Cultural twists: literary references in Ulyukayev’s last words explained

Cultural twists: literary references in Ulyukayev's last words explained
Alexei Ulyukayev at a government meeting prior to his arrest. Photo:

8 December 2017

The trial for corruption of former economic development minister Alexei Ulyukayev is one of the most high-profile such cases in modern Russian history, and it has taken a literary turn as it comes to an end in a Moscow courtroom.

In his powerful last words on Thursday, Ulyukayev condemned the Russian authorities and made at least half a dozen literary references, from Socrates to Bulgakov. He will be sentenced on 15 December.

Ulyukayev is accused of personally accepting a $2 million cash bribe (delivered in a suitcase) from Igor Sechin, the powerful head of oil giant Rosneft, allegedly to allow Rosneft to acquire oil producer Bashneft. He denies the charges. Prosecutors have asked for a 10-year sentence for the 62-year old Ulyukayev, who has had a long government career in economic management and is also a published poet.

The Calvert Journal has unpicked some of the cultural allusions in Ulyukayev’s speech:

1. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

It’s a surprising investigation: in it the victim first becomes a witness and then even loses that status, becoming some sort of imaginary witness who melts away into thin air somewhere between Khanty-Mansiysk and Rome. Melts away just like the notorious synergy for the budget from the acquisition of shares in the company Bashneft by the company Rosneft. Melts away and leaves only the smell of sulphur

Explanation: Ulyukayev is talking about Sechin, who allegedly handed him $2m in a carefully planned sting operation. Sechin was a key witness in the case but repeatedly refused a court summons to give evidence at Ulyukayev’s trial. The mention of the “smell of sulphur” appears to be a reference to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, in which the Devil comes to Stalin’s Moscow. In the novel, when Margarita first meets Woland (assumed to be the Devil), the room is full of a strong sulphurous smell. Sulphur is traditionally associated with witchcraft.

2. Yury Tynyanov’s Lieutenant Kije

This sham, counterfeit witness, some sort of Lieutenant Kije

Explanation: Again, Ulyukayev is referring to Sechin, this time via Tynyanov’s 1928 novella Lieutenant Kije. Based on an anecdote from the reign of Emperor Paul I, it is a satire on bureaucracy that sees a mythical officer created by the slip of a pen. Amid muddle and intrigue, Lieutenant Kije has a rollercoaster career, an affair and eventually dies and is buried (in an empty coffin) with full honours. Sergei Prokofiev wrote the score to a 1934 film about the same story.

3. John Donne

This trial has generated a lot of interest among the general public… they ask “what’s going on in court, what’s he facing, what sentence will he get.” But it was said long ago: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” It could ring for any member of the public

Explanation: These are the most famous lines written by 16th century English poet John Donne, also used by writer Ernest Hemingway in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls about the Spanish Civil War.

4. Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat

No person, no problem

Explanation: Ulyukayev is talking about himself using words attributed to Stalin in Rybakov’s novel Children of the Arbat set in the early 1930s. There, the quote is preceeded by the observation that: “death resolves all problems.” Many erroneously think the phrase was actually uttered by Stalin himself.

5. Ilf and Petrov’s The Golden Calf

It’s an exact replication of the arguments which were used in the immortal novel Golden Calf by Ilf and Petrov:

- ‘Saw the dumbbells, Shura
- And if there’s no gold there?
- What else do you think could be there?’

What else do you think could have been in that heavy case, apart from money?

Explanation: Much of Ulyukayev’s trial focused on an argument over the suitcase filled with $2 million in cash given to Ulyukayev by Sechin. Ulyukayev maintained he thought the suitcase contained wine, while prosecutors argued he knew it was a bribe that he himself solicited. Here, Ulyukayev compares the prosecutor’s position to an incident in Ilf and Petrov’s book about man-on-the-make Ostap Bender where they are temporarily convinced their target has hidden his gold inside dumbbells, so they steal the weights and saw them open (only to find there is no gold).

6. Vasily Zhukovsky

This is nothing for Vyshynsky, who could give the state prosecutor his portrait with the dedication: “To the victorious student from the vanquished teacher’’

Explanation: Vyshynsky was a notorious Stalinist-era prosecutor, known for his hysterical speeches and working on political trials. But this references an incident in 1820 when poet Vasily Zhukovsky presented his then-student, Alexander Pushkin with his own portrait with the words “to the victorious student from the vanquished teacher”. Pushkin went on to become Russia’s most celebrated poet.

7. Agatha Christie?

65 years ago speaking during a fabricated case against him, Fidel Castro said: “history will acquit me”. I can only repeat these prophetic words. Though the mills of God grind slowly; yet they grind exceeding small

Explanation: The Castro quote here requires little clarification, but the reference to the mills of God is more interesting. A proverb in itself, the phrase was apparently first used by Ancient Greek writer Plutarch in the 1st century, but, more recently, it was featured by detective writer Agatha Christie in her novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. It is uttered by a character when they see the corpse of murder victim Simeon Lee, who was killed at his Christmas party after leading a vindictive and evil life.

8. Socrates

As Socrates said in an analogous situation, “it’s already time to go from here — for me, to die — for you, live. But which of us goes to the better lot is not clear to anyone.” Of course, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since the time of Socrates and now times are far more vegetarian. But, nevertheless, 10 years of a strict [prison] regime for a 62-year old does not really differ from a death sentence

Explanation: This is an adapted version of what Socrates apparently said in his trial in Athens in 339BC on charges of corruption and impiety. It is taken from Plato’s Apology, where he relates Socrates’ defence. In the end, Socrates was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed by being made to drink poison.