View a slide show of Yuri Luzkhov here.
There are lots of stories in the news in Moscow today -- a crime boss gunned down in the center of town, Poland playing good neighbor and arresting the emissary of the Chechen separtists in exile, a disappeared gay activist. There are no stories, however, about Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
The silence is ominous, given that since last weekend, the Russian media -- including state television -- has been able to talk of nothing else. On Saturday and Sunday, Muscovites turning on their televisions were surprised to discover a series of exposés attacking a mayor who has long been one of the Russian state's untouchable saints. And now there it was, all the evidence of his sins, set to threatening music, showcasing his wife's crookedly financed construction projects, his lieutenants' Swiss watch collections, him grinning madly next to his beehives. Because this ran on channels owned and tightly guarded by the state, it was clear that the material had come from the highest echelons of power. It was a Kremlin smear campaign the likes of which the city has not seen since the 1990s. For a week, as the Kremlin and Luzhkov dueled in public, Moscow finally got to see some real politics as the battles usually confined to secret corridors herniated into the mass media. And then the news just stopped.
What happened? The story, after all, has not gone away, and, in the battle's aftermath, neither has Luzhkov, who has held on to his mayoral throne for 18 years with both hands and all 26 teeth.
It's hard to describe exactly what Yuri Luzhkov is. He is the only mayor Moscow has ever really known in the post-Soviet period, a figure whose control extends into every corner of the city's life. He is Moscow's boss, which is precisely the problem: There can only be one boss in Moscow, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
And here's the other side of that problem: Luzhkov has been in charge since before Vladimir Vladimirovich even thought of going into politics, and well before he got to Moscow. Luzhkov, on the other hand, has been helping run the city since the Soviet era. He started off as the reformist head of the Moscow city council during the perestroika years, and was appointed mayor by then President Boris Yeltsin in June 1992. But as Luzhkov brought the chaotic capital to order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was also put in charge of privatizing huge swaths of Moscow property -- making his real-estate developer wife (and former city council assistant 27 years his junior), Elena Baturina, Russia's wealthiest woman in the process.
As mayor, Luzhkov created a vast and complex network of management that answered directly to him, leading many critics to compare him to Boss Tweed, the 19th-century kingpin who ruled New York as his private fiefdom. This made him extremely hard to replace. Luzhkov soon became a center of political power so potent that he was able to unify other Russian regional chiefs under his banner in the 1999 parliamentary elections. But this put him in direct competition with Putin, Yeltsin's anointed successor, and the Kremlin and its oligarchs waged an aggressive media campaign against him -- one that looked remarkably like the one Moscow saw this week. After Luzhkov's bloc was soundly defeated, though, he was brought into the fold of Putin's new party, endorsed the former KGB colonel for president in 2000, and allowed to keep control of his city, which collected more and more of the country's ballooning wealth.*
As Putin consolidated his hold over Russia's political system, Luzhkov's personal kingdom became a constant irritant to the Kremlin. He was never ousted, however: if he supported Putin politically, he could keep his mayoral seat -- and the riches it allowed him to tap.