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.
Tuchkov’s psychopathic, faux-medieval oligarchs take the popular discourse of the New Russians to its logical extreme. After all, how do we spot a New Russian? All the urban folklore reinforces the conclusion that the New Russian is identified in relation to his possessions. The New Russian may be described as a physical type, but the most important attributes are metonymic: the cell phone, the clothing, the Mercedes 600, and, behind all this, the money. A feudal scenario in which people themselves become the New Russians’ property therefore makes a great deal of sense; the New Russian cannot relate to others as actual subjects (i.e., as people), but only as objects for him to manipulate. In Martin Buber’s terms, he is incapable of an “I-You” intersubjective connection, only “I-It.”
Certainly, the popular jokes about the New Russians and their satirical representation in film and fiction reek of class resentment, but they lack an important element of representations of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” both in the West and, just a few years into the twenty-first century, in Putinist Russia: a palpable sense of envy. How hard can it be to make people want a fancy car and the latest gadgets? But when paired with the New Russians, fancy commodity fetish objects and the money that purchases them manage to look thoroughly unappealing.
Jokes about New Russians were fertile ground for scholarly analysis in the 1990s and early 2000s, most notably by Emil Draitser and Seth Graham. Both Russians and Russia watchers seized on a phenomenon that was strangely reassuring: after several years in which the previously reliable folklore genre of political and topical jokes (anekdoty) had dried up, suddenly Russia was undergoing a renaissance of joke lore. Soviet political jokes often focused on the self-seriousness and hypocrisy of the regime and its leaders, a subject that lost its relevance after 1991. If Russian humor had found a new topical target of ridicule, surely this had to mean something.
A sizable portion of the New Russian jokes I’ve heard and read do, in fact, focus on commodity fetishism, mocking the New Russian obsession with things without simultaneously engaging in the older, Soviet moralizing about veshchizm (“thing-ism,” the term for non-philosophical materialism). One of the classics is about two New Russians talking about a tie. One of them says, “Check it out, I bought this tie for $1500!”, while the other replies, “You idiot! You could have gotten it for $2000!” At the usual risk of killing humor by explaining it, I want to point out the obvious detour from conventional values that is at work here. As a means of exchange, money is presumably valued for what it can buy, but for the New Russian, what he can buy is valued in accordance to how much money he can spend on it. Curiously, the obsession with material things threatens to dematerialize them entirely: they exist only as excuses for money to change hands.
In another joke involving the inevitable Mercedes, a New Russian gets into a car accident. He survives, but moans repeatedly, “Oh, my poor Mercedes! My Mercedes.” An onlooker notices that the New Russian has lost one of his arms. “Forget about the car! What about your arm?” The New Russian looks in the direction of his now-missing arm: “My Rolex! My Rolex!” Again, his values are distorted, this time in favor of objects at the expense of his own body.
In still another joke, the New Russian body is whole, but is rendered little more than a vehicle for his beloved gadgets:
Three New Russians are engaged in conversation, when one notices something odd about another New Russian’s finger.
The second New Russian explains that he has a pager implanted in his finger.
Then the first New Russian’s ear starts to buzz. He explains that this is his portable telephone getting a call.
Soon the third one’s stomach starts to rumble, and he appears about to vomit. “What’s happening?” they ask him. “I’m getting a fax.”
In such jokes, the New Russian is a nightmare vision of the Posthuman. He is not simply a cyborg (as in the previous joke), not merely obsessed with the material objects and gadgets he could potentially be using to extend his sense of self beyond the human body. Rather, he is an emptied-out self that has transferred virtually all of its value and all of its meaning into items beyond his own flesh, without compensating for this deprivation though even the vaguest appeal to the spiritual, intellectual, or sublime. He is the posthuman who has not transcended, but descended.
Thus the New Russian embodies (to the extent that he can even be said to have a body anymore) a reflexive, under-theorized rejection of humanism, from the liberal humanism that animated Western Europe after the Renaissance to the sentimental humanism of Russian literature and culture (Radishchev’s appeal to empathize with the downtrodden, the nineteenth-century Russian validation of the “little man”). To him, other people are like objects, and not particularly valuable objects at that.
In one anecdote, two New Russians are talking about remodeling their homes. One asks, “Who does the work on your house?” The other replies, “Tajiks. How about yours?” “The Swiss.” “Why not Tajiks?” “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to ship Tajiks to Switzerland?”
In another, a New Russian refuses to provide funding to scientists in need of support, but he is generous in his hand-outs to beggars. Someone asks him why, and he response, “You never know, someday I could be a beggar too. But I’ll never be a scientist.”
This is not just selfishness or self-centeredness; it is the inability to think of other people in terms outside of himself and his needs.
The sheer vacuity of the New Russian, both as a self and as a body, is particularly clear in the last joke I want to tell:
“A husband returning from a business trip sees a Mercedes 600 parked in his driveway. Inside, he sees a crimson jacket on a hanger, a cellular phone on the table, and his wife in bed with a man. The husband pushes the man:
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
What do you mean? Don’t you see? We’re making New Russians.” (Draitser)
Here the New Russian is reduced to his essence, a set of external attributes used to conjure him up through sympathetic magic (plus a healthy does of adultery). The body to go along with all the possessions is merely an afterthought.
Next: Raspberry Jackets of the Rich and Loathsome