The Panama Papers: Soviet history lessons?


Are you any the wiser, or did you know it already? The massive leak of documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca reveals — pause — that David Cameron inherited some money from his father. Plainly, people should enjoy the view from their high horses while they can.

No Panama paper trail leads directly to President Putin. Instead there’s the allegation that he acquired resources and placed them in the formal ownership of friends such as Sergei Roldugin, who then positioned them offshore. But much more interesting is the structural picture that the leak suggests. Andrei Movchan of the Carnegie Moscow Center shows that reasonable and legitimate financial transactions that in Britain or the United States would be conducted above the counter in the domestic banking system are instead routinely sent offshore. ‘Russia has a system that even its most privileged members are afraid to use within the bounds of law,’ he writes.

The Papers scarcely make comfortable reading for the presidential administration, as Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, seemed to acknowledge when he described the leak in the language of conspiracy and ‘attack’. Meanwhile, the Panama Papers present a different set of very awkward questions for President Poroshenko of Ukraine.

In both cases, the leaked material tells us something about the conduct of business and the use and abuse of former state assets in the post-Soviet world. It depicts in a little more detail a world that is of our own, post-1991, time: that is not Soviet at all.

So what are the Soviet roots of this region’s part in the Panama scandal? The extent of corruption so far outstrips Soviet practices that it’s become something else in kind. But what of the transparency of information?

Putin has fallen victim to a breach in digital security thousands of miles outside Russia. This is ironic, as his administration has sought to look deep inside digital space in Russia for its own ends. In their well researched and important book, The Red Web, Russian investigative reporters Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan introduce us to SORM, the ‘black boxes’ that make possible the wholesale penetration of internet communications by the Russian government. In forensic detail, they make the case that the politics and technology on which SORM is based have Soviet roots.

But SORM also has American and British analogues. And Soviet information science was not just conducted by the KGB. For instance, Andrei Ershov was a computer programmer and pioneering campaigner for mass computer literacy. During perestroika, he looked towards a ‘democratization of the information structure of society’ which would empower citizens and tame bureaucracy. Indeed, according to one of its leading historians, the digital arena of the post-Stalin decades that would one day become the internet had a varied population: ‘cybernetics enthusiasts, mathematical economists, computer specialists, government bureaucrats, and liberal economists’.

By contrast, how ‘democratic’ was the Panama Papers leak? It might have political consequences with which you agree: clamping down on tax dodging. But the method was mass online exposure of people’s confidential records. The rich and powerful with money in Panama can no doubt look after themselves. But one can imagine other politically-driven or grudge-induced digital exposes in which the poor and weak are caught up as unwilling collateral. This is not exactly a problem with roots in the Soviet experience. It’s something of our time.

In the Swedish crime series, The Bridge, curtains are often left open at night. Anyone can peer in at domestic life inside. Sometimes there are no consequences; sometimes the effect is claustrophobic and sinister; sometimes the context is terrible. In science fiction, the curtainless window is an emblem of the dystopian society. Transparency sounds great and looks striking, but we should be careful what we wish for.

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