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.
Vladimir Tuchkov’s cycle of stories entitled Death Comes By Internet is a New Russian master text, and is one of the main literary examples highlighted by Lipovetsky in “New Russians as a Cultural Myth.” Published in 2001, it bears the revealing subtitle, “A Description of Nine Unpunished Crimes Secretly Committed in the Homes of New Russians.” As the subtitle suggests, the recurring theme is that of New Russian excess, and the sense that New Russians are people to whom no rules actually apply. The pleasure is that of reading good satire, but also the thrill of watching people get away with the unthinkable.
The first story in the collection, bearing the Gogolian title “A Terrible Vengeance” (Strashnaia mest’), sets the stage with a tale of a New Russian’s unlimited power and total lack of mercy. The fabulously wealthy businessman Nikolai spends all his time managing his business empire, leaving his wife Olga to dedicate herself just as doggedly to hosting a nonstop array of high-society orgies. But when her parade of meaningless sexual encounters gives way to real feelings for one of her guests (a TV personality), Nikolai won’t stand for it. Nikolai imprisons her lover in their house, informing him that, while he will remain alive, Nikolai is taking away his life and identity. The lover is replaced on television with a double, and, after a few weeks, Nikolai has the man’s four front teeth removed and replaced with a steel bridge. The man is given ratty clothes to wear and released back into the general population. No one believes his claims that he is a well-known public figure, and he is eventually institutionalized for delusions of grandeur.
In “A Terrible Vengeance,” the businessman’s wealth and influence defy all rules and laws. In the United States, people used to say that Apple Founder Steve Jobs had a “reality distortion effect, which meant that his sheer persuasive enthusiasm seemed capable of convincing his interlocutors that he could achieve the impossible. Nikolai goes one step further: he is literally the master of all he surveys, meting out “justice” to those around him with the impunity and confidence of a feudal lord. Even his imprisonment of his rival is couched in the terms of magnanimity and hospitality. Olga’s love is maintained in Nikolai’s mansion under more than comfortable conditions; when Nikolai’s project is complete and his rival has now entirely lost his identity and become a “new person,” Nikolai tell him: “Well, not, at last you can abandon my hospitable home, where you have been inappropriately happy for someone of your former social status.” The punishment administered by Nikolai is a feat of socioeconomic alchemy; standing at the pinnacle of the a complex social hierarchy, he has performed the class equivalent of what used to be called gender reassignment surgery.
“A Terrible Vengeance” surrounds Nikolai with the aura of the powerful feudal lord, but the connection to a medieval ethos is still a matter of simile and transposition: Nikolai is analogous to the lord of a manor, but functioning within a contemporary context, however exaggerated his capacity to exert his will might seem. The second story has no need of comparison or analogy, in that its protagonist’s entire project is to literalize the metaphor inherent in his New Russian status.
“Lord of the Steppe” (Stepnoi barin) is about a rich banker named Dmitry who buys land outside of Moscow in order to set up his own feudal estate. He has no overt political agenda, though in the hands of a different sort of satirist at a different point in time, his localized New Middle Ages might look like a comment on Stalin’s attempt to “build socialism in one country.” Once the estate is operating, he seems to be interested solely in satisfying his own desires and indulging his own whims. But the origins of his impulses are more complex.
As the first line of the story tells us, “Dmitry was the product of great Russian literature.” But where the implied reader of the Russian classics is presumably moved to compassion for the downtrodden, disdain for material riches, and other such “spiritual” concerns, Dmitry learns the opposite lesson. Having virtually memorized the complete works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, he finds the greatest pleasure in the scenes in which evil and cruelty triumph: “Thus he was an unusually shameless, calculating, mean, and cruel person in relation to those who stood lower than him on the social ladder.” Where generations of readers were taught to empathize with the proverbial little man chasing in vain after the carriage speeding in front of him, one imagines Dmitry responding to the same scene as if it were the social class equivalent of hardcore pornography.
Naturally, Dmitry builds a luxurious house for himself, but then he immediately turns to the construction of twenty-five “dilapidated” huts, complete with holes in the walls and crooked windows. Whereupon he begins hiring serfs. The serfs sign a contract (laser-printed, in duplicate) listing all the agricultural implements that will be at their disposal, requiring them to live full-time in the country, and promising them 2000 dollars per year. In exchange, Dmitry gets the fruits of their labor, along with the right to impose physical punishment, authorize or forbid marriages, and unilaterally resolve any disputes. The serf has the right to break the contract, but only on Yuri’s Day (November 26, when serfs were allowed to change masters before 1597).
Dmitry starts administering harsh punishments on the second day of his reign. Soon he is raping peasant women, sometimes in the presence of his wife (whose moral degeneracy now matches his own). Recalling that some feudal masters had theater troupes composed of serfs, he stages a production of Alexander Griobyedov’s Woe from Wit, with an all-female, all-nude cast who are instructed to spend most of the play beating each other. When Yuri’s Day arrives, he arranges a feast, provides copious amounts of vodka, and all his serfs extend their contract for another year.
Within three years, the serfs have adapted completely:
“They started to see their master not as an eccentric rich man, but as their own father, tough, but fair, constantly worry about their well-being. Deep in their hearts each one of them knew that without their master, they wouldn’t plow, and they wouldn’t go to church, and would start killing each other.”
So the serfs, whose psyches were so seriously reconfigured, were wrong to have counted on the possibility returning to contemporary society. They couldn’t live there, its laws would strike them as wild an inhuman.”:
Even Dmitry is stunned by this turn of events, and starts to consider “reforms” (such as cutting their quitrent by twenty percentage points), but by now he’s gotten old, and his eldest son Grigory has taken charge. The story ends with the observation that the serfs have started having children who look exactly like Grigory.
Lipovetsky is correct when he argues that Tuchkov’s New Russian heroes are better understood along a “spectrum of social roles” rather than through psychological realism, and that they exemplify a “trickster archetype” that serves as a “negative example of a cultural hero.” But I must disagree with his analysis of the role of power: “His bankers do not care about power over somebody or something; they desire power as such, as a fetish, and they realize that this kind of power tolerates no compromise.”
But how can power function as an absolute in a social context? Tuchkov gives us New Russians whose obsession with power absolutely requires that other people suffer in its exercise. Death Comes By Internet rarely shows the protagonists deriving actual sensual pleasure from their abuse of their underlings; Tuchkov’s New Russian is no American Psycho. Yet the New Russians in these stories dehumanize their victims just as efficiently as Bret Easton Ellis’s sadistic serial killer, not by enjoying their pain but by being utterly indifferent to it. These New Russians hold the human life of the underclass in so low regard that they cannot even be bothered to enjoy their victims’ suffering.
Both the American Psycho and the New Russian are incapable of empathy, and in each case their callousness is easily interpreted as a comment on the worlds that made them. But where Ellis’s Patrick Bateman is the perfect extrapolation of a heartless capitalist world, Dmitry in “Lord of the Steppe,” as the product of Great Russian Literature, is even more demonic: he has spent his life surrounded by cultural inputs that demand an empathic response, only to identify with the purveyors of cruelty. Culture is no insurance against savage exploitation; on the contrary, virtually any cultural production can be appropriated to teach an unintended and undesirable lesson.
Tuchkov’s New Russians, then, are the men who, though some murky combination of nature and nurture, are best equipped to take advantage of post-Soviet chaos and recreate their surrounding microwords according to their needs. In the language of Lev Gumilyov, whose pseudoscientific theory of ethnogenesis grew in popularity at roughly the same time the New Russians appeared on the scene, Tuchkov’s New Russians are passionaries, albeit unforgivably selfish ones: they are people whose sheer vital energy and drive move those around him towards creating a new a new collective identity.
The New Russians of Death Comes by Internet would make excellent cult leaders. For that matter, so would Platon Makovsky from Tycoon. But rather than prophesy the end of the world, the coming of aliens, or transcendence into a higher realm, Tuchkov’s New Russian cultists gravitate toward the feudal or medieval. * The greatest threat of his imaginary New Russian is that he will recreate a feudal social structure by sheer force of will.
*The analogy to Ilya Krzhizhanovksy’s DAU practically draws itself.
Next: Jokes and the New Russian Body