The Cellist write by Daniel Silva, the internationally acclaimed #1 New York Times bestselling author
Viktor Orlov had a longstanding appointment with death. Once Russia’s richest man, he now resides in splendid exile in London, where he has waged a tireless crusade against the authoritarian kleptocrats who have seized control of the Kremlin. Last week, Orlov did something few Russians are willing to do: He called for a coup against Vladimir Putin.
The Russian oligarchs are openly asking for Western help to remove Putin. But they have no better plan to save their own wealth and power than to overthrow the Kremlin’s one-man regime and hand over control of the country to a puppet government led by Putin’s cronies.
The oligarchs aren’t dreaming: Ever since Russia entered World War I in 1914, its generals have been plotting coups against czarist autocrats as part of an effort to ensure that their own families remain in power.
In the early 20th century, a series of plots led to the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family. In December 2006, when Putin visited the Soviet victory parade in Red Square, he waved to a crowd that included more than 1,000 descendants of those plotters.
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The oligarchs have been buying off Putin’s security services for years. Last spring, a young opposition politician named Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin on a street named for one of the czars’ assassins. That was just one in a series of killings that have become so common in Russia that they are barely noticed or investigated.
But Orlov and other longtime foes of Putin are taking the stolen wealth and power of Russia’s oligarchs seriously. They know that Putin is a butcher who has eliminated more enemies than any Russian leader since Stalin. Orlov, who lost control of his steel empire after the Soviet Union collapsed, was one of those enemies. He has spent most of the last two decades in prison or forced into exile for his political views.
For years, he lived in a country mansion in Switzerland where he kept alive his family’s ancestral estate by selling rare vintages to friends like Bill Gates and banking on the opulence that comes from having someone like Putin in power. When he arrived in London, Orlov said, the first thing he did was to order a full-length mirror installed in his bathroom so he could “have at least one good idea before I die.”
But even that failed. Orlov soon discovered that when you are 84 and have spent most of your time on this planet behind bars or in hotels, your ideas are less than brilliant. He also found that living in exile is lonely. “I can’t go to my own country because I’m a convicted criminal, and I can’t go to the United States because it wouldn’t be worth it,” he told me when we met last fall in London.