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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Art of the Swindle

Russians do not have a lot of time for law and order. That much a foreigner will gather from even a fleeting exposure to Russian literature and society. The most laudable explanation of this phenomenon (and it might even be true) is that for centuries the people have been alienated from the government.


The "us" and "them" attitude of contemporary Russians to their government can best be summarized as resembling that of a shrewd servant seeking to outwit his tyrannical master.


This explains why rogues and swindlers are such cherished characters in Russian literature; from Pavel Chichikov in Gogol's "Dead Souls" to Ostap Bender in Ilf and Petrov's Stalin-era classics "The Twelve Chairs" and "The Golden Calf." And now, two modern books expand on this theme.


Adventures of Russian Swindlers (Pokhozhdeniya Rossiiskikh Moshennikov) by Valery Rokotov is lengthily subtitled "Typical swindles in Russia and the Soviet empire. This collection of charming and horrible crimes has been lovingly compiled and preserved for future generations by a sentimental reporter." Divided into three sections -- "Scoundrels of Old Russia," "A Purely Soviet Swindle" and "On the Ruins of Empire" -- the book catalogues countless famous or forgotten incidences of fraud in a style that is graceful, witty and a pleasure to read. Published by Vagrius, the book is available in paperback for between 7,000 and 10,000 rubles ($1.35 and $1.94).


Popular satirist and sketch-writer Andrei Yakhontov has now turned his hand to fiction. A Textbook of Life for Dummies (Uchebnik zhizni dlya durakov) introduces Markofiyev, an unscrupulous cynic with a philosophy to suit Brezhnev's era of stagnation. Here are some of his more penetrating precepts: "Live lightly," "Don't give a damn about anything or anybody," "Don't hesitate to lie," "Replace ambition for idleness as soon as you can," "The worse you are, the better you live." Published by Samotsvet in hardcover, this 480-page book could have benefited from extensive editing. It is on sale for 16,000 rubles ($3.11).