New Russian Spending Habits are an Insult

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Published: 28th December 2006
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Today's Russians have much the same attitude to money as people in the rest of the civilized world. But 20 years ago things were very different, thanks to the specifics of the Soviet set-up. During the Soviet era, everything was relatively cheap, although there wasn't anything worth buying. For this reason the ability to get hold of quality goods was valued more highly than money itself. Part of the ruling ideology at the time was that money cannot buy happiness, and the most important thing was to nourish your soul, buying books and going to the theater or the cinema.

Modern Russia replaced this thesis with the more prosaic idea that you can't have too much money. In other words, it is not enough to cover basic needs like housing and food. Now money is required to achieve a certain level of comfort in your surroundings by buying nice furniture and a car, traveling, exercising, educating your children, and, finally, shopping.

Overall, attitudes to money are the same everywhere: There are very poor people who cannot earn more and are content with the bare basics; there is a middle class that tries to earn enough for more than the essentials; and there are the rich, who live by their own special rules. And here, it seems to me, is where Russia begins to look different from the rest of the world.

The whole world knows how certain Russian oligarchs like to indulge their whims. It is a rare paper that does not print a list of yachts, planes, villas and football clubs that have been bought by Russia's billionaires. But these pointless "toys" are still a cultured enough way to invest money in comparison with how New Russians spend their money.

According to normal people who have had the opportunity to enter the world of big money, the main characteristic shared by these Russian nouveaux riches is boorishness. In his memoirs, Roman Trakhtenberg, a popular showman whose greatest talent is remembering a huge number of jokes, notes that one source of his income is hosting drinking sessions for millionaires. During these sessions, Trakhtenberg has regularly met stars from the country's pop music scene, such as Filip Kirkorov.

Judging from his descriptions, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on wild orgies. The end goal of those attending these expensive events is the same as for a peasant in a poverty-stricken village-to drink themselves senseless. But as long as the guests still have some of their wits about them, they have to be entertained, sometimes with cameos by famous people. The stars' appearances are mixed in with "beauty contests" or even "ugly contests"-depending on the host's particular level of taste-featuring women from special agencies or just women who happen to be in the area. It isn't important who wins, only that those in the contests take their clothes off.

All of these rich Russians became rich not that long ago, and mainly by chance. Sometimes the wealth fell into the hands of intelligent, educated people like Mikhail Khodorkovsky-whom it is difficult to imagine at a party like those described by Trakhtenberg. But for the majority of these nouveaux riches, their previous lives were far removed from culture. Their penchant for spending money is also uncultured.

Another unfortunate phenomenon that often occurs among this class of people is a certain attitude towards those who don't have much money. I was amazed by a comment made by Alexander Politkovsky in an interview. Politkovsky, a well-known television journalist and the ex-husband of the late Anna Politkovskaya, said that several friends of theirs broke off relations with them after getting rich. The Politkovsky family did not have the money to reach their "level."

Although Politkovskaya and her husband were stars in their own right, maintaining a friendship with them simply wasn't prestigious enough because they didn't have enough money. Although their friends were probably well educated and not the kind of people to spend money on wild orgies, severing a friendship because of money is an equally bad, if not worse insult.

This example bears out the theory that large amounts of money can spoil almost any former Soviet citizen, regardless of cultural or educational level. A possible explanation for this is that too short a time elapsed between the complete absence of money and its over concentration in the hands of a few people. No one has ever taught Russians how to be rich. Russia in this sense is a country without a history. Today Russians embarrass the whole world when it comes to their money-spending behavior, destroying the myth about the "great spirituality of the Russian people." But it was just this myth that comforted people in both the Soviet Union and Russia: We're poor, but we're cultured-not like those soulless foreigners!

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