If you’ve decided not to watch the Olympics—and there are many obvious reasons not to—or if you just get bored with all the vapid booster-ism, the brain-dead jingoistic blather and the endless human interest stories, I can recommend a couple of books you might want to read either instead of watching or during the ample time between events of any actual note. These books will put you right in the heart of contemporary Russia with the added benefit of not having to put up with Dan Patrick, Lester Holt et al.
Tatiana (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is the latest Arkady Renko thriller/procedural by Marin Cruz Smith, famous for Gorky Park. Tatiana’s mystery revolves around the murder of a muckraking Russian journalist who has learned too much about a corruption scheme which reaches through the Russian government and the underworld. It is a smoothly-written if bleak tale that details the ingrained cynicism, claustrophobia, and black paranoia of everyday life in Russia, where the law and the lawless work hand in glove for the enrichment of themselves and a tiny privileged class while ordinary citizen’s get by on scraps. And anyone who speaks up gets theirs.’ (Wait, does that sound strangely familiar?) By Smith’s characters’ calculus, graft is built into the budget of every contract signed in the country at a rate of about 50%. In other words half of every ruble spent on any project in Russia goes to the actual project, the other half goes to palm-greasing. That the finished product is a boondoggle, and an unbelievably shabby one at that, goes without saying. Nothing works, services are intermittent; everyone has their hand out. The Sochi Olympics are by all accounts the most expensive games in history and probably the most corrupt since Hitler’s games in 1936. Putin has sunk more than fifty billion dollars into these games which means, if Cruz is at all accurate, about twenty-five billion dollars has gone to lining the pockets of his cronies and his cronies’ cronies. The networks will likely not focus on the spectacle of Putin’s buddies living in palatial dachas while their countrymen starve, but you can bet that’s just what’s happening. While you’re at it, Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs (Simon & Schuster, 2004) is even stranger, darker and more claustrophobic, taking place in the Exclusion Zone surrounding Chernobyl. Even in that vast swath of contamination, corruption rules.
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen (Riverhead, 2014), is as clunky as Tatiana is smooth. Reading it is like a sleigh ride across a field of scrap iron; facts clank together, venues change with a scrape and clunk. Physical description and scene setting are nearly non-existent. Still, it is a worthwhile, and at times inspiring, book about how a cadre of young revolutionary feminist artists who set out to protest Putin’s “election” ran afoul of the Russian authoritarian machine and refused to be ground up by it. Pussy Riot was not so much a band in the traditional sense of the word as it was a piece of conceptual art. Sort of the Sex Pistols with even less musical talent. And like the Pistols, Pussy Riot engaged in the most subversive act any artist can engage in—pointing out the hypocrisies and lies at the root of their society—and stirred up way more trouble than they seemed to truly warrant. The subsequent trial turned out to be, not surprisingly, a kangaroo court with a transcript that reads like something out of Joseph Heller, or maybe Duck Soup:
“I can put two and two together,” said Sokologorskaya [witness, referred to in court as ‘victim’], “I’m not the stupidest person there is.”
[Defense attorney]: “You said the defendants performed bodily movements that you called ‘devilish jerkings.’ Could you explain what devilish jerkings are?”
[Judge]: “I’m disallowing the question.”
“Why?” Volkova [another defense attorney] stood up again, “Is the court curtailing our rights?”
“No one is curtailing anything,” the judge said.
“The victim’s statement is part of the record,” insisted Volkova, “We would like to know what ‘devilish jerkings’ are. How does the victim know how the devil jerks? Has she seen the devil?”
And so on and so on.
This is what passes for trial testimony in Putin’s Russia. It might be funnier if Pussy Riot hadn’t been convicted to two years in prison based on testimony like this. If Putin’s meat grinder security/propaganda machine could bring the entire weight of state security down on Pussy Riot—detention, trial, torture, incarceration, a perfect example of breaking a butterfly on the wheel—imagine how much is being brought to bear to suppress all voices that might rise in protest against the extravagance of the games. We’ll have to wait and see how the machine does against foes more determined than a bunch of twenty-something art majors. It is said the Chechens are quite a bit tougher than Pussy Riot and that they are determined that Putin will not pull off his Olympic extravaganza without hearing from them.
And lest you think all this is something new, try City of Thieves (Plume, 2008) a novel set during the siege of Leningrad (1941-44).Written by David Benioff, it is at once picaresque and thrilling as the two protagonists, a teenager just coming of age and a free-spirited Russian soldier and deserter, try to survive in the no-man’s-land between the twin kleptocracies erected by the Nazis and the Soviets. The plot revolves around a life-or-death ultimatum given the two young men by an NKVD General to find him a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake or face execution. Their quest takes them through a minefield of thievery, double-crossing, war and, of course, corruption. Reading Benioff illuminates just how practiced the Russians are at the craft of malfeasance and how far back into their history it goes. It should come as no surprise, then, when the Sochi Olympic Games turn out to be more about greasing the skids than skiing the slopes.