Who Were the New Russians? (Russia’s Alien Nations)

This is the fourth entry 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.

Answer: I don’t care.

All right, maybe that’s too provocative, even for a blog that compared post-Soviet Russians to aliens from outer space. What I am trying to convey is that this chapter will not feature empirical studies of the lives of self-identified “new Russians,” nor will it try to provide an economically-based definition of the category.  As a concept, the “New Russian” floats free from any actual lived experience, financial portfolios, or criminal holdings.  Indeed, I will not be the first to argue that the New Russian never actually existed.

If I stress the imaginary nature of the New Russian more than I do that of the “sovok” or “vatnik,” it is because the latter terms are so clearly a matter of stereotype and projection then sociology.   No one would expect a census to give us a sovok headcount, but one might reasonably expect to be able to determine who the New Russians were and how many of them were out driving their Mercedes or BMWs at any given time.  After all, the New Russians are all about wealth, and wealth is quantifiable.

But if the New Russians were about wealth, the accumulation of assets did not necessarily make someone a New Russian.  Like the sovok, the New Russian is a set of assumptions and projections, but with an important difference:  the sovok could be observed (or at least imagined) up close, while the New Russian always kept his distance. One of the many compelling images of nineteenth century literature can, predictably, be traced back to Pushkin: in his “Station Master,” a sad, pathetic “little man” finds himself chasing after an important person’s carriage on foot, unable to catch up.  In post-Soviet terms, that little man may or may not be the sovok, but the person in the carriage is a New Russian.

There are many reasons why the New Russian in the carriage (or, less anachronistically, the imported luxury automobile) will always remain out of reach.  The most obvious is the disparity of power and wealth, but the ramifications of that disparity are greater than one might imagine.  It is not just that the poor and the rich live in two different worlds, but rather that the life experience and newly-invented habitat of the new rich is so far from everyday experience that this world is being imagined in an empirical vacuum.  Most ordinary people will never interact with the superrich, in any culture; but when the rich have been with us for decades or even generations, their lives have been assimilated into an imaginary construct that becomes familiar, and that presumably has some connection to the world of the actually existing rich.  The rich are celebrities (Donald Trump, for instance, even if he’s probably more celebrity than rich), or from famous families (the Rockefellers).  By comparison, the New Russians are generic, impersonal, and created almost entirely out of whole cloth. The New Russian is a figure of urban folklore.

We find ourselves once again confronting the problem of origins.  The established rich in countries that have long tolerated a class of the inordinately wealth tend to have a “just-so” story to explain why they have (and even deserve) the privileges and power they have accrued.  The wealthy man (and it is usually a man) is a “genius,” most recently in the world of high technology, often ascribed talents and accomplishments that he clearly lacks (Bill Gates didn’t even write MS-DOS, but in the nineties he was commonly assumed to have invented the Internet, a tech phenomena his company was very late to grapple with). The wealth might be inherited, but it is the result of a Genius Founder (Carnegie, Morgan, etc.), or goes far back enough in history to confer nobility or be the result of nobility (the Windsors).

The premise is that the system for the accumulation of wealth is somehow rational, perhaps even just. While there are plenty fo reasons to be skeptical that this is the case, there are nonetheless narratives that sell the system’s validity.  Even the reverse scenario, in which a person or family’s rise to wealth is interpreted as part of an evil conspiracy (the Rothschilds) is still based on the premise that the accumulation of capital is understandable.

The post-Soviet case is another matter entirely.  Here we have the accumulation of massive wealth in a manner that is almost entirely illegible to outsiders, with little effort wasted on legitimation through PR.   Thus two seemingly-opposite, but essentially homologous, scenarios are usually invoked:  people became wealthy from the massive theft of state property, or they got rich by making money out of nothing at all. In each case, wealth is detached from the part of the economy that 70 plus years of Soviet rule always put at the center of everything: production.

In the 1990s, evidence of Russian industrial or consumer production was hard to come by; instead, starting with the institution of the mysterious system of “vouchers” that kicked off the privatization process, stories about rich people are peppered with names of mysterious “financial instruments” and other foreign phrases (“promissory notes,” “futures,” “derivatives”).  I would be lying if I claimed to understand these terms, and probably would be richer if I actually were proficient in their use, but I have had an entire lifetime of knowing that I knew nothing about them.  An underinformed Westerner slowly steeps in the waters of finance for years, while most Rusisians found themselves thrown in the deep end without the benefit of lessons, time, or flotation devices.

Russian capitalism was the perfect storm of injustice, theft, and deceit, not to mention the complete abandonment of years of rhetoric about the collective good. Economic exploitation, sudden and dramatic inequality, and grotesque consumerism were both shocking and diffuse.    All of this makes for an abstract enemy; a real, concrete enemy has the virtue of an identifiable face.  Such a face has endless possibilities:  you can punch it, you can spit at it, and you can laugh at it.

In this regard, the New Russian was a gift to the people.  Because the New Russian gave all these negative phenomena a face.


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