We Need a (Rich) Hero

The New Russian would prove to be a bad fit for the new millennium.  Already taking a serious hit from the 1998 financial collapse, he embodied so much of what Putinism was supposed to overcome: the limitless power accrued at the intersection of wealth and crime.

The devaluation of the ruble in 1998 was an obvious disaster for the economy, but one that presented real opportunities for a certain type of entrepreneur.  As Tycoon demonstrated, the New Russian business model was about import and re-sale, not production.  The post-1998 environment, by making imports expensive, encouraged actual industry.

A little less than two years later, Putin began presiding over a country with a rapidly growing economy.  Rising oil prices were its engine, but industry grew by 76%. The introduction of a flat tax in 2001, while obviously regressive, helped refill government coffers. During his first term, Putin and the oligarchs came to something of an understanding (at the cost of some oligarchs' wealth, freedom, and lives): the oligarchs kept their money and their business, and Putin could count on them to support the government.

The rich Russian was no longer such an ideal target in the media and culture industry.  What could replace him?

In 2002, Brigada had teased the possibility of a rich hero: an ex-criminal, a reformed New Russian with a social conscience and the resolve to use at least some of his ill-gotten gains for the greater good. Just two years later, one of the oligarchs, Mikhail Prokhorov, set up a foundation to support culture, education, and science throughout Russia’s regions.  The rich Russian as citizen and patriot was becoming thinkable.

It should be no surprise, then, that one of the fictional models of this civic-minded rich Russian should emerge out of a project conceived by an actual rich Russian, Konstantin Rykov. Rykov was one of the early content entrepreneurs on the Russian Internet in the 1990s, whose career has included serving on the state Duma, being an adviser to former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, and becoming one of the most powerful television and Internet content producers in the Russian Federation. A staunch supporter of Putin, he was also a target of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign. During the 2011-2012 opposition protests, Rykov made several tweets threatening violence against the protesters.

Did someone say the peasants were coming with pitchforks?

Did someone say the peasants were coming with pitchforks?

One of the keys to Rykov’s success, both as a producer and a political figure, is his capacity for crafting both entertainment and political messaging that appeals to the country’s younger citizens.  Like Putin’s gray cardinal Vladislav Surkov, he is able to combine nationalist/conservative politics with a countercultural aesthetic.  In other words, he can make Putinism “cool.”

In 2009, he launched a massive literary “project” called “Ethnogenesis,” a series I’ve mentioned in earlier posts. Based on the highly influential crackpot theories of Lev Gumilev (son of the poets Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev),  Ethnogenesis is a series of young adult novels spanning time, space, and genres, all connected be two threads: the Gumilev family, and a set of mysterious, animal-shaped objects (“predmety”) that endow their owners a particular power (teleportation, mind control, clairvoyance, and so on).  All of the 60 novels and 6 novellas that compose this never-completed project either have one-word sons for titles (“Blockade”, “Dragon”) or are named after famous people (“Che Guevara”). [1]

The overall vision of Ethnogenesis will be discussed in Volume 2 of Russia’s Alien Nations, tentatively titled “Russofuturism.”  There is, however, one subset of the Ethnogenesis novels that bears consideration for our discussion of the New Russian and the rich Russian:  the trilogy called “Billionaire.” (Milliarder). The fact that this title is so generic is in keeping with the project’s naming conventions, but the announcement of a billionaire as not just protagonist, but hero, is another thing entirely.

 

Note

[1] This naming convention is maintained in the seven volumes of fan fiction that have been released online since the project began, with the exception of an anthology called “Battle of the Short Stories” (“Bitva rasskazov’).

 

Next: The Man Who Has Everything