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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: New Russians Are Not Us




New Russian. Shudder. The juxtaposition of these rather ordinary words conjures up images of bullet-headed thugs and micro-skirted molls -- draped in fur, dripping gold, and gliding about town in fleets of Mercedes. Sober-suited bankers and their Dior-clad spouses make up the high end of the crowd, with multi-millions in offshore accounts and holidays at the world's most exclusive resorts. Cellular phones and sidearms seem to be indispensible across the board.


But who exactly are the "new" Russians?


My friends are all sure that they are not part of this noxious breed. Natasha, the soulful philologist now working in a bank and studying for her MBA, is certainly not a New Russian. Viktor, an internationally acclaimed writer with a snappy Volvo, who spends half his time soaking in California hot tubs and the other half in Moscow moaning about the decline of Russian culture, doesn't qualify. And Lena, a highly commissioned sculptor with a Bohemian studio downtown and a $300,000 dacha in the suburbs, considers herself the very epitome of traditional Russian values.


Wealth seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient, attribute for New Russian status. Along with the filthy lucre, the true NR must display a lack of taste and manners, ignorance of, or disdain for, his national heritage, and a distinctly threatening air.


These well-heeled parvenus have become the repository of all things negative, as the numerous collections of anecdotes, most of them unprintable in a family newspaper, can testify. The very term "novy russky" is uttered with a wrinkle of the nose and a curl of the lip, as if the speaker feared catching something unpleasant by verbal association.


The rashes of car bombings and shootouts by which the New Russians seem to settle their social and professional differences are greeted by the general population with indifference, or an airy "plague on all their houses" wave.


I suppose, in part, this reaction can be blamed on the fabled Russian capacity for envy. I recently heard an announcer on television talk about an event as "a holiday for the soul, as if your neighbor's cow had just died." I can't condone taking pleasure in the misfortunes of dumb animals, but I do understand getting a tickle out of a stalled Mercedes.


With the greater part of the population eking out a precarious existence in full view of the capital's all-too-conspicuous consumption, conflicts between the haves and the have-nots are inevitable.


Happily, there are venues that still belong almost entirely to the "Old Russians." Try the metro for a glitz-free experience. Moscow's underground world is much the same as ever -- crowded, overheated and muddy. Only the bewildering array of kiosks selling cosmetics and glossy magazines shoots you into the 1990s. For people-watching, it can't be beat, especially, say, at Kievsky station on a Saturday morning.


But the waves of shuttle traders with their plaid plastic bags are just the poor man's New Russians, aren't they? While looking very Soviet in their padded jackets and valenki (felt boots), they are also in hot pursuit of the long ruble, and, make no mistake, they'll trade the circle line for a BMW at the very first opportunity.


The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory is a better example. I suppose the 20 ruble ticket price is too accessible to attract the real glitterati, who are too busy looking for the nightclub with the highest cover charge to bother with culture. At the Conservatory, the perfume on the ladies may tend more to Krasnaya Moskva than Chanel, and the couture is definitely low, but the music is the real thing. Not long ago I was treated to a performance of Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" that left me gasping.


Gazing around a huge hall of tired, downtrodden, but transported Russians, I was, for a few minutes, back in touch with the Great Russian Soul, and the bodyguards and boutiques seemed eons away.


It could almost have been one of those charmed nights in the stagnant 1970s, except that I would not have been able to get tickets to the Conservatory without a month of planning and bribing, and I would have had to look over my shoulder for KGB shadows before agreeing to after-concert tea with a Russian friend.


I guess Old Russia had its drawbacks, too.


Now, how many New Russians does it take to change a light bulb?