November 25, 2007

In the 1930s even some of the older and more intellectual Russians, including those who had seen a bit of the world in their youth, believed that the United States was the land of the Yellow Devil, meaning gold. It was said that when one American met another in the street, he greeted him as follows: “Make money?” To which the other replied, with Puritan candour: “Very much, thank you.” To those Americans, our grandfathers knew, nothing was sacred. Their tabernacles were to Moloch, their culture was as venal as their women, and needless to say their women were all sluts.


Like every extreme beloved of John Stuart Mill, this worldview was not to be dismissed out of hand. Its origins were only in part Soviet propaganda, designed to discredit the West, and the New World in particular, while leaving no doubt in anybody’s mind as to where the newest, bravest and best of all possible worlds was to be found. The other part, however, derived from traditional European scepticism with respect to various colonial upstarts, and had much to recommend itself, albeit with certain caveats. It may be noted, for instance, that it was precisely at the historical moment when genuine American culture had reached its apogee in Emily Dickinson, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, and finally Mark Twain, that European scoffers were at their loudest in proclaiming America a nation of illiterate cowboys. Today, when the world is awash with Hollywood sewage and Manhattanite solipsism, Europe’s remaining snobs have gone strangely quiet.


The newest, bravest and best of all possible worlds had no time for such reticence at any point in the development of the Soviet state. Wagons of Lenin, Stalin and other prizes had been lavished on writers, Russian as well as foreign, who sought to demonstrate the essential cupidity of the West. Of course there had been snafus as well, as when the film based on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was first screened in Russia. Presented with this spectacle of destitution set in the Depression, the general population watched it a little too avidly, assuming it was a story about unhappy millionaires, something like Dynasty of the day, because the film’s characters drove about in their own lorries and got out of bed whenever the hell they liked.


Much has changed since then, as I am often told, though not in the way people who tell me so think it has. More than fifteen years ago, in a little book entitled The Coming Order, I analysed the totality of social change known as the collapse of the Soviet Union, concluding that the “collapse” was a fiction made credible by the dramatic transfer of political power from the old Communist Party establishment to the apparatus of the secret police. Totalitarianism had not died, it was merely moulting.


There were two types of reaction to my thesis. A few people said I was wrong. Most people said I was right but that could not matter, because, given midnight raves, computers, Coca Cola, newspapers like the New York Times, democratic oratory and the rest of the blessings of liberty, no regime, no matter how recalcitrant, could in the end resist becoming like ourselves. I should add that the orgy of wishful thinking, which continues to this day, has been made possible less by the West’s chronic misunderstanding of totalitarianism then by its superficial understanding of itself.


Together with democratic oratory, at length all the vices of the West became part of the creature’s new plumage. Economic freedom, in particular, had to be artificially seeded, with the ruling junta handing over a small percentage of the country’s vast natural assets to several hundred individuals, few of whom, incidentally, had had ties to the secret police. The allocation of resources was all but random, since the object of the exercise was not so much rewarding the faithful as creating a plausible simulacrum of economic liberty, one that would suit the renovated facade of social and political change.


In this dynamic moulage—which made the phrase “Wild West” a favourite among political optimists with a hopeful eye on Russia—crime, drugs, gambling, pornography and prostitution now played the part of Lenin’s interpretations of Marx, Stalin’s studies in linguistics or Brezhnev’s wartime reminiscences in the old Soviet iconostasis. They were essential components of what, in the West’s own myopic conception of history, constituted civic evolution. And the common denominator of all these components, elemental as the motive of all the desperate men in Jack London’s tales of the Yukon, was money.


In terms of the vastness of even the small fraction of Russia’s natural wealth “privatised” by the ruling junta to launch the deception, Klondike was nothing. Soviet totalitarianism rarely stooped to engage the West on the battlefields of commerce and trade, preferring to invest its wherewithal in titanium submarines and cavitation torpedoes. Now the New Russian “oligarchs,” as the largely clueless winners of the junta’s sweepstakes had been mistakenly christened, came to roam Europe as financial conquistadors, sweeping all in their path. They became the face of the Russian opportunity, the White Rock Girl of every Western political optimist’s dreams, the bankable evidence that the Cold War was over and totalitarianism was dead.


Alarming as my thesis of more than fifteen years ago may strike those with the mental energy to consider its implications, the present-day financial conquest of Europe by gangs of marauding New Russians is disturbing, if only in purely aesthetic terms, even to people who otherwise have little time for politics. As over the years I have known a number of these “oligarchs” personally, it may be interesting to describe them as a social species.


Daughters of dukes, when asked how they got the plum job, usually answer that they had been lucky. Lottery winners, by contrast, tend to ascribe their good fortune to innate factors, such as being able to whistle from an early age. Similarly, every member of the species under discussion likes to suggest that his random luck has had much to do with his political past in Russia, notwithstanding that what this plainly implies is that he was a KGB factotum. Two of the most notorious players at this game have had their fortunes handed them on a plate, literally, while sitting in Boris Yeltsin’s kitchen in their capacity as the presidential daughter’s lovers. Yet each in his own way would hint at a cloak-and-dagger story of political intrigue that has made him the tycoon he is.


When something untoward happens to a member of the species, such as the arrest, imprisonment and confiscation of assets that befell the “oligarch” Khodorkovsky and his oil company, neither the victim nor anyone else in his milieu can account for the event. The strategic exigencies of the ruling junta are a closed book for these macho men, who tend to know less about what makes the Kremlin tick than the average informed bystander. Even when one of them withdraws into opposition and proclaims himself an exile, his understanding of the larger political puzzle, of which he is but a minuscule piece, is at best ordinary.


Another distinguishing characteristic of the species is their attitude to money. Unlike the robber barons in the land of the Yellow Devil, who, unbeknown to most Europeans, invested the gold in their family names, thus creating the aristocracy of America, Russian prospectors do just what our grandfathers once imagined soulless American vulgarians doing: shopping. With the exception of the jailed Khodorkovsky, not one of them has endowed a foundation, built a museum, or financed so much as his own private library. Not one has become famous for a miracle of charity, even of the sort that the mafia in Italy sometimes performs by capping the lease on the house of a poor widow, along with the greedy landlord’s knee for good measure.


Instead, a Portland company called U. S. Submarine reports that the waiting list for its products reads like a page from the Vladivostok telephone directory. The 65-metre, 1500-tonne Phoenix-1000, its premier submarine, costing about $100 million, is capable of remaining for 30 days at a depth of 300 metres, allegedly useful for surviving a nuclear holocaust. A swimming pool, a wine cellar and a screening room are some of the consolations on board. One doubts, however, that Captain Nemoff’s connections in the Kremlin can ensure he has notice enough to order full immersion before any of the global unpleasantness begins. It is this sort of naïve, boy’s-own version of conspicuous consumption that sets apart the New Russians, though it must be noted that an American reader of Jules Verne, Paul Allen, is among these future survivors of World War III.


Of course America’s oligarchs of the 1900s were also famous for vain or infantile follies, such as importing French chateaux to California, and this has a working analogue in one Russian’s recent purchase of a Boeing 787, rebuilt by BMW to include a parking place for his BMW. But the construction, by the visionary with the unlikely name of Pasternak and his company called Worldwide Aeros, of “flying yachts” such as ML866, vertical lift-off dirigible-like crafts with 500 square metres of “residential space,” is without precedent in the history of human vanity, unless one thinks back to Emperor Nero. I mean, Neroff.


Our grandfathers’ generation slandered Americans by saying they all believed that everything in the world has a price. In Moscow today, a provincial girl’s virginity has a set price, which is $40,000. Yet the whole notion of virginity, indeed of quality rather than quantity, rather belongs to the cultural universe of our grandfathers. It is an open secret among London callgirls that one Russian tycoon, after summoning a dozen of them to a party, has glasses of champagne offered to the hapless creatures with a gemstone in every glass, which those determined enough to swallow get to keep. One thinks of Philip II of Spain, in the days of the Reformation, depicted amusing himself in this way by his Dutch detractors.


The pistes of France, the chalets of Switzerland and the coves of Sardinia are now unrecognisable. At $3000-a-night hotel room at the Cala di Volpe in Porto Cervo is a sign of what Orwell called verminous poverty, a blunt man in reservations having told a Lebanese friend of mine who wanted to stay there a few weeks ago that the Russians had taken all the suites. The soap opera of indiscriminate consumption, for which the Arabs were once renowned the world over, seems as refined in retrospect as a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.


The implications should be sufficiently clear even to those who pride themselves on their ignorance of politics. An aesthete who looks to the new species for the qualities of character that made the New World what it is—“commercial respectability,” as George Bernard Shaw enumerated “the first fruits of plutocracy in the earlier stages of industrial development” in a preface to one of his plays, and “fear of hell always at war with fear of poverty” – will find an evil-smelling hole.


Living high on the hog may have its rewards, but the prospect of civic evolution is not among them.


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