Theater for the Masses?

The monolith of Soviet society has crumbled before our eyes. Glasnost -- or freedom of most information for the masses -- has obliterated the strict Soviet-era criteria of good and bad, of what one may and may not do. Glasnost has laid bare the fantastic corruption in our society. Businessmen borrow money and disappear, bureaucrats honor fake credits, manufacturers evade taxes, municipalities take bribes.

The logical solution is for society to turn a blind eye and adopt new moral principles according to which murder is not murder, theft is not theft and the criminal elected to the Duma is no longer a criminal.

But rather than all crimes, I would like to talk about the most popular one, that hallmark of post-Soviet Russia khuligantsvo, or hooliganism. Russian jurisprudence defines hooliganism as a gross violation of the social order expressing patent disrespect, if not contempt, for the rules of social conduct.

You would think that was clear. And everything was clear to the socialist society that inhabited the Soviet Union. Now however, when all concepts are being turned on their heads, the concept of hooliganism too has been transformed.

These days hooligansim manages to pass for merely shocking behavior. Moskovskaya Pravda, which often publishes insulting pieces, explains: "If you want to stand out in society, give it a good kick when you're still young." By "kick," the paper means shocking behavior, scandal, the flouting of "generally accepted moral norms."

In other words, if your only purpose in flouting moral norms is to be noticed, famous and popular (like Herostratos, the oddball who torched Diana's temple in the fourth century B.C. for the sake of a place in history), then this should not be considered a crime. Thus the politician, the businessman, the artist or the journalist who deliberately insults someone for the purpose of becoming well known, in the opinion of Moskovskaya Pravda, and in direct contradiction to the Russian Criminal Code, should not be punished.

Moskovskaya Pravda's point of view reflects that of a certain segment of society. The line between exhibitionism or assault and battery, say, and hooliganism is becoming fuzzy.

The first to sense this were the "artists." In Russia everything comes late, so hooliganism masquerading as merely shocking behavior came late too. Russian society, which discovered advertising only a few years ago, has taken such a shine to it that some people have started doing anything for a little publicity. Ads are expensive, but hooliganism is cheap. And unpunishable.

Artist Alexander Brener has made a name for himself in Moscow art circles with such public acts as masturbating on the tower of the old Moskva swimming pool and appearing on a wintry Red Square in nothing but boxing shorts and gloves to challenge President Boris Yeltsin to a fight.

Hooliganism, of course, is how Duma bully Vladimir Zhirinovsky came to fame too: the heckling, the extremist propaganda, the physical fights, all necessarily public. The last fight in the Duma and the assault on a priest and a woman deputy was a classic case of hooliganism hoping to get by as merely shocking behavior. Hooliganism has become an art form, a sort of performance art in which criminal elements take refuge. Insofar as the culture mirrors the society, it's natural that the corrupt members should create a theater intellectually accessible to themselves. Vyacheslav Marychev, the cross-dressing Duma deputy who has threatened to appear next in his birthday suit, personifies this sort of guerrilla theater which somehow seems to satisfy the aesthetic needs of democratic Russia's top legislative organ.

Indeed this hooliganism is so infectious that some foreign journalists have come to see it as an expression of Russian originality. They admire it and promote it.

Moskovskaya Pravda ran an article in its supplement by 22-year-old journalist Yaroslav Mogutin called "The Chechen Knot." In it Mogutin said: "This half-wild, barbarian nation [the Chechens], famous only for its barbarism and sullen truculence, has given the world nothing but international terrorism and drug traffickers ... Let them live in their caves and dug-outs and crap where they eat." The judiciary chamber under the president deemed this article an attempt to incite ethnic discord. A unique case of hooliganism being openly labeled as such.

But the Americans are unpredictable people. They refuse an entry visa to the singer Iosif Kobzon (they suspect him of either wanting to emigrate or having ties to the Russian mafia), yet grant a visa to a journalist under criminal investigation.

Mogutin the hooligan flew off to New York accompanied by another journalist writing an article about him for New York magazine. At the airport he was met by a lawyer and promptly applied for political asylum. No surprises there. Mogutin had made his intentions clear back in Moscow, just after receiving his U.S. visa. A number of American journalists attended the press conference.

Where is the Americans' logic? A year ago, Mogutin published an article in Moskovskaya Pravda called "How I Stole in America," a detailed account of his shoplifting days in U.S. department stores. Crime? Or merely shocking behavior? U.S. diplomats and journalists in Moscow evidently saw the article as the latter. Or maybe they too were wild when they were young?

In this context, the rocket-propelled antitank grenade recently fired into the U.S. Embassy looks entirely different. Why FBI agents would come all the way to Moscow for something so silly is puzzling. That was just hooliganism or, as the Russian militia concurred, revenge for a visa denied.

If you let a robber into the house, don't go moaning about rising crime and ethnic strife. You can't stop a hooligan. It's just logic. Pure and simple.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet and journalist and editor in chief of the publishing house Glagol. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.