Russia-defectors welcome in Kiev.

Photographer: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

A Former Putin Backer Steps Through the Looking Glass

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

To understand what makes both Russia and Ukraine tick these days, one needs to look no further than the story of Denis Voronenkov, a Russian ex-legislator who defected to Kiev with his wife, a former Russian parliament member. For them, crossing the border into the neighboring post-Soviet country was like going through the looking glass.

Voronenkov, 45, typifies the new elite under President Vladimir Putin. A military lawyer who served in Russia's now defunct anti-drug agency under an old Putin crony, made a government career in an oil-rich region, and was elected to parliament in the rigged vote of 2011, Voronenkov never worked in the private sector. Yet somehow he amassed a stunning amount of expensive real estate and a stable of luxury cars. While in parliament, he married fellow legislator Maria Maksakova, a renowned opera singer with St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater and a member of the Putin loyalist United Russia faction. Then-parliament speaker Sergei Naryshkin, who now heads Russia's foreign intelligence service, sang at the power couple's wedding.

Voronenkov's best-known legislative feat was co-authoring the 2014 bill that banned the foreign ownership of Russian media -- perhaps the single worst thing that happened to press freedom as an institution in Putin's Russia. After Putin signed it into effect, the law drove publishers such as Dow Jones, Hearst and Germany's Axel Springer out of Russia, forcing them to sell their Russian assets, including some of the most hard-hitting journalistic outlets in the country, to local players well below the value of their investments.

The Communist legislator also militated against offshore companies, another favorite target for Putin. "Russia is a rich country, but it won't do to keep endlessly robbing it by moving out billions," Voronenkov told the parliament. "Not just the president but the whole country expects anti-offshore amendments from us."

This stand didn't prevent Voronenkov from figuring in the Panama Papers database as a shareholder in a British Virgin Islands company with operations in Switzerland.

Like many others who swam in the murky waters of Russian crony capitalism, he had occasional run-ins with what passed for the law: At different points, he was accused of illegally seizing a Moscow building, taking a bribe, even arranging a contract killing. But he was never tried, let alone convicted. In 2016, however, he lost an election and became exposed to charges in the Moscow building case. He immediately moved to Kiev, and two months after his parliamentary immunity ran out, he was already a Ukrainian citizen, naturalized by President Petro Poroshenko's decree.

This week, Voronenkov gave a lengthy interview to Censor.net, a fiercely patriotic Ukrainian website that is blocked by the Russian government. "The situation in Russia today is like in Hitler's Nazi Germany," he said. "The whole country has gone mad in a pseudo-patriotic craze." Reminded that he'd voted to make illegally annexed Crimea part of Russia, Voronenkov told Censor.net that another legislator had used his voting card.

Now, Voronenkov is a fiery Putin critic who says the FSB, the KGB successor service, hounded him out of Russia. He says he was inspired by the popular protests against the unfair 2011 election, which got him into parliament, and that he was always in favor of the Ukrainian "Revolution of Dignity" that overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. In Kiev, he testified against Yanukovych in a treason investigation run by Ukrainian prosecutors; that testimony and his willingness to reveal all he knows about Moscow politics were apparently what earned him Poroshenko's citizenship decree, an honor that has been much harder to come by for volunteers who fight on the Kiev side in the eastern Ukraine conflict.

Voronenkov's dual citizenship is symbolic. But it also has practical importance. Before Voronenkov and his wife, disgraced and endangered members of the Putin elite fled to the West, preferring to try their luck in U.K. extradition proceedings. The Kiev route now appears to be easier: With the right kind of narrative, extradition is ruled out, but there is hardly any contrast with Russian life. "Ukraine receives everyone who believes in it," Voronenkov told Censor.net. "In Europe, you'll always be an alien." A salesman advertising Ukraine to corrupt Russian officials with a problem couldn't have put it better. 

The stand-off between Russia and Ukraine, which has ripped the two countries apart since 2014 and which set off the active phase Putin's geopolitical confrontation with the West, used to be about civilizational choices. The ordinary citizens who toppled Yanukovych believed their country was leaving behind the shadow of Russia's Byzantine, corrupt rule and setting off toward a European future. Some Russian liberals moved to Kiev, hoping Ukraine would become an example to Russia, creating an open economy, a democratic political system and establishing the rule of law. None of this has quite materialized, but Poroshenko's government has been relatively successful in passing off hatred for Putin as reformist fervor.

Voronenkov and Maksakova will do as well in this new Ukraine as they did in Russia: They will say whatever's required and play by the only rules they know. Instead of turning into a Westernized post-Russia, Ukraine has morphed into an anti-Russia while carefully preserving the post-Soviet government style with its requisite hypocrisy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net