Yes, from Bavaria, Koch criticizes Russia’s war against Ukraine on an almost daily basis. Has he changed? No doubt. As so many have changed, one way or another. It can even be a game: take a look, for example, at what the incarnations of perestroika (Alexander Jakovlev, Vitali Korotich, etc.) were writing before perestroika. Their “before” words could often be published in today’s Russia, and perhaps they’ve come back because one thing and its opposite were said by the same people, at different times, as if words had no value.

On the other hand, the consequences of what Koch did in the early 2000s are before our very eyes.

As for Anatoly Chubais, he left Russia shortly after the attack on Ukraine began. He and his wife are said to have taken Israeli citizenship.

To follow in the next issue…

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