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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Creating the Illusion of Success in Russia: Back to the Neo-Soviet Future

As the LA Times reports (here via the Sydney Herald), Russia is a society based on illusion and lies, not substance, which is why its edifice repeatedly comes tumbling down.

ALWAYS wanted to brag to your friends about your trip to Brazil, but couldn't afford to go? No problem!

For $US500 ($655), nobody will believe you weren't sunning yourself last week on Copacabana Beach, just before you trekked through the Amazon rainforest and slept in a thatched hut.

Persey Tours was barely keeping the bill collectors at bay before it started offering fake holidays. Now it is selling 15 a month - providing ticket stubs, hotel receipts and photos with clients' images superimposed on famous landmarks.

If the customer is an errant husband who wants his wife to believe he is on a fishing trip, Persey offers not just photos of him on the river, but a mobile phone with a distant number, a lodge that will swear the husband is checked in but not available, and a few dead fish on ice.

Of course, it is not the real thing. But in Russia this is a distinction that can easily drift into irrelevance. If there is a world capital of audacious fabrication, it must be Moscow, where fake is never a four-letter word.

Forget fake Rolexes and Gucci bags - that's kids' stuff. Russian entrepreneurs offer million-dollar fake Ivan Shishkin paintings, forged passes to the Kremlin bearing President Vladimir Putin's apparent signature, false medical school diplomas and alley cats palmed off for $US300 as "Siberian purebreds".

The Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, German Gref, estimates that half of all consumer goods sold in Russia are fake. The counterfeit trade, Mr Gref announced in January, has reached $US6 billion a year - no one knows exactly, because the books are cooked.
Russia is the world's biggest exporter of pirated music products - many of them brazenly manufactured behind the locked gates of former military bases.

"What you're witnessing on the piracy front is kind of emblematic of what's happening in Russia generally," said Neil Turkewitz, the executive vice-president of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Every Russian must ford a river of flim-flam, much of which is tolerated because it makes everyone's life cheaper and more manageable than the real thing.

Even Mr Putin's doctoral dissertation, researchers from the Brookings Institution revealed this year, contained sections lifted from a text published by academics from the University of Pittsburgh.

The revelations were barely repeated in the Moscow press, not because they were scandalous, but because they weren't.

Yuri Lubimov, an adviser to the Economic Development Minister, said to understand the Russian public's appetite for fakes, one must understand the importance of appearances.

"It's better to look like something than to be something," he said. "I know people here who have not very much money at all, but he will buy a very big car so that other people will see that he's rich, he's powerful."

Or maybe he has a photo proving he was on the Great Wall of China during his last holiday.

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