This post is part of Chapter 2 of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias. It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
One of the many functions of New Russian jokes is to take a potentially threatening, disturbing figure and reduce him to a laughingstock. There is nothing inherently funny about amassing millions of dollars through quasi-criminal enterprises, siphoning off state resources, or hiring hitmen to solve your problems. But a fool who shows off his terrible taste and total ignorance of high culture every time he throws his money around is entirely another matter.
As I indicated in the previous chapter, the New Russian as a folk figure is the mirror image of the sovok. Where the sovok is flummoxed by the new capitalist consumer paradise, the New Russian revels in it. Where some versions of the sovok combine consumer cluelessness with a reflexive, often laughable fixation on high culture as framed by decades of Soviet education, the New Russian is incapable not just of appreciating, but even recognizing art. What unites the New Russian and the sovok is that both of them exemplify terrible taste.
The New Russian’s bad taste has two components. The first is the assumption that aesthetic value depends on flashiness and expense. In this, the New Russian resembles the American stereotypes of lottery winners, and also shares an aesthetic with Donald Trump (often derided as “a poor person’s fantasy of what a rich person is like.”
Hence the joke about a New Russian who brings a gold ingot to a jeweler and asks him to make him a ring. The jeweler says, “Which one?” And starts to show him a catalog. The New Russian just looks at him. “What are you, an idiot? Just drill a hole!”
Оr the joke where the New Russian brags to his brother about his amazing new, custom-made BMW. The body is platinum, the bumper is gold, the tires are silver. It has a diamond-encrusted steering wheel, and pearls all over the exterior. “How often do you drive it?” —’I never do. It uses too much gas.”
The New Russian’s tackiness would not be complete, however, if it merely consisted of his positive, or active bad taste. Even worse than what he likes is the vast aesthetic and cultural world that he is incapable of appreciating. His ignorance of Culture-with-a-Capital-C is so vast that he doesn’t even recognize the huge gaps in his knowledge.
So we have the New Russian going back to the jewelry store, this time to buy a crucifix, since everyone is wearing them nowadays. He wants a gold one, of course, as heavy as possible, The clerk finally finds a huge gold crucifix, almost to the New Russian’s liking. “Just one thing,’ he asks. “Can you get me one without the gymnast?”
In Paris, the New Russian points to the Eiffel Tower and asks the tour guide, “So have you guys found oil yet or not?”
One New Russian asks another: “So who are these guys, Bach and Beethoven, anyway.” The answer: “They’re the guys who write the ring tones for our phones.”
At a classical concert, one Russian gestures towards the stage, asking “Is that Beethoven?” Answer: “It’s hard to tell from the back.”
A New Russian relaxes with some music. His wife asks, “What are you listening to?” He answers, “Tchaikovsky. Piano Concerto #1, with orchestra.” “Then why is the disk labeled “Led Zeppelin III?” “Damn it! I’m always getting them mixed up.”
From the standpoint of the (post-)Soviet intelligentsia, the New Russian’s values are literally reversed: he loves flashy garbage, and can’t be bothered with the heritage of high culture. It is bad enough that men with money now rule the world, but even worse that they are so irredeemably vulgar.
Emil Draitser, Seth Graham, and Helena Goscilo have all noted the resemblance between the protagonist of New Russian anecdotes and a much more established butt of Russian jokes: the Chukchi. The inhabitants of a Siberian peninsula separated from Alaska by the Bering Strait, the Chukchi feature in an endless parade of jokes whose popular is in direct proportion to the overall ignorance about them on the part of the average Russian. Non-Chukchi Russian citizens outside of Siberia could easily go their entire lives without meeting a Chukchi; thus while the Chukchi jokes are unequivocally racist, they are not based on any animus towards Chukchi in particular. Instead, the Chukchi is used as a shorthand for backwardness, lack of culture, and lack of civilization.
Draitser argues quite convincingly for the role of Chukchi as the generalized fool, but also for the Chukchi as a stand-in for the Russian himself: “In Chukchi jokes, one cannot help but sense a certain compassion for the simpleton. Such relatively sparing treatment of the Chukchi man can be explained by a high degree of identification of the Russian joke tellers with the butt of their jokes” (Taking Penguins to the Movies 94). For the New Russian, though, there is precious little compassion, and even less reason to try to cultivate it. The Chukchi’s ignorance is posited to be either situational (i.e., he’s culturally deprived) or, worse, biological (the jokes’ racism). The New Russian has all the resources in the world available to him, and all he wants is more gold.
In framing the sovok as the Soviet intelligentsia, Victor Pelevin compared him to the estate owners in The Cherry Orchard. The New Russian calls to mind another of Chekhov’s plays: The Three Sisters. The women of the Prozorov family are revolted by their brother’s fiancée, and eventual wife, Natasha, who dresses badly and throws temper tantrums. The embodiment of the poshlost’ (vulgarity) that triumph over their refined sensibilities, by the end of the play, Natasha is the mistress of the house. While she does not sell or chop down a cherry orchard, she can’t wait to completely transform the grounds, planning to plant “[cute little] flowers, flowers, flowers!” (Цветочки, цветочки, цветочки!).
Like Natasha in The Three Sisters, the New Russians are a reminder to their audience that the world no longer belongs to them. The jokes about the New Russians, by turning the new would-be aristocracy into figures of fun, soften the blow.
Next: The New Russian in the Rearview Mirror