Russia, February 19, 1999
And you though America had Yellow Journalism!19 February 1999 Johnson's Russia List
Stop the Presses!
By Andrew Miller in St. Petersburg
No American who spends any appreciable length of time in Russia, far from the "madding crowd," can avoid being impressed by Russian literacy: the affinity for books displayed proudly in the home (even the most remote country farmhouse), books from a range of subjects (including favorites Jack London and Theodore Dreiser), the freely and easily quoted poetry, the eyes that sparkle at the retelling of a favored episode or anecdote. What is available in Russian bookstores is not unfortunately, due to the restrictions of the Soviet era, yet a full sampling of the world's treasures of literature (Toni Morrison, Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis and Herman Melville are largely unknown), but what is available is read.
Likewise no American can help but marvel at the lack of television, and the lack of tv-watching. Even in St. Petersburg, a city of five million, most people can only receive four TV channels, which broadcast only about 16 hours per day or less and, like most Russian shops, close down for several hours during the day for a "pereryv" or coffee-break. Three of those four stations are either owned outright or controlled de facto by the national or local government, which may account for some of the lack of interest, but broadcast MTV is available to some select households with the equipment and location to receive it, but it isn't doing well.
No cynical American, viewing this, could help but wonder: what would the Russians do if they had full access (political and economic) to the "pop" culture of the West, specifically America? Would they reject it as sophomoric, or reject their own traditional interests - which many Americans would find "boring." Is Russia book-rich and tv-poor (or perhaps tv-rich, as you will) of happenstance or of refinement?
A visit to a Russian newspaper kiosk is illuminating. In St. Petersburg, Russia's "second capital," an ordinary kiosk offers no newspapers remotely like The New York Times, or even The Chicago Sun Times, with elaborate and detailed national and international coverage and extensive serious political debate. There are some few publications (with thicknesses of the Times' classified section), hidden away in a corner, which don't have pictures of naked women on the front, or for lack of money references to them in screaming headlines, and which struggle, as Phil Donohue claimed to, toward some serious work mixed with the sensationalism, but the vast majority are National Enquirer-style tabloids whose standards of journalism make The Star look like The Economist.
It is easily possible to buy a "news story" to order from many financially strapped papers, many of whose journalists publish under false names. The national weekly "Argument and Fact" even boldly advertises that certain of its pages are available to political candidates, with a "money back guarantee" concerning election results. Many kiosks also offer pornographic bubble gum trading cards and stickers to entertain the kiddies.
The most noticeable color tabloid this week is monthly issue of SPEED, which has a full-length color photograph of a nearly naked blonde woman, clad only in a black bikini brief and a pair of black stiletto pumps, seated in profile, smiling rather uncomfortably at the camera because she is loosely draped in a coil of barbed wire. Kneeling behind her is a sharply (and fully) dressed bearded young man, who is smiling proudly. Feminism, as you may have heard, has yet to make serious inroads in Russia as a social or political philosophy (though nation of great writers, Russia has yet to produce a Jane Austen or a Willa Cather).
The tabloid's name, SPEED, is printed in English. Products with labels in foreign languages, most especially English, are popular with Russians, who seem suspicious of the quality of home-grown varieties. Ironically, if the English word SPEED were written in Russian letters, it would be written S-P-I-D, which is the acronym for the Russian translation of AIDS. SPEED bills itself as the nation's largest circulating newspaper.
The merry young man is Dmitry Yakubovsky. He is smiling because he is celebrating his release from prison after doing four years of hard time for heisting antique books from the impoverished (and therefore not very secure) Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Yakubovsky, and thugs in his employ, stole more than six dozen ancient manuscripts worth an estimated $300 million on behalf of an Israeli collector, breaking in through a basement window in the library.
The policemen charged with investigating such crimes are paid no more than $50 per month, but nonetheless apprehended the entire gang in impressively short order, a testament either to their aplomb or Yakubovsky's lack of it. Russia's criminal sentencing guidelines are somewhat nebulous: while resident in the provincial capital of Kursk, the author of these words saw a 20 year old Nigerian student sentenced to three years for passing a single bogus $100 bill at a local bank.
The uncomfortable woman is Irine, his (fifth) wife. She is a striking ersatz fashion model who, to great sensational effect, steadfastly stood by Yakubovsky during the trial (a Russian accused - most Russian courts do not labor with niceties such as juries or the presumption of innocence - appears in court inside a cage, through the bars of which blown kisses, knowing touches and longing looks were passed before gawking cameras). She stood by him, however, not as his wife but as his attorney (she is a summa cum laude graduate of the St. Petersburg State University School of Law, equivalent in Russian prestige to America's Yale). The marriage took place some time following the conviction, in the prison chapel. Yakubovsky is not a man to hold a grudge, or to miss an opportunity.
Before the robbery, Yakubovsky was a high-level member of the federal administration, heading an "anti-corruption" task force formed by President Boris Yeltsin (who recently sought a deal with the federal legislature which would immunize Yeltsin from prosecution for corruption following his departure from office, and guarantee him a substantial lifetime income - Yeltsin's part of the bargain remains unclear).
Now at liberty, Yakubovsky has himself turned his attention to the practice of law. Russia conveniently has virtually no restrictions on entry to the practice of law, a diploma for which requires only five years of study which can, if desired, be little more than five years of simple waiting, as a diploma can be easily purchased from one of numerous new "law schools" springing up throughout the country. Likewise, there is no meaningful system of licensure and discipline for lawyers, who cannot, as a practical matter, be "disbarred" or sued for malpractice as can their American colleagues, and who can practice in any part of the country (whereas American lawyers are limited to one or two states, and therefore relatively close local scrutiny) in any area of the law.
Yakubovsky's long list of eager clients includes federal legislator Lyudmila Narusova, who has been sued for slander and is under investigation by the federal prosecutor for claiming on a talk show that the prosecutor was "corrupt" and "out to get" her husband. Her husband being former St. Petersburg Governor Anatoly Sobchak, who fled the country in 1997 following his defeat by current Governor Vladimir Yakovlev rather than face a trial by that same prosecutor on charges of bribery and embezzlement while in office. Sobchak denies rumors that he himself will hire Yakubovsky to represent him should he return to face the charges. Sobchak has another course open to him, and he is reportedly considering it: to run for and win (even in abstenita) a seat beside his wife in the federal Duma, whereupon he would become immune from criminal prosecution. It is said that many Russian criminals have taken an interest in political life for that very reason. The precedent for a forced release from prison for a felon who is elected while incarcerated has not yet been established - or proscribed.
Reflecting on the foregoing account, the writer of these words can't help but be impressed by the fact that it's possible, and even easy, to write a fascinating short story worthy of Hammett, Chandler or Spillane simply by recounting chronologically the ordinary, everyday facts of life in Russia, and can't avoid the observation that, practically speaking, Russians really don't need to watch TV because it can't (not even Baywatch or the WWF) possibly hope to compete with real life.
How much longer that real life will/can go on, however, is anybody's guess.