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Monday, May 07, 2007

Essel on the Russian Soul

In Search of the Russian Soul

by David Essel

It’s interesting how Russophiles so often react to discussions of Russia, in particular when they are about negatives aspects of that unfortunate land, with abusive cries about how something is just as bad if not worse is in America or elsewhere. Note that without fail the referencing is to the so-called advanced Western countries although more favourable comparisons could be made with reference to other countries of the world. It is important to note this because this indicates the chosen battleground and by implication accepts the standards to be used for the measuring.

Why do the Russophiles act in this way? The issue goes back a long way -- to the Enlightenment, in fact. The Enlightenment brought about the end of the Middle Ages and started the European model of civil society that we see today, which, for all its faults, cannot but be seen as the peak of human achievement, a way of living based on the self-evident truths that we are are all created equal, with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all that devolves from that, vide the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the member states of the United Nations are duty-bound to respect and subsume in their laws. (This is a standard to aspire to and the measure of any country is to what extent it manages to maintain that standard.)

So all that is needed is to look at the countries of the world today and make your ranking. It’s patently obvious who stands where.

It is interesting to note that the Enlightenment did not spread so far as Russia, When I was in Belarus and Ukraine, locals of both countries were at pains to expound on the fact they the Enlightenment had come to them but had not continued further East.

Thus Homo Russophilus (today’s genetic descendant of Homo Sovieticus and Homo Samoderzhaviensis) is presented with a quandary. On the one hand, he pretends to membership in the most advanced form of society so far created by man, a form of society that has created the most happy and comfortable societies the world has so far seen, while on the other he rails against it as foreign and inherently ‘not ours’.

Living inside a contradiction is stressful. Hence the foul mood, childish behaviour, and unreason.

The age-long battle between the Westernisers and the Russophiles continues to this day. Here is an excerpt from the first book of Sergei Minayev, the new bestselling author of Dukhless [ED: the Russian word for "soul" followed by the English suffix "less" -- cover pictured below] a surprise hit, a funny and cynical look at Russia today, about which the author said he would have been pleased with sales of 20,000 copies and which so far has sold half a million.

To me that fact that this book has been a hit is a sign of hope. It’s good that so many are reading this and, evidently, chortling at how the old, old battle plays out today. [The narrator, a senior manager from head office in Moscow, is in a café, talking to the St. Petersburg manager of their company. He has uncovered a complex embezzlement scheme through which Vova, the St. Petersburg guy, has pocketed a tidy sum for himself. Vova knows that he has been outed and they are now having a man-to-man talk.] “OK, listen. It’s all a bit of a f**k-up... I realised straight away that you’d seen through it. And to be honest, I wasn’t really trying to hide things from you.”

“Gotcha,” I say to myself. “You still haven’t understood. You thought you’d come here, we’d sit at a table for a drink, and I’d explain everything to you. So you quickly made up all these stories about meetings with distributors. But now it’s all got a bit too awkward for you, hasn’t it...”

“Truly and horribly awkward, ain’t it, Vova?” I say out loud. “Shame the way things are turning out.”

“What I wanted to say, really, is that we’re... We ,you and I, are in the same boat. We’re both working for the same side, aren’t we? The good guys should help each other, shouldn’t they? First one of you has a problem, then next time it’s the other – you know. Let him who is without sin be first to throw a glass in my face!” Vova gives a revolting giggle. “That’s how things should be in our line. There aren’t that many of us okay guys, are there?”

“Too true, Vova. We’re surrounded by crooks and bastards who all want to f**k with us. Right, Vova?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Vova nods in agreement. feeling that the conversation is starting to go the way he’d planned. “All in all, what I wanted to say was... Another shot? What really matters is that everyone gets looked after. And looked after well. That okay, sensible guys get to stick together, you agree?”

I can see that Volodya is putting his trump cards into play.

“Come on then, let’s drink to us – to us normal guys.”

With these words he whisks the leather-bound menu off the table, uncovering a neat white envelope bearing our company logo that lies beneath it. I wonder when he managed to slip it there? When he was talking about his parents or during my speech about distributors? Vova looks at the envelope for a few moments and moves it nearer the middle of the table in such a way that the greater part of it is on my side. For a short while we sit, glasses in hand, looking at the envelope, Vova’s face displays the whole 70-year-long sad story of the difficult working life of the Soviet retail trade employee. This is just how Vova’s Mum or Dad sat looking into the pale eyes of the officer from the Department for the Prevention of Theft of Socialist Property [OBKhSS]. When fear pulses in the bottom of your stomach and in oyur left and right bollock. Actually, in one of them the feeling is mixed with half a hope of a happy ending, of being able to go on leading a happy life (until the corrupt obekhe-essesnik is moved to another posting). So tyou left bollock pulses to the words “Beryozka”*, “Rosenlew”*, Moulinex meat grinder, fur coat, carpet for wall hanging, bricks for the dacha. Meanwhile the right one thumps leadenly to the beat of words like “witnesses”, “bribe”, “theft of socialist property”, “confiscation”, “verdict of the court”, words gradually replaced by the clackety-clack of the wheels of the train taking you to some Northern part of our boundless country.

I savour every last drop of the – for Vova – dire pause and at last pick the envelope up off the table. Vova promptly downs his shot of cognac. As soon as he is done, I put my shot glass down and examine the contents of the envelope. It contains three thousand dollars US. I look up at Vova and read on his face: “Was that too little?”. I put the envelope back down on the table and ask:

“Are we going to the banya today? You’ll sort out vodka and some nice local girls, see it’s all done right.. Yes?”

“Now that hurts my feelings, friend. That’s all been sorted and the girlies are champing at the bit already.” At last Vova feels he’s getting back onto an easy and friendly track.

“I see you Northerners know how to look after guests.”

“Well, we’ve had plenty of practice.” Vova spreads his arms in a self-satisfied way and youthful colour returns to his cheeks.

“Although I do have just one question. How did you decide that three grand was the right amount? Did you reckon that if you screwed the company for 30K, I would be due ten percent?”

“Not enough, is that what’s the matter?” Vova’s brow wrinkles and he looks like a Mongol. With him, it’s greed more than cowardice, I note to myself.

“Don’t be so f**king full of yourself, Vova. And remember what’s what. You’re talking to me, not a traffic cop or your crooked distributor buddies. You can see the envelope’s on the table, not in my pocket. Or can’t you see through your bloodshot eyes?”

Vova at last begins to look worried. He looks back and forth between me and the envelope. And he doesn’t get what going to happen next.

“That three grand’s not enough even to buy me a new suit. Let’s say it’s just about enough to pay for my next fifteen restaurant meals. You don’t think I’m going to go out for a meal once a month and sit there fondly remembering who bought me today’s risotto? I suppose I could shoot off to Paris and blow the lot in one go but I’d have to top it up with some of my own money. See what I mean, Vova?”

“So how much do you want?” Vova gulps. “Just tell me.”

“I’d like...” I twirl a cigarette in my fingers and look at the waitress standing behind the bar. She’s wearing a tight roll-neck sweater that shows off her big breasts. The red patch she makes seems to mark the centre of the establishment, around which everything – trays, customers, bills, me and Vova, the envelope, and so on – revolve in a centrifugal rush. I think it might me nice to get to know her. And I also think that it would be good to get this nonsense over with. “Okay, Vova, what I want is fifteen grand. Fifteen thousand US dollars. You screwed us for thirty, I’d say. So cough up half. Seems fair to me.”

Vova drills me with his piggy eyes for a long time and then, his lips barely moving, uttering each syllable separately, says:

“You could never prove it.”

Couldn’t I just!” I snap my fingers and laugh.

“Complete f**king crap. At most I’d lose my bonus. I didn’t know Vektra was a subsidiary of theirs. And if budgets weren’t evenly allocated, that was only an error of judgement, just getting the market wrong.”

My interlocutor’s eyes gleam red with anger and cognac. I even feel him stamping his feet on the floor. All in all, behaviour well suited to the event.

Vova, don’t be so bullish.” Vova calms down somewhat at the sound of this familiar piece of local bandit slang. “No one’s got to prove anything to anyone. All it needs is to let the information out and give it the right little push, and Impulse will sell you out just like that.”

“Very funny.” Vova hasn’t stopped pawing the ground but one can now feel that he doesn’t quite know what I’m on about any more.

“Okay, my friend, listen up. What’ll happen is this: after getting their last year’s accounts approved, they’ll dump you in it just like that. They’ll find the employee who helped you with the fiddle and make out they’ve fired him. Or maybe even fire him for real. Then they’ll say they had no idea about what was going on and never saw a penny apart from the fifty grand they were due. And they’ll let you take the rap. It won’t matter that you used to go out on the piss together, went whoring together, or even if you went to bed with them yourself. Whatever. And that’ll be that. Then in comes internal security. Heard of them? Evidence, ‘Rise before the court!”, and it will be just like in your dad’s days. Know what I mean?


Vova pauses to think. Takes his time reviewing his and my chances. The whole process is reflected in the wrinkling of is brow and the ins and out of his cheeks. Vova does not like the idea of coughing up fifteen grand one little bit. But he likes even less the idea of having his ass kicked out of his director’s chair and having it land on internal security’s leather dick. Vova takes so long to think that I manage to finish my cigarette, eat my food, and order coffee. At last, he forces himself to speak.

“I haven’t got fifteen K at the moment. I’ve got three and can find five more. I should be able to borrow another two...” Vova shifts his eyes, thinking about where to find money. At last he’s realised that he’s been well and truly caught out. “So I’ll have to owe you the last five. There’s no other way as I’m out of choices.” His voice has suddenly got firmer.

And I understand that this is the last act. A little less tragic than I’d expected, but a final act nonetheless. Somewhere deep inside, it dawns on me that Gulyakin didn’t break, didn’t start sniffling and moaning, didn’t bring up his pregnant wife or sickly Mum. He simply acceded to my demands. And I also realise it’s time to stop playing games with him.

“Okay, Vova,” I say, “that’s that then.”

“That is, uh..., what?”

“What’s what is that I don’t f**king need anything from you. No need to pay me anything. Just remember that now there’s someone you owe to. Not money. Another sort of debt, you understand? Or you can put it like this; you owe x amount of money to be converted at some time in the future into its equivalent in services or attitude, if that makes it clearer for you. So the matter’s closed.”

Vova is silent and stares bewildered more or less at the centre of my forehead.

“But get this, you cunt. If you just once more at the annual meeting compare bonuses and budgets for the Moscow branch and the St. Pete branch or try backstage to hint to management whose budget could be cut in favour of whose...” Vova makes questioning eyes. “Too right, Vova. Natasha from Rostov ratted on you a year ago. I slept with her before you. She told me how once when you were drunk you boasted you’d use Harideau to get the the Moscow budget cut in favour of the regional offices. You can speak a bit of French, can’t you, Volodya? But now you get it that you won’t be doing anything of the sort again, okay? I’ll see to it you’re shafted on the spot if you do.

“I don’t get it. Are you saying you don’t want any money from me?”

“You wired or something, Vova? Want to catch me taking bribes? Playing little cop tricks?”

“No, no, I was only... It’s just that we’ve been here for two hours and now you’re...”

Gulyakin is totally dazed. He can’t get his head round the fact that when someone has cracked him just like a walnut, someone who has been bandying what to him are astronomical sums, that someone now says he doesn’t want ANYTHING from him. In fact, even I don’t know what to do next. Turn him in? And I don’t understand why I suddenly refused the money. That’s frightening. But more importantly, Vova’s pissed off. Seriously pissed off because what has just happened does not match his idea of how people are supposed to deal with each other. It’s fear of the unknown and anger at not being able to influence events or foresee how things will turn out. Meanwhile, I’m sitting thinking that I’m a stupid asshole. That you can’t make bent into gent, that apples don’t fall far from the tree, and so on. That it’s too late to change anything anyway. That Vova will certainly not suddenly decide for himself that it’s better to earn his money than to swipe it. That he’ll go on stealing, just that he’ll be even more careful and perhaps take a little less. So that all I’ve achieved with my little show is to create fear. I console myself that this was the only way to deal with him. People like him are never loyal and devoted. They only understand debt and are made despicable by fear. Also that such people are spiteful and will sharpen their knives for you until the grave. That I had better not sit with my back to the door...

“Vova, I propose that we call a close to our meeting of Soviet retail workers, that we draw a line under this and say goodbye. Let’s drink up.”

Vova pours the last of the cognac, downs his without waiting for me, and, with a slight squawk to his voice, says:

“You’re a bastard. Or a cunt. I don’t understand you. Why can’t you do things nicely, like a Russian? No, first you’ve got to drink my blood and make fun of me, haven’t you? You like taking the piss out of people, don’t you? And your Natasha...”

“She’s not mine.”

“Doesn’t matter. She told me you were a plastic man. Not human. Strange, you know? Not normal or something?” Vova taps his brow. “This is how we do things. You know? For generations we’ve done it this way: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. And don’t look like a sourpuss. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how my parents got by and how theirs got by too.”

“You mean their parents. You should try to make sense when you talk.”

“See what I mean? You just can’t be easy and normal.”

“And what do you mean by normal.” This conversation is getting more and more on my nerves.

“Do the right thing by people, that’s what. Without surprises. I’ve done right by everyone all my life. Even when I just had a kiosk, I did right by the bandits, I did right by the health and safety, I did right by the trade inspectors. And never had any problems. Didn’t ever get too big for my f**king boots. But you, you can’t be like everyone else, can you? You just have to cut people, rub them the wrong way...” I imagine myself rubbing Vova and my gorge rises. “To be honest, this is just what I expected of you, I saw right through you the very first time we met. Now tell me, don’t you want to live normally or is just that you don’t know how? You don’t want to, do you? And for why?

I can’t take any more of this and say:

“Why? You want to know why? Because when back in ’95 you were selling beer from a tent, I was already well into semi-legal movements of goods through the Russian customs. Because when on Fridays you rushed off work to go to your dacha tand get pissed with your friends, I was dropping MDMA at Ptyuche’s and listening to Underworld’s Born Slippy. Because there’s no way that anyone will ever find books with titles like “Kombat Attacks” or “Spetsnaz Operation” lying on the back seat of my car. We’re very different, you and me, do you understand? I don’t watch “The Team”, I don’t like Russian rock, I don’t have the CD of Seryoga from “Black Beemer”. I read Wellbeck and Ellis, watch old Marlene Dietrich films, and f**king love Italian design. I spent the first money I ever made on a trip to Paris, not a four-year-old BMW like you lads. And that will never make sense to you because you live just like your parents did and their parents before them. Gotta have a wife, kids, and do things the way they say you should. Go visit with the neighbours on Sunday. Go to work with a hangover on Monday. Go to the shopping centre on Saturdays as if you were going to the Louvre – the whole family for the whole day. That’s what YOU LOT think is the done thing. But I will never understand or accept that, just like I don’t understand the jokes in Anshlag [TV comedy show]. Just so this is clear to you – these things are as far beyond my comprehension as it might be for you to realise that it’s a mortal sin for decent men to wear short socks.”

“So what are you doing here, then?” Vova hisses with anger. “Half the country is like that. And there are more of US LOT than there are of YOU LOT.”

“What am I doing here? I live here, I work here, I make love to women here, I have fun here. And most importantly of all, I very much want for everything to change here. So as not to have to slip money to the traffic cop, to have decent road surfaces. For customs officers not to turn out your suitcases when you’ve flown back from Milan, for the word civil servant to not be a synonym for thief, for it not to mean “bottle of cognac and a hundred bucks” when the fire department comes to look at the office. For the face of Russian fashion to be Tom Ford and not Zaitsev, for our music not to mean Pugacheva but U2, for people not to roar with laughter at jokes by Galkin or Koklyushkin but at Monty Python humour. Everyone will be the better off for that, believe me. Meanwhile, I’m having to spend time talking with crooks like you, bribing chain store buyers, wining and dining civil servants, going to Galereya when I’d prefer to go to Costes, watching a Spartak-Terek match when I’d rather be watching Inter-Milan. But I don’t want to go away anywhere. I want all this here, in Russia. You understand? I’ll agree that most of the population couldn’t give a f**k and that they’re quite happy living with personalities and events and social factors which I wouldn’t want to see any time, anywhere. I’m not inviting YOU LOT into my world, stay in your own. But just don’t try to involve me and people like me in it and more importantly don’t try to tell me that it’s the only true, time-tested way to live. I don’t want to live in world where everything happens because ‘that’s how it’s done’. And I don’t want to be like you. Or for my children to either.”

“So you really don’t like me? You think there’s something wrong with me? I could be a lot worse, by the way. Some people do drugs or whatever and die before they’re thirty. I’m all right, you know.”

“As solid and reliable as a ZIL fridge. Here you are, a living demonstration that you’re a solid man, yes? That you’ve done well for yourself in life. What the f**k’s so good about your life? That you’ve managed to buy a Ford Focus? That you’re a company director? That you f**k the secretary, get paid a salary, health insurance, and embezzle 30K a year? That you’ve built a sauna at your dacha and gorged yourself with greasy food until you weigh a hundred and twenty kilos? Or that at the age of thirty-four you’ve been told that three-way sex can be for real and not just in the German porn films you talked about when you were in eighth class. Or that you were caught shoplifting Pepsi-Cola when you were a kid? You can’t be changed. Your brain is the same size as that envelope with three grand in it which you wanted me to take. YOU LOT can’t be changed, YOU LOT can only be swapped out or terrorised under the direction of cleverer folk into working instead of f**king about. To cut it short, Vova, our talk has reached a dead end. Go eat a Snickers or a Twix ‘coz there’s no point in throwing pearls before swine.

Vova rises: “It’s a good thing that there a fewer of YOUR LOT, a very good thing...”

“Very good things don’t happen, Vova. Very good things have to be paid very dear for later. And anyway, where so you think you’re goin? Settle the bill. Start paying off that fifteen grand. You can deduct the amount oft his bill from it.


I leave the café and badly want to wash my hands. Or put on gloves and move without touching the ground. That latter idea is the alcohol talking, of course.

1 comment:

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