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.
In the last blog entry, I related a joke about a man and catching his wife having sex with another man. Her excuse was that they were “making New Russians.” The joke works because before the husband encountered the couple, he saw a Mercedes 600 in the driveway, a crimson (probably raspberry) jacket on a hanger and a cell phone on the table. The New Russian’s identity was tied so closely to these (and a few other) particular objects that the listener is supposed to get the joke immediately.
Why these three things? The Mercedes could theoretically be any fancy, expensive car, except that linking all New Russians with one particular model of automobile suggests that little personal assessment is going on. This is not a matter of a man with money picking out the car that suits him best; it is a rich man who buys the car that everyone else of his status already possesses.
The cell phone obviously wouldn’t work even a few years later, now that nearly everyone in the country (or at least the big cities) has one of their own. But the presence of a lone cell phone in a crowd of people without phones is particularly aggravating, and not simply because of envy. The caricature has it that the New Russian is always yelling into his phone, heedless of the reactions of those around him. Cell phones may or may not still be annoying, but they are no longer marked as belonging to a particular category of person.
The raspberry jacket, however, takes some explanation. The general consensus is that this jacket first appeared as part of Versace’s 1992 collection, which was excellent timing from the point of view of a New Russian trying to show off. Soviet officials and factory heads were not exactly fashion icons; the drab grayness of Soviet men’s style was as pervasive as their clothing options were limited. What better way to stand out than with a bright red jacket (probably not from Versace, but who would notice)?
The raspberry jacket quickly became shorthand for “New Russian.” Sergei Mavrodi, founder of the MMM pyramid scheme, traded in his customary track suit for a raspberry jacket for his televised 1993 New Year’s address to his “partners” (read: “dupes”). In Aleksei Balabanov’s 1997 hit film Brother, one of the criminal leaders is a bald man in a raspberry jacket who is constantly laughing at the folk sayings and cliches out of which he constructs nearly ever one of utterances. His lack of imagination in fashion is outweighed only by his lack of wit when it comes to speaking. Balabanov returns to the 1990s criminal business world in his 2005 Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki), casting a backwards glance at a bygone era, and, naturally, he gives the film’s most iconic character, Mikhailych, a raspberry jacket.
This jacket is fashion for the man who wants to be considered fashionable, but has no inclination to spend the time actually choosing the clothing he is to wear, just as the Mercedes 600 is a default rich man’s car. So perhaps we should give the New Russian a break: perhaps it is not that he has bad taste, but simply no taste at all?
Alas, no. For the New Russian to fulfill his discursive function, his taste has to be terrible.
Fortunately, he is up to the task.
 I will come back to this film in a later blog entry.
Next: Bad Taste, Revisited