ESSAY: Tales of New Riches and Rags Rise From Past




At least once a year I try to get back to my Urals hometown, which is two hours from Moscow by plane or a day by train. Although the population is over 1 million, it's still considered to be a backwater province. Everybody knows everyone else, and all of life's passions are on compact display to the world. But this is really about the fate of two of my old friends, one of whom became very rich in the last few years, while the other hit rock bottom.


Only in Russia can wealth appear so disgusting. Yesterday, the first friend had but one suit, worshipped Dostoevsky and despised the bourgeois. Now he wears a cherry-red jacket with gold buttons and roars drunkenly into the telephone "I wanna eat!"" as he orders food from a restaurant.


Outside the window, the night sky was full of stars as we sat around the table together. A circle of old friends gathered together for the first time in ages. He was enjoying showing us his new power and the might that a sack of money accords. I'm rich, you nobodies. There was a ring at the door, and the delivery man hurriedly whisked in a tray piled high with dazzling victuals: seafood paella, red lobsters, barbecued meat. It's my treat. This crazy midnight extravagance cost about what the rest of us earn in six months. Sickened by this ostentatious, arrogant generosity that left us all feeling small, I got up to leave, but my friend wouldn't let me go. He wanted to know what was going on - "let's sort things out" - so we stood alone in the hall while I tried to get it into his drunken head that he should publish quality books.


These days my friend is a publisher, and I am what I've always been, a writer. I know he's not stupid and has good taste. He has always loved Camus and Sartre, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, so what does he publish? "The Adventures of a Space Prostitute," a series of porno-romance novels and ridiculous Euro-thrillers.


Even now I find it hard to believe the awesome effect money can have on people, and even harder to believe that my friend had changed so much in such a short space of time. Three years ago he gained control over the town's former Communist Party printworks, inheriting first rate equipment, warehouses packed with paper and tons of ink, and lots of cheap labor. All in all, a pretty good start in business. But to use the words of Dostoevsky - whose portrait ironically still stands on my friend's desk - he turned it all to the task of seducing souls and exploiting base things, humiliating the humiliated. He had entirely surrendered his soul to the pursuit of profit. Everything Dostoevsky hated.


I asked him why he would not consider publishing, for example, works by Balzac that his idol Dostoevsky translated in his youth. "Stop trying to make me feel bad. No one would buy them," he replied with irritation. "I'm in business, not charity. It's easy to be poor and wave truisms in other people's faces but that sort of decency is worth zilch. You've never really been tempted by real opportunity."And we left it there.


In fact, my friend is far from being the only cultured publisher in Russia who now thinks that way. As a writer, I have met a great number who came from decent, ordinary families but like my friend seem to have had their souls run over by the new times as if by a truck. Maybe Marx was right when he wrote "There is no crime that a businessman would not commit for 300 percent profit."


Last year, two of my novels were published, one of which became the bestselling hardback in Moscow, despite the summer crisis. By writing a book specifically aimed at the market, I certainly learned the hard way about Russia's publishing business, which is second in profitability only to the sale of vodka. Like the publishers' ruse of hiding the true size of print runs from writers.


I spent two years writing that 400-page book but so far I've earned less from that than I did from a five-page article about Solzhenitsyn I wrote for a German magazine. Meanwhile the book continues to sell thousands of copies while my bathroom ceiling continues to crumble and my refrigerator stays unrepaired two years after it broke...


But back to my friend. Maybe the best insight into what he had become was gained by hearing him tell of his wife of 20 years, who he immediately ditched and replaced with a younger, long-legged companion when the big money started coming in. He boasted to us how he deliberately delayed six months before paying his ex-wife for a book translation she did for him, only then paying her a sum so little that if she hadn't needed it so desperately, she might just as well have flung it back in his face.


The only price he seems to have paid for all this was when his daughter left home, taking with her only his collected works of Tolstoy. I guess the Lord will be his judge. Now we come to Viktor.


Viktor was the best looking boy in our class, the brightest among us in all senses. He grew up faster, too, and was the first to wear a white shirt and tie and the first to start shaving, which is a big deal for us boys. I was desperate to be his friend, but unfortunately he looked upon me as a bit of a mommy's boy. In the end, we did become friends through a mutual interest in the cinema. He dreamed of becoming as cameraman, I of becoming a movie director. But unlike me, he pursued his dream in earnest, and eventually saved up enough money to buy a real amateur movie camera.


I was awed by everything he did. I tried in vain to smoke Soviet papirosy cigarettes, while he nonchalantly puffed away on imported Yugoslavian cigarettes. He first showed me books of Van Gogh's works, a great rarity in a closed provincial town where all the factories made weapons. But it was his numerous romances with older women that left the deepest impression on my innocent soul. Still, even I started to get notes from girls when a film we made about our school was shown on local television. These were glory days, when we dreamed of traveling to Moscow, conquering the world.


Fate decided matters for us. One day I left for ever, and Viktor stayed and became a successful photographer at a big studio. He took to the high life too much and began to drink heavily. After the studio fired him he worked in a small portrait studio on the outskirts where they did passport photos. Then instant photomachines came in, and he went out.


It is particularly in the bad times that Russian men look for release in drinking. People warned me that he was now totally lost to the bottle, had sold his apartment and lived on the streets, but I only half believed this until I went back last fall.


One day, while I was waiting for someone near the theater, my gaze passed idly over a man in a dirty coat rummaging in a dustbin. My heart suddenly leapt - my God, Viktor, the idol of my youth.


As always, there was a woman by his side. Filthy, dishevelled, old boots on her bare feet. She loves him, it occurred to me. But I couldn't call out, go up to him, give him money for a drink. New times had changed me too. I had also become a worse person, unable to find the strength within me to hug my old friend, buy him something to eat. And, pretending I had not noticed the tramp, I hurried on my way.


Anatoly Korolyov is the author of "Hunting the Clairvoyant" and "Eron." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.