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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Faces for New Russia

Every once in a while you see a face and you say to yourself: "I wonder what on earth that face did in Soviet times."

I don't mean those huge hangdog faces you sometimes see clustered around an Armani suit in all those places I can't afford to go to anymore. They almost certainly belonged in the past to wrestlers and weight-lifters who've simply gone into another line of work that relies on their muscle.

Nor do I mean the face locked in a sneer that pokes out of the window (sometimes with the snout of a Kalashnikov alongside) as a car barges in front of you just as you've gotten to the front of the gas line. That face belonged in the past, as likely as not, to another kind of sadist who liked to flaunt his firepower: a spetsnaz psychopath, say, or a KGB Jack-in-office.

No, I mean the faces that don't seem to fit any recognizable Russian mold at all. I had dinner with one the other night: a strong chin, hooded eyes, a certain shyness of regard -- a face with the handsome, brooding earnestness of one of those French stars of the 1960s: Jean Louis Trintignant, say. The face was of a certain age, so I ran it through my list of categories: Party, policeman, intellectual, spy -- well, you know the kind of thing. And it failed to come within striking distance of any of these handy, averaged-out Identikits.

The face belonged to a businessman, I was told: very discreet, very quiet, very unflamboyant -- a man who did one deal at a time. I liked him; he was very cool, very French, in fact, in demeanor. Only once over dinner did he become impassioned, when he denounced the way in which the traditional Russian mafia tended to be romanticized by Western correspondents. "They're out-and-out killers," he said. "That's all you need to know. Any kind of deal with them is always a disaster."

Later, someone told me that he knew what he was talking about. In the bad old days he'd done a stretch in the camps and had dealt with "the bosses" eye to eye, though nobody seemed to know or would tell me exactly what he'd been inside for.

Still, it was as if this uncategorizable face of his had finally found a home as the society had changed around him. Its air of slightly amused experience, its inwardness, had found a niche in the new category of businessman, where before it had simply refused to fit. Faces, someone once said, are destiny, and this one was far too strong, individual and private to have been (in the old days) remotely trustworthy.

I know another face like this: that of my old friend T.T. He looks -- and has always looked, ever since I've known him -- like the youngest, most recently retired group-captain in Britain's Royal Air Force -- or, rather, like one of its legendary World War II fighter pilots: rakish, debonair, with a youthful mustache and a laugh for everything, up to and including death.

It's not a face (or an outlook) that's been common -- to say the least -- in Russia. And in the old days it got him into all kinds of trouble. The Party and KGB overseers in the place where he worked didn't think that he took them seriously. So they watched him and denied him the sort of work he wanted -- to the degree that he actually, as he puts it, "went straight" for a year, making no deals (like everyone else), cutting no corners, and not even using his own car as a private taxi. "I ended up completely broke," he now says cheerfully. "But I was still smiling -- I couldn't help it -- and they still couldn't stand me."

These days, T.T. works with Westerners, often on films, and he's universally adored, since these Westerners can't believe -- any more than the KGB could -- that a Russian can be so sunny (both inside and out), so much, well ... like a foreigner. His face, in other words, has also found a niche and a new purpose.

The chances are -- I began to think -- that interesting, out-of-the-norm faces like these two are beginning to become less rare and more successful in modern-day Russia. The country's physiognomical map, that is to say, is visibly changing. Out, little by little, are going the dour, flap-jowled faces of the old Party jobsworths (even though their biznesmeni children have inherited their looks). Out, too, is going that flare-nosed, starchy, I'm-doing-this-for-the-Motherland look of the KGB gauleiter and the neighborhood busybody.

It is coming, one has to hope: a new human variety. Now that spring is at least a possibility, and one can foresee the day when all the mufflers, scarves and hats will come off, I can't wait to see how this process is going.