#30 | February 26 - March 5, 1998  smlogo.gif

Feature Story

In This Issue
Feature Story
Press Review
Kino Korner


Does Anything Matter?

by Mark Ames

LAST MONDAY wasn't supposed to be the lovely, sunny, warm spring-like day that we all remember fondly. Monday was supposed to be that day that Russia exploded in a mass uprising led by the armed forces, overthrowing the Yeltsin regime.

Lev Rokhlin, the former "hero" of Chechnya, had set the date of February 23rd himself, leading to all sorts of wild speculation in the media and a government commission meant to quash "extremism." This isn't the first time Russia has been threatened with a violent cataclysm.

Last autumn, we were assured, was going to be a long, hot autumn. The population had reached its breaking point. People were going to rise up in the streets, led by sovok furniture store manager Gennady Zyuganov. Zyuganov has been promising long, hot autumns every autumn since... well, since the one mildly warm autumn in 1993, when, after a brief battle at the White House, nothing much happened and nothing much changed. Last March, you'll recall, a nationwide workers' strike to protest unpaid wages was going to lead to an Albania-style disintegration of the state and mass, armed anarchy. They're threatening another nationwide strike this spring, which may again lead to an Albania-style breakdown of order. And any interview with General Lebed is bound to include alarming soundbites about the inevitable social explosion sweeping across Russia.

It's beginning to seem as though a pattern is emerging.

A week ago, future funding by the IMF hung in the balance. This came after the conservative wing in the Yeltsin government, represented by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, grew in power at the expense of the reformers in January. Which overturned the balance set earlier in 1997 when Yeltsin appointed Chubais and Nemtsov as Deputy Prime Ministers, elevating the reformers to the forefront at the expense of the conservatives. That move had reversed the ascendancy of the conservatives in late 1995, when Chubais had been fired (and IMF funding was in jeopardy). This back and forth game is of course a familiar one, going back to late 1992, when Yeltsin first replaced reformer prime minister Yegor Gaidar with conservative prime minister Chernomyrdin, and culminating in the early 1994 sacking of reformist Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov. Ever since, the false pendulum has continued its false swings, hypnotizing only those eager to be hypnotized: journalists, scholars, academics, and politicians, leaving the masses of Russians cold.

Does anyone smell the deceptive stench of red herring?

Let's take the oligarchy war. This alleged war has turned monied politics into a kind of sporting section in the newspapers. Each week, different oligarchs' scores are tallied in the league of seven; each week a new winner is declared, trades are announced, deals cut. Which oligarch will win? Every week, new scandals erupt, mergers are announced and cabinet shuffles leave the press to ponder who is gaining the upper hand. When Yeltsin fired Berezovsky from the Security Council last October, it appeared as though the Chubais/Potanin/Jordan axis would win out. Then the book scandal broke. A scandal sort of like the scandal a few months earlier in which it was proven that Chubais had taken a three million dollar bribe from Stolichny Bank. Which was sort of like the scandal in which Chubais was overheard trying to quash a criminal investigation into his activities. And so on. And so on.

So it's true: when you pull the camera back for a minute and run the replays, a pattern does emerge. Not at all the thrilling, nail-biting drama we've been reading about for the past several years. More like a cricket match. With that horrible stench of red herring hanging in the air. Why red herring? Because while we've been trying to find a meaningful narrative to all these events, the very same people have been making off with the loot this year that were making off with the loot seven years ago. No one goes to jail. No one gets in trouble for taking bribes or bombing his own parliament. Nothing at all of any consequence happens. Which means, perhaps, that America had it right when it spent weeks in agonizing fixation over what name President Clinton would give to his new dog, and whether said dog would work things out with Socks, the cutely named First Cat.

Hey, that was Big News.
The Russian masses have been telling us something for a long time now, but we've been reluctant to listen. They've been telling us that there's a pattern here in Russian news, a very unpleasant pattern that makes for a depressing story-the kind of story that you just can't sell in our business. So we've dismissed the masses as cranks, and continued to watch the little pendulum swoosh back and forth, mistaking each predictable swing for historical movement and tides of events.

But tally up the results and you'll see that no one's take on the post-communist "struggle" has been accurate: not the mainstream West's version, which pits young, democratically-minded reformers against old, bad, authoritarian-minded revanchists; nor the left's version of an American corporate conspiracy to engulf and devour Mother Russia. Actually, both interpretations are right and wrong, and yet... they just don't matter.

Let's look at the dramatic conflicts that drive the plot of Russia: The Movie in 1998. What are the big questions that face us this year? Reform versus communist/nationalist revanchism. Will the budget finally pass? Will Russia finally adapt a sane tax code? Will the hardline Duma vote no-confidence in the government? Which oligarchical faction will win out? Will Yeltsin finally die? How about growth? Is this the year that the Russian economy will finally turn around? Will a Russian idea be found, or a new great writer appear?

The Russian masses have an answer-have had an answer that you hear on any radio show, or in any taxi ride, or hung around a party of over-30s long enough to listen. The answer is usually a contemptuous wave of the hand, a spit on the ground. Their answer is: It just doesn't matter.

In his debut film Meatballs, Bill Murray plays a daft camp counselor at a low-budget summer camp for twerp kids. When his camp loses a big sports competition against the rich, spiffy camp across the lake, Murray gathers the despondent, pimple-faced nerds into a huddle, and leads them into the following, soothing chant: "It just doesn't matter... it just doesn't matter... IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!"

When nothing matters anymore, there's something almost funny about it, something soothing. Why? In the first place, you can save yourself a lot of time. You don't have to read the newspapers anymore, because you know the answers to this year's Big Questions well in-advance. Yeltsin won't die, but his heart will burst out of his chest like the Alien thing, and half the veins in his brain will pop like tiny blood balloons. But he won't die-in fact, he'll recover after a 14-month "vacation" looking more fit than ever. The budget will pass, and in spite of all the editorials in The Moscow Times attacking the communist-dominated Duma, the only party to vote against the budget will be Yavlinsky's Yabloko. Tax reform will be postponed one more year. Another war on corruption will be declared, declawed, and de-legitimized. Economic growth figures will excite a few ministers, but they'll have no effect on either the rise or fall in the stock market, or the ongoing feudal misery of the Russian masses. Your receptionist will continue to rudely answer the phone and make each caller feel like a trespassing felon-if she even bothers to answer-while most expats will continue whining about Moscow. The Moscow Tribune will continue to publish, somehow, long after the death of the eXile, The Moscow Times, you and us. But it will only come out once every six months, and it will be a two-page, A4-size photocopied newsletter.

How do we know all this? Because every year, it's the same thing, folks. Russia: The Movie isn't a thriller-it's a repeat sitcom, like Three's Company reruns, over and over. And over.

Nothing matters, because nothing changes. And all these little political games and scandals we've been watching have all been red herrings to draw attention away from the fact that... nothing happens.

What Russia really needs is a Bill Murray type to lead the whole nation into a good-hearted chant. What it got instead was Fyodor Dostoevsky, literature's answer to Spaz. In one of his greatest novels, Spaz wrote, "If [nothing matters], then anything is possible." Spaz was afraid that in an age of godless nihilism, people would start doing anything they pleased. Like, for example, murdering. Stealing. Or making a hobby of deflowering teenage virgins. Sound familiar?

Dostoevsky was no Nostradamus. But he was close. In The Devils, he foresaw communist ruthlessness. In Crime and Punishment, the bloodthirsty egoism of Raskolnikov foreshadows your average Young Reformer, while braggart rake Svidrigailov is a precursor to Owen Matthews, Michael Bass, our senior editorial staff, and... basically Moscow's entire male expat community.

If only Dostoevsky had a Bill Murray-type character in one of his novels to make sense of it all. For example, in The Brothers Karamazov-why not have a fourth brother, Bill Karamazov, the nutty lounge-act brother who gives noogies to Ivan whenever he gets too morose and philosophical...

"Get outta here with that Grand Inquisitor stuff, brother. Better to repeat after me: It just doesn't matter..."

Meatballs came out in 1979, at the close of what was perhaps America's most turbulent period ever. What was the result of the social revolutions that shook America to its foundations? All of the blood, sweat, and tears from two decades produced an era of Ronald Reagan, Ivan Boesky and Cindy Lauper. Which segued into the 90s, the era of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Hanson. In other words, all that revolution seemed to produce a world in which nothing changed and nothing made a difference. Murray was right: all that bra burning, all those assassinations and dead Kent State students, all those Civil Rights bills and punk rocker riots... they all meant nothing, because no matter what, the rich kids' camp will always beat the twerp kids' camp.

And that's exactly what happened here. What's a Russian supposed to believe any more if the communists suck, the democrats are murderous crooks, and the nationalists have been co-opted by our own Doctor Limonov. And what are expats supposed to believe if the entire Cold War we fought was supposed to be all about improving individual Russians' lives, but it turned out that all we really fought for was open markets for Marlboro smokes and another non-liquid stock market for hedge funds?

Nothing. That's the hitch. We aren't supposed to draw any lesson from this at all. There's no Mike Brady to sit us down and tell us, in his stern, reassuring way, that all of this makes sense. Nope. The days of change are over. The days of events occurring, leading to other meaningful events, have officially ended. From now on, folks, nothing will ever happen again. Even though some people will continue trying to convince you of it.

Perhaps that's not such a bad thing-this false media hype about events and struggles and cataclysms that never occur. Staring into the abyss of nothingness on a daily basis can be bad for the average person's health. That's why we have things like religion. And newspapers, selling us bogus stories of conflict and change. We need to believe that something's happening out there, even if, when we look back to what happened in Russia, where supposedly things changed more than anywhere in the world... nothing happened at all. We need those red herrings bad-like, to keep us from perceiving the reruns. Kind of makes you want to stand up tall, take a microphone, and croon, "Star Wars... nothing but Star Wars... always those Star Wars..."

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