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The beautiful Russia of the future
What a time to be a termite!
On September 28th, 1979, an eighteen-year-old kid named Yevgeny grabbed a woman’s handbag, which contained cosmetics, gloves, and an umbrella: total value, one hundred and fourteen roubles and fifty kopecks. In February the next year, he and his friends broke into an apartment belonging to one Osipov, and ran out with some of her stuff. On March 1st, he smashed a glass window trying to break into another apartment, but the neighbours noticed and he fled. The next day he went burgling again; this time he relieved the Telitsin family of their tape recorder, their radio, their crystal glassware, and some of the carpet runners from their floors. Less than two weeks later he was a the Rostovtsevs’, where he stole a set of fountain pens, a steering-wheel cover, more crystal, and some bond certificates. Five days later he and three friends broke down someone’s door with a crowbar, but, worried that an alarm would go off, they didn’t go in. The next day, he told a man named Kovalenko that he could procure him some black-market jeans. He took Kovalenko’s money, drove him to a deserted courtyard where the handover was supposed to take place, and vanished. That same evening, he met a woman named Koroleva outside a restaurant and asked her for a cigarette. Then he grabbed her by the neck and choked her unconscious. One of his friends helped drag her out of the street. They stole her boots and her gold earrings.
All in all, this six-month spree netted Yevgeny and his friends something like three thousand roubles. For his crimes he was sentenced to thirteen years in a medium-security penal colony. The Soviet court documents also note that Yevgeny’s friend Alexei, who took part in most of these adventures, led an unrepentantly ‘parasitic lifestyle.’ He’d failed to pay alimony for his child, and refused mandatory treatment for syphilis. For his part, Yevgeny had given alcohol to a child. These boys were not good socialists. They did not treat others in a comradely manner. They might still have a place in the liberated society of the future, but first they would have to be reformed.
Yevgeny was released from prison in 1990. He went home to Leningrad and found work grilling hot dogs on the street. And anywhere else in the world, that would have been it: a petty bag-snatching criminal who ends up grilling hot dogs on the street will grill hot dogs for the rest of his life. His children will break into apartments and steal fountain pens and carpet runners, choke out random women, and then, later, once they’re old and defeated, they will grill hot dogs too. You get a few years of crime, savage freedom; the rest of your life is spent in the freezing cold with your spatula, turning tubes of meat.
Last weekend, Yevgeny’s private army invaded Russia. One city after another fell without even putting up a fight. He shot down six military helicopters. Everywhere he went, his mercenaries—armed convicts, mostly, murderers and thieves—were treated like liberators, given gifts of food and water. But he had not come to liberate. When he marched on Moscow private jets swarmed off the city like flies from a turd.
Only in Russia! What can America offer next to this? Where do you end up if you’re an eighteen-year-old American with nothing but idle malice in your soul? Captain of the football team? The owner of an online business, hawking slogan hoodies and sweary mugs? Secretary of Transportation? But in Russia, you can be Genghis Khan. You can blow billion-rouble helicopters out of the sky.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is the twenty-first century in human form. He arrived at just the right moment, just as all the great lumbering twentieth-century dreams were in collapse. Socialism, modernity, liberation, the universal brotherhood of man, the total transformation of human life, our destiny in the stars—so much for all that. The last Soviet cosmonaut was stranded on Mir as the country that sent him there fell apart. Termites chewing at everything from the inside. But what a time to be a termite! The cracked-tooth scab-knuckled undercurrent of Soviet society: suddenly, theirs was the only dream left. Capitalism is just legalised crime. In the last frenzied years of perestroika all you needed was a grill and a heart made from sausage grease and spite. Gorbachev says the state will allow private enterprises to trade a few small things, hot dogs and the like, and then when it’s time to sell off the factories and the oil fields and the mines, the hot dog men are the ones with the cash. The good comradely socialists, the people who believed in something—they’re experiencing the worst collapse in living standards in human history; before long they’ll be sleeping in sewers. But not the termites.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is the Russia nobody else understands. All the Russian ideologues, that loose opposition bloc of rainbow-flag liberals and Sonnenrad Nazis: they’ve spent the last five years imagining the beautiful Russia of the future, прекрасная Россия будущего, a democracy, stable and gently prosperous, returning Crimea, reopening McDonald’s, protecting its people, reducing the income gap, keeping out the migrants, at peace with its neighbours and the world. A Russia like Denmark or Uruguay. But Russia is already beautiful, like a praying mantis is beautiful, or a colliery spill. They thought they were the opposition to Putin; they were wrong. The real opposition is this bald maggot of a man, belching in a field of corpses. Посмотрите на них, сука! This the only liberation left: the liberation of every venal instinct, war shedding its political cloak, a triumphant naked grudge. No beauty and no future, just Russia. Even Putin himself didn’t get it. He perpetrated his war because he saw NATO massing on his flanks, ready to strike. And his fears were not groundless. Ukraine really was a threat to Russia’s security. A hostile military force based in Ukraine really did invade the Russian heartland. It took Napoleon three months to march from Russia’s borders to the gates of Moscow; Hitler came close in four; this army did it in a single day. Sandbags on the highways. Tanks on the streets. Residents ordered to stay at home. The kind of thing that should not happen in the capital of a major world power, not since the bomb. But it wasn’t a foreign army; it never could have been. Putin’s war ended up conjuring the spectre it was supposed to banish. It was his own cannon fodder. It was 1917, parodied in TikTok time. The hot dog man, his thin skin glistening, come home to feed.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s one-day war is the truth. As it was happening, people online—in the English-speaking part of online, at least—suddenly started talking about psyops. This whole thing was a play, a charade, a fake narrative meant to distract us from the real story, which was that more pictures of Hunter Biden’s penis had been leaked online. As if we need distractions. As if our attention is so important. The one-day war played out in ten-second clips: blurry personnel carriers speeding down the highways, oil tanks bursting like zits in Vorenezh. And since it was being shown to us, that meant it could only be a show. The rule is that the internet can only refer to itself. Any time it shows you something whose significance does not depend on the internet, like a tank column nearing Moscow, the falseness of the medium blankets everything. This is a pseudo-event, it’s not real. The only real events are those that take place entirely within the system, like the images of Hunter Biden’s penis. People still pretend that Russia is the source of our current crisis of truth: Vadislav Surkov; dezinformatsiya. No: Russia is the only country where old-fashioned events still take place, and those of us trapped outside Russia can barely see it. We’re stuck in our digital penumbra; we think we’re modern, but we are not prepared for the modern world. Not just the conspiracy weirdos, all of us—because you also had the same thought on that strange Saturday. You thought: this doesn’t feel real. A private military contractor that suddenly turns against the state and starts marching on the seat of government: it didn’t even feel like a movie; it felt like the plot of a video game. A video game we’d set in Russia. Where else?
I am not quite not a Russian. One side of my family is from Lithuania, the other is from Belarus. Today, these are nominally independent states, but when we left they were both part of the Russian Empire, that sprawling monster of our past. A pre-photographic haze of time, barely remembered, when we all wore beards and lived in the mire. What really survives is a joke: if I’m tall for a Jew, or if my brother is good at sports, it’s because we were raped by Cossacks. But the other relic is my name. My mother’s family are Levites, an offshoot of the Katzenellenbogen rabbinical dynasty, which is how I know exactly how I’m related to Martin Buber and Karl Marx. Their name is Yiddish: Sheinbaum. It means beautiful tree. How nice. My own name is more confusing. Kriss, which always seemed to suggest Christian: something we were definitely not. But my father’s father’s fathers were shtetl schnorrers, teeming and undesireable, a proud line of mud-caked criminals and cretins. Gutter Jews, just like Yevgeny Prigozhin. In Russian, krys’, крысь, means rat.
Russians have a certain genius for names. Vladimir Komarov—Hero of the Soviet Union, cosmonaut, and the first man to die in outer space, dissolving into a greater void than anyone had ever known—was named after a mosquito. Georgy Zukhov, who turned back the Nazis at Stalingrad and accepted their surrender in Berlin, was really General Beetle. Khrushchev was also a beetle; Gorbachev was a hunchback. Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who founded VK and Telegram, are in their native country the Brothers Moron. Nikolai Nekrasov, the great liberal poet and Dostoevsky’s first editor, was Ugly Nick. Mikhail Sholokov, author of And Quiet Flows the Don, was Spotty Mike. Boris Pasternak was Boris the Turnip. This is the Russian sense of humour.
What is this country? In Libra, Don DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald sits in a library in Texas and dreams of Russia. ‘The other world, the secret that covers one sixth of the land surface of the earth.’ Peoples of Russia: ‘Men in caps and worn jackets. Thick-bodied women with scarves on their heads.’ Who could find out about Russia and not be obsessed? This strange wondeful place, this fantasy kingdom. In Russia there are twilight cities where all the gas lines are above ground to prevent them freezing in winter. The people leave their cars running for six months straight to keep the engines warm. If you touch your phone screen your fingers fuse to the glass. Ordinary human life on a wilder, more distant world. Other cities are dotted with enormous open pits. Streets and apartment buildings go right up to the precipice. You can see how our world is perched on the void. They mined diamonds here, tiny beads of light. In Russia there are train stations in the middle of the arid steppe packed with tropical greenery. At Stalin’s funeral they laid him in a bed of palms. In Russia there are crumbling palaces of culture, ruins in a dying land, with mosaics that still celebrate the conquest of outer space. A vast archive of the world’s past, like the seed vaults buried in the permafrost. Old Believers hiding out in the furthest forests, shamans in the taiga. Sakha. Orok. Ak Nogai. Bone-spear names, denser firs, throat singing. Some of the barbarian peoples that terrified the Greeks and overthrew Rome are still around. According to Herodotus, ‘the Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle.’ Later they were called the Alans; their hordes poured into the valley of the Loire, crossed the Alps into Italy, captured Carthage. The descendants of those people live in Russia now, in low Soviet-era apartment blocks, and export zinc ores.
Russia is no longer popular. Two weeks before Prigozhin’s putsch, the author Elizabeth Gilbert—the one who condemned us to Eat, Pray, Love—announced that she was pulling her next book from publication. The novel was going to be a hippie-anticommunist screed about a group of Old Believers who escape from Stalin’s bloody modernity into the wilderness of Khakassia. That didn’t matter: it was a book about Russians. Hundreds of one-star reviews on Goodreads. Do not tell stories about Russians, they said, not now. ‘There is nothing interesting in them, nothing human. If you want to learn more about russia and it’s humans—try google ‘Bucha massacre’, Irip, Mariupol—that’s what is behind their ‘tender’ russian soul.’ World news becomes hygiene. There was a hint of the same thing in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. People started telling me that they’d turned down the wrong aisle in the supermarket and suddenly found themselves surrounded by little bottles of hoisin sauce. A sudden panic, as if they’d wandered into a visible fog of covid. Five thousand years of Chinese culture, as instantiated in these shelves of modified corn starch and soybean extract: it had become a disease vector. An ancient civilisation punching its spike protein through your cell membranes, flooding your lungs with tiny black ideograms. So the fireworks were cancelled, and all the shops stopped accepting paper money. Now it’s Russia, the toxin you don’t want on your skin. Sixteen months ago, when the Putin first invaded Ukraine, the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin put up a small sign in an empty case, informing visitors that they had no choice but to remove the Russian mustards from display. Putin and his critics agreed: the war was not a geopolitical event, thrown up by the movement of capital and the rotation of the earth. It was Russia itself, the entire history and spirit of Russia, and even its mustards are the mustards of barbarism. So the Cardiff Philharmonic called off its Tchaikovsky concerts, and the University of Milan cancelled a course on Dostoevsky. Meanwhile in Paris, the International Cat Federation banned all Russian-bred cats from its shows. In their statement, the Federation said they ‘cannot just witness these atrocities and do nothing.’ We will push the tanks out of the Donbass, one absence of a cat at a time.
Maybe there’s a reason it was so easy to forswear everything Russian after Ukraine, when nobody tried to make America toxic after Iraq. Russian culture is hulking and crabby. Big intricate moral novels and big ear-splitting concertos, not hallyu soap operas or cheerful superhero pap. It is difficult, and now you have a moral laundry for your philistinism. But it’s still worth asking—did they have a point? Might Russian culture also be complicit? Tolstoy would never have approved of the war in Ukraine, and neither would Turgenev, but the course that got cancelled was on Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky is a different matter. He might have given all his best lines to the anti-war side, but he was still a nationalist. Pushkin too. When the November Rising was crushed in 1830, he wrote a few bilious lines to the ‘slanderers of Russia’ in Europe:
⠀⠀⠀Why rave ye, babblers, so—ye lords of popular wonder? ⠀⠀⠀Why such anathemas ’gainst Russia do ye thunder? ⠀⠀⠀What moves your idle rage? Is’t Poland’s fallen pride? ⠀⠀⠀’Tis but Slavonic kin among themselves contending, ⠀⠀⠀An ancient household strife, oft judged but still unending, ⠀⠀⠀A question which, be sure, ye never can decide.
One widely shared video in the immediate aftermath of the invasion was a Finnish intelligence officer’s 2018 lecture at the University of Jyväskylä. The secret of Russia’s ‘spiritual heritage,’ he claimed, lay in its 150-year domination by the Mongols. Life under the khans taught Russians to value expediency over truth, to blindly obey their leaders, and to cheat and plunder anyone else. ‘During Mongol rule the only ways to survive were lying, corruption and violence. This still lives very deep in Russia’s strategic culture.’ The Soviet Union, with all its talk of liberation, was just another mask worn by the Golden Horde. Ulug Ulus, violent distant syllables. In the twentieth century, fascist ideologues argued that Russians had been polluted by Asiatic blood. Today, we talk about cultures and institutions. But the conclusion is the same. Russia is not like other countries; its existence is uniquely illegitimate. The wrongness seeps into everything. It doesn’t belong in Europe or the world.
But Russia is the world: the entire history of the world.
You know the ordinary account of modern Russian history, the long struggle between Slavophiles and Westernisers. On one side, Peter I, successive Zapadnik avant-gardes, Lenin’s electric assault on Great Russian chauvinism, Khrushchev promising a fridge-freezer in every home. And on the other side, the pull of the earth, squatting muzhik mysticism. But the division is false, because Russia has always been an archive of everywhere else. It’s the home for humanity’s rejectamenta, everything discarded or forgotten by the west. Scythia and Assyria coil in its innards. After the fall of Constantinople, Russia was the final stronghold of true—ie, Orthodox—Christianity; Dostoevsky’s Shatov calls it the ‘sole God-bearing nation.’ This is where God can rest until the rest of the world is ready to receive Him again. In the socialist era, Russia would preserve the fruits of the European bourgeois tradition against the actual, increasingly philistine, European bourgeoisie. In the most autistic years of socialism in one country, the only real competitors to the Soviet cult of Lenin were the cults of Beethoven and Shakespeare. Today, Putin is trying to present his country, especially for culture warriors abroad, as a bastion of universal traditional values: a place where there are only two genders and only one God. In even the most reactionary strains of Russian nationalism, Russia’s destiny is always to wake the rest of the world out of its own amnesia.
The more Russia modernises, the more it reeks of the past: your past. When you talk about Russia, you are always talking about the parts of yourself you’d rather forget. Here is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian, world-history in an armoured car, the hot dog man who went to war against Heaven. And who made him? Who ordered the shock therapy? Who sold a superpower off for scrap? Who pimped its women? Who built this beautiful Russia of the future?
This is what happened. At about three in the morning on Saturday, I woke up in the middle of the night. Sat on the toilet, scrolling blearily through the news on my phone. I got back into bed. There’s going to be a civil war in Russia, I told my girlfriend. That’s nice, she mumbled. It was a warm muggy day. We fried sausages and ate them on my balcony. Watched videos of Wagner mercenaries raiding the military HQ in Rostov. Watched Putin invoking the nightmare of 1921. This is mental, we agreed. This is fucking nuts. What are you supposed to do while history is happening? We went to the Hyde Park lido. Just before I dipped my toes in the water, I learned that the mutiny had crossed over into Lipetsk Oblast. The hot dog man was about to acquire the world’s largest nuclear stockpile. I swam around. Watched the ducks with their gorgeous deep-green faces bobbing sociably about my head. Tried not to think about what would happen if a missile hit. How the nice muddy water of the Serpentine would boil away in an instant. How it would cook me alive. A single white-hot flash over London: Russia has come. When we got out of the lake, the mercenaries were within striking distance of Moscow. A Chechen convoy was heading to Rostov to turn the city into rubble, maybe splatter a few thousand of its citizens. We bought ice cream and sat under a tree. We read Hamlet together. Fortinbras, marching. Let’s check in on Russia. Oh, I said, it’s over. There’s been a deal. Well, I guess that was that. Thank God, we agreed. Is there a part of you, she said, that’s maybe a little bit disappointed? Yeah, I said, a bit. It’s fun, thinking you might be about to die. For a moment I thought I was eating ice cream on the most bizarre and momentous day in post-historical history, but actually it was just a blip. In a few weeks it’ll be forgotten. A piece of weird trivia for future nerds. Everyone goes back to where they were on Friday and normal service resumes. Everyone except Yevgeny Prigozhin. He goes to Belarus. Another medium-security penal colony for the living spirit of the age. This time, maybe, he’ll change his ways.
Вы сидите, твари, в дорогих клубах, ваши дети прутся от жизни, снимают на ютьюбе ролики. Где, сука, боеприпасы?