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Young Russia’s Defiant Decadence

Some sex, more drugs and an insatiable lust for money in the brave new post-communal world

Young Russia's Defiant Decadence

New York Times Magazine, July 18, 1993.

Traveling in Russia recently as a writer, I came quickly to feel like a spy — not a foreign agent for America, but a spy for each emerging social class to the others. Members of the Russian mafia — the organized-crime circle — were fascinated to hear that intellectuals think the criminal class exerts social influence. The intelligentsia were obsessed with the greed of the new rich businessmen, whom they blame for the end of heroic idealism. A return to the Orthodox Church has left homosexuals worried about repressive neo-conservatism; nightclub owners are wondering whether the artists who flourished underground can survive in the new daylight. Politicians wonder whether power will remain in the hands of government or will devolve to these chaotic elements. Within all these social strata, the changes are most clear among members of the younger generation.

Overall, their outlook is harsh indeed. According to an article in the mainstream newspaper Argumenty i Fakty in April, “Young Russian malcontents are considering suicide every second.” One-third want to leave the country. Since 1989, the birth rate has dropped 30 percent, as discouraged young people choose not to have children. Even so, some young Russians are plunging ahead with often-decadent abandon to find freedom, wealth and power, defying the timidity, and idealism, of the older generation.

Those making remarkable lives for themselves, the minority that falls outside these depressing statistics, have broken up into hundreds of different tusovki, a colloquial word that mixes the ideas of “clique,” “scene” and “social circle.” In this world, the Wild West mentality of 19th-century America mixes with a decadence reminiscent of Berlin between the wars. These tusovki are divided by gulfs of ignorance. Only someone from the outside can move easily from group to group, reporting to one what is happening in another. It’s a shame that Russians can’t do this more easily, because the essential truths about the new Russia lie not in the behavior or beliefs of any one group, but in the very diversity of vision, opinion and goals now rising from the wreckage of Communism.

Raves, Parties, and Nightclubs

We are going to a rave, Kristall II, at the big St. Petersburg ice-skating rink. Beforehand, we visit Viktor Frolov, debonair man-about-town, who is loosely connected to the party’s organizers. There are a pop singer, a few artists, some models, a film actress and others without clearly defined jobs. The women are all attractive and are wearing Western-type makeup and retro-chic clothes. The men have leather jackets. Frolov is an eminently courteous host. Everyone must have several drinks and get high before we go: hashish, now available only for hard currency, is expensive, but whereas it used to be difficult to procure, it is today always available for anyone with money. Some take mushrooms, easily found in the woods around Petersburg. Some do cocaine to prepare for the long night. Earlier this year, customs officers seized a shipment of the drug that had arrived in Petersburg disguised as detergent. Television news showed officials confiscating this cargo; three days later, every dealer had it in bulk.

At around 2 A.M. we drive to the rink. There are about 2,500 people there. The sound system is turned up; there is live music by a visiting Dutch band and relentless, recorded techno-music. There is an elaborate laser show. Half of the rink has been boarded over to make a dance floor. On the other half, people are skating. In the grandstands, people smoke more hash or pass out on the seats. From the bar in the corner, people buy big cups of vodka. We are on the wrong side of the Neva, and at night the bridges go up; we will not be able to get home until they go down again at 6 A.M. Everyone agrees that raves are no longer “in” — no trend can last more than a year — but members of every fashionable tusovka have nonetheless come this evening. “The craze is over,” explains Georgi Guryanov, a painter. “But there’s nothing else to do.”

There is a 10 to 20 percent mafia contingent. Everyone knows who the mafia people are. They will get a share of the profits from this party; every club or bar or party in Russia pays the mafia between 20 percent and 60 percent of their revenue. “In your country, you have taxes,” someone explains. “And we have this system.”

The rave scene in Russia began with the First Gagarin party on Dec. 14, 1991, organized by Yevgeny Birman and Aleksei Haas. Held at the Cosmos Pavilion at VDNKh, the ultimate Stalinist temple to the socialist state, it attracted more than 4,000 people. “The First Gagarin was amazing because everyone was so hungry for it,” explains Birman, who has since organized other major parties. “We’re trying to mix the semiotic in this post-modern world and bring these different tusovki together. It’s about auto-eroticism and an absolute beauty code, which we never had in the Soviet period.”

Birman is boyish, exuberant and fun; Haas has a cosmopolitan professionalism and a hard self-assurance before which Madonna might quail. I chat with him in his Moscow apartment near Red Square while his American wife prepares dinner. “The First Gagarin’s budget was $12,000,” he explains. “We had to pay for security, music, D.J.’s, rent, firemen. We gave the mafia 20 percent” — a low figure, achieved, it is clear, by sharp negotiations — “and we didn’t make a profit. But I proved to myself that these people did exist in Moscow. I went out in my car in the weeks before the party, and when I saw the right kind of people, I gave them invitations. I invited 1,000 friends for free. We ran TV ads on the day of the party; they were in English, to select the audience.” The First Gagarin was unlike anything ever before seen in Moscow. Lasers bounced off the rich architecture; Western disk jockeys played the latest music; the crowd was incredibly sophisticated.

Haas plans to open a club in the autumn. “You come in from the provinces to Moscow,” he explains. “You want to do something. You’re ambitious, you’re young. What do you see? Success is in the hands of these big mafiosi driving expensive cars, with pretty girls around them. It’s dark energy, evil. I want to start a club for light energy, a place for clean people with good bodies and smart minds. You can’t win people over to light energy by being a hippie: I want a club for ambitious people with success written all over them. I’m not going to have alcohol there: it makes people retreat into the fog, and our lives are foggy enough. I’m going to have the best sound system and the best music and amazing D.J.’s. And the price will be really low. That’s democracy, it’s for everyone, it’s for the new Russia.

I want to see the clubs of Moscow. I mention five names to Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe, a Marilyn impersonator and hero of Russian pirate television. “Mafia, prostitutes, a few businessmen,” he says. I ask about Diskoteka Lise, the biggest in Moscow. “Oh, no,” he says. “Even in America you must have these places, full of heavy middle-aged Georgian women with bleached hair, blue eye shadow and Lurex tank tops, shimmying out of time to old Debbie Harry songs.”

After trying a few really dreadful places — at one, three bananas and three drinks cost $95 — I am in despair.

But in mid-April, I go to the painter Sveta Vickers’s new club in the Hermitage Theater, where I find members of the artistic-bohemian tusovka, with people from television, some actors, painters, conceptualists and intellectuals. The club has been put together on a relatively limited budget. There is a big room in front with tables and chairs where people can drink and talk; in the theater itself there is a dance floor. I run into more than 100 people I know within my first half-hour at Sveta’s; there are no strangers here. “I would be happy to come every night,” says Tanya Didenko, a musicologist and host of the voguish late-night television music-talk show Silence Number Nine. Arisha Grantseva, an artist, is holding court at a table in the corner; painters come by to say hello, and M. C. Pavlov, a rapper, drums out time on the back of his chair. I see Alika Smekhova, a film actress, and Alla Mitrofanova, a Petersburg art critic . I meet a Bulgarian-Swiss performance artist and a Greek architect. Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe says it’s clearly the only decent club in town. I even spot Aleksei Haas on the far side of the room. The club has not advertised at all; everyone knows of it by word of mouth.

Sveta, at the center of it all, laughs. “You know,” she says, “I have two big advantages over these other people who are running clubs. In the first place, none of them are Jewish! And in the second place, none of them are mothers!”

The pleasure of Sveta’s club lies in something Russian, something I have never encountered in a club in the West. It lies in visionary, exuberant love, which you feel all over the place, as tangible as the decoration or the music. “We know how to enjoy,” a young painter says to me. “We grew up with the image of our parents suffering together. The legacy of that communal pain of the bohemian world is strong in us, and it makes our joy palpable.”

I go with some friends to visit Petlyura for the first time. Near Pushkinskaya, on Petrovsky Boulevard, we come to what appears to be a construction site. One of our party heaves a shoulder against a hidden door, and we enter a large courtyard, dominated by a 30-foot-high copy of Vladimir Tatlin’s construction “Monument to the Third International.” “This is it,” someone whispers to me. This building, once the home of a nobleman, later divided into communal apartments, is now Petlyura’s squat. It is a fine example of Russian 19th-century architecture, a pale yellow neo-classical building, appallingly decrepit.

We go into an entryway and down a hallway painted in black with silver graffiti. We knock on a door. It flies open at once, and from within come the sounds of Tibetan monks chanting, and a heavy smell, sweet and acid, of decay and vodka and ethyl spirits. We can see six people sitting around a table and drinking. “We’ve come to see Petlyura,” we say.

One of the group, the performance artist Garik Vinogradov, agrees to show the way. We walk through a large dance hall, now empty, to a bar. The walls are covered with a giant collage that includes old Soviet models, Barbara Bush, men in trench coats smoking obscure brands of cigarettes, Audrey Hepburn and the Sistine Madonna. At one end, there is a blackboard announcing prices. Along the walls, instead of banquettes, there are broken television sets and small tables. Lounging on one of the televisions is a man about five feet tall, with a Leninish goatee, wearing bright red trousers and a big shapeless crimson jacket; gathered around him are a hodgepodge of young men and women.

“Come in, sit down,” Petlyura says.

Petlyura’s place has become a sort of haven for lost souls. People who have run away from home, have had problems with drugs, are wandering in this new post-glasnost world with no sense of direction come to Petlyura’s and find a community and a way of life there. “Everyone carries on about glasnost,” says Petlyura, disdainfully. “So before we were slaves to the Communists and the K.G.B. And now to the democrats and capitalists. It’s still a hollow sham. My place is an escape from all that.”

There are currently 34 people living in Petlyura’s place. Petlyura was brought up in an orphanage, and this background has served him well: everyone has assigned duties on rotating schedules. The residents must do their share of scrubbing and cooking and serving. “It’s like the military,” Moscow critics say; “more like a kibbutz,” replies Petlyura. Who can stay and for how long is a matter decided by Petlyura alone. “They are all my rules,” he says, “and whoever doesn’t like them is free to go elsewhere.” The mascot of his house is a demented ethnically Polish woman dwarf of about 65 called Pani Bronya, who is always in evidence; her husband, who believes that he is Lenin, stands guard outside.

The second time I go to Petlyura’s, Lenin is wandering around the courtyard in uniform. Inside, people are gathering: about a dozen are drinking at the bar. A room next door has been transformed into a “boutique,” and racks of old Soviet clothes are for sale at very low prices. The people pouring into shop are dressed in a sort of thrift-shop chic and have a slightly punky manner.

We go to Vinogradov’s part of the squat, where a performance is taking place of “experimental” music that involves a lot of chanting, some black light and incense. Then we go to see an exhibition of work by one of the squat’s residents, who has done a series of paintings called “Untold Fairytales,” which shows zebras and giraffes floating on icebergs in an Arctic landscape. “I’d never really thought about art,” she says, “until I came here about two months ago.”

Petlyura’s is the best and most interesting of these places, but there are other squats with other tusovki with bars and dance halls. Every Wednesday, there’s dancing at the Third Path, on the far side of the river; I try to go one evening, but am told that it’s having a few weeks off because “the violence has been getting out of hand.” Violence? “Mafia hooligans,” the man at the door tells me. I look around at the destruction. “There’s nothing to steal here,” he says. “We have nothing.” And he closes the door.

The Life of the Mind

Everyone in Russia seems to be starting a magazine. There are literally thousands of new magazines, mostly made with photocopiers (access to which was restricted under Communism): some are commercial, but most are not. They are about a particular subject — microbiology, business advice, fashion, the arts. Most have a circulation of between 50 and 500.

Perhaps the most impressive at the moment is Kabinet, the brainchild of a group of Petersburg intellectuals. Each quarterly issue contains several hundred pages of dense philosophical text, translations of Western criticism, satirical essays and sharp cultural commentary; each is designed by a different Petersburg artist.

I attend a staff meeting of the magazine, held in the Arabian salon of an 18th-century palace, where the artist Timur Novikov currently has an exhibition of textile pieces. The lights are low, and Eastern music plays in the background. The editors of Kabinet — Viktor Mazin and Oleissa Turkhina — read aloud a brilliantly provocative dialogue “in the style of Plato” about Timur’s work. The company of 25 includes Timur; Irina Kuksinaite, artist, actress and Vogue model, who has just opened an exhibition in a palace nearby; Georgi Guryanov, painter; Yevgeny Birman, organizer of raves, and other intellectual-social trendies.

After the reading, the company smokes hash and drinks Crimean Sherry while debating the merits of Mazin’s translation of Paul de Man on the Hegelian sublime. Mazin explains to me that he has translated several books of critical theory recently, without thought of publication, because he wants to share them with his friends. Irina Kuksinaite talks about the semiotic distinctions between the German concept of fatherland and the Russian concept of motherland. Others ask me about Lacanian revisionism in America, and discuss the validity of the Stalinist apologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom they are translating for the next issue. Then we get onto the subject of the rave that night, who will go, what to wear and what the music is going to be.

In Moscow, at the end of a dinner party, a young philologist recites Greek futurist poems of the 30’s. Another guest responds with Mayakovsky. I say that this is unusual dinner-party behavior by American standards. “But how, then, do you sustain an oral poetic tradition?” an architect asks softly.

Rock, Pop, and Rap

Throughout the 70’s and the early 80’s, the lyrics to songs by Akvarium, Kino or Boris Grebenshchikov gave information about a better way of life to Soviet people. Rock music was heroic, the performers closely tied to the intelligentsia. Pop musicians represented official culture; their music was often on the radio, but their popularity was suspect and usually artificial.

I see Boris Grebenshchikov, who is about to release a new album. His records once sold in the millions; he now expects to sell 15,000 or 20,000. “It’s time for Russian pop now,” Irina Kuksinaite says, “because all anyone wants is dollars and muscles.”

In Moscow, I spend an evening with Artyom Troitsky, director of music programming for Russian National Television. “When I was younger,” he says (he is now 38), “the situation was incredibly simple. They were black and we were white. We stood for vitality and goodness in a society that was flaccid and evil. Young people choose the simplest thing. For us, the simplest thing was to be moral; today, the simplest thing is to live well. In my day, you were marginal because the system gave you no other options, and you expressed your politics with rock. Now, if you want to be in politics, no one is stopping you. It’s not forbidden; it’s just sickening. But you can’t very well sing about that.”

This helps to explain the vapidity of the new Russian pop — repetitive tunes, lyrics beyond fluff. One of this year’s most popular songs goes: “You are a stewardess named Yana. You are adorable and wantable. You are my favorite stewardess.” Most new Russian music is an inept compound of Western ideas. Bogdan Titomir — male sex symbol of Russia, hero of teeny-boppers — has a video that features a kickline of Russian boys dressed in American football uniforms and helmets trying to dance like Michael Jackson. The Russian record industry has been destroyed by economic liberalization; only the lucky few can afford records, and the profits for singers like Titomir come from endless concert tours. Titomir is out of town when I am in Moscow, but I hear about his life style, big car, managers, tours. “Does Bogdan get mobbed when he walks down the street?” I ask one of his friends. “Bogdan,” I am told, “does not walk down the street.”

The managers for the big pop stars are all tied to the mafia. “I get bribes pushed at me all the time,” says Troitsky. “People offer hundreds of dollars to get a video shown once. The man with my job at one of the commercial channels got murdered a few weeks ago. I don’t take bribes — it’s part of my old-fashioned heroic mentality — so I’ve only had my life threatened once. The managers drop like flies.”

I have dinner with the rapper M. C. Pavlov, whom I remember from his days in the rock band Zvuki Mu. Pavlov keeps out of the serious pop scene, but his new band is making videos, and his records are out; his concerts are increasingly popular, and even Titomir has admitted that he is the only true rap artist in the country. “I wouldn’t mind becoming nationally famous,” he says, “but I don’t want to get into crime. Corporate sponsorship would be good.” Pavlov is for the cultural elite, the supercool; he played at the First Gagarin party, where the nationally famous Titomir was in the crowd.

“Heroic Russian rock,” Pavlov says, “was for listening to like a political speech, but it wasn’t for dancing. We wanted to bring some fun into this country. We do some rap and some house and some R&B and some jazz.” All these forms seem to blur together in Russia; M. C. Pavlov is part of an amalgamated Russian music that is based on Western ideas yet unlike anything heard in the West. “We’re not black,” says Pavlov. “Nor red. We’re white.” He is tall with blue eyes and shaved head, and he is wearing a little square hat and loose-fitting rapper clothes, a few rings and a few ethnic necklaces. “We’re not from the ‘hood. We know that. We’re not interested in being political like American rap or Russian rock; we don’t want to sing about the unavailability of sausages in the shops. We rap mostly in English, because rap in Russian sounds stupid. I kind of make up a language, English words and Russian grammar. People mostly don’t even know what our lyrics are.”

Pavlov’s music is danceable, with strong rhythms and good mixes. He has a kind of plausible funkiness that is not often found in Russia. “I guess if we have some concerns to get across, they’re spiritual rather than political. We’re vegetarian, antiviolence, antidrugs, antidrink, into pure souls. We follow the teachings of Buddha. People from the West worry about Russian politics, but we’re not up to that yet. First teach the people to be human, then maybe you can start on politics.”

That night, I have dinner with the Moscow painter Sergei Volkov. “You know this has no roots at all in our culture,” he says, “and it makes no sense here. To see these young people trying to imitate American rappers — it’s as incredible to me as it would be to you if you went up to Harlem one day and found everyone there dressed as Ukrainian dancers and strumming on balalaikas.”

The Gay 90’s

Gay life in Russia is somewhat better than it was. Even without sodomy laws, “only those creepy activists actually go and talk about their sexuality all over the place,” a gay friend says. “And they do it only for the attention they get from the West; activism occurs here because Westerners put Russians up to it. My good friends know that I’m gay, but it’s my private business. I’m not interested in telling everyone that I like to sleep with men.”

This seems to be the general view. Even celebrities who are obviously gay do not admit it in public contexts. Timur Novikov has worked on gay subjects for years. Privately, he says that part of the pleasure of homosexuality is its secrecy; interviewed on television, he denies any suggestion that he might be gay. Sergei Penkin, a pop singer who is sometimes called the Russian Boy George, has performed often in Moscow’s one gay club; but he, too, on television, says he is straight.

“I don’t want to be part of a subculture,” Valera Katsuba, a St. Petersburg journalist, says. “I know that’s the fashion in the West, but though I may choose to sleep mostly with gay men, that doesn’t mean I want to socialize primarily with them.”

This year, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was published in Russia. The film Longtime Companion was shown on television, paid for by a private sponsor. “I was visiting my family in the small town in Belarus where I grew up,” says Katsuba. “And we were watching television, and suddenly this film came on. ‘Look,’ my mother said, ‘it’s about homosexuals.’ I was surprised she even knew the word. I asked her what she thought, and she said, ‘If they’re happy, it’s all right with me.’ Ten years ago, no one would have said that.”

“Most people here,” some straight and gay friends agree, “have bigger questions on their minds. Is the Russian Federation about to fall apart? Is the mafia running the whole country? Will I be able to pay for food next month? Whether other men are sleeping with men — really, no one could care less.”

I spend an afternoon with Kevin Gardner, an American AIDS activist in Moscow. “There are many gay groups,” he says, “a special body of gay hearing-impaired, several gay dating services, lots of gay newspapers. You see gay personal ads even in mainstream newspapers. There’s a gay theater group, and there’s something called the Rainbow Foundation for the Social Rehabilitation of Gays and Lesbians. Pamyat” — a neo-fascist group — “is still very antigay, but the tide is definitely toward liberalization, at least in the big cities. And gays do come flooding into Moscow. There’s still a lot of self-hatred, a lot of depression, a lot of suicide. I’ve been trying to build a community center, but gays here are still too involved in their other life definitions.”

A friend says: “I get my sense of community elsewhere. Russians are very romantic people, but we’re not really very sexual. Intolerance drives people to suicide, but tolerance isn’t going to draw us into this Western fantasy of gay subculture and life style.”

Keeping the Faith

I go to church in St. Petersburg, to Izmailovsky Cathedral, which was used as a silo by the Soviet Government. It has been cleaned and restored, and services take place again. The congregation includes a small grouping of young people. “I come for esthetic reasons,” one tells me. “I think our Orthodox religion is very beautiful, but of course I don’t believe in it.”

Others do believe. In Moscow, I spend an afternoon with Masha Ovchinnikova, an artist in her late 20’s whose work has great religious meaning. “The church is my life,” she says. “The only important thing there is. We have lost the purity we had in the pre-glasnost period. Then you had to suffer to belong to the church; only true believers came. Now people are joining the church in huge numbers. A few are really inspired with faith, but most come because they mistake the philosophy of the church for ideology. They expected ideology as children, knew it from their parents, and in our system, in which all ideology has been damaged and compromised, they turn to the church. But they come without understanding, hoping only to be given absolute dictates. It is the tragedy of our church. These people have confused doctrine with totalitarianism.” Such people also have been the first to be won by the tides of American evangelists who have been sweeping across Russia lately, running large, vulgar advertisements, promising answers to the questions of a sick society.

The Orthodox Church excluded itself from Russian politics and life during the Communist period. “I was baptized at 19,” Ovchinnikova explains. “I had always seen myself as outside of my society: it was like a kind of autism. The people within the church had never adapted themselves to social interaction. The new people who have come to the church are mostly those with no economic satisfaction or pleasure in their private lives. They come to the church because the church does not value these things, without understanding what the church does value.”

Some new members of the church have made it a cornerstone of a very unattractive right-wing nationalism. “The church must not involve itself in worldly questions,” says Ovchinnikova. “It is not a political body.” The church encourages the Russian habit of passivity. “A good life is a gift from God,” says Ovchinnikova. “It is folly to reach for this yourself.” The church has also bred intolerance and bigotry. “You will not be saved,” Ovchinnikova says to me pityingly, “because you are not part of our church.”

The Young Businessmen

The New Capitalists, the young businessmen, bankers and stockbrokers, are visible everywhere; you see them in suits and ties, with their hair neatly cut, looking respectable but nonbureaucratic. It is a new look in Moscow. Few of these yuppies are involved in production, which is still state-dominated and tangled in bureaucracy. “We only trade and invest,” says Yaroslav Pachugin, 25, an expert financial adviser at the private, profit-oriented Foundation for the Privatization of State Industry Through International Investment, “moving what already exists from one set of hands to another.

“I earn much more than my parents,” he says. “That embarrasses me; they are both accomplished professional people. But members of that generation cannot now learn what is necessary to function in capitalist terms. The basic structures of capitalism are no problem for us. We’ve all caught on about that.” He pauses. “What we still don’t understand, of course, is democracy.” I talk to Igor Gerasimov, who, at 24, is general director of the Inkomtrust, a division of the vast Inkombank. He is responsible for the investment of private funds, which he places in real estate and foreign currency. “I usually get money to invest for between one and three months,” he says. “No one trusts the economy enough to let go of their money for longer. So investment in industry and construction is impossible. Also our inflation is paralyzing.

“What I am doing is important,” he says. “I have a moral duty to continue as a businessman, to help Russia to grow. I could not now choose another way. Of course, I do this also for myself; I’d like a nice apartment, a dacha, a car, maybe even a Lincoln Town Car. But the more I take for myself, the more I help Russia.”

Russia’s Rich: Different

While these businessmen make up a yuppie class, others form a financial aristocracy, the dollar millionaires, the nouveaux riches. There is a continuum, like a time line, at one end of which lie the pure businesses; toward the middle, businesses dominated by the mafia; farther up, mafia activity based on business; and at the far end, pure mafia activity. Many of the very rich are at the mafia end of the spectrum, but not all of them. To succeed at the honest end of the spectrum takes an ability to deal with mafia threats, however, since these cannot be avoided.

I go to see Yuri Begalov, director of Kvant International. Five years ago, Begalov was studying piano at the conservatory. Now he owns, with two partners, a company whose turnover last year, I am told, was $1 billion. He is 30; I have heard that he is a brilliant businessman, honest and quite sophisticated. I stop by his office in Profsoyuznaya, a modest enough location. He is wearing a cashmere blazer, flannel trousers, an Hermes tie and a Patek Philippe watch. His Porsche is parked outside. Initially, we sit in a cramped Soviet-looking room to talk; then we move down the hall to a conference room where we sit at a large table laid with crisp linen and set with bone china and heavy silver. The staff serves a five-course lunch of exquisite Georgian food, complete with various wines. Begalov is Armenian, but grew up in Georgia; he has imported an entire Georgian kitchen, housed in the office complex.

“In the early days of perestroika,” Begalov says, “I decided to enter business. I joined with two old friends. To start a business in this country, you need connections more than you need anything else. So because my partners were both physicists, we set up a firm to specialize in business uses for scientific research. We went wherever our connections led us; any work was O.K. if it was profitable.” When the Moscow Exchange opened, Begalov saw that this was the next wave of opportunity, and he immediately took out a bank loan (loans were then very new) and purchased a seat. The Moscow Exchange works according to arcane and bizarre rules. “It was incredibly high risk,” he says, “and my only real advantage was that I had taken the time to understand Russian business practice and Russian law. I kept up with it all the time, which almost no one else bothered to do.”

Begalov followed the move toward privatization within Siberia, and when he heard that a commodities exchange would open in Tyumen, he bought a seat. Oil was a vastly inefficent state-run industry: state-run wells passed oil to state-run refineries that sold it to state-run factories. Begalov went to the director of a Moscow factory and got a commission to buy oil, then went to the first day of the exchange and bought the oil offered. The members of the exchange telephoned around town to get more oil, and Begalov bought that as well, establishing market control.

Begalov became a dominant force in Siberian oil and helped it enter the world market. Initially, his business was not covered by the tax code, and his activity remained wholly unregulated; business law in Russia is so new, so tangled and so badly constructed that a clever person can still circumvent it.

“I don’t worry about whether I’m doing good for this society,” says Begalov.”I try to be generous with people, but as for saving Russia — I suppose the fact of firms like mine influences governmental policy, but Communism was the false step in our country, for which we have been punished with chaos and poverty. It’s been relatively easy for me to be successful in this context. There’s surprisingly little competition.”

A Russian sociologist I know says: “There are more completely passive people in this country than in the rest of the world put together. Those are the ones considering suicide. If they aren’t planning to kill themselves, it’s because they’re too passive to bother. The opportunities in this country are completely wasted on the Russians.” It is a sentiment I will hear over and over again.

Aydan Salakhova is owner and director of Aydan Gallery. She is in some ways the best that the new Russia has to offer: intelligent, beautiful, elegant, charming, sophisticated, quite knowledgeable, with good contacts in the East and the West. She is herself a talented painter, and her gallery has a sleek, finished quality unusual in Moscow. She shows many of the city’s best artists, and sells work to informed Russian and foreign collectors. “I see myself as helping to educate this population,” she says. “They have money, but often they have no idea what to do with it. They buy cars. They buy apartments. They have showy parties with gypsy music. And after that, they need someone to show them what is beautiful, how to live well. It’s like in your country, only faster. First you get money, then you want power, then you go for taste. Someone has to bring together our cultural riches with these newly wealthy and empowered people. It’s a social responsibility.”

In St. Petersburg, I talk to Rinad Akhmetin, one of the town’s leading arts sponsors. “I do it to be friendly,” he says. “It’s such little money for me, and so big for them.”

I go to an exhibition, at Moscow’s Central House of Artists, of the Rinaco corporate collection. Young bankers and artists pass and nod. “These people need each other,” says the curator, Olga Sviblova. “Everyone got money and culture from the Soviet state, but now people have to interact with each other to get these things.”

“Yes,” says Sergei Volkov. “The ‘sophisticated’ businessmen now bring on the artists the way the unsophisticated ones bring on the dancing girls.”

A Life of Crime

You cannot get away from the mafia in Russia. Nothing happens without their knowledge and involvement; they are intimately connected to government, business, military, even the arts. They are as visible as bureaucrats were in the Soviet system: you see their cars — top Western models without license plates. Most have a slick but sleazy look that is very much their own: the men have broad shoulders and tend to stand with their legs apart and their necks forward, in a pose Russians call “the bull.” Their women are usually pretty, expensively dressed and completely silent. The Russian mafia is growing at an incredible rate, and more and more young people are choosing to join. “It used to be fashionable in Leningrad to have an artist for a boyfriend, or a rock singer or a journalist,” says Irina Kuksinaite. “Now, the attractive girls want mafia boys.”

One of my mafia contacts, a 32-year-old Muscovite, says to me, “You know that in our country the Government offers no structure or control. Without these things, a nation falls apart. The mafia is all that’s holding this country together. We do provide structure, and when we take over a business, that business works. It’s noble work. A young man of ambition, someone who wants to have an effect on this society: he’d have to be a moron to think the way to do it is to join the Parliament. If he’s smart, he’ll join the mafia.”

He is extremely charming and very helpful. He explains which ethnic mafias (there are seven major ones) dominate which areas, and provides a sort of ideological structure within which to understand all mafia activity. He himself “takes over” companies, puts money into them and then puts “good people” in charge of them. “Of course we all started off as petty criminals,” he says. “But with time, you move beyond that. The mafia includes most of the smartest people in the country.” He has become a patron of culture. “It’s sometimes hard to know how to spend all my money,” he says. “And for me it’s a great pleasure to move in different circles. Many mafia people get bored by the company of other mafia people, and to move in different tusovki — that’s our ideal.” The art people are delighted by this patronage. “He’s a lot nicer to deal with than our Government,” one of them says.

“We have a lot of fun in the mafia tusovka,” he says, “and we laugh a lot. When I get in trouble, the family helps; I was in prison in Finland, and they got me out. But it has its downside also.” I later learn that his partner was brutally murdered a few weeks ago because of a difference with another ethnic mafia that began when his wife, rather drunk, made insulting remarks at a restaurant.

Another mafia contact has been close to international drug traffic. He is 25, good-looking, slick, tremendously articulate and very entertaining. He is an expert at spending money: he puts together parties, buys art for mafiosi, makes useful introductions. He speaks excellent English, and has read a surprising range of books. “The big guys in the mafia like this about me,” he says. “A few years ago, when organized crime was just getting into full swing, they were a bunch of coarse vulgarians. But then they saw all these American Hollywood movies about the Italian mafia. The Godfather and so on. And they decided that they liked this idea of being hyper-refined and hyper-polite. Though, of course, there is still that common element, mostly doing the dirty work.”

“Killing people?” I ask.

“You’ve seen a lot of movies, too,” he says. “Of course there are hit men around, but it’s very much out of fashion in sophisticated circles. The same guys who were killing each other a few years ago are now involved in financial manipulation, which is more pleasant and more profitable. White-collar. The killing part of the game — those people are really very unattractive.”

I go out several times with another contact who is part of the Azerbaijani mafia. On our first such evening, we go to an expensive restaurant in a hotel run by a well-known Western chain. We sit down at the best table with a few heavies; one of them takes out a lump of hash the size of a baseball and starts to roll up joints. I am a bit startled. “Do you think it’s a good idea to smoke hash in the middle of this restaurant?” I ask. “You know, this is a Western hotel.”

He laughs. “My friend wondered whether you would mind if we smoked here,” he says to the manager, gesturing languidly at the lump of hash.

“Please,” says the manager, looking rather green. “Have a nice smoke. You do whatever you like.” He stands smiling meekly at us.

At a party a few days later, one of the young mafiosi offers to introduce me to his boss, a plump man with blond hair and a scruffy beard. We have a nice chat about cars. He hopes that what I have been learning is interesting “Our mafia is the best,” he says.

“And what do you actually do?” I ask brightly.

His eyes narrow. “You know,” he says, “you seem like a very nice guy, and I know about your project here, and if some guys want to talk to you, that’s up to them. But I think you should be careful. I would really hate for something unpleasant to happen to you.” He smiles meaningfully. I have recently heard talk of a Latvian journalist who was researching a story on the mafiya when he disappeared; he turned up dead in an alley with seven bullets through his body. This image has not been comforting. “Now I have a question for you,” he says. “And I hope you know the right answer.” He lowers his voice conspiratorially. “I have a problem,” he says, “with which someone from the West should be able to help me.” I am overcome with dread. “I have terrible trouble with dandruff,” he says, “and I wanted to know whether Head & Shoulders shampoo from America really works, or whether you can send me something else from your country?”

Shortly before I leave Moscow, I have dinner with him. He has decided that I am O.K. in the wake of my shampoo advice. We discuss politics, restaurants, fashion. “You’ve had a good trip here?” he asks me. I have. “You have some problems with people in Moscow?” he asks.

“Nothing worth mentioning,” I say.

“You know,” he says, with a big smile, “a hit man in our country costs just $20. I can arrange this for you if you want.” I assure him that I do not need such services. “Well,” he says, giving me his card, “here are my numbers. If you have problems in America, you can also call me. A hit man for New York is $20, plus air fare, plus one night hotel fee.”

The Politics of Change?

The rigidly hierarchical Communist system meant that important positions in Soviet politics could be occupied only by people of advanced years. Younger politicians, whatever their ambitions, operated in the meek language of the bureaucracy, avoiding transgressions, offending no one, exercising what little power they had in terms dictated by their superiors.

The idea that members of the younger generation can hold meaningful positions in Russian politics is still very novel. “Even the strong democrats who say they want change,” says Romuald Krylov, 30, chief of the department of art and culture for the central district of Moscow, “are uneasy seeing me in a senior bureaucratic position. They would prefer to find a 60-year-old man with no interest in art and culture. It’s what they’re used to.”

This is 100 times more true in national government. Yegor Gaidar’s brief tenure as Prime Minister demonstrated to the people of Russia that new policies might come from young people. Gaidar’s politics were deliberately shocking; the younger generation in Russian politics show tremendous variety in their language and their policies, but with a few exceptions, they seem to be tired of the idea of utopia, and they look toward moderation. In the West, younger politicians talk of radicalism while older ones are conciliatory; in Russia it is quite the reverse. What is both comical and disturbing, however, is that this move toward moderation seems to come not from a spirit of cooperation, but from a general understanding that the rhetoric of compromise will be the best line to power.

It is impossible to pinpoint the individuals who will be in power in three years’ time, but it is possible to look at the character of this generation as a whole, to try to understand what kind of younger people have chosen to enter the political foray, and how, and why.

There are perhaps 25 men under the age of 40 who are helping to define the younger voice in Russian politics, and several hundred others who follow in their footsteps. The range of their sentiments and abilities can perhaps be grasped by looking closely at three: Andrei L. Golovin, people’s deputy and chairman of the Faction Smena — New Politics; Aleksandr A. Kiselev, president of the executive committee of the Russian Movement for Democratic Reform, and Sergei B. Stankevich, counselor to the President of Russia on political affairs.

Andrei Golovin seems never to have learned the language of bureaucracy that haunts the older, gray-suited administrators. Golovin holds to what he calls a centrist line. Russian politics tends to function in extremist terms, and I am intrigued by the idea of a centrist party. “Those who call themselves democrats,” he says, “are radicals, left-wing radicals. Your Government supports them because you think that if you don’t, the right will take over. But we are really closer to you and to your national interests than are those radicals. When Clinton was elected, I assumed he would see this and understand it; it’s so disappointing to us that he continues the paranoiac foreign policies of President Bush. Doesn’t he see that Russian, American and international interests all lie with the center, with something mediated and controlled? The danger does not come from the red or the blue, but from the fact of extremes locked in battle.”

Golovin, in his mid-30’s, has an arrogant manner that sometimes borders on condescension, but his arguments are compelling. Five years ago he was a physicist at a research institute. With perestroika, he moved toward government service. He sketches out military, economic and civil policy; his centrism reminds me more of Swedish socialism than of anything else. “You talk in your country about a stable government that represents the middle class,” he says. “We at Smena are the government of the middle class.”

I ask him: “But is there really a Russian middle class? Do people in this country want compromise? Who are your constituents?”

Golovin says: “If we were in power, there would be a middle class, and they would want compromise. If we come to power, we’ll have support everywhere. And we’ll get rid of most of these ruinous economic reforms, to permit the re-emergence of a middle class.”

I point out to Golovin that within democratic systems this is not the usual sequence of events, that you are supposed to have support before you get elected. “Well,” he says, “there is no freedom of the press in this country. The left-wing press is underwritten by our Government; and so is the right-wing press, because fear of the right wing drives support to the left. We don’t get that kind of media play. It’s hard to do dramatic P.R. for a centrist position; it’s not eye-catching.

“The radicals, Communists and fascists used to be in the same party, and they all have a Bolshevik mentality,” Golovin says. “We’re clean. We were never part of the Soviet bureaucracy. The power of these extremes is sustained with base propaganda. I’m frightened by the movement here toward a sort of Latin American situation, in which power comes from the mob and the Government is beholden to illicit special interests.”

Golovin’s expression softens. “This is a great civilization,” he says, gesturing out the window. “We can interact in a civilized fashion. We of the center try not to lie, like the extremists, which is why we have trouble getting votes and support. Why should people vote for us? Because we’re honest, intelligent and honorable. Print my photo and my biography next to Yeltsin’s photo and his biography, and ask yourself who has led a good life, with a commitment to public service, and who is an old Communist, steeped in misguided ideology and corruption? We want to establish reasonable laws. In 15 years, when I am president, Bolshevism, extremism, will be dead.”

Golovin is eloquent and moving, but he evinces a curious disdain for the realities of his own country. He seems not to understand that you cannot impose civility on an entire society. He talks a lot about pragmatism replacing ideology, but fails to recognize the essential ideological basis for his pragmatism, which was designed to create a pragmatic society where one does not now exist. “It will take a long time to de-ideologize this society,” he says, apparently unaware that a program to de-ideologize a society is finally very ideological.

It is with Golovin’s description of the “radicals” as “Bolsheviks” ringing in my ears that I go to see Aleksandr A. Kiselev. Kiselev’s ardent belief in democracy is unaffected. But there can be little question that if Kiselev had been active 30 years ago, he would with equal conviction have defended the cause of Communism; indeed, he was a big wheel in the Komsomol (the youth organization of the Communist Party) when he was an adolescent in Volgograd, and the Communist Party was still the Communist Party. When we meet, Kiselev is wearing a powder-blue suit that, 11 sizes larger, might have belonged to Brezhnev; he looks like “a typical bureaucrat.” He continually answers concrete questions by saying, “We must have democracy in order for the people to be strong” or “We must ask the people in what kind of state they wish to live and build accordingly.”

He is still working part time as a scientific researcher of practical problems, at what had been his full-time work before he entered Moscow politics. He is also on the Organization Committee for the Referendum, which will take place in a few days. The Movement for Democratic Reform, which he leads, is the remains of the political machine that propelled Yeltsin into power, and is as close to a political party as anything gets right now in Russia. Kiselev’s answers to my questions, especially after Golovin’s passionate clarity, feel inauthentic and banal. He batters me with statistics. I ask him whether the majority of the Russian people want democracy at all, of any kind, and he looks puzzled and plunges into the details of last week’s parliamentary debate. He is a man without any impulse toward abstract thinking or large questions.

Kiselev is one of the advocates of a new constitution; indeed a new constitution is really the movement’s raison d’etre. “We will impose this democratic constitution on the Parliament and on the people,” says Kiselev. “And then Yeltsin will explain it to the people, and when they hear him explain it, they will understand that it is good.” I comment that this agenda does not accord with existing laws. “Well,” says Kiselev, “criticize Yeltsin for breaking the laws if you want, but in fact everyone breaks them. The current constitution is so bad that most people don’t bother with it.”

I spend the afternoon before the referendum with Sergei B. Stankevich. Russian politics are, of course, unpredictable, but character is distinctive; of these three men, this is the only one who could conceivably run a country. In fact, he is at the moment unpopular, and has severed his ties to various movements that might have helped him to greater success; but unpopular in Russia turns to popular in hours, and Stankevich has had moments of great popularity. He has elements of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville; he is a high-level strategist of the new generation who has a masterly ability to shape Russian and international news media responses. Recently he has distanced himself from Yeltsin, though he has kept his Kremlin office and official position. In the past, when Yeltsin has acted strangely and unpredictably, Stankevich has been the one to explain.

Stankevich has neither Golovin’s pragmatic idealism nor his pristine record, and he is not free of Communist-type language. He has been accused often of dirty politics, and was at the center of a small scandal last year when a great deal of government money went to an almost nonexistent music festival. He is said to have used his influence to get apartments for family members and to arrange other special favors. “You’re seeing Stankevich?” asked a friend from the old underground. “Make sure you take a bath afterwards.”

But what Stankevich has is a quality of immense competence. In the current Russian situation, this is perhaps the most important thing of all. Stankevich wears his enormous and all-encompassing intelligence on his sleeve. He is the only man I have met who is able to construct a neat and orderly picture out of the momentous events that have shaken Russia in the last 10 years. Sitting in his large Kremlin office, you are lulled into a sense that politics is a straightforward business. Stankevich’s liberalism feels more self-conceived than Kiselev’s; he both believes in reform and understands it. But he is at the same time a man who knows well on which side his bread is buttered; he pursues his political vision with the clear knowledge that his kind of democracy will benefit not only Russia, but also himself.

“The reforms in this country have come in waves,” he says. “The first was Gorbachev’s wave, which began in 1985, peaked with perestroika, and began its downward turn with the election of Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation. The goals were to introduce controlled elections and controlled free speech while preserving the system and retaining Communist Party control. These goals were accomplished. But the leaders of the first wave failed to introduce a new political or intellectual paradigm, and so they had to fall.

“The second wave was Yeltsin’s wave, which included such men as Andrei Sakharov, and the goal was to remove Communist ideology from its predominance, and to establish basic freedoms: free speech, a free press and a parliamentary system. These goals were accomplished. This wave peaked during the coup in 1991. In 1992, the second wave broke when state control was in large part lifted from the economy. The second wave failed to invent a new Russia, to balance this country’s racial and ethnic and religious mix, to achieve the crucial joint goals of being market-oriented and socially responsible. The second wave has been heading downward for a year and a half.

“Now it’s time for the third wave, the base for which is already in place. It will begin in earnest with the elections and with the adoption of constitutional reform. The first goal of the third wave will be to establish a constitution and system of rule which allows for cooperation rather than competition among the branches of government. We will create a representative government, so that the republics now acting semiautonomously will feel that they have a decisive voice in Moscow, that their representatives are involved in establishing national laws, and that they are therefore bound by those laws. We will remain socially responsible, because that is absolutely crucial in this country, but we will take reasonable steps toward economic reform. I think we will accomplish these goals with moderate, conciliatory behavior, to create a single, strong united Russia. We have passed the time when you can rule this country by standing on top of a tank.”

This seems a surprising line from someone who is still a presidential advisor — Yeltsin is, of course, the one who stood on top of a tank — and I press him on it. Stankevich implies that Yeltsin is undependable, a people’s hero but not a professional. “Some of the politicians of the second wave may be able to carry over,” he explains. “I couldn’t predict that now. Yeltsin could conceivably be at the helm for the third wave if he accepts the idea of it and its conditions. But I think that the third wave must belong at least in large part to my generation.” And this is perhaps the case. The new Russian politics are younger politics.

Unlike many younger politicians, Stankevich has built his career slowly. He started off as an academic in political science, and wrote his dissertation on Western parliaments. “I had no thought of entering politics,” Stankevich says. “My generation were not heroic dissidents, and I did not think that it was possible to work in the old system. But when I saw that Gorbachev was serious about reforms, in 1987, I joined the Communist Party; along with many others I organized the Moscow Popular Front and supported Yeltsin from the beginning.” Stankevich was a great favorite of Gorbachev’s, and later headed the strategic staff for Yeltsin’s political campaigns. When the coup was declared, he flew home from a holiday, went to the White House and stayed with Yeltsin for all three days.

At the moment Stankevich is veering toward the right-wing Russian Patriotic movement, which is perhaps foolish; he has a non-Russian last name and an extremely intellectual delivery, which will not go down well there. “He’s always been the dark horse,” one Moscow political columnist says to me. ” It’s impossible to know exactly how much power he’s wielding behind the scenes.”

Stankevich says: “There is not at this moment a single democratic thing in Russia. Nor can there be until the third wave comes in, and constitutional reform is enacted.” What does it mean for a top presidential adviser to the “democratic” President to speak in this way? “It’s time for the renewal of the political class,” Stankevich continues. “There’s no question but that the political class will be renewed. Different kinds of people are entering. There was a moment for radicals, including men like Gaidar: they served their function, and helped with their radicalism to break down the thick wall of Communism. But now that those walls have been broken, we do not need such men. When the next parliamentary elections take place — and I hope that will be soon — then there must be new faces, the faces of skilled politicians representing particular interest groups, rather than the faces of individual cowboy politicians pursuing individual goals. They will have to learn to be masters of compromise.”

Stankevich looks to constitutional reform. “We’re in the most dreadful Catch-22,” he says — it’s comical to hear that phrase in a Kremlin office — “in which the country can function only when we have a new constitution which changes the role and definition of the Parliament; and such a constitution can be passed only by this Parliament, which it will destroy.” So what now? “Perhaps it will be necessary to proceed outside current laws. Could the leaders of the American Revolution have won by sticking to the laws of the colonies? Yeltsin will win this referendum; it will prove his strength; and I hope he will use that strength to bring in a new constitution, which we will all be able to work with even after he is gone.”

If Golovin had in hand the heartening rhetoric of what is right, then Stankevich has the language of what is necessary. It may be that the real originality of this generation will be to insure pragmatically that some more authentic democracy becomes inevitable, and so to become the most electable candidates in that democracy. How much, I finally asked him, can you change the course of events in Russia, and how much have they taken on a momentum of their own which no elected or appointed official can control? “Government in this country,” Stankevich says, “now and for the foreseeable future — it’s without power. All we have is influence. Our goal must be to recognize that, to stop pretending that we have absolute power and to use our influence soundly. And our goal must be to gain power again. We will accomplish that goal.”

At one point, in the middle of our conversation, the telephone rings. On a desk in the farthest corner of Stankevich’s office, there is a collection of a dozen telephones, of different colors and designs, each connected to a different line. Stankevich walks across the room to answer one of the phones and speaks in the same voice of calm authority for about five minutes. Step by step, he instructs someone — I think it is a relative — on how to fix his car. Again, he has that lulling tone in his voice. Try this. If it doesn’t work, try that. It is the day before the referendum, and Stankevich is not — as are some others in the Kremlin — hysterical. His manner says clearly that what will happen at the polling stations in 16 hours cannot injure him.


These are the younger men and women who are finding a way other than despair in the new Russia, and they are a remarkable group of people. The most important new skill they have is adaptability: they figure out how to get for themselves what they want faster and better than anyone else. What they do not have is any framework in which to place themselves or their own successes; nor do they have a clear sense of the responsibilities that success may carry. The Soviet Union was dominated by the rhetoric of ideology, until finally ideology itself lost its meaning. When you discuss democracy with the empowered members of the younger generation, they seem to understand it is a euphemism for capitalism, and capitalism they take to be a system in which everyone grabs for himself whatever will be most useful to him. Fifteen years ago, many of these people might have been battling against an establishment that they would have seen as evil. “Those heroic days are over,” Artyom Troitsky says to me, rather bitterly. “I wouldn’t be living heroically if I were part of today’s younger generation.”

On my last day in Moscow, I spend the afternoon with Vasily N. Istratsov, director of parliamentary relations for the foreign ministry. He is a singularly sage man in his mid-30’s who has been pulled from his position as a professor at Moscow University into this high office. Ironical, witty, charming, he has more the bearing of the worldly diplomats in Tolstoy than of the self-promoting men and women I have met. He and I talk about the politicians I have interviewed, many of whom he knows. “You know,” he says, “the traditional structure of Russian politics is like a football game. Everyone is on one of two teams, and they are interested in winning by attacking each other. The only thing that changes is the subject of division: this week, pro-Yeltsin is facing anti-Yeltsin, but last week it was something else and next week it will be something else again. I am a civil servant, a close-up spectator at the game. I watch as the sides align and realign themselves, as the teams re-form, the way they’ve been re-forming in this country for years. These members of the younger generation, the people you’ve been talking to — they’re not spectators. They’re out on the field, playing the game. But they don’t have on uniforms. You ask yourself, are they with black or with white. And very soon you understand that they are playing not on the side of black, not on the side of white, but on the side of the ball.”

That is true of the politicians; it is true, indeed, of the entire generation. The real source of the chaos of the new Russia is not the weakness of the police, the dominance of the mafia, the difficulty of constitutional reform, the undependability of Yeltsin, the spiraling inflation, the naive policies of Western Governments in their distribution of aid, the shortage of food, or the inefficiency of state-run factories. It is the ascendancy, in a society in which everyone was once asked to work for the common good, of a system of values whereby everyone has an eye only on his own progress, a country now run on the chance alignments and misalignments of hundreds of thousands of different, singular, individual agendas.