And you though America had Yellow Journalism!
19 February 1999 Johnson’s Russia List
Stop the Presses!
By Andrew Miller in St. Petersburg
No American who spends any appreciable length of time in Russia, far from
the “madding crowd,” can avoid being impressed by Russian literacy: the affinity
for books displayed proudly in the home (even the most remote country farmhouse),
books from a range of subjects (including favorites Jack London and Theodore
Dreiser), the freely and easily quoted poetry, the eyes that sparkle at the
retelling of a favored episode or anecdote. What is available in Russian
bookstores is not unfortunately, due to the restrictions of the Soviet era,
yet a full sampling of the world’s treasures of literature (Toni Morrison,
Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis and Herman Melville are largely unknown), but
what is available is read.
Likewise no American can help but marvel at the lack of television, and the
lack of tv-watching. Even in St. Petersburg, a city of five million, most
people can only receive four TV channels, which broadcast only about 16 hours
per day or less and, like most Russian shops, close down for several hours
during the day for a “pereryv” or coffee-break. Three of those four stations
are either owned outright or controlled de facto by the national or local
government, which may account for some of the lack of interest, but broadcast
MTV is available to some select households with the equipment and location
to receive it, but it isn’t doing well.
No cynical American, viewing this, could help but wonder: what would the
Russians do if they had full access (political and economic) to the “pop”
culture of the West, specifically America? Would they reject it as sophomoric,
or reject their own traditional interests – which many Americans would find
“boring.” Is Russia book-rich and tv-poor (or perhaps tv-rich, as you will)
of happenstance or of refinement?
A visit to a Russian newspaper kiosk is illuminating. In St. Petersburg,
Russia’s “second capital,” an ordinary kiosk offers no newspapers remotely
like The New York Times, or even The Chicago Sun Times, with elaborate and
detailed national and international coverage and extensive serious political
debate. There are some few publications (with thicknesses of the Times’
classified section), hidden away in a corner, which don’t have pictures of
naked women on the front, or for lack of money references to them in screaming
headlines, and which struggle, as Phil Donohue claimed to, toward some serious
work mixed with the sensationalism, but the vast majority are National
Enquirer-style tabloids whose standards of journalism make The Star look
like The Economist.
It is easily possible to buy a “news story” to order from many financially
strapped papers, many of whose journalists publish under false names. The
national weekly “Argument and Fact” even boldly advertises that certain of
its pages are available to political candidates, with a “money back guarantee”
concerning election results. Many kiosks also offer pornographic bubble gum
trading cards and stickers to entertain the kiddies.
The most noticeable color tabloid this week is monthly issue of SPEED, which
has a full-length color photograph of a nearly naked blonde woman, clad only
in a black bikini brief and a pair of black stiletto pumps, seated in profile,
smiling rather uncomfortably at the camera because she is loosely draped
in a coil of barbed wire. Kneeling behind her is a sharply (and fully) dressed
bearded young man, who is smiling proudly. Feminism, as you may have heard,
has yet to make serious inroads in Russia as a social or political philosophy
(though nation of great writers, Russia has yet to produce a Jane Austen
or a Willa Cather).
The tabloid’s name, SPEED, is printed in English. Products with labels in
foreign languages, most especially English, are popular with Russians, who
seem suspicious of the quality of home-grown varieties. Ironically, if the
English word SPEED were written in Russian letters, it would be written S-P-I-D,
which is the acronym for the Russian translation of AIDS. SPEED bills itself
as the nation’s largest circulating newspaper.
The merry young man is Dmitry Yakubovsky. He is smiling because he is celebrating
his release from prison after doing four years of hard time for heisting
antique books from the impoverished (and therefore not very secure) Russian
National Library in St. Petersburg. Yakubovsky, and thugs in his employ,
stole more than six dozen ancient manuscripts worth an estimated $300 million
on behalf of an Israeli collector, breaking in through a basement window
in the library.
The policemen charged with investigating such crimes are paid no more than
$50 per month, but nonetheless apprehended the entire gang in impressively
short order, a testament either to their aplomb or Yakubovsky’s lack of it.
Russia’s criminal sentencing guidelines are somewhat nebulous: while resident
in the provincial capital of Kursk, the author of these words saw a 20 year
old Nigerian student sentenced to three years for passing a single bogus
$100 bill at a local bank.
The uncomfortable woman is Irine, his (fifth) wife. She is a striking ersatz
fashion model who, to great sensational effect, steadfastly stood by Yakubovsky
during the trial (a Russian accused – most Russian courts do not labor with
niceties such as juries or the presumption of innocence – appears in court
inside a cage, through the bars of which blown kisses, knowing touches and
longing looks were passed before gawking cameras). She stood by him, however,
not as his wife but as his attorney (she is a summa cum laude graduate of
the St. Petersburg State University School of Law, equivalent in Russian
prestige to America’s Yale). The marriage took place some time following
the conviction, in the prison chapel. Yakubovsky is not a man to hold a grudge,
or to miss an opportunity.
Before the robbery, Yakubovsky was a high-level member of the federal
administration, heading an “anti-corruption” task force formed by President
Boris Yeltsin (who recently sought a deal with the federal legislature which
would immunize Yeltsin from prosecution for corruption following his departure
from office, and guarantee him a substantial lifetime income – Yeltsin’s
part of the bargain remains unclear).
Now at liberty, Yakubovsky has himself turned his attention to the practice
of law. Russia conveniently has virtually no restrictions on entry to the
practice of law, a diploma for which requires only five years of study which
can, if desired, be little more than five years of simple waiting, as a diploma
can be easily purchased from one of numerous new “law schools” springing
up throughout the country. Likewise, there is no meaningful system of licensure
and discipline for lawyers, who cannot, as a practical matter, be “disbarred”
or sued for malpractice as can their American colleagues, and who can practice
in any part of the country (whereas American lawyers are limited to one or
two states, and therefore relatively close local scrutiny) in any area of
Yakubovsky’s long list of eager clients includes federal legislator Lyudmila
Narusova, who has been sued for slander and is under investigation by the
federal prosecutor for claiming on a talk show that the prosecutor was “corrupt”
and “out to get” her husband. Her husband being former St. Petersburg Governor
Anatoly Sobchak, who fled the country in 1997 following his defeat by current
Governor Vladimir Yakovlev rather than face a trial by that same prosecutor
on charges of bribery and embezzlement while in office. Sobchak denies rumors
that he himself will hire Yakubovsky to represent him should he return to
face the charges. Sobchak has another course open to him, and he is reportedly
considering it: to run for and win (even in abstenita) a seat beside his
wife in the federal Duma, whereupon he would become immune from criminal
prosecution. It is said that many Russian criminals have taken an interest
in political life for that very reason. The precedent for a forced release
from prison for a felon who is elected while incarcerated has not yet been
established – or proscribed.
Reflecting on the foregoing account, the writer of these words can’t help
but be impressed by the fact that it’s possible, and even easy, to write
a fascinating short story worthy of Hammett, Chandler or Spillane simply
by recounting chronologically the ordinary, everyday facts of life in Russia,
and can’t avoid the observation that, practically speaking, Russians really
don’t need to watch TV because it can’t (not even Baywatch or the WWF) possibly
hope to compete with real life.
How much longer that real life will/can go on, however, is anybody’s guess.