By John Helmer, Moscow
At the freedom-flush Moscow parties of the 1990s, I was never sure whether Alexander Venediktov (2) was real, or a Vladimir Mamyshev-Monroe (1) impersonation. Mamyshev-Monroe died last month in what is described as a shallow swimming pool in Indonesia. Venediktov is alive, and like Mamyshev-Monroe does his radio turns on Ekho-Moskvy as performance art. At least those two are/were genuine Russians. There’s a pseudo-Russian in London, calling himself Peter Pomerantsev (3), who claims to have been exiled from Russia at the age of 11 months. He lionizes all that’s bad about Russia for the delectation of the English intelligentsia reading literary papers. He can’t be a Mamyshev-Monroe impersonation; he could be Masha Gessen (4), who does a similar turn for the American intelligentsia, in drag.
Pomerantsev has produced a diary for the current issue of the London Review of Books in which, after a potted version of the last quarter-century of Russian history, he concludes that Mamyshev-Monore and Boris Berezovsky “defined post-Soviet Russia”. By that he means the faker Mamyshev-Monroe (aka performance artiste) was more real than targets like Vladimir Putin whom he mocked. “What place”, Pommy concludes rhetorically, “could he have in a Russia where to watch a grotesque piece of performance art you just had to switch on the news?”
Pomerantsev’s second conclusion was about the other Russian faker (aka performance artist) to die after the Ides of March, Berezovsky. Pommy lacked direct acquaintance with him, or with anyone who did business with him. He did spend a day or two at the High Court, he says, where he was mesmerized by the tarts who also attended. He didn’t read the court transcripts; he skimmed the judgement in favour of Roman Abramovich.
Pommy hasn’t interviewed Berezovsky’s drivers, pickups, lenders, relatives, lawyers, PR agents, or victims. Indeed, sourcing his conclusion about what Berezovsky stands, er fell for, isn’t what Pommy feels he must tell us. His is a generalization so unencumbered by evidence it can only have sprung from a single imagination, his own. This conclusion is that Berezovsky is, er was “representative of a state of mind prevalent among the elite who grew up in the late Soviet Union.” More precisely, Berezovsky turns out to be the same as Putin — product of “a generation of leaders who excel at simulation and mind-games but are incapable of fashioning any meaningful politics because they themselves grew up without them.” This Berezovsky wasn’t just Putin’s godfather, in the politically corrupt sense of which he himself often boasted, and to which he testified in the London court. He was, Pommy concludes in his last line , Putin’s “prodigal son”.
Psychopathologically, this type of Oedipal complex and moral reversal isn’t new in modern Russian history. It’s an exhibition of what immediately after the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War was encapsulated in a little book Yury Olesha produced at the time. Olesha called his story, Envy (Зависть).
Olesha had already made his name with a comic fantasy for Russian children and their parents called Three Fat Men (Три толстяка). In 1924 this was understood as a cartoon of the revolution in which fatness and wealth had been the enemy, until overthrown and put to death by crowds of skinny folk, led by a magician, an armourer, and a doll of a girl with a real heart. These days The Three Fat Men is a brand name for a modest supermarket chain in Moscow and a restaurant in Brighton, New York, which went broke. It’s also a cartoon you can let your children watch on Saturday mornings.
Olesha’s depiction of envy, however, originates with a thin alcoholic with a noble name, Nikolai Kavalerov (“Cavalier”), who is picked out of the gutter and given bed, food and career opportunity by the new type of post-revolutionary entrepreneur, Andrei Babichev. The latter’s business idea, in which it’s explained there is going to be massive state investment, is a newly developed protein source, a pork sausage to be served up in a proto-McDonalds franchise called the Two Bits.
Olesha’s target, though, the target of Kavalerov’s envy, happens to be fat. This biological violation of Olesha’s version of how the revolution should have turned out by 1927 is exposed dramatically when Kavalerov watches Babichev coming out of his morning toilet. “The back gave away everything. The tender yellow of his fat body.” On the one hand, Kavalerov says he is envious of “this thin skin, noble colour, pure pigmentation [and]…on his waist …a mole, a special inherited, aristocratic mole.” On the other, Kavalerov is also envious of Babichev’s history of fighting against the old regime, which is revealed when he spots “on his chest, under his right clavicle…a scar.” This was evidence that Babichev had been a dissident, a political prisoner. “He had attempted escape. They had shot him.”
In a sequence of fantastical adventures Babichev’s much thinner brother Ivan gangs up with Kavalerov, and along with an all-purpose machine Ivan calls Ophelia, which doesn’t take orders, they try destroying the sausage business, as they also try to win over the girl with the heart, Valya. It turns out she prefers winners to losers — the sausage entrepreneur, and also the goalkeeper in the Soviet team which beats the Germans, 2 to 1.
As Kavalerov’s mind disintegrates under the pressure of what he wants, misses, and won’t work for, he comes out with an indictment of the revolution for being heartless — and of his own heart for being obsolete to requirements. “I was wrong, Valya…I thought the emotions had perished – love and devotion and tenderness, but it’s all still here, Valya…Only not for us, all that’s left for us is envy and more envy. Poke out my eyes, Valya, I want to go blind.” Having missed out on all the assets he really craves, the tale ends with Kavalerov going to bed with a babushka who wants sex and pities the drunk she is obliged to take it from. Kavalerov takes a stiff drink and keeps his eyes closed.
The arch-cynic of Russian writing after the revolution, Vladimir Nabokov, called this the greatest novel produced in the Soviet Union.
By today’s Russian standards, Babichev’s entrepreneurial ideas should not only make him rich and fat, but preserve him as the hero of the Anglo-American intelligentsia, if not for his business success then for his part in paying for the 1996 election (defeat of the communists, etc.). Never mind that his peers, the oligarchs who control oil, gas, minerals, and even sausages are on the thin side, except for Alisher Usmanov (5). Nor is the similarly named, rich but slim Ivan Babaev (6), controlling shareholder and chairman of Russia’s biggest pork and sausage company, Cherkizovo, a target of criticism on the part of the domestic or foreign intelligentsia, let alone envy on the part of anyone in particular.
None of these names, none of the characters on the top of the Forbes Russia Rich List, appears as targets in the archives of Mamyshev-Monroe, Venediktov, Pomerantsev, and Gessen. For them there is only one fat man in all of Russia – that’s the small thin man who remains president. As in the Olesha tale, he is the only one to blame, envy, detest.
Venediktov took his chance this week to make this creation answer back. “Here in your third emergence as the President,” Venediktov asked during Putin’s “Direct Line” television show on April 25, “to me and some of my companions there seem to be certain Stalinist notes [сталинские нотки]. I would like you to comment on them.” For his examples of Stalinism, Venediktov mentioned the “political proceedings” against Pussy Riot and Alexei Navalny, and the legislation on foreign funding of non-governmental organizations.
Putin replied: “We repeatedly discussed all these questions. I don’t consider that there are any elements of Stalinism. Stalinism is connected with a cult of personality and with mass violations of the law, with repressions and camps. Anything similar in Russia isn’t present and, I hope, never will be again.”