By Gwynne Dyer
In twenty years of writing about Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, I have never before had reason to mention him and Saint Thomas à Becket in the same sentence. Finally, the time has come.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö phoned the diminutive Russian strongman last Thursday and assured him that he was not a suspect in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The goal, of course, was to persuade Putin to let Navalny be flown to Germany for treatment.
Niinistö is clearly a persuasive man, because Putin agreed. Indeed, Putin even promised to “get the rat behind this” – which sounds a bit like a Cosa Nostra godfather on a bad day, but at least he wants to see justice done.
So you can see why the late Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, sprang instantly to my mind. Putin’s position is rather similar to that of England’s King Henry II, who ordered the assassination of that martyred cleric by accident, so to speak.
It was in 1170, and Thomas à Becket, the head of the Church in England, was resisting the king’s attempt to subordinate the Church courts to the civil courts. You could say he was the closest thing in 12th century England to a leader of the opposition.
Henry II was cross, and in the course of one of his rants against the cleric he said: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four knights at the court, hearing this, decided that the quickest way to rise in the king’s service was to go to Canterbury and do just that.
They found Becket on the altar of his cathedral and hacked him to pieces with their swords. This caused a great outcry throughout Christendom, and the king had to swear that it was all a ghastly misunderstanding: he had only been venting, not giving actual orders.
It was all smoothed over: the knights fell into disgrace, the Church’s law courts kept their independence, and Henry II did penance. He walked barefoot through Canterbury wearing sackcloth while eighty monks flogged him (gently) with branches.
Could something similar have happened in Russia last week? Putin won’t end up barefoot being flogged by monks, of course, but maybe his minions just exceeded their instructions? You know, like Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s henchmen did when they chopped up journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul two years ago, and no government has officially questioned MbS’s word on that.
The problem is that Putin has form on this: becoming the leader of the opposition in Russia automatically voids your life insurance policy. Navalny’s predecessor Boris Nemtsov was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin five years ago, and Navalny himself is partially blind in one eye as the result of a 2018 attack.
Maybe the boss doesn’t sign off personally on these attacks, but it is very hard to believe he doesn’t know what is going on. The Russian counter-claim that all these incidents are ‘provocations’ staged by Western intelligence services doesn’t hold water: Russia is just not important enough to justify the scale of the effort that would be required.
So what we are left with is smaller than it sometimes seems. It’s a great state that has fallen into the hands of crooks in suits who occasionally rub somebody out to protect their nationwide protection racket, or just to maintain discipline within the organisation. And they only kill other Russians.
Move along, please. There’s nothing more to see here.