This is the the twentieth entry of Chapter 1 of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias, as well as . It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
In 2002, Pavel Lungin released the film Tycoon (Олигарх), adapted from Yuri Dubov’s 1999 novel The Big Slice (Большая пайка), which in turn was inspired by the life and career of one of Russia’s most notorious oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky.
In a later post, we will return to this film, and to the question of the oligarch’s place in the idea of the New Russian; for now, we should simply note that the English and French translations of the film’s title render the terms equivalent. The full English title is Tycoon: A New Russian, while France cuts to the chase and calls the movie Un nouveau Russe. Lungin’s film is a touchstone for the post-Soviet representation of the new rich; even with the caveat about assuming that the New Russian and the oligarch are the same thing, Tycoon is an unavoidable part of any analysis of the New Russian phenomenon.
Early in the film, when future oligarch Platon Makovsky and his friends are still university students, the impending transition from ossified state socialism to savage, unrestricted capitalism is established and parodied in a light-hearted scene that could have turned tragic for one of its participants. One of Platon’s friends, Mark, has made the political mistake of arguing in a certain Professor Koretsky’s class that the Soviet economy is shrinking and on the verge of collapse. Koretsky’s response is not to engage with the substance of the argument, but rather to pontificate in a familiar Soviet vein:
Koretsky: If I understand you correctly, when you say “ineffective economy”, you mean the economy of socialism?
Viktor: I was solving a theoretical problem. This is mathematics, not ideology.
Koretsky: Don’t try to weasel your way out of it. So the socialist economy is not viable? And what about Marxism-Leninism? Do you propose repealing it as well? […] For the future of our country, for the life we have today, generations of Soviet people went hungry, gave their lives for the ideas that you are trampling under your feet.
To the untrained ear of a viewer born after the Soviet collapse, his words might seem simply laughable, but older generations, who managed not to give their lives for Soviet ideals, will easily recognize Koretsky’s tirade as a direct threat to Viktor’s future.
By this point in the film, we already know one important thing about Platon’s circle of friends: they live life at its fullest when testing the boundaries of convention. These are men who play with fire. In the previous scene, after a night of drinking in a four-person train car packed with revelers, one of the main characters, Mark, wakes up naked next to an equally disrobed train conductress. She informs him that they had a fabulous night together, and that if he doesn’t follow up on his promise to marry her, she’ll file a personal complaint against him that will ruin his life. Mark’s friends reassure him that being married to a conductress is not so bad; it has its perks, and he’ll get used to it. Then they all burst out laughing, and Mark realizes that the whole thing is a practical joke.
Now, when Viktor is facing actual danger in his confrontation with Koretsky, it is Mark who calls Platon and tells him to come to Viktor’s rescue. What follows is a moment that turns Viktor’s brush with career tragedy into comedy gold.
Platon: Forgive me for interrupting you, but it seems that Comrade Koretsky is overdramatizing the situation. We are just sharing ideas, including controversial ones.
Koretsky: Strange logic you have there!
Platon: Logic cannot be strange. It either is, or it isn’t. On the level of logic, you can prove anything. How about I show you that, say, a crocodile… [draws on the chalkboard] Yes, that looks about right. Does it look right?
Platon: A crocodile is more long than it is green. Because it’s long only on top and below, while it’s green only on top.
Koretsky: This is a circus!
Platon: Just for Comrade Koretsky I’ll prove that the crocodile is more green than it is wide. The crocodile is green lengthwise and across, but wide only across. Thank you!
Why include such a scene early in the film, especially when it is nowhere to be found in the novel on which it is based? And, for that matter, why discuss it at such length now?
The crocodile scene fulfills a variety of important functions for this film. First, there is the obvious one, involving entertainment: it’s funny. If we look further, however, we see a discursive clash waged before our very eyes. We are in the role of the audience at the lecture, watching a debate that has serious implications.
If we assume that the classical economics on which Viktor must be basing his conclusions is somehow neutral or objective (an assumption that the entire enterprise of the transition to capitalism takes for granted), then Viktor is the voice of cold reason, a representative of what some in Washington now derisively call the “reality-based community.” Koretsky does not even attempt to refute Viktor’s arguments, presumably because he can’t (i.e., Viktor is objectively right). So Koretsky switches registers, proving himself a past master of Soviet cant Or to put it more bluntly, Soviet bullshit.
Next: Soviet Bullshit and New Russian Spell-Casting