Not long ago, in the USSR, there was the New Soviet Man. He appeared in the media and on placards in the country with an impressive jaw, a full head of hair and a determined look on his face. The New Soviet Man wore a business suit or a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up past wiry biceps. Presumably he didn’t drink too much vodka, was a family man and smoked Soviet cigarettes with a long filter. Before smoking a papirosi, the Russian version of a working man’s smoke, he’d bite the filter and after inhaling, he’d spit out bits of tobacco even if there weren’t any. These cigarettes did not adversely affect his toughness. He could smoke and do carpentry work at the dacha all summer long, at one and the same time. In his youth, the New Soviet Man was a Young Komsomol member and wore a special badge. Over time he would join the Communist Party after which he might land a job as Deputy Chief Engineer at the All-Union Institute of Machine Tool Technology. He had a Lada, an apartment and a dacha but didn’t care much about materialism, except when it came to obtaining things with great difficulty on the Soviet market. Perhaps he was an electrician or plumber and proud of it. He’d vacation in the Ukraine, where the food was good, and the people were friendly. Observers outside the USSR analyzed the New Soviet Man in depth. He was the Soviet counterpart to his capitalist adversaries. He was wrapped up in Soviet permanence.
I remember taking a walk in Moscow next to Novodevichy Monastery in the early 80’s when I saw several men jogging by. They were wearing identical light blue jogging outfits, popular at the time, being just about the only style available. Here were several New Soviet Men in real life. When the men stopped for a rest nearby, I could overhear what they were saying. Since I had little direct contact with authentic New Soviet Men, I eavesdropped. The topic was about investing in gold. I listened to them talk about where to buy gold and what kind to buy. The gold was given to the wives. I wanted to meet them, but they were strictly off-limits. The New Soviet Man had little need for foreigners, especially eavesdropping, capitalist ones.
When the wall fell and capitalism came to Russia, the New Soviet Man was replaced by aNovyi Russky, or New Russian. The standing of the New Soviet Man fell precipitously, as did the value of the copper coloured gold provided to the wives in Soviet times. New Russians were everywhere. Being named one wasn’t necessarily a compliment. A Novyi Russkydid everything possible to make money and had a car with the windows blacked out. If he could, he built a massive house of red brick, designed on the kitchen table, with turrets and columns on it. Many had cars with steering wheels on the wrong side, imported from Japan. Some had one foot in the government and the other in private business. A New Russian had all kinds of chins, some prominent, others weak. He could negotiate his way out of hell especially in discussions with foreigners who were easy to frighten. A New Russian smoked imported cigarettes but would spit out the tobacco as in Soviet times, even if his smokes were filtered. The women and men often wore plenty of jewellery. Many New Russians were fantastically wealthy, others went on cheap vacations in Turkey and helped themselves to more than they needed at the all-inclusive buffet table. Others helped themselves to weak banking laws in Russia and beyond its shores. Since then, hotels in Turkey limit the amount of food that can be taken from the buffet and most banks have cracked down on banking regulations. All you can grab was too good to last.
A guy I met in the mid-2000’s who was the epitome of a New Russian. I will call him Oleg. He had more money than God. I never found out how he earned it. His father was a wealthy government bigwig and he helped Oleg earn a bundle. He had a gorgeous wife who had been married twice before, a gigantic house, four daughters (three from her previous marriages), a couple of large German made cars, two massive dogs and a third one that was carried around in a handbag. Oleg was not easy on the eye, but he was gregarious. His wife was gorgeous, as were her daughters. Oleg and his wife never lifted a finger at home, nor did the children. All the work was done by a cook, cleaning lady, nanny, driver and gardener. One day I took a ride on Oleg’s yacht at a lake outside Moscow. Several helpers brought food and drinks on board and laid it out on a table. Unseen men launched and steered the boat as we went sailing out into the night. We never went onto the deck to look outside, not once. Instead we ate and drank shots of tequila. At the end of the evening, my New Russian friend gave me a glass he said was filled to the brim with water which I drank straight down the hatch. It was tequila. With a true New Russian, going too far was inevitable, whether you wanted to or not. Later on, Oleg lost everything, his house, money, cars. When he went broke, his stunning wife dumped him without delay. I never heard from him again. It was fun while it lasted but eventually, the party had to end.
Many Russians were successful in those days without being especially flashy. They had tasteful homes and enjoyed strong family ties. Such Russians never overdid it at the buffet table on vacation in Europe. They didn’t appreciate being called New Russians, back when the term was more widespread, and they still don’t. Fortunately for them, this phrase isn’t heard very often any more, perhaps because by now many New Russians are now old.
Back when Yeltsin was President, he often used the word “rossiyanin”(россиянин), referring to anyone of Russian origin. It has a historical ring, harking back to ancient Rus. When I use this word among Russians today, I’m asked not to. It reminds everyone of Yeltsin, remembered about as fondly as Gorbachev. Not very.
What is the latest name for Russians today? Increasingly, the Russian government is increasing its share of the Russian economy. Perhaps we will see a new name appear for the growing number of Russian government employees across the land. They wear their hair cut short and prefer pointy black shoes. Some can be seen quietly spitting out non-existent bits of tobacco when they smoke outside in designated areas. I don’t know what name would be used for them. Perhaps no name at all. I think obscurity would suit the Newest Russian Man just fine. Nothing at all would be better than ‘True Russian’, a term that can be used for the wrong purposes and hopefully won’t come into popular usage.
Daniel Brooks, copyright, 9 May 2019