Copyright c 1993-2000 The Conde Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright c 1994-2000 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Bruce Sterling
From the window of a speeding taxi, Saint Petersburg is a klepto architectural melange of Venice, Amsterdam, and Paris. Intended as Imperial Russia's Window on the West, the city was specifically designed to appear elegant, advanced, and thoroughly European. The scheme succeeded, if you discount the eerily straight, flat boulevards and the mammoth scale of the enterprise.
Czarist Russia didn't do restraint. Czarist Russia was the political and economic heyday of Saint Petersburg, and it despised restraint; they did something they liked to think of as "grand magnificence." Czarist taste is nervous and full of psychic overcompensation: if the fountains of Versailles are elegant, then a field of fountains the size of an aircraft carrier has got to be better yet. If one gilded cherub is good, then a whole flying death squad of gilded cherubs must be right on the money.
The locale was not a natural choice for a city; it's a river delta, a swamp. All these grand temples to czarist autocracy are set on pilings, built on sand. The streets are ruinous; they settle, they freeze, they crack. It didn't help that the Nazis exploded 100,000 bombs inside the city limits; it's as if the whole city had been picked up and dropped. The Soviets never quite repaired all the war devastation, being busy with their own madly impressive enterprises: tanks, nuclear reactors, giant dams, expensive spacecraft.
Saint Petersburg isn't Europe: not even now, not by half. It's Moscow's sweeter, kinder, sissy kid sister - the San Francisco of Russia, a place to go when you have the atavistic urge to wear flowers in your hair. Modern Saint Petersburg is Petersburg 3.0: the first release was czarist, the second was the communist Leningrad, the third is global-capitalist Sankt-Piterburg, just another friendly Baltic seaport, a big tourist draw. Built as Russia's Window on the West, it has become the visiting Westerner's Window on the East.
The Hotel Rus
At my hotel, I swiftly rediscover the unique hospitality that only the formerly Soviet can offer. The Hotel Rus on downtown Artillereyskaya Street features three armed guards in the lobby: amateurish wannabe toughs in urban camo who bully and harangue the guests. The hotel's serenely indifferent staff signally fails to man the counters. The officious, grumpy currency clerks can barely be persuaded to rip off customers with their absurd dollar/ruble exchange rates. The hotel's food could kill a circus bear.
The bathroom tile in my "suite" is especially noteworthy. Properly installing tile requires a lot of sustained, nitpicking attention. The Evil Empire perversely specialized in failed attempts at bourgeois ease. The tile is crooked and warped, its inferior grout as porous as a sponge. The unhappy tiling crew blew it so utterly that you wish, for everybody's sake, they had simply stayed home, drunk.
There's no plug in my bathtub. The water gushes from a handheld sprayer - evil Saint Petersburg swamp water, in a tasteful shade of tawny brown. My guidebook solemnly warns me against drinking it.
Yet the Rus is by no means a bad hotel, by local standards. There's a Russian SF literary convention taking place in it, which I happen to be attending. One night in my suite, with its squeaking TV and sheetless bed, would cost Ivan Sixpack half a month's salary. They're really trying, that's the touching part. The Russians have come so amazingly far. My narrow, lumpy bed is industriously changed every day. The stained and barely functional toilet boasts a DISINFEKTED sticker in bold Cyrillic. And after I coughed up a hefty sum in advance for the room, I could swear that the reception clerk actually smiled at me.
None of my fellow attendees seem to be suffering much. Russian science fiction writers, their robust tastes are unspoiled by surrealistic levels of Western luxury. In the past six years, Russian science fiction has suffered dizzying transformations in ideology, publishing, personnel, finance, and distribution; always flexible and forward-looking, Russian science fiction is doing OK. Certainly Russians no longer read much classically Soviet SF, that national genre of rock-jawed Leninist engineers storming the stars as the cosmonautic vanguard of Progressive Mankind. Modern Russian SF tends be quirky, fantastic, moody, surreal, even somewhat Pynchonesque. The conference is bestowing major awards on eager young people in their 20s. A genre that can do this has little reason to fear for its future.
It may be doing OK, but Russian science fiction is not the top of the pops in Russia these days. The monster hit in Russian publishing circa 1997 is definitely the pulp thriller. Lurid detective novels are sold in subway kiosks; they're read in parks and cafes. Unlike much of local pop culture, Russian pulp thrillers are not imported, overdubbed Western schlock. These best-sellers are authentic native produce. This is good old-fashioned, homegrown, potboiling rack fodder, a form of genre publishing that was unimaginable under the Soviet system.
Pulp thrillers are hitting the mark because they tackle modern topics that interest modern Russians: mafia gangs, crooked cops, shady businessmen, big money, glitzy settings, and hardboiled dames in fishnet hose. These books boast lurid, glossy covers with diamonds, furs, martini glasses, powerboats, stilettos, and chromed handguns. These are big, cheap, fat books written in a hurry. They feature punchy, no-nonsense titles like Trap for the Rabid, The Dummy Setup, and The Scum Cop.
One thing about these Russian cops-and-robbers books: quite a lot of them are written by Russian cops. The unquestioned queen of the genre, for instance, is Alexandra Marinina, a lieutenant colonel in the federal police force. The heroine of her stories is the attractively named Anastasia Komenskaya, a senior police detective whose severe devotion to punishing criminals is periodically interrupted by her steamy dalliances.
Then there's Alexander Bushkov, whose thriller Hunt for the Piranha involves a maniacal murdering millionaire terrorizing Siberia. One of Bushkov's many saving graces is that he cordially despises wimpy Russian literary intellectuals. Bushkov never misses a chance to dis them in print. Apparently, those highbrow losers who are still mooning over Nabokov and Akhmatova ought to just shut up and get out of the way.
Russia is chockablock with litterateurs. Bookworms can turn up under the weirdest circumstances. Cops become bestselling novelists. Even tough, tattooed drummers in death-metal punk bands, guys who would be glue-sniffing animals in any other country, reveal themselves to be weepy, wounded, Pushkin-reading idealists.
Russia's traditional literary intellectuals are predictably appalled by the pulp-thriller boom. The sudden appearance of an actual, fully functional market in Russian fiction is a shocking advent to them. They devoutly hope that Russia's humiliating vogue for gaudy thrillers will somehow go away. I believe it will go away, someday, but not until Russia stops looking and acting just like hardboiled pulp fiction.
There are three major mafia gangs in Saint Petersburg: the Malyshevsky mob, the Tambovskaya racket, and the Kazansky cartel. Like racketeers everywhere, these goons all hate each other's guts, and they go to the mattresses with some regularity. The city's gangsters are classic Damon Runyon figures, made guys with handles like The Mole, The Phantom, and Yury "The Elephant" Alymov. Late one afternoon last February, Tambovskaya kingpin Victor Gavrilenkov was enjoying some downtime at the Vienna Cafe, a classy eatery in the posh Nevskij Palace Hotel. As usual, this notorious gangster was accompanied by two armed bodyguards. Mr. Gavrilenkov's personal flunkies were off-duty Saint Petersburg cops.
Then, two heavies in long brown trenchcoats entered the hotel. They strolled through the shining glass-lined mall, which offers furs and amber and icons for the hard currency of foreign tourists. They marched with purposeful steps to the Vienna Cafe, where they spotted Gavrilenkov and his two cop henchmen. They then reached inside their trenchcoats and opened up with a pair of Kalishnikov automatic rifles. In 40 seconds, they had emptied 60 shots in the general direction of Gavrilenkov. The two cops were snuffed immediately. Gavrilenkov caught a couple of nonfatal rounds, but, being quick on the uptake, he tipped over one of the Vienna Cafe's high-stylin' pink marble tabletops and safely hid behind its stony bulk.
A fusillade screamed over Gavrilenkov and lodged in John Hyden, a harmless Scottish lawyer who happened to be sitting near the line of fire. Mr. Hyden was hit in the head and died immediately.
The hit men then took it on the lam. Before jumping into their waiting getaway car, they abandoned their trenchcoats and a Makarov pistol. They had just rubbed out two police sergeants and a foreign lawyer, but they got away with it. They haven't been seen since. As for Gavrilenkov, he's also wandering around loose. He was released for lack of charges.
Kazansky syndicate leader Artur Kzhizhevich has an unpronounceable name, but an exemplary career. A onetime boxer, Kzhizhevich is your basic modern, hands-on Saint Petersburg thug. He founded the Kazansky gang in 1988. By 1992, the thriving gang had 200 members and was big enough to provoke the envy of serious rivals. So his car was bombed. Kzhizhevich lived through that. In 1993, enemies set fire to his Mercedes. He survived that, too. Later, Kzhizhevich was ambushed outside his apartment and shot in the back, but he's a plenty tough guy, and he just shrugged it off. Kzhizhevich finally went to the slammer for kidnapping a businessman, tying him to a tree, and firing a bunch of handgun shots into the tree trunk around the guy's head. This businessman was plenty tough, too. Not only did he not crack or pay up, he testified in court. Hardly anyone ever does.
Antigang actions by Petersburg's police, while vigorous, seem a little confused. There are four police agencies in Petersburg, and like all cops who suffer from poorly delimited lines of authority, they all hate each other's guts. First there are the actual Petersburg city police, a much put-upon lot whose own chief describes them as fat, corrupt, incompetent, and living in squalor. Then there are the OMON, the scary paramilitary heavies; the RUOP, the anti-organized-crime task force; and, finally, the federal FSB, whom most everyone still calls the KGB, despite their tactful change of initials.
Last April, a gangster rubbed out a RUOP cop on the street, and, consequently, the cops went on a vengeful rampage. Mere hours after the killing, they violently busted into 80 Saint Petersburg hotels and casinos and arrested no fewer than 670 people. Six of the arrested were Saint Petersburg city cops, who (as is their wont) were moonlighting for the mafia as bodyguards.
For their own part, the OMON paramilitaries are staffed by stunningly violent Chechnya war vets. In February the OMON smashed into a Petersburg nightclub. They frogmarched attendees out of the place and kept them face down at gunpoint in the street in the freezing snow. They busted up the bar, rifled through the cash registers, and emptied wallets and purses, deftly pocketing the proceeds. Saint Petersburgers were surprisingly understanding about all this, figuring, apparently, that the OMON really needed the cash.
Recently a new trend of payoffs has surfaced in Petersburg: Fizba kryusha. The Fizba is the FSB, which has been the first of Petersburg's four police forces to become a more or less open mafia protection service. The city's chain of corruption has become so convoluted that normal people are actually paying their police to protect them from criminals. Fizba kryusha is definitely a trend to watch: just cut the whole business short, and actually pay the government to protect you from crime! All it requires is a little tax paperwork, and everybody will be right back where they started.
No wonder pulp fiction is striking such a resonant chord with the Russian public. But mafia scare stories shouldn't be overplayed. It's not that the situation is out of hand. After 10 years of vigorous organized crime, the situation is organizing rather well. It's institutionalizing, even.
The Seven Bankers
This is an extraordinary moment in the young history of the Russian Federation. Notwithstanding the mob-and-police action, this is the very first time in which nothing much is happening. After suffering crushing back-to-back military defeats at the hands of Muslim tribal zealots so disorganized that they barely resemble governments, Russia is fighting no wars. Hyperinflation seems to have exhausted itself. Boris Yeltsin hasn't sent any tanks against his political enemies in a good four years; his quintuple-bypass operation seems to have worked, and he's looking healthier than he has in years. No coups, putsches, or military takeovers are in the works at the Kremlin. Nobody seems to expect one anytime soon.
Which isn't to say that things aren't pretty awful, but things in Russia are always awful. There's food in the streets of Saint Petersburg; not many potatoes, but lots of papayas and pineapples. Apparently Russians have dispensed with the basics and seem content to live on the luxuries from now on. Six years ago, you might have seen people standing in the streets and subways, offering random possessions for cash. You might, for instance, see a sad, kerchief-headed old woman with a steam iron, a crowbar, and a book of crossword puzzles. Nowadays there is still a great deal of personal street trading, but even the shabbiest operator seems to have a coherent hustle: they'll sell pantyhose, or flowers, or pencils. By European standards, the population looks depressed and poverty stricken, but people don't seem feverish or jittery; they just don't look revolutionary.
It would appear that, for the first time since 1991, a Russian status quo has emerged. This new condition even has its own nickname: the semibankyrshina, or, "the age of Seven Bankers."
It is called this because Seven Bankers basically own Russia today. Seven men control half of the Russian economy. It is unclear that anyone ever intended for this to happen. There's a fairy-tale quality to it, really. It's weird, improbable, conspiratorial; a scenario right out of a pulp thriller. But that's what is going on, and everyone knows it.
The Seven Bankers are Vladimir Potanin, Vladimir Guzinsky, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Vinogradov, Mikhail Fridman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Alexander Smolensky. These seven men are robber-baron moneylenders of fantastic scope and scale. In the past six years, they have emerged from deep obscurity to gut and consume a nuclear superpower, becoming some of the richest and most powerful human beings that the world has ever seen. These guys are uniquely Russian bankers, because they behave almost exactly like the silk-hatted, diamond-stickpin Wall Street oppressors of communist legend. Basically, they behave as if property were theft and the agenda was to get right on with it. They are the bejeweled super-merchants in the court of Czar Boris, and they move in and out of the Yeltsin government at will.
These bankers own or control gas and oil, and cars, and diamonds, and minerals, and rare metals; but they want more. They want to control the media. The Russians have never had much media to play with before, because they passed most of the 20th century in the strangling grip of communist agitprop. But Russians in the age of semibankyrshina are trying hard to find Russian things to do with the media.
The bankers' sudden and consuming interest in media mostly owes to the influence of the two foremost politicians in the Yeltsin court: Anatoly Chubais and Tatyana Dyachenko. A remarkable pair, they are both hugely powerful Russian politicians who've never been elected to office. Tatyana is a computer programmer who happens to be the president's daughter. Anatoly Chubais is a laptop-toting 41-year-old economist who was Yeltsin's campaign manager. It would be foolish of a mere Yankee like myself to pretend that I really understand Russian politics. Nevertheless, I can attempt a workable summary. It's going to require a chart and maybe some pronunciation gazetteers; here's what a genuine, fin-de-siecle Russian information society really means. First, Boris Yeltsin. The fist-clenching, tank-climbing hero of 1991. But this is 1997. Boris Yeltsin is a tired old man. He's sick a lot of the time, he drinks far too much, and he doesn't have a lot of inventive or original ideas. It probably wouldn't help if he did. Yeltsin is facing a grotesque political and economic situation that is probably beyond the capacity of any statesman, anytime, ever.
Yeltsin has, however, mastered one highly effective political tactic: he's very good at co-opting ambitious rivals and holding them out into the line of direct fire, while he himself fades into the background with a benign crocodile smile. Once political turbulence and failed policies abrade his rival's credibility and reputation, Yeltsin emerges from torpor and has the guy fired, to general cries of relief and gratitude. Then Yeltsin recruits the next victim: some other charismatic figure on the make who is winning popularity by leaps and bounds. He straps that guy against the grindstone, too. Then he sits back and waits. This tactic works great, and it requires only one precondition: everything in Russia has to be awful, and it has to stay awful.
The first victim of this inspired Yeltsin tactic was Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin, always the loyal supporter, stepped back a pace and dropped the entire collapsing colossus of communism squarely onto Gorbachev's dappled head. In the years since, Gorby has sunk like a stone. People in the West still have kindly feelings for Mikhail, and even the much-resented Raisa; but in Russia the poor guy is an ambulatory black hole.
Then there was Defense Minister Grachev. The swaggering, overconfident Grachev absorbed the heat for the Chechnya debacle, and fell flaming from a great height. Then there was Alexander Lebed, another ambitious general; Yeltsin gave Lebed all the rope he wanted. Lebed started strutting the public stage like a pocket Napoleon. When Yeltsin finally rose from his sickbed, he cut Lebed off at the knees. Lebed is now off in the deep political wilderness, muttering paranoically about lost atomic bombs in KGB suitcases.
Then there was Alexander Korzhakov, a KGB general and ambitious two-fisted palooka who was once Yeltsin's all-powerful bodyguard and drinking buddy. Korzhakov is something of a special case, as he was basically shoved off the political cliff by Tatyana and Chubais; but Yeltsin was the one who actually fired him.
Anatoly Chubais is a unique figure in the Yeltsin circle, because Chubais has absorbed this lethal punishment from Yeltsin and returned from the dead for more. Most of Yeltsin's "trusted friends" get burned once and are ruined for good. But Chubais is a very special kind of guy: he's a real player.
Chubais basically invented the Russian privatization process. He came up with a brilliant economic hack known as the "loans for shares" scheme. Loans-for-shares basically allowed Russian state enterprises to sell themselves via financing their own purchases by private entities. I doubt that Anatoly Chubais realized that this clever financial invention of his would lead to half his country being bought up by seven ambitious oligarchs. The "reform" turned out to be no reform at all; it was just a bald handover of the Russian economy to the seven guys who were fastest with a rubber checkbook. The end result is nothing at all like a competitive market economy. There's no "market" involved in this, no competition, no improvement in efficiency. The economy crashed drastically, and the ruble hyperinflated. Vast hordes of Russians were flung out of work or, worse yet, found themselves working and not being paid for it, for months on end. The astonished communists actually won back power in the Russian parliament, the Duma. This dreadful occurrence led Yeltsin to loudly and publicly fire Chubais, firmly tying the millstone of botched privatization around the guy's neck.
Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about Chubais is that he boldly hacked the Soviet economic system and accidentally crashed it. Chubais has never recovered politically from this debacle - he is still one of the most hated men in Russia. Even his allies seem to think that he's a slick operator and an amoral political hack. His personal unfavorables are through the opinion-sampling roof. People just don't trust him. Chubais suffers from a markedly un-Russian name. He's too smart. As a final oddity, he has red hair, and Russians are rather superstitious about red hair.
Chubais was still spinning slowly in the wind when the Seven Bankers suddenly panicked about Yeltsin's reelection prospects. These bankers had been the primary profiteers from the privatization orgy, and if a communist somehow became president, they'd swiftly join the ashbin of history. The Seven Bankers got together at a convenient locale, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and they had a serious conspiratorial discussion. With the economy in free fall and Yeltsin both drunk and sick, they seriously needed a turnaround. They had plenty of money, but they needed a heavy PR operator. Yet who would trust them? Whom could be trusted to work in their interests? Chubais was fully and publicly responsible for their very existence, so it seemed likely that Chubais would be pliable.
Chubais came through heroically for the Yeltsin-banker coalition. The Russian media was saturated with glowing ads and softball coverage, including some ludicrous Yeltsin disco-dancing footage for the always-gullible youth demographic. The media campaign of communist Gennady Zyuganov was boring, thumbfingered, and Neanderthal. The other major candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was so in love with the sound of his own insane ranting that he just couldn't shut up. Russians don't much mind violent maniacs as national leaders, but they don't like an empty blowhard.
Once Yeltsin was safely reelected, the bankers looked forward to Chubais's swift departure. But when the president, worn to a frazzle by the hard campaign, became very ill, Anatoly Chubais was right there on the spot, laptop-armed and ready to step in as chief-of-staff regent. Weakened, feeble, and in pain, Yeltsin became ever more reliant on the last person he really trusts: not Chubais, of course, but his beloved daughter Tatyana.
For her part, the only man in the Yeltsin circle that Tatyana trusts is Anatoly Chubais. When Tatyana reluctantly entered her father's inner circle, it was dominated by the macho, hard-drinking Korzhakov, who rashly dismissed Tatyana as a "bit of fluff." (Serious tactical error.) Chubais, on the other hand, takes Tatyana seriously, and, given his lack of an independent political base, he doesn't have much choice but to suck up to her. The new Tatyana-Chubais courtier axis has proved a formidable combo. You have to reach the president to talk to him, and Tatyana sets the old man's schedule now. She also is his image handler; she's gotten him to comb his hair properly, smile more on camera, and, best of all, cut back on the sauce.
Under the Tatyana regime, the New Yeltsin looks much less like a blundering, trigger-happy thug. Basically, he looks like the kind of guy that a sane Russian woman might want to vote for: a kindly, somewhat remote Good Czar Boris figure, a guy who's above the political fray, but with the common touch. His speeches are vaguer and more conciliatory. His suits fit better. He talks about warm, cuddly issues, like culture, farming, and family values.
This is not to say that Yeltsin is popular. Russians think he's doing a horrible job. They think that because it's the truth. Yeltsin has no real agenda. The things he tries just don't work. He's not very popular. He doesn't deserve to be.
Boris Nemtsov, on the other hand, is popular. Nemtsov is a handsome, well-spoken former governor, a peacenik and a Green, who was brought into the government by Yeltsin and was recently appointed first deputy prime minister. Young Mr. Nemtsov is supposed to have a free hand to engage in "vigorous reform." In practice, this makes Nemtsov the point man for the Yeltsin government's many public resentments. He will be systematically discredited and ground away by controversy. When Nemtsov is turned to powder, Boris Yeltsin will still be there: as unpopular as ever, but free of another potential rival.
Nemtsov knows all this. He has publicly declared that he knows he's on a "kamikaze mission." But he's taking the job anyway. He might succeed in the mission; life in Russia might actually improve. Somebody has to try, right? Or, Yeltsin might well die in office before the turn of the century, and then all bets are off. Besides, there's no real action in Nemtsov's home base, the modest city of Nizhni Novgorod.
In some other, quieter country, all might have been well between the troika of courtiers - Chubais, Nemtsov, and Tatyana - and the Seven Bankers. After all, they basically have everything in common, and it might even be said that they created one another. The courtiers could have gently usurped more and more of the old man's power, and the bankers could have contented themselves by fleecing one of the planet's richest countries. But this is Russia, so such good sense was not to be.
Instead, information warfare has broken out.
Since Yeltsin's reelection, all the major players have realized that control of the media means control of the country. Any Russian politician without his own television and publication base is going into combat unarmed. The Seven Bankers bought the president his winning media campaign. Tatyana and Chubais took power and held it because they are spin doctors. Chubais is hated by the multitudes, and Tatyana is resented as a little Kremlin princess, but they are the two best image hackers in modern Russian politics.
The Seven Bankers are galled to see Chubais willing and able to publicly menace their interests. Chubais is bold. He clearly believes that he made these guys and he can break them. He may well be right. Chubais does have a tactical advantage. The Seven Bankers are already divided into greedy warring factions, while Chubais has his back firmly covered by Tatyana.
The natural, if weird, outcome of this situation has been the recent "War of Compromats," aka the Bank War. For fans of leakage, Whitewaterization, and black disinformatsiya, the orchestrated negative media campaigns - carried on as instruments of intimidation and dominance within the new Russian oligarchy - are tasty indeed. Sometimes, as in the US, they percolate upward from the sleazy tabloids; but at other times, this being Russia, they are simply flung like sledgehammers with the full force of national broadcasting networks.
Negative media attacks are now breaking out all up and down the Russian political hierarchy. Mostly, these attacks take the form of detailed corruption allegations. They are often spiced with illicit videotapes, treacherous testimony by former confederates, and even covert wiretapping. Anticorruption leaks make particular sense in Russia because corruption is so omnipresent. Corruption is everywhere, and everybody is against it.
Even though corruption is a complete necessity. The official State can't even pay its own workers: not merely the long-suffering coal miners, but the Russian military, on-duty soldiers and sailors, air traffic controllers, even nuclear-power-plant workers. Basically, they all continue to work without pay because they live off the other, street-level economy: gray kickbacks, emergency "favors" from bosses, and stolen office equipment. People are paid in kind with weird stuff that arrives at the back door via "connections": mysterious crates of baby bottles, furniture, household appliances, even condoms and tampons. Companies deprived of a revenue stream live off handwritten IOUs; there are so many of these stamped IOUs floating around now that they've become a working, parallel currency.
Into this environment broke the first political sex scandal that Russia has ever had. Yeltsin's minister of justice, who had been making a nuisance of himself by being unduly just to the wrong people, was deliberately rendered a public laughingstock. A corrupt Russian banker was discovered with a trove of illicit videotapes that showed the 53-year-old justice minister cavorting naked with some hookers in a sauna. Mind you, these weren't merely hookers, but mafia-associated hookers; and it wasn't just any sauna, but a sauna known to be used by gangsters. Russian gangsters love any and all Russian saunas. No Russian hooker stays in business nowadays without gangster kryusha. But the justice minister was outed in a tabloid, and then on national TV. After that, the poor man was toast. He wasn't missed because he was being too honest, and nobody much liked him anyway.
Unlike the insanely lascivious US citizens, who can't get over the stunning idea that a politician might ask for a blow job, the Russians have tended toward indifference about the shape, size, and use of their leaders' genitalia. The justice minister's sex smear really worked, though, and it was pretty clear that some clever soul was trying this out deliberately, just to see if the concept would fly in the current media environment. Results were encouraging.
Then the Bank War broke out in full cry in August. The bankers were presented with a pair of rich prizes: Norilsk Nickel, a monstrous mining concern, and Syazinvest Telecom, the Russian telephone infrastructure company. The bankers who lost the bid lost their tempers. The sore losers were Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Guzinsky, the two moguls among the Seven Bankers who have invested most heavily in media enterprises. They clearly felt illused by Chubais, Nemtsov, and their rival banker, Vladimir Potanin of Uneximbank, who had walked off with the goodies. So they decided to carry the scandal to their tame press.
Losing their chance at those tasty metals and telephones made these two freebooters throw caution to the winds. They denounced the privatization deals as rigged and broke ranks with their former ally, Potanin. The media artillery swung into action, and the charges and countercharges flew.
The techniques are new, for Russia, but there's a certain tactical sophistication here. The bankers don't merely attack one another, or Chubais, or Nemtsov. Instead, Russian media war takes the form of pawn attacks, chewing away at the outer fringes of the Kremlin's rival circles of influence. There are investigations, allegations of investigations, allegations of covered-up investigations. And it's not just politicians and bankers who catch the heat. There are also direct clashes: tactical attacks, by media, on the personnel and practices of other media outlets.
It's the sheer scale and boldness of the Russian practice that's amazing; it's as if Ted Turner had declared open war on Rupert Murdoch and enlisted the FBI. Now that I mention it, that's not such a bad analogy, since Vladimir Guzinsky counts Rupert Murdoch as a close personal friend and professional role model.
The foremost figure in Petersburg's alternative milieu is another Boris - rock musician Boris Grebenshikov. This beloved personage is universally known as BG,or rather BG. Grebenshikov is little known in the West, though he once had an interesting album produced by a fervent admirer, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.
It would be a mistake to think that Boris Grebenshikov is merely a rock star, though he is, in point of fact, a major rock star in his own country (and in many other former Soviet countries). Rock stardom never had the same function in a Soviet context as it did in the capitalist West. If you listen to Grebenshikov's music, you hear a guy with the dark, brow-wrinkling sincerity of Leonard Cohen, singing pleasant Russian folk rock over a 4/4 backbeat. But to imagine what Grebenshikov means to his fellow Russians, you have to imagine Cohen, complete with his alternative street cred and literary ambitions, somehow achieving the fame of Elvis and the political clout of Jesse Helms. Grebenshikov's dense, moody lyrics are poorly understood even by Russians, but it's enough for our purposes to know that he once coined a truly great cultural metaphor. He named his rock band Aquarium.
The concept of Aquarium explains much of what one needs to know to understand the spirit of Saint Petersburg. It is a window city, and an aquarium is all about windows; it's a structure made entirely of windows. Inside an aquarium, harmless, colorful creatures swim. They don't know (or care) much about the world outside. They can see that the world is there, but they know there are glass barriers all around them, so they can't do much about it. They have to concentrate on living in a world that's entirely their own. They're alive, they're even pretty. They're on public view. But they're swimming in a different moral universe. They can't be touched.
The height of Aquarium's fame came before perestroika, when in the dark days of Chernenko and Andropov, any light seemed bright, and people all over the USSR knew that there were people in the aquarium who, against all odds, were somehow daring to live, think, and feel.
Nowadays, Aquarium (www.aquarium.ru/) is still a huge band, but rock stardom is just another form of media celebrity. Rock and roll as a Russian social movement is over. Modern pop stardom in Russia is best represented by the indestructible Alla Pugacheva, a Soviet-era chanteuse who recently appeared before the Duma in designer shades and a Stevie Nicks hairdo, bitching about her taxes. Boris Grebenshikov, who is still writing, still composing, and now in his mid-40s, is still 105 percent attitude. In a recent interview, he declared: "In my opinion, the term 'Petersburg Culture' is a myth dreamed up by people whom it suits and who are making money out of it." Basically, Boris Grebenshikov is modern Petersburg Culture, but there's a lot to what he says: the official version of Petersburg Culture is all about moving tourist product and putting foreign butts into opera seats.
When asked about the sainted corpse of Vladimir Lenin, the irrepressible Grebenshikov further opined: "First, there's a criminal lying there, and not just that - an embalmed criminal. I don't want to start going into metaphysics, but an unburied body is a source of great evil." Boris happens to be a Buddhist - a classic hipster Buddhist, of the Temple of Ginsberg variety. He has arrived at this metaphysical conclusion by unorthodox means, but he's probably right. People in the former Leningrad have every right to feel itchy about the fact that Lenin's not yet shoveled under.
The Seven Riverniks
Even today, Leningrad hippies - pardon me, Saint Petersburg hippies -are not tame hippies. America has tame, New Agey, sensitive, bourgeois-type hippies. But Saint Petersburg has heavy-duty, radically defiant, street-level, hippie autonomen. These are people whose closest spiritual kin are Amsterdam squatters and hash-bar radicals, Hannover chaos punks and British Spiral Tribe rave fanatics.
Prominent among them are a group called the Rechniki, or the River Club. The members of the River Club are living legends in alternative Saint Petersburg: there are seven of them. These soldiers of the night are pioneer leaders of the Petersburg squatter contingent. Their names are Linas, Roman, Max, Denis, Stas, Timothy, and Egor. They've been illegally occupying large buildings since 1989. The Riverniks are not merely squatters. Russia is in economic depression and there are a lot of homeless people around, lurking in attics and basements without any ability to pay. The Riverniks are squatters-movement people, a "radical self-sufficient artistic association." This means that they are illegal squatters, plus political organizers, graphic artists, rave performers, videomakers, pirate-radio enthusiasts, Web users, junk sculptors, and interior designers. Furthermore, in order to survive, they've also become locksmiths, welders, electricians, and plumbers.
Being Russian, the River Club likes to think big. A common squatter's tactic in Saint Petersburg involves legally renting an apartment, then refusing to leave the premises while not paying the rent. That tactic is OK for wimps and sissies, but the River Club rarely bothers with "paper permissions." Back in 1994, the River Club squatted a big fishing trawler called the Stubnitz. They swarmed on board while the authorities weren't looking, equipped the ship with PCs and pirate radio, and turned it into a mobile ocean-going rave. The Riverniks and their allies then puttered around the Baltic with a crew of bewildered professional sailors, emitting crazed radio manifestos about invasions from Jupiter and a World War III breaking out inside the human brain.
The Riverniks, who are very much players within their alternative aquarium, naturally have their own dedicated propaganda media unit. It's aptly known as "Mess Media." Mess Media spreads underground rumors, runs pirate radio and Finnish Web sites (muu.lib.hel.fi/netbo/mess/squat.html), scares up donations, spews reams of posters and graffiti, arranges sub-rosa rave concerts, cheers the local armies of the night, and runs mindboggling head trips on unsuspecting Russian straights.
We're not talking mere "dropouts" here: these Riverniks are sincere, utterly dedicated, violently antimaterialistic, arty anarchists. When I met them, they were physically occupying the third floor of a large vacant building owned by unsuspecting US absentee landlords. The Seven Riverniks have strung their own unpaid power lines and installed their own unpaid gas lines and unpaid telephones, and they're running a full-scale, screaming, spark-and-chip-throwing 60-decibel machine shop in there. The place looks like a set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari overlaid with welders and punch-presses. It's crammed with distorted metal furniture and raw material that the Riverniks have "obtained" from dumps, abandoned military depots, and other, er, sources. When I arrived, I found them loudly transforming scrap metal into more of the furniture. The furniture is a big hit, for some reason. Straight people are actually paying them for it.
There's not one shred of weekend-hippie pretense about the Riverniks. These cats are strictly heavy gauge. They look the way SRL's Mark Pauline would look if he had never heard of shampoo or multivitamins. The Riverniks wear military-surplus gear and big scarred boots, and I'm pretty sure that they cut their own hair with sheep clippers. They truly redefine the concept of grunge - a Yankee concept they understand all too well and airily dismiss as mere kid stuff.
The River Club's current big project is an Internet cafe. This won't be a cute, clean, commercial Internet cafe. Their Internet cafe will be in a basement, and they're rather expecting police raids. This is going to be a brand-new Internet cafe for the River Club's core demographic, the 4,000 people who gathered sans any cops or security for their latest rave extravaganza, a flame-spouting forest bacchanalia they called Air and Fire. The Riverniks have big plans for the club's interior decor, because they recently discovered a cosmonautic junkyard, where Russia's equivalent of NASA has discarded satellite hulls, outmoded control boards, and pre-Western computers. These are all-Russian computers, mind you! With true-blue Russian microchips! The biggest microchips in the world!
Saint Petersburg already boasts a very civilized Internet cafe, the Tetris (www.dux.ru/netcafe/eng/cafehome.html). I've been to Internet cafes here and there, so I've noticed a principle in the business: the better the bandwidth, the worse the food. The Tetris had the best food I've ever had in an Internet cafe. I strongly recommend the "pork a la Tetris," where a pork cutlet comes surrounded by a video-bright melange of sliced apples, pineapples, cherries, canned pears, oranges, and three kinds of grapes. (Russians still haven't gotten over the marvel that is fruit out of season.) The sturgeon a la Tetris is similarly grand. Even their coffee may be the best in town. Tetris staffer Dmitry Bagrov told me that people have been known to show up in the Tetris merely looking for the coffee.
A preternaturally neat cafe, Tetris is all green marble tile and hippie wind chimes, where local hackers (and the occasional misplaced Australian) are picking up files and email under shiny racks of Russian Internet zines. People get the word about the Internet from wandering into the cafe. Every Sunday the cafe staff throws well-attended seminars. Quite often, customers sign up for service provision from the Cafe Tetris's sponsor, the Dux corporation. Little by little, Saint Petersburg is going digital. One of the city's three computer-graphics companies, Creat Inc., occupies a suite of fourth-floor offices within the monstrous dead carcass of Lenfilm, which was once the Soviet Union's state-supported film and media apparat. This mammoth Leningrad Babylon is not merely run-down, but positively eldritch, with huge multistory cracks in its brickwork, dank, dark, echoing halls, and floors so badly damaged that they have interior potholes. Yet here they sit, these 20 eager designers and programmers - young, with-it, coffee-swilling, and arty, who would be instantly recognizable in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch and, in fact, have an agent there trying to scare them up some computer-graphics action. They work their 70-hour weeks in a place festooned with muscle-PCs and precious back issues of Animation magazine, Computer Graphics World, Siggraph publications, and Wired. Creat's president and CEO is Anton Petrov, a buoyant 31-year-old Saint Petersburg native. Creat once worked doing flying logos and graphics effects for Moscow national television. It still gets work for local Saint Petersburg TV, but it's hitching its future on computer-gaming work in Europe and America (www.creatstudio.com/creatstudio/). Petrov says it's simpler to hunt up work in LA or London than it is to fight upstream in the media empires of Moscow. Besides, Moscow already has 15 computer-graphics companies compared with Saint Petersburg's three (Positive, Lesta, and Creat). Furthermore, Russia's telecom industry is so primitive that it's easier to dial up New York or Berlin than it is Moscow.
Creat faces a daunting set of challenges. It gets no state support; the city scarcely knows it exists. The original Creat, which began as a computer-retail firm, has already collapsed, spinning the design firm loose. The survivors are far from the global action in animation and special effects. But they do have major-league talent. Being Russian, they have particular strength in mathematics: Creat's programmers are math professors who have been surviving in Saint Petersburg State Technical University on next to no salary. Computer graphics is glamorous work, so they get to comb the student corps for talent, too. What's more - and this is the wild card - some of the people in the Creat orbit are actual, genuine Russian Artists -Artists with a capital A.
Still, it can't be said that Saint Petersburg is a computer-industry town. It's not an industry town at all, though it does have a very large port, military naval facilities, and its own nuclear reactor (which is just like Chernobyl, except that it's older). This city used to be in the government business as the country's capital, but it's not in power any more. Petersburg's main claim to fame and self-worth is that it's the "cultural capital of Russia."
Saint Petersburg has a heritage industry. The city is trying, in a halting, thumb-fingered fashion, to develop a modern, tourist-baiting, museum economy. The city does boast one of the world's truly great storehouse-museums, the Hermitage, which is chock-full of first-class czarist art-loot. It has at least 23 other museums, large and small. It has ridiculously magnificent architecture: palaces, fortresses, cathedrals galore. It has the Kirov Ballet, the Philharmonia symphony orchestras, the Pushkin theater.
That's all very nice, without a doubt; it's "culture," but it's not moving around much.
What Saint Petersburg really had - and has - is the Saint Petersburg spirit. The city has soul, it's still alive. When creative people are surviving in stark defiance of their surroundings, the result is a vibrant counterculture. Squats are a big counterculture deal here. In a city whose government officials extralegally appropriate apartments and distribute them to friends, squatting makes perfect sense; it's poetic justice. The core of Petersburg's contemporary art scene is also a squat. It's a multistory building, prominently placed downtown on 10 Pushkinskaya Street, and has simply been physically taken over by a huge revolving crowd of rent-refusing art hippies. The two lower floors are occupied by about a hundred people; the third floor features galleries and display spaces, and the fourth has a bar named Fish Fabrique that's a byword with the hip expatriate set.
I had a couple of beers in Fish Fabrique with some Russian FidoNet zealots, and it strikes me as a place that is sure to loom large in fond local memory. Fish Fabrique has certainly earned its cachet, but actually experiencing it is another matter. Fish Fabrique's "furniture" is battered formica tables and dismantled car seats. It's lethally gloomy, and it looks and smells like a Soviet bomb shelter. The only real lighting in the place is a naked bulb hanging over, of all things, a foosball table. The bar's drippy Day-Glo decor was apparently assembled at random by people on ketamine and magic mushrooms. A lot of art is created in 10 Pushkinskaya. It's a very genuine urban cultural center. Gallery 21, the city's foremost venue for digital art, is located here. So is the Techno Art Center and the Photopostscriptum Art Agency and Timur Novikov's far-famed New Academy of Fine Arts. Ten Pushkinskaya is truly famous. It is also semilegal at best, and it's full of squalid, ultraradical illegals who live outside the law and who are quite often higher than kites. Shock, shock, horror: Russian hippies are on dope! We're not talking a little weekend chablis here. We are talking heroic Russian drug use. Ketamine and psilocybin are the city's current psychedelics of choice. Saint Petersburg is very much a psychedelic town.
Three years ago, some unsung botanical genius discovered that a certain breed of "poisonous toadstools" that infest the woods around Saint Petersburg were saturated with of psilocybin. This news gladdened the patriotic hearts of Russian hippies - at last, a free, all-natural, all-Russian hallucinogenic! A native, noncommercial psychedelic that you can gather by the basketful while singing romantic folk songs in the birch woods! There's now pro-mushroom graffiti on walls and in alleys all over Saint Petersburg. Why ketamine is also popular is beyond me, but it's regarded as a truly marvelous substance and is referred to in hushed tones of mystical respect. As for Ecstasy and hash, they're so common as to be beneath comment.
The Tourist Draw
T. S. Eliot would have called the Church on Spilled Blood an "objective correlative." This church was built to commemorate the bombing assassination of Czar Alexander II, who was killed in 1881. A relatively well-meaning, liberal czar, Alexander was clearly reforming the state and improving people's lives. That made him a natural target for Saint Petersburg's native anarchist radicals, the People's Will Movement. First they blew up his royal coach with a homemade nitroglycerin bomb; then, as Alexander was walking around trying to comfort the wounded and dying, they threw a second bomb and blew his legs off. This act struck a resonant chord with the Russians. They constructed a huge church exactly on the spot where the poor man bled all over the pavement.
The Church on Spilled Blood is said to be a "superb example of Russian architecture and monumental and decorative art." The thing is hard to miss. It's smack in the middle of downtown, and it's psychotically elaborate; it's like a vast, fungal bouquet of psychedelic turnips and onions. There is nothing soothing or peaceful about this memorial; it's traumatic, disturbed, and disturbing, a deeply eerie memorial to the dual bloody wounds of Christ and czar. It's state religious art by an autocratic regime that knows it rests on sand. It's so much the Opium of the People that the huge ironwork fences around the church have poppy flowers on them, incredible wrought-iron dope poppies as big as your head.
After the fall of czarism, the church was slowly and utterly wrecked. Padlocked by Stalinist bureaucrats, it was abandoned to the Russian weather (the basement filled with water) and the tender mercies of Nazi artillery. Now restored and officially reopened to the public, it's once again a functional Orthodox cathedral. It's sanctified ground, even though it's a single-minded cult totem for a bloodily murdered czar.
Inside, it's a giant media extravaganza in stone, a glimmering, echoic mass of tortuous altars and astonishing acres of glittering mosaic that feature a window-shop parade of saints and prophets. For their part, they all look like they've eaten soap all their lives and cling to the walls, vaults, pillars, and ceilings in rigid hieratic fixity, as if deathly afraid to move.
A dramatic centerpiece of Christ on trial before Caiaphas, sadly, features accusers who look really warm and lively. In all that mighty acreage of rigid piety, these murderous sinners are the only people who seem to have human appetites and a functional agenda. They gesture, they snarl, they cower and glare; they're the cathedral's thriving counterculture.
Even after nearly 30 years of municipal effort, the Church on Spilled Blood still isn't fully repaired. They've come a long way, but they just can't quite get the job done. The back door is held together with duct tape. It has taken 20th-century Russians longer to restore the church than it took 19th-century Russians to build the whole thing in the first place.
Restoration was a problematic act; after all, the People's Will terrorists were supposed to be the good guys. The People's Will gang, being intellectual amateurs, were easily rounded up and all summarily hanged for their crime. So they, too, have their own, secular, Russian martyr's cult. How do you simultaneously honor the dead sainted czar and honor the dead sainted heroes who killed the czar? It's just impossible. But the Russians do it anyway.
It gets truly strange when one figures in the new, museum-economy angle. Czarism is long dead, but that is what Saint Petersburg wants and needs to sell to the rest of us. They can sell the melancholy glamour and bizarre design sense of dead Russian royalty. They can sell their long-gone local Belle Epoque. That's what they have to offer in the global culture sweepstakes, and if they can somehow boot up the hard disk and erase the period from 1914 to 1991, they really do have a unique and attractive asset. The square outside the Church on Spilled Blood has the biggest cluster of tourist-industry kiosks in town. They cheerfully take dollars, they recite canned spiels in fine English, and they sell matryoshka dolls, lacquer boxes, Baltic amber jewelry, and even home-pirated Disney memorabilia. I couldn't leave without the unique and attractive KGB T-shirt. It's only a matter of time before they move right on to snow globes, fridge magnets, and "I detonated the czar" Cyrillic bumper stickers.
This isn't merely a municipal money-spinning scheme. Reviving the economy by putting 50,000 volts through the corpse of czarism has had some very strange collateral effects. The concept seems to have caught on at a very deep level: it's even become a local art movement. This may be the first significant art movement that the young Russian Republic has given us.
Saint Petersburg is famous for art movements. This was once the home of the Wanderers group, the first self-conscious gathering of Russian painters. Wassily Kandinsky and the Jack of Diamonds group used to hang out here. Saint Petersburg was the birthplace of Russian Futurism and Neo-Primitivism, it was the home of Mayakovsky and Malevich, it harbored Suprematism and Constructivism.
Then Stalinist Socialist Realism hung around its neck like an anchor for 70 years. But there were still subterranean cultural fires in Saint Petersburg: poverty-stricken, persecuted, avant-garde dissidents held "shows" in each other's homes, even calling themselves the Conceptualists, Sotsart, and the like. As things eased up in the hippie Aquarium era, new little movements came thick and fast: the Friends of Mayakovsky, the New Artists, the Necro-Realists. Now, finally, in the 20th century's fin de siecle, a group of local artists has made a delightful and possibly significant discovery: after a hundred years of avant-garde abstraction, classical beaux arts can shock the bourgeoisie. The restoration industry is very much alive here. But this isn't just a case of dry-as-dust archaeologists taking their camel-hair brushes and regilding old mosaics. In Saint Petersburg, classic, academic, representational art is really new again somehow; it's become possible to do this with attitude. This is not a joke. It's actually workable. It's done with cameras and computers. It's a sensibility. It's a form of local art that looks like nothing else on earth. It's become possible to really disturb people by digitally bending and warping classical art - to knowingly play on Russian society's cracks, flaws, and discrepancies. To break the zombie sleep, to revitalize Russia's walking dead. The movement is called Neo-Academism, and its guru is a hippie theoretician named Timur Novikov. The movement was born in 1991, the first year of the New Russia. Neo-Academism has been gathering force ever since, and while skeptical Saint Petersburg straights like to dismiss Novikov as an emperor with no clothes, they're forced to admit that he is an emperor. Of sorts. This is the first manifestation out of the New Russia that actually impresses me. Neo-Academism is a weird, digitally enhanced shotgun marriage between gilt-and-marble classical grandeur and total, poverty-stricken, street-level hippie junk art. It's as if a non-stop Burning Man festival had broken out in the giant, rotting palace of Catherine the Great. Neo-Academism is big, and getting bigger: it's an across-the-board creative movement. Like Surrealism once did, it fancies itself not merely a form of expression, but a way of life. Neo-Academists are sculptors, photographers, set designers, costumers, filmmakers, actors, musicians, graphic artists, curators, magazine publishers. Most avant-garde art movements fizzle and come to very little. Avant-gardism is an old game now, easy to dismiss, full of predictable moves. It's been a long time since the 20th century spawned any art movement that could really get under people's skin. After Pop Art - well, no, after Jeff Koons - it might seem that the entire conceptual territory had been clearcut and plowed with salt. But Neo-Academism is so weird looking, and it arises from such unique cultural and economic circumstances, that it looks to me like it might actually get somewhere. This might become the first digital art movement that really matters.
It's not that Academism has never been neo-ed before. Hippies in particular have a continuing romance with gooey-dreamy representational art by the Pre-Raphaelites, Alphonse Mucha, Maxfield Parrish. A little closer to the target is Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a British High Victorian who specialized in classical marble effects, with a lot of learned period detail, not to mention luscious Greek and Roman bath girls. The Neo-Academists have a big thumbs-up for Alma-Tadema, a man they clearly regard as a spiritual ancestor. But the capo of Neo-Academism, Timur Novikov, is a fin-de-siecle avant-garde sophisticate; he knew Warhol, he knew Rauschenberg, he knew Haring. Neo-Academism, Novikov argues, is not a gimmick or a reaction; it's the future of Saint Petersburg's native culture. It's the authentic path forward. Neo-Academism had its roots in the compost of Necro-Realism, a sullen little outburst of the late 1980s. The Necro-Realists earned their name through their interesting discovery that rotting bodies hadn't received a lot of aesthetic attention. They studied decay. They claimed that they were reacting to the central lie of totalitarianism: the evil fantasy that says that the body can be butchered for some abstract ideal - Nazism, communism - while the unstained soul somehow lives on, gloriously. In reality, it was the spirit that was killed long ago by totalizing ideologies, while the body lingers on, as a rotting monument and visible reproach.
In retrospect, it's obvious that Necro-Realism was a response to the death of the Soviet system. Necro-Realism did exemplify its times, but it couldn't last. Fine, guys: the system is dying, it's dead. It's beyond rotten. Now what? Konstantin "Kostya" Mitenev might serve as a representative Necro-Realist figure. In 1987, Kostya became involved in the "parallel film" movement, painstakingly creating X-Acto-knife 16-millimeter animations on his kitchen table. He began doing the experimental film circuit in Moscow, Bonn, Riga, and Budapest.
Mitenev suffered a crushing artistic blow when his precious stock of handmade films were stolen from the squat he was occupying. Mitenev decided to go into digital art because, as he perceptively puts it, "it's somewhere else." (Specifically, it's in a server offshore in Finland.) Light-fingered sneak-thieves will have a hard time purloining art that exists only in cyberspace. Mitenev loves the whole concept of a parallel space: of cyberspace as the new aquarium. Nowadays, he does Web animation and installations and produces signature conceptual pieces like his videotape of a lamp. It's just a lamp, sitting there in the middle of nothingness. It's a television forced to behave as a lamp. It's an untouchable source of quiet light, gently shining from inside the aquarium.
One of Kostya's artistic allies is Alla Mitrofanova, a self-described "cyberfeminist media critic." Alla Mitrofanova is curator for the electronic art program at the Techno Art Center, located at Gallery 21 inside the Pushkinskaya squat. Alla's not an artist. She's a postmodernist, French-theory-driven feminist Russian art critic. Of course, feminism, like many another ism, takes some odd transmutations in a Russian context; as Alla points out, Russian radical feminism was very much a 1920s phenomenon. That was when Bolshevik social engineering produced a sudden, unprecedented burst of gender-leveling law and social policy. It helps to be a cultural historian when you're a Russian feminist.
In a European context, there's a firm alliance between electronic art and postmodern theory. Digital art fits neatly into a lot of postmodern analytical obsessions: body theory (you have no body in cyberspace), gender studies (in cyberspace nobody knows you're a dog), the simulacrum (it's all simulated here inside the glass box, thank you), postmodern subjectivity fragmentation (MUDs, hacker handles, false and alternate electronic identities), even Paul Virilio's speed obsession (speed of light "speedy" enough for you, mon frere?). Alla Mitrofanova, who is intelligentsia right down to her deck-punching fingernails, enjoys nothing more than curling up with the collected works of Monsieur Gilles Deleuze for a high-speed ideological drift far above the thousandth plateau. I confess to a certain sneaking fondness for this stuff myself. Alla, however, not only reads it in French and thinks it in Russian, she can really churn it out in English.
As she once wrote in her husband's magazine, Artistic Will: "The motive for the magazine to appear is today's aesthetic stagnation within the temporal texture and the fact that the Now surface feels friable before interpretation. This texture is a medley of meaninglessness, commonplaceness, and the keen sensation of life formation: break, textural density, contemplating time within which clots of cultural texture of the past are a part of the present." Yeah man! Whoo! As behooves a guy who earns his living by Yankee cultural imperialism, I have a warm, kindly, and protective feeling about European postmodern art theory. True, some of my original thrill faded when I realized that I could actually understand it, but that too has its benefits. I was settling down with Alla for a friendly chat about shattered weltanschauungs and the Situationist urban drift when her husband came in, having put the children to bed.
Andrei Khlobystin is an art critic, curator, and art historian, but, he insists, he is not a postmodernist. He's a blazing Neo-Academist zealot. Although Neo-Academists like postmodernists enough to marry them (and even reproduce), they're just not very postmodernist anymore.
Andrey sat down on the battered family couch above the night's throng of Nevsky Prospekt, lit a cigarette, and launched into a full-scale, no-holds-barred, conquer-the-world, revolutionary Russian art rant. It was the first Neo-Academist sermon I'd ever heard. He was using terms and jargon that were totally unfamiliar to me. I was thrilled. I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd found a baby coelacanth frolicking downriver from Chernobyl.
Andrey blithely described Neo-Academism as something that had once been an "art movement" but is now a lifestyle, a sensibility, and a community. It's the Neo-Academists' measured response to "the disappearance of repressive power" and its weird new reappearance as "the seductive power of mass media." And Neo-Academism, Andrey solemnly declared, is prepared to eat mass media. Eat it? I inquired cautiously.
Oh yes. You see, that's a tactical reaction to "the triad of sex, power, and repression." It's a "new semantic revolution." It's a new creative answer to the collapse of communism's official future and the consequent "total crisis of identity for everybody." It's about finding the space to communicate the positive energies, a "position of creative joy," "especially for the rave generation and the hackers" -but it's not merely generational.
You see, Andrey mused aloud at a smoking 56,000 baud, "we live in a very strange town that looks like an ideology in stone." But you get a "very cold feeling when you see the difference between yourself and the facade." The city's energy derives from this stark contrast between the magnificent shell and the squalid reality of trash-filled inner yards and brutal communal apartments.
But Saint Petersburg has a great advantage: it has no art market, no "market for souls." Neo-Academist art is created by "people who are making art because they cannot do anything else." It's no longer about "art" per se, because "art has no substance now - only media." This is avant-garde media for media's sake, basically; it's daily life conceived as media, "daily communication as a work of art." The core of the Neo-Academist effort is quiet, supportive gestures from person to person, network freebies really, on "the naive level of everyday life." It's about sustaining creativity in the free space, through potlatch - realizing your own interior riches, and deliberately giving creativity away. Neo-Academism is squatting inside the dead shell of classical art. Its proponents like classical art because it's old and it's public domain - now classical art is media freeware. "Neo-Academism is an aesthetic ghetto, but all the other places were occupied by political correctness and crowds of other people. This is a backyard, a rubbish-place. It's free, and we can do anything with it."
There was a great deal more to Andrey's speech - all about Cartesian rationalism, Russian spiritualism, beauty, nature, language, the Superman, "killing things by names," and "breaking through the white wall." But enough of Andrey's rhetoric; how does this actually work? What separates Neo-Academism from neoclassical schlock - say, a Maxfield Parrish Saturday Evening Post cover? Well, first of all, Neo-Academism isn't that cute. It's not soothing, it's not decorative. It's pretty, but it's dangerously pretty.
And it's also magnificent - this may be the oddest element. People in Saint Petersburg live in a city where magnificence was a political weapon, where the ideology and architecture of an aristocracy is still a living and compelling part of the environment. Preindustrial aristocracy is an alternative society now, a lost world of patricians who would have roundly scorned our servile acquiescence in the unchallenged rule of cash over human affairs. Aristocracy is not communist, bourgeois, capitalist, or commercial.
Saint Petersburg's architecture always made communism look bad - and the detritus of dead aristocracy is also a living reproach to any society prostrated by Pepsi, Marlboro, and McDonald's. Peter the Great was building to last. Who builds to that standard these days? People will pay good money to get into the Church of Spilled Blood - what has anyone built in the past 20 years that people a hundred years from now will pay to visit? We're infinitely faster and better informed now, but also much more disposable.
The last 20th-century people who talked seriously about building for the long term were the Nazis. The "Thousand-Year Reich." The Nazis were also very much into academic revivalism, and they possessed a great sense of set design. Albert Speer and his spotlight cathedral rallies, the Nuremberg raves. The costumery of the SS still inspires fetishists a full 60 years later. Nazi conquerors looted and emptied galleries and museums all over Europe and took special pains to obliterate every czarist palace in Leningrad they could get their hands on. Nazi art is the great buried and denied art of the 20th century. It's pseudo-neoclassical, and it's the one form of 20th-century art that still shocks and frightens people.
The Neo-Academists aren't Nazis. They're only barely living in the 20th century. But they've thought a lot about who the Nazis were and how they worked. Yeah, they're supposed to be harmless hippie eccentrics. But they know history anyway. And it shows.
Nazi art used classical motifs with a thud and a blunder and a crunch. Neo-Academist sculptor Julia Straussova does heroic busts of her friends and colleagues. But these go well beyond parody - they actually hurt your brain. They have the full-scale classical facade -laurel wreaths, Greek helmets, symmetrical pedestals, an air of timeless glory - but the faces are life masks of contemporary human beings. They're no fuhrers or god-emperors, they're people: Roman majesty and gravitas, but with Andrey Khlobystin's friendly-goblin mug grafted on. Julia Straussova once did a series of busts of 12 German techno DJs: "The Twelve Caesars of the Techno-Imperium." Twelve rave DJs? Well, why not? Why shouldn't disk-spinning pop stars be treated just like Caesars - it's all about fame and glory, isn't it? It's all about celebrity. It's media.
Neo-Academists don't do postmodern irony. They do something else entirely, something they call cruel naivete. It's beyond mere cynicism. It only works when done with a straight face.
The catalog Passiones Luci (1995) shows the Neo-Academist community in full cry. Here we have a full-scale photographic tableau vivant that reproduces selected episodes from The Golden Ass of Apuleius. This was an inspired choice from Roman classical literature. The Golden Ass has been indecent for 2,000 years and will probably be even more indecent 2,000 years hence.
Doing the book as a series of costumed stage photos was a challenging effort, but that Neo-Academist potlatch ethic came to the fore. Everyone pitched in. Artists become unpaid models. Alla Mitrofanova ran high-level interference and helped squeeze some art funding out of the local George Soros art center. Everybody crowded in front of the camera: the team of Oleg Maslov and Viktor Kuznetzov, Timur Novikov, Olga Tobreluts, various local hippies, rock stars' wives, artists' boyfriends and girlfriends, the guy down the hall at the squat. The intended end result, as Ekaterina Andreeva (a Neo-Academist and director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts) puts it, is "an unraveling of historical time." Those eerily symmetrical costumes are certainly weird enough - but the photographs, careful imitations of 19th-century staged photography, were subjected to digital photomontage to an effect beyond collage: it's profoundly weird, as if raw computational power had somehow caused history to disintegrate.
And they know that's what's happening. As Andreeva says, "Technology aspires to magic; society aspires toward maximum technological expertise and precision, to create lifelike doubles and substitutes for reality." In Saint Petersburg, this isn't merely a techie conceit; it's helping artists get a grip on their profound cultural dilemma. "Technical lifelike doubles entangle and exceed the boundaries of reality," says Andreeva. "They create the illusion of the reversibility of historical time."
Suddenly the true Neo-Academist wildcard emerges: the digital imperative. This is what truly distinguishes Neo-Academism from all those previous attempts to resuscitate dead beaux arts. The Neo-Academists have the technology. They can get a different kind of grip. They can cut and paste it. Photoshop is their friend.
There's no question who the truly wired Neo-Academist is. Olga Tobreluts is a 26-year-old Petersburg native who's never done anything but digital art, like altered digital photography and video montage. She is the current Queen of the Neo-Academist Scene.
Olga Tobreluts has been a model for other Neo-Academist efforts, and it probably doesn't hurt much that she is stunningly photogenic; but that's not why Timur Novikov recommends her work to foreign journalists (like me). He considers her the Neo-Academist to watch. Twenty-one years old when the Russian Federation was established, Olga Tobreluts doesn't have the crushing historical burdens of the Necro-Realists. She was a child in Leningrad; and she's one of the very first artists to become an adult in the New Russia.
Olga's work is digital, and it's media, and it's all about heritage and identity. It's not a stretch or a novelty for Olga to work with digital art. It's just another means - the best means, the natural means - of coming to grips with her subject matter.
Olga Tobreluts lives in a building that might have been set-designed for a Neo-Academist. It's a deeply eerie downtown Belle Epoque pile that was built in full-scale Pharaonic Egyptian replication. The structure is almost 100 years old now and is falling photogenically apart at the seams, in a mummified Necro-Realist fashion. Like all Saint Petersburg apartment buildings, every inch of public space in the structure is in a state of utter neglect. The stairwells smell and are totally unlit, since any fool unwise enough to install a 35-cent lightbulb would find it immediately stolen. The elevator is a maelstrom of heavy-metal rock graffiti. Olga's door is a retrofitted portcullis of makeshift armor plate.
But beyond the door, it's Finland. There's a working studio, an atelier. There's furniture, TV screens, a computer. There are caged birds and flowers and a lot of rave promotion posters. That's a parenthetical oddity: you'd think that, to be consistent, Neo-Academists would be into neoclassical music, perhaps some kind of digital restorationist work involving sackbuts and harpsichords. In point of fact, they're all techno-rave fanatics. This doesn't strike them as contradictory. They're contemporary people, not antiquarians. Their native music is rave music, sampled Eurodigital electronica. Olga's husband owns a techno night club. Timur Novikov does raves. The Riverniks organize and promote rave events. The official Neo-Academist house band is Novy Kompository, the New Composers, whose work is meditative Brian Eno-like honks, bleeps, and ambient thudding. In fact, Eno was just in town hanging out with the Novy Kompository, who found themselves to be very much on his wavelength.
Olga's work isn't postmodern virtual art; it isn't the supposed wonder and marvel of virtual reality. It's Art first, and digital as a distant second. Olga Tobreluts's work has to do with the stark fact that she's Olga Tobreluts: a child of Leningrad, an adult in Petersburg, a Russian woman with a Baltic heritage and Baltic surname - Tobreluts - which wasn't Slavic enough. (She's not alone in that problem. Anatoly Chubais, Russia's greatest spin master, is also from Saint Petersburg. He's also of Baltic ancestry. He isn't Slavic enough, either. Although he's running the country.)
Olga could be Olga Komarova if she wanted - her infant son is Yakim Komarov, an unimpeachably Russian name - but she is passionately Olga Tobreluts and will not back down. She's gifted, and young, and energetic: but the thing that makes Olga Tobreluts truly significant as a Saint Petersburg cultural figure is that she so clearly knows who she is. She uses computers, video montage, and digital photography to prove who she is.
When I first saw Olga's series Family, a set of eight computer-altered photographs of herself and her ancestors, I told her that they seemed familiar - somewhat like the posed historical photographs of Cindy Sherman. This produced the instant retort that Cindy Sherman is a postmodernist. Cindy Sherman's art is "ironic"; she treats portraiture as a pose, a joke. The Family series, on the other hand, is a set of old black-and-white photos that have been montaged, colorized, altered, transformed. This isn't fake identity, fragmented subjectivity, alternate identity, or virtuality: it's an artist whose identity was already destroyed, repressed, and fragmented by political repression, who is using a computer because it redeems her and it proves who she is. That's a subtle difference, but it's all the difference in the world.
Olga also works in video. She did an instant Neo-Academist classic called Woe from Wit. It's a brief video, done on no budget to speak of and featuring various potlatch friends as unpaid stars. It's based on a 19th-century Russian drama, but this thing that's been done to this classic play with Olga's mouse and Return key is more than mere parody. Mutation would be a far better term. Period-costumed amateur actors wander about the set reciting their fractured lines, while canvases on the wall change their subject matter without warning. Curtains turn into waterfalls, classical nudes morph on their pedestals. There's a whole other world in that video, maybe a whole other century. Certainly not our century. The coming century of a young Russian woman.
Three or four years ago, Timur Novikov used to mutter to his intimates that computers were the work of the devil. The future lay in the past - in transforming Petersburg into a "green zone" for forms of art that are obscured, forgotten, too troublesome, no longer practiced. People should be taught to draw again, to understand perspective, proportion, classic Greek aesthetics. Timur doesn't condemn computers any more. Timur has his own Web site now. He knows that Olga Tobreluts, a woman who showed up in his circle as a teenage architecture student, has become the apotheosis of Neo-Academism.
As for Timur himself ... I met him, of course. I would never have turned down the chance to meet Timur Novikov after hearing his disciples talk about him. They literally think he's magic.
A skeptic would say that it's not all that hard to be "magic" when large numbers of your nearest and dearest are skull-whacked on shrooms and ketamine. But Timur Novikov is pretty damned magic, when you're sober and in broad daylight. He's not a gifted artist; he's more than that: as they used to say of Andre Breton, he's the torch who lights their steps. Everyone this man knows has been turned into an artist. He's a Breton, or a Warhol, only more so - because the people in his orbit need him more. Breton was on the Left Bank when Paris was the ne plus ultra of Euro-intellectual chic. Warhol was in New York when the Youthquake was happening, the economy was booming, and there was art money all over the place. Timur Novikov is in Saint Petersburg when the economy has crashed, the rule of law is a pious fraud, and people are at their wits' ends and drinking themselves to death.
But Timur is a "titan artist of a new type" - at least he is according to his own publicity (www.dux.ru/virtual/timur/index.htm). Timur decided that his situation required an artistic titan, so he made himself into one. A touch of megalomania is a real asset in a situation like Timur's: it helps you deal with the Soros art center, with pesky foreign journalists who don't speak your language. He's got a major ego, and on him it looks good! It gets him out of bed in the morning, day after day, to inspire and organize the lives and psyches of temperamental Russian artists.
In point of fact, pretty much nothing has happened in Saint Petersburg art in the past 15 years without Timur Novikov either lurking in the background or strutting on the stage. He started his first art movement, the New Artists group, when he was a mere 24. Next year it was the New Composers music group, with Timur neck deep in artistic design for the rock bands Popular Mechanics and Kino. In the mid-1980s he decided it was time to leave the aquarium, and he left to exhibit and study in Germany, Finland, Yugoslavia, France, and the US. Then, in 1993, he opened the New Academy of Fine Arts, the semi-official front group for the Neo-Academist movement.
Timur creates videos, photos, tapestries, and paintings, but he's a rarer thing than a mere artist: he's a great critic and a great inspirational figure. He radiates charisma - when he takes his turn in Olga Tobreluts's video Woe From Wit, in period costume, he looks like the Duke of Wellington.
And today, this unquestioned master of the Saint Petersburg art scene is still not quite 40 years old - and he's blind. The illness began to attack his eyesight about three months ago. His sickness has been vaguely described as meningitis, but whatever it is, it's serious. This titan artist is very sick. He looks 60.
It's truly one of the saddest things I've ever witnessed. Meeting Timur Novikov was a raw confrontation with unappeasable Russian tragedy. His friends say that his blindness has somehow made him stronger, more magical even. But this is a man who's been an art critic since the age of 15, and he can no longer see his art. He was proud and eagle-eyed - and now he's gaunt and blind.
Lately he's been arranging press interviews in a fine old graveyard, near the hospital, conducted in excellent English and betraying not just kindness and generosity, but also a first-class mind. He talks about retrofitting obnoxious Modernist buildings with classical facades, a serious scheme which amuses Timur no end. After all, why stop at merely retrofitting tedious old churches? Turn the whole city Neo-Academist, transplant the past wholesale, "repair" that which needs no repair. It would be helpful, too, Timur thinks, if tiresome 20th-century Modern Art, which has clearly failed, could be removed from the aesthetic landscape and kept in a vault somewhere for a hundred years or so. (Then, you see, it might become interesting and valuable - in much the same way that long-frozen czarist art is suddenly valuable now.)
Timur is a little tired of squats full of ravers and druggies; given his choice, he'd like to dwell in the Mikhailovsky Palace, elegantly surrounded by busts of electroplated DJs and Russian ambient music. He'd be a figure liberated from history, surrounded by "beauty." Beauty is not a mere figure of speech in Timur's concepts. Beauty seems to be a substance to him, an objective reality, a thing as omnipresent in Petersburg as bad communist cement.
What does it mean to live in a country where the male life expectancy is 57 years? It means that for every man who dies at 74, there's a man who dies at 40. That's Russian reality now. They're not being communists, but they're not getting healthier. They don't yet understand how.
Today Russians are adapting an Americanized, or at least a Europeanized, facade just as fast as they can stand it. The people of Saint Petersburg are particularly good at this; it's why their city was created. That's a project dear to their hearts. There's a sour joke in Petersburg now that says they should declare independence from the rest of Russia, become a little Baltic state like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia - and then declare war on Finland and lose. Because Finland was Russian territory not so long ago, and now it's a relative paradise of clean streets, socialist health care, and Nokia cell phones.
But Saint Petersburg isn't Europe, and Russians aren't Americans. They say they want to be "normal," and this is as close as they've gotten lately, but they're just not normal yet. They're not dues-paying members of the Group of Eight who merely happen to have been through 70 mind-warping years of murderous totalitarianism. They weren't much like Americans before that episode, and at the far end of it, they're still not like Americans, and not at all sure what to make of themselves. They have a very deep, very classically Russian problem right now, and it's a problem at which they have failed, repeatedly and disastrously.
Sometimes a great people can rise by the good fortune of having great enemies. Before our long quarrel with the Soviets, America was basically a giant farm, a country whose hayseed soldiers boated over periodically to sort out the troubles in Europe. At the end of all that, we've become the first truly global superpower, the first military power whose cultural and technical preeminence is so overwhelming that we can't even be bothered to steal other people's land. We don't need their land. We don't want it. It's of no use to us.
But the Russians aren't the only great people with a spiritual problem. We Americans are a very strange nation. When you stay a while in Europe, or even in Russia, you can glance back and you can come to see that there's a strange, scalped quality about the US. There's a creepiness about us, a blankness, a darkness. Behind all the glitzy military-entertainment video product, our satellite rock and roll, our disposable diapers, and our racks of shiny fluoride-strengthened teeth, there's a gum-popping Whore America, who can be led to culture but who can't be made to think. We're a facile, careless culture, so mired in Babbittesque philistinism that savaging the NEA is our national sport. Digital America is faster and maybe even richer, but it isn't much prettier, and it might be even less civilized. Here we suddenly have a brand-new class of ruling postindustrial moguls, a gang of digital hustlers to take their historical place beside the five-and-dime store magnates, the railroad barons, the steel monopolists, and the oil trusts. And yet these American titans, astoundingly, don't have any taste. None. Even 19th-century soap-and-starch salesmen would build parks, libraries, public statuary. Even their bric-a-brac weekend castles would last 200 years. But not US computer moguls. They're spectacularly rich, a true techno-aristocracy. But in their heart of hearts, they're workaholic Dilberts, guys whose idea of fine art is a nailgun splash in Doom, or maybe a Hollywood dinosaur eating a lawyer.
Russia is in bad straits, but I will swear with my hand on a Unix bible that when Olga Tobreluts enters the room, the image-crunching jockeys at Industrial Light & Magic ought to genuflect and spit up holy water. She's an Artist. No kidding. She's got something they just don't have. They need it, too. They need it a whole lot.
We ought to work something out here. Now that we've given up staring each other down, we ought to water the cultural roots and feed the butterflies that follow. This could work. I can foresee a world where American computer moguls actually like and buy Russian computer art. Maybe even collect it. I'd really like to see a few Russian titan artist become zillionaires - that could liven things up considerably. Besides, the Russians are a little too sanctimonious about their righteous poverty - I'd like to see them deal with our famous artists' problems and see how they like it.
The whole population could do this. We could all dump our dated hippie Pre-Raphaelite posters from our college dorms and yuppie dens and replace them with some chrome-coated, deeply eerie, Neo-Academist digitalia. It's just as "pretty," but it's a lot more true to our time and our basic predicament. America may not be up for this. We might just chew this stuff up, spit it out, and use it to sell running shoes. But not every country on earth has our personality problems. There's still hope, it's a big global world now; the Neo-Academists could get a long way just by becoming big in Japan. Japan is country that knows a very great deal about pseudo-Westernized facades and deep, dark, sticky interiors.
And at the end of the day, art is still art, even when it's media. There's a bigger issue at stake here. Photography - the first fully machine-mediated art form - was a time bomb in the basement of representational painting. Why go on with that always-bogus "fidelity to nature" when a camera can give you real and objective fidelity at the click of a shutter? Baudelaire knew that the camera was the enemy of painting. But he was a 19th-century figure; he didn't know that the camera had an enemy, too. The camera's enemy is the computer. All so-called fidelity melts and warps before the 21st-century scepter of digital imagery, the new usurper that can kill the camera and avenge its grandfather: a paintbrush driven by the human mind and hand.
And painting's just one part of it. Even the Church on Spilled Blood might quail before the untapped power of the Neo-Academist computer. What is a "mosaic" anyway? A mosaic is stone pixels. That's all there is to it! Computers can handle pixels. You - yes, you - could get a computer, scan any image you want, have the computer break it up into numbered, colored pixels. Then you go out and you break some colored pop bottles with a hammer, and you buy a tub of superglue. Then you find some forgotten wall in the barrio, some obscure and evil place where people are murdered like the czar, every day, without even God caring. You get some unemployed friends and some workgloves, and you glue that broken glass up on the wall, pixel after pixel. Presto -order out of rubbish! Beauty - it spreads like fudge! Czarist fine art for nothing!
Do you like those magnificent stone altars with their fantastic hand-etched curlicues? No problem! Scan them in on 3-D models, and have a machine tool dig them out of solid rock with CAD/CAM. Detail that would have blinded and killed Faberge artisans can be yours -just for the willpower it takes to do it. Not for a fortune. Not for years of arduous labor. Yours for a gesture. Yours for potlatch.
Of course, you won't do it now - not just because you read about it in a magazine. But you'd do it if Timur Novikov lived next door. You wouldn't be able to stop yourself. He'd make you realize how rich you are, inside. Maybe a Russian futurist - Boris Strugatsky - should have the last word. Boris, along with his late brother, Arkady, were the best-known and most admired Russian SF writers of their generation. But at the conference I attended, Boris confessed sadly to his assembled compeers that his writing of the 1950s now strikes him as the work of Marxist religious fanatics. Those weren't novels, but utopian philosophical tracts.
Now Boris Strugatsky has a Pentium, a modem, and a stack of CD-ROMs -but inspiration knows no baud rate. He says that inspiration hasn't changed since he days of Pushkin. Boris has known suffering - he's a Russian Jew in a country infested with anti-Semites - but it never occurred to him to leave his beloved city.
"The highest joy of man is creativity," Boris told me with that complete and somewhat paralyzing Russian sincerity. "No power, or wealth, or drugs can match that. There are three great sources of happiness in life: friends, love, and the work. Take care of those three, and you can forget the rest. There is no cure for poverty of the spirit."
Saint Petersburg is still a place where people can say that and mean it.
Bruce Sterling ( email@example.com ) recently wrote Holy Fire , a novel.