New Russians

The scorge of the universe

Moscow Times January 20, 1999

ESSAY: Tales of New Riches and Rags Rise From Past

By Anatoly Korolyov

At least once a year I try to get back to my Urals hometown, which is two
hours from Moscow by plane or a day by train. Although the population is
over 1 million, it’s still considered to be a backwater province. Everybody
knows everyone else, and all of life’s passions are on compact display to
the world. But this is really about the fate of two of my old friends, one
of whom became very rich in the last few years, while the other hit rock
bottom.

Only in Russia can wealth appear so disgusting. Yesterday, the first friend
had but one suit, worshipped Dostoevsky and despised the bourgeois. Now he
wears a cherry-red jacket with gold buttons and roars drunkenly into the
telephone “I wanna eat!”” as he orders food from a restaurant.

Outside the window, the night sky was full of stars as we sat around the
table together. A circle of old friends gathered together for the first time
in ages. He was enjoying showing us his new power and the might that a sack
of money accords.
Moscow ExcessI’m rich, you nobodies. There was a ring at the door,
and the delivery man hurriedly whisked in a tray piled high with dazzling
victuals: seafood paella, red lobsters, barbecued meat. It’s my treat. This
crazy midnight extravagance cost about what the rest of us earn in six months.
Sickened by this ostentatious, arrogant generosity that left us all feeling
small, I got up to leave, but my friend wouldn’t let me go. He wanted to
know what was going on – “let’s sort things out” – so we stood alone in the
hall while I tried to get it into his drunken head that he should publish
quality books.

The Praga, a Moscow excess

These days my friend is a publisher, and I am what I’ve always been, a writer.
I know he’s not stupid and has good taste. He has always loved Camus and
Sartre, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, so what does he publish? “The Adventures
of a Space Prostitute,” a series of porno-romance novels and ridiculous Euro-
thrillers.

Even now I find it hard to believe the awesome effect money can have on people,
and even harder to believe that my friend had changed so much in such a short
space of time. Three years ago he gained control over the town’s former Communist
Party printworks, inheriting first rate equipment, warehouses packed with
paper and tons of ink, and lots of cheap labor. All in all, a pretty good
start in business. But to use the words of Dostoevsky – whose portrait ironically
still stands on my friend’s desk – he turned it all to the task of seducing
souls and exploiting base things, humiliating the humiliated. He had entirely
surrendered his soul to the pursuit of profit. Everything Dostoevsky hated.

I asked him why he would not consider publishing, for example, works by Balzac
that his idol Dostoevsky translated in his youth. “Stop trying to make me
feel bad. No one would buy them,” he replied with irritation. “I’m in business,
not charity. It’s easy to be poor and wave truisms in other people’s faces
but that sort of decency is worth zilch. You’ve never really been tempted
by real opportunity.”And we left it there.

In fact, my friend is far from being the only cultured publisher in Russia
who now thinks that way. As a writer, I have met a great number who came
from decent, ordinary families but like my friend seem to have had their
souls run over by the new times as if by a truck. Maybe Marx was right when
he wrote “There is no crime that a businessman would not commit for 300 percent
profit.”

Last year, two of my novels were published, one of which became the bestselling
hardback in Moscow, despite the summer crisis. By writing a book specifically
aimed at the market, I certainly learned the hard way about Russia’s publishing
business, which is second in profitability only to the sale of vodka. Like
the publishers’ ruse of hiding the true size of print runs from writers.

I spent two years writing that 400-page book but so far I’ve earned less
from that than I did from a five-page article about Solzhenitsyn I wrote
for a German magazine. Meanwhile the book continues to sell thousands of
copies while my bathroom ceiling continues to crumble and my refrigerator
stays unrepaired two years after it broke…

But back to my friend. Maybe the best insight into what he had become was
gained by hearing him tell of his wife of 20 years, who he immediately ditched
and replaced with a younger, long-legged companion when the big money started
coming in. He boasted to us how he deliberately delayed six months before
paying his ex-wife for a book translation she did for him, only then paying
her a sum so little that if she hadn’t needed it so desperately, she might
just as well have flung it back in his face.

The only price he seems to have paid for all this was when his daughter left
home, taking with her only his collected works of Tolstoy. I guess the Lord
will be his judge. Now we come to Viktor.

Viktor was the best looking boy in our class, the brightest among us in all
senses. He grew up faster, too, and was the first to wear a white shirt and
tie and the first to start shaving, which is a big deal for us boys. I was
desperate to be his friend, but unfortunately he looked upon me as a bit
of a mommy’s boy. In the end, we did become friends through a mutual interest
in the cinema. He dreamed of becoming as cameraman, I of becoming a movie
director. But unlike me, he pursued his dream in earnest, and eventually
saved up enough money to buy a real amateur movie camera.

I was awed by everything he did. I tried in vain to smoke Soviet papirosy
cigarettes, while he nonchalantly puffed away on imported Yugoslavian cigarettes.
He first showed me books of Van Gogh’s works, a great rarity in a closed
provincial town where all the factories made weapons. But it was his numerous
romances with older women that left the deepest impression on my innocent
soul. Still, even I started to get notes from girls when a film we made about
our school was shown on local television. These were glory days, when we
dreamed of traveling to Moscow, conquering the world.

Fate decided matters for us. One day I left for ever, and Viktor stayed and
became a successful photographer at a big studio. He took to the high life
too much and began to drink heavily. After the studio fired him he worked
in a small portrait studio on the outskirts where they did passport photos.
Then instant photomachines came in, and he went out.

It is particularly in the bad times that Russian men look for release in
drinking. People warned me that he was now totally lost to the bottle, had
sold his apartment and lived on the streets, but I only half believed this
until I went back last fall.

One day, while I was waiting for someone near the theater, my gaze passed
idly over a man in a dirty coat rummaging in a dustbin. My heart suddenly
leapt – my God, Viktor, the idol of my youth.

As always, there was a woman by his side. Filthy, dishevelled, old boots
on her bare feet. She loves him, it occurred to me. But I couldn’t call out,
go up to him, give him money for a drink. New times had changed me too. I
had also become a worse person, unable to find the strength within me to
hug my old friend, buy him something to eat. And, pretending I had not noticed
the tramp, I hurried on my way.

Anatoly Korolyov is the author of “Hunting the Clairvoyant” and “Eron.”
He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

February 8 from AFP via Johnson’s Russia List

Dogfighting, latest hobby of the “New Russians

MOSCOW, – No “new Russian” capitalist feels dressed these days without his
mobile telephone, foreign limousine, and now his pitbull terrier specially
trained for dogfighting. The “sport” is banned in many countries, but it
remains legal in Moscow, and aficionados are numerous. For the very rich,
the new elite who have benefitted from Russia’s anarchic lurch into capitalism,
the pitbull is the dog to have.

One arrogant-looking 31-year-old plutocrat turned up recently at Moscow’s
pet market wearing a coat worth hundreds of dollars and a heavy gold chain
round his wrist. In tow was his five-year-old son and wife Galina, who explained:
“We’re looking for a pitbull. It’s a dog I like, they are strong and brave.”
She added: “My husband will look after it because he wants to train it for
fighting. We also want a pitbull to protect our son.”

Every weekend a score of breeders come to the market to sell their killer
dog puppies for prices varying according to the pedigree but sometimes reaching
several hundred dollars. One, a breeder for six years, said he lived by the
trade, keeping a dozen pitbulls in his suburban trade. “Since ten years ago,
when the first pitbulls appeared in Russia, their numbers have grown enormously,”
he said. “Now there are more than 2,000 in Moscow, and in spite of everything
breeding them still makes money.” His wife added: “Our customers are the
wealthy, the new Russians,” she said. “For them, these dogs are more than
a pet. they are a reflection of their lifestyle — business in Russia is
tough, and the dog becomes a symbol of prestige.”

Fights
are staged in public but also in secret, among small groups of owners, where
large sums are wagered. Alexander Semenyovski, an organiser and judge of
such combats, said nearly 100 were held last year. In one of them, staged
by new Russians, bets exceeded 14,000 dollars.

Nutting wrong with a sign or two either!

The fashion has also reached the provinces. Arkhangelsk, a city of 400,000
in the far northwest, has around 100 breeders and two tournaments of pitbulls,
which attract whole families, are staged annually.

One owner in Arkhangelsk said one room of her apartment was reserved exclusively
for her pitbull, named Lektor, which had a tendency to attack people. “I
am the only person to enter the room,” she said. “I like pitbulls but I would
never let my daughter, aged seven, alone in the flat.”

In Moscow public fights take place in a corner of the Serebrany Bor park,
an island in the Moscow river. At least one dog dies in combat every weekend.

Here again, families go to watch. One 31-year-old father said he often took
his daughter, aged five, adding: “We mustn’t hide bloodhsed from our children.
“Life is a battle and they must get used to it. The strong survive, the weak
are killed.”