The New Russian in the Rearview Mirror (Russia’s Alien Nations)

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 You can also find  all the previous entries here.


When Aleksei Balabanov made his cinematic return to the world of Russian criminal business in his 2005 film Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki), he treated the eight years that had passed since the release of Brother  as if they were eighty.  The film begins in a crowded lecture hall, with an instructor standing in front of a blackboard announcing the day’s topic:  “накопление начального капитала,” which can be translated either as “accumulating start-up capital” (if you’re an MBA) or, with a bit of a stretch,  “the primitive accumulation of capital” (if you’re a Marxist). She explains that getting start-up capital “in our time” is very difficult, but in the 1990s, it was a different story. State property was being divided up, and all our current “so-called oligarchs” got their money back then.

A student comments: “I think back then it was easy to make money from nothing, both for start up capital  and for the rest of your life.” She brings up the problem of pyramid schemes, which the instructor is quick to pick up on.   The instructor notes that there were also “criminal structures” which had become intertwined with the state authorities, who also got their start-up capital at that time.

Balabanov then jump cuts to the scene of one man torturing another in a morgue, ending in a bloodbath. In the same amount of time it takes for the instructor to explain 1990s capitalism, three men die, with two more killed thirty seconds later.  In the first scene, though the classroom has students of both sexes, the conversation about the criminal economy is conducted entirely by women, with the men either silent or trying to get out of the lecture.  In the second, all the speaking parts are male, as are all the murderers and victims, but the action unfolds against a backdrop of naked female corpses.  What could be more Nineties than that?

This aesthetic contrast is as important as the change in subject matter (economics lecture vs. indiscriminate murder), leaving open the possibility that what Vadim Volkov called the “violent entrepreneurs” of cutthroat capitalism can be hygienically sealed off from the calmer, more civilized world in which the lecturer and her students now live. Though the classroom scene is a prologue, its function is reminiscent of the epilogue of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.  After two hundred harrowing pages immersing the reader in a repressive, patriarchal regime of scheduled rape and mandatory childbirth, Atwood jumps hundred of years into the future to a scholarly conference for historians who study this miserable time in their world’s past.  The tone is now matter-of-fact, if not lighthearted, a jarring counterpoint to the intense desperation of the novel’s first-person narrator.  This epilogue (much like the historical appendix on Newspeak in 1984, whose most important feature is that it is not written in Newspeak), though not necessarily a pleasant reading experience, smuggles optimism into a bleak story.  At some point, we know, conditions (will) change. [1]

The criminal New Russians of Dead Man’s Bluff are not quite so hermetically isolated from the world of their frame story, however.   The connection between the two reinforces both the film’s satire and the instructor’s own words about the origins of the current “so-called oligarchs.”  The film does not return to the classroom, but it does end with the revelation that our main gangster heroes have now cleaned themselves up and found a comfortable place as part of the apparatus of state, rather than private, corruption.

This, in fact, is the most common folk explanation for the fate of the New Russians.  By “folk” I mean non-scholarly, lay explanations.  Again, my concern here is not the actual socioeconomic transformation of post-Soviet Russian, but its representation through media.  I will, however, gesture towards the political developments that fostered a new environment for entrepreneurs in the 2000s.


[1] Justin Cronin toys with a similar trick at the end of his Passage trilogy, only to reveal that the story is not entirely over.


Next: Articles of Incorporation