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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Diary of Russia's Generation-S (for Scumbag)

It was a terrible day for Spiker and Sobakkaa, two young "scumbags" -- as they liked to call themselves -- living in London. They hadn't stolen a thing.

But, recording the gloom of Day 13 in his diary of the London trip, Spiker suddenly brightened with a memory. They had stolen! But it was something so mundane, it had slipped his mind: some rice and chicken to eat.

Since the pair's 1999 London tour, podonok -- scumbag -- has become a term of endearment among certain young Russians, notably soccer hooligans, skinheads and their ilk. And the diary, which Spiker swears is 100 percent nonfiction, has exploded in Moscow as a controversial bestseller. Though it reads at times like a how-to guide on crime and fraud, the book took a major prize as the best Russian literary debut.

Spiker and co-author Sobakkaa -- the name is similar to the Russian word for dog -- made thousands of dollars on "Bolshe Bena," or "Bigger Than Ben." And despite the pleasant notoriety, Spiker -- 25-year-old Sergei Sakin -- has decided he quite likes making money the honest way.

But he has to share the royalties with Sobakkaa -- Pavel Tetersky in real life -- whom Sakin claims contributed almost nothing to the writing. Tetersky hotly denies that contention. The two are no longer on speaking terms.

The book brilliantly captures the cliche of the contemporary young Russian male: hard-edged, dishonest and callous, distilling his creative flair into nefarious, if not criminal, activity.

In a country where opportunities for young people are limited and often governed by family connections, Sakin's example is not exactly luminous. The one thing that can be said is that he has made it on his own terms. Now he's waiting for Hollywood to call.

Russia-Only Release

Densely stuffed with obscure Russian street slang, the book contains a "Clockwork Orange"-style glossary for the reader, including the entry "podonok: good guy." So far, the book has been released only in Russia.

The title, "Bigger Than Ben," is a reference to London's Big Ben. Sakin liked the alliteration in the title.

Tetersky acknowledges that Sakin came up with the idea of turning the London diaries into a book and edited the entries somewhat, but he insists that he wrote half the original.

"I was doing it just to take it back home, show to my friends and have a good laugh about how we spent our time in London," he said, admitting that the diary is no masterpiece and is "definitely a far cry from 'War and Peace.'"

Sakin's second book, due out soon, follows the themes of the first. It details his experiences as a skinhead and as an employee at Moscow travel agencies, where he used many dishonest tricks -- for example, failing to declare some clients to an employer and keeping the profits. "I always turned out to be smarter than my employer," boasted Sakin, who said in an interview that he was never caught.

His inspiration was his father, an honest engineer who struggled, poor and threadbare, refusing to go into small business until he could do so without sacrificing his principles. Sakin was determined not to live that way.

Replete with repellent racist nuggets and tales on how they made hundreds of pounds a day in Britain by stealing mobile phones and cheating banks over loans, "Bigger Than Ben" has made Sakin financially independent. But it came as a blow to his father and mother.

"She said: 'I thought you were much kinder than this, much smarter and much cleverer. You're capable of much better than this.' My father had the same opinion," Sakin said.

He shares a small Moscow apartment with his parents and his new wife, Anna, who said parts of his second book make her feel physically ill.

Racist Views

Like his first book, the second reveals the ugly underbelly of racism in Russia. Sakin despises people from the Caucasus, convinced that they are ruining Moscow -- a view that many Muscovites share.

Dmitry Lipskerov, author and co-chairman of the board for the Debut Prize, an important Russian literary award given by a charitable trust, argues that the references "which may be perceived as racist" do not constitute real racism. "It's just a manifestation of the way young people overdo things," he said. "It's an urge to attract attention."

But he now sounds almost regretful that Sakin and Tetersky won the prize.

"Actually, we granted the prize to these guys as a kind of advance, because we saw some potential in their writing," Lipskerov said. "And also for me personally they seemed to be representing the cultural lining of the new generation, the 20-year-olds, a generation I don't know much about.

"But it seems to me now that these two guys are more interested in material gains than in writing literature."

Sakin, however, makes no apologies for being commercial and scorns what he calls the traditional mold of Russian writers: poor fellows with dirty hair.

"Bigger Than Ben" reflects a favorite Russian pastime: classifying and stereotyping foreigners. In the book, the English are robots and cyborgs who have an unhealthy passion for work and go around smiling all the time.

The book claims to have found the reason that Britons find the Russian soul so mysterious.

"The answer to the riddle is simple. Russians simply have a soul and the English don't. The place of the soul in the average Englishman is occupied by a small calculator to work out his salary."

Sakin dropped out of university and dabbled in journalism but found it frustratingly restrictive and boring. He and Tetersky arrived in London with ?400, or about $560, between them, which lasted less than a week. "Mindful of the fact that we are scumbags and should carry this title with honor, we committed our first theft -- a stack of envelopes in order to mail letters home," the book says.

Despite the simplicity of the theft, the pair were sweating, terrified.

"Here is the trick: The huge Sobakkaa hides me from the camera with his bulk while I shove the envelopes under my shirt. That is all. Encouraged by our first success, I nicked a bottle of wine using the same scheme, in order to celebrate at our housewarming party."

World of Drugs

They had some embarrassments, like the time a bottle under Sobakkaa's coat crashed to the floor as he waited to pay for some trifle at the cash register. Sometimes storekeepers gave chase, "but we always outran them."

Though a few weeks of stealing was fun, long-term it made for an unpleasant lifestyle, Sakin said. He could feel himself gradually being degraded. The book tells of his spiral into heroin addiction, which he said was the main reason he returned to Russia. He fled to his parents' apartment in Moscow, convinced that if he stayed in London he would wind up a drug addict, in jail or both.

Sakin evinced no fear that he'll be denied future visas to Britain after "Bigger Than Ben." "We left no traces," he boasted. And he could always argue that the book was fiction -- though both he and Tetersky are on record as swearing it is true. "There is presumption of innocence," Sakin growled in English -- apparently unaware that the concept does not apply in visa applications.

Since "Bigger Than Ben" was published, Sakin and Tetersky have married and moved on. Sakin's wife does not like to hear talk of his old, evil lifestyle. And Sakin vows that he is on the straight and narrow now that he is a writer.

With his first two books written about episodes of his wild young life, one wonders where the material for future books can come from, now that he's settled down. He scoffed at the question. He had seen so much in 25 years, he boasted, it could fill 10 books.

Success Kills Friendship

Sakin expressed no regret at the loss of a friend in Tetersky. But to Tetersky, what happened to the friendship is sad.

"We never really quarreled. We just stopped being the kind of friends described in 'Bigger Than Ben,'" he said despondently. "Fast popularity spoiled him very quickly. In the past, I treated Sergei like my brother. But I do not want to have a brother or even a friend like the new Sergei.

"The book is there, but the friendship is gone."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of the Los Angeles Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.