There’s been an ever-growing competition, particularly among Moscow’s male expats and the women who keep company with them, to prove their decadent credentials. Each carries with them their CV of perversions and drug binges, and brags about their decadent ways like investment bankers boasting about “doin’ deals.” You can’t go a week here without hearing some expat tell you about his drug problem, his 2-on-1, whore-hopping, girlfriend-swapping, the pair of handcuffs, the Trainspotting-esque life (incidentally the most predictable, sentimental, Social Democratic film of them all!), and so on… Coat and Tie has now become Coke and Tie-Me-Up, and it’s losing its appeal fast.
This isn’t the first time I’ve wound up in a competition of degeneracy. It seems to happen anytime a large group of Westerners are away from home. When I arrived at U.C. Berkeley at the age of 17, I drifted, with a mixture of fear and curiosity, into the post-punk world. I look back fondly on those days-it seems far more intense and dangerous than today’s version of decadence: instead of a weekend of ecstasy and techno music, it was a week’s worth of maining MDA (ecstasy’s more powerful older brother) and speed, then off to a Black Flag show at the Mab, where someone was guaranteed to get stomped; instead of bagging a bisexual whore, you beat your girlfriend and spat into her bleeding mouth. I only caught the tail end of that world-I came too late, and never actually entered into its orbit. But I still find it impressive, even if most of us were “faking it.” Which I mostly did. I still remember, with shame, that bullwhip I bought from a black man in North Oakland. I hung it up on my wall to impress the bleach-faced punks, though I never used it. Once, Mitzy, a famous local dominatrix, saw my bullwhip and pulled it down. She asked me to show her how I use it; while awkwardly snapping it in the air, I accidentally lashed my face and forearms, yelping out loud with each strike. It got a good laugh out of Mitzy, a nice pat on my head. I threw it away, and vowed never to fake something like that again.
Like all good things, the decadence of the 80s punk world faded, and reemerged in its tamer, adulterated form in the early 90s slacker/Nirvana scene. At the risk of sounding cooler-than-thou, I can’t help but feel that decadence has fallen into the wrong hands-the hands of the many-and is no longer interesting.
I realized this in Prague back in 1992. I arrived there with a single goal: to make money, buy a small rural castle, then hire a team of young Slovak servants whom my girlfriend Sarka would train and discipline according to her whim. It was a pipe dream, of course; I didn’t know what cruel joke awaited me in Prague: the command center of the Slacker World, and their tame, ironic de-(ca)den/ce. It was as though all the expats there, far away from home (even farther away than college was from home), felt OBLIGED to wear a badge of degeneracy on their sleeves, for fear of not being accepted into the what was considered the “cool” crowd. Prague’s was a softer, gentler, more feminine version of decadence than Moscow’s or Berkeley’s: bisexuality and marijuana were the Big Things, along with hairwraps, affected laziness and literary ambition.
The problem nowadays is that decadence has lost its danger. It has become DEMOCRATIZED: seized from the few and redistributed to the many. A. Morrissette is the perfect metaphor for this 90s decadence: a former child pop star, now she’s an angry, box-munching bi-; it was a clever marketing strategy on her part-after all, Morrisette is adept at gauging the trends of the masses. By repackaging herself as an angry bisexual, she’s been able to maintain her Grammy-winning celebrity status, which, in their own minor league way, all the little Prague-ers did too.
By its very definition, decadence cannot be exciting unless it is a). exclusive, and b). dangerous. Now that it’s been democratized, decadence (which at its root means “societal/national decay,” but now refers more to the symptoms than to the disease itself) has lost its appeal, its exclusivity. It has become watered down. Decadence has been corrupted by the masses.
Russian decadence (and here, it can be called decadence-the result of a complete breakdown of the old morality) is certainly far more extreme than your average middle class Westerner’s, and definitely more interesting than anything I saw in Prague. Russians who dare tend to devour bodies and drugs with the same now-or-never attitude that they have towards a lot of things in life. But the closer they come to our middle class decadence-this techno/bisexual stuff, for example-the more boring they get. Also, I’ve noticed, the Russians aren’t really into the dark Sadean ways that you get from rich, bored Westerners. Russians may like to bang and screw and imbibe with reckless abandon, but when it comes to more refined forms of decadence-sadomasochism, for example-they don’t see the point. Perhaps that’s for the simple reason that, whatever you say about Russians, they’re never bored. Not like the French, or even Americans, who constantly battle the demons of ennui. Another theory I have for why Russians aren’t into S&M is that life here is already so sadomasochistic, that they don’t need an outlet for some repressed desires. Wanna get abused? Step out into the street; get a girlfriend or boyfriend; go to the local produkty store. Wanna do the abusing? Hire a secretary; get into a relationship; hop in a car and run down the fleeing masses. Sadomasochism in Russia isn’t a dark fantasy-it’s mundane reality.
So why are so many eXpats then trying to pass themselves off as modern-day libertines? Is it the stress, the freedom to act like a monster in an alien environment, or even the fault of this newspaper? Or are we just trying to keep up with the Russians, next to whom we come across as a bunch of sensitive dullards. The test will come when we return home-then you’ll know if you’re permanently damaged, or if you were just faking it all along.
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