The Love of Money Is Still Seen As Root of Evil

Tell me what money means to you, and I will tell you what you are. Today, the most popular topic of conversation among artists is money and what good or bad things it does to people. The schisms in the artistic world -- like the country in general -- have never been more pronounced. And money has become the litmus paper on which these divisions are tested.

I recently turned up at a prestigious affair at the Vakhtangov Theater, where Moscow's cultural elite gathered for the 60th anniversary of the House of Actors. First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais himself sat in the orchestra section with a bouquet of flowers. On stage were stars from the theater, the silver screen and television.

Following the jubilee, there was a banquet for 300 persons. Only the cream of the cream of Moscow turned out there. I should say right away that I ended up at the reception entirely by chance, since I am not at all part of the theatrical elite.

Ah! My eyes raced over the abundant spread. The tables practically collapsed under the weight of the provisions, just as they did at such affairs during the Brezhnev period of stagnation. Waiters in black tie rushed back and forth. With fork in hand, I didn't know where to plunge first: the caviar, the sturgeon or the clams.

Two very shabby-looking men had managed to penetrate the banquet. They made no effort to conceal the large shopping bags into which they carefully placed the best morsels from the table. Everything they laid eyes on -- cold cuts, crab salad, bananas, grapes, caviar sandwiches -- was packed away. All the while, everyone pretended not to notice them. Even the waiters looked the other way.

I also tried not to pay them any heed, but when one of the poor fellows grabbed a tray of food right from under my nose and emptied it into his seemingly bottomless sack, I objected. He then took out his identification card -- although I didn't ask him to -- showing him to be a member of the Theater Union. He pompously bowed to me and continued down the table. The waiter had just brought out a tray of deviled eggs.

I was troubled by the incident. In Russia, it has once again become fashionable to be poor as a matter of principle and to make a great show of scorning success, wealth and well-being.

It was precisely in this spirit that the Russian artist Alexander Brener vandalized Kazimir Malevich's "Supremicism" painting at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam earlier this year by drawing a green dollar sign on it. Brener declared that this was his way of protesting the power of money over art. He is now sitting in a Dutch prison. Incidentally, conceptualist artists in Russia also condemned Brener, but not for defacing the painting. Rather, they said, foreign prisons are far too comfortable. Brener should have ruined a painting at the Hermitage or Tretyakov. Then he would have truly suffered in the name of art.

And so money has divided our society into two irreconcilable camps -- those who worship the ruble, dollar or pound sterling, and those who anathematize them and call for a return to former conditions of equality in poverty.

I still remember the time when almost all of Russian society was ashamed of wealth. I studied in the same school with children of privileged officials, but they were dressed just like everyone else. You were teased when you wore new clothes. It was fashionable to wear old, threadbare bomber jackets and worn-out boots. When my parents bought me a new schoolbag, I painstakingly sliced it with a razor and broke it in before I would be seen carrying it.

In Soviet times, bankers and capitalists were objects of ridicule. There were newspaper accounts of stingy and greedy American millionaires. The oil magnate Jean Paul Getty was a favorite target of Soviet propaganda: Every Soviet citizen knew how the billionaire had pinched pennies by installing a pay phone for guests at his castle in England.

Later, the stilyaga appeared on the scene. These were young people who made a rather flamboyant display of extravagant fashions and were unafraid of distinguishing themselves from the gray masses. They wore jeans, mohair scarves, brightly colored jackets, yellow boots, hairdos in the style of Elvis or the Beatles. These Russian dandies were criticized by all. During the Brezhnev epoch, however, this began to change and all of society seemed to become a stilyaga. Money became a sign of prestige and success. Biographies on Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan began to appear in bookstores.

Today there has been another 180 degree turn. Money has once again come to represent evil. If at the start of perestroika, millionaires like Artyom Tarasov were idolized, today the wealthy are completely suspect. No one in Russia believes it possible to become wealthy through honest and hard work. No. If you're prosperous then you're a thief, a swindler, a drug dealer. It means you're an enemy of the people.

This jealous relation to money was particularly evident with respect to our millionaire Vladimir Bryntsalov during last year's presidential elections. I'll say right away I believe he earned his millions through honest work. He is not his father's boy and he started from zero. He got his start by breeding polar foxes, later took up beekeeping and got rich in the process. And he pays his taxes in full. He's our own Ross Perot. His factory is in good order, and his workers receive about $1,000 per month -- not bad for Russia. But most voters could not forgive him his affluence.

Wealth is shameful. And those at the top of government are suspected of enriching themselves. When President Boris Yeltsin introduced the deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, into the government, he made a point of saying Nemtsov lives rather modestly, even poorly.

But perhaps there is hope for a change in attitude. At the ART-Salon exhibition '97 in the House of Artists, I had a chance to see the new denominations of Russian money. Enormous rubles in the hundreds and thousands hung on the wall. On the largest bill, a 500,000 ruble note, was a portrait of Pushkin. Then came Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Malevich and others. With the Central Bank's blessing, the artist who designed the bills had given expression to society's secret need to make money more than just a treasury note, but an inspirational, noble symbol. Looking out from the banknotes, Pushkin seems to be telling us: Russians, don't be ashamed of money. Money is not an evil but a good.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose latest work is "Aron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.