10/8/16: This review is a candidate for revision.
I’m typically a fast reader and writer. It should be very telling, then, that it took me nearly a month to read Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor Russia and write its corresponding review. It wasn’t exactly what I call enjoyable reading, and boy do I have a lot to say about it.
Oleg Kashin may be a name familiar to some readers and unfamiliar to others. He’s a journalist and member of the Russian liberal opposition. He has written for Kommersant, The New York Times, and The New Republic, and has been profiled in Open Democracy. A handful of Russia-watchers may recognize his name from the film Putin’s Kiss, which documented the “dark side” of the Nashi youth movement. According to this book’s introduction, Kashin’s unfortunate claim to fame is an attempt made on his life November 6th, 2010, when two men beat him with metal rods outside his Moscow home. Five years later, investigators identified the suspects and traced the hit back to the boss of a factory owned by governor of the Pskov province Andrei Turchak. Though evidence is shaky, the introduction (which leaves me questioning both Kashin’s professionalism and Buzzfeed correspondent Max Seddon’s ability to write a balanced article), pegs the assault as retaliation by Governor Turchak for Kashin calling him “f***ing Turchak” and telling him to “go suck a d***” in a blog comment.
It’s obvious that Kashin strongly opposes the current government and the system it runs. After investigators let the factory boss free and declined to interrogate Turchak (which I admit is very irresponsible), Kashin wrote an angry letter to President Medvedev and Prime minister Putin indicting the system.
Your superstitions and your mysticism – your vision of the world that’s something out of those 1980s samizdat conspiracy theories about Freemasons, and your pseudo-Russian Orthodoxy (which would have appalled Christ) – it all long ago turned you into a totalitarian sect. Most importantly, this sectarianism merged and multiplied with your old friend, the criminal ethics that ruled St. Petersburg in the 1990s. It is precisely this combination of sectarianism and gangster ideas about the nobility of absolute loyalty that makes you pick Turchak, when choosing between him and the law. (p. 15-16)
Ample material for a satire, I’d say.
Kashin finished writing Fardwor, Russia in 2010, during a period of “restrained optimism for liberals in Russia”, as Seddon proclaims. Its title is a play on the title of Medvedev’s essay “Forward, Russia!”, in which he criticized Russia’s “chronic corruption, quasi-Soviet social contract and primitive economy” but proposed little more than vague calls for modernization. Then the Medvedev era ended, the last glimmer of hope died in 2012 and Putin got to ruining everything. Как жаль! Fardwor, Russia satirizes specific Medvedev-era modernization programs and is, for all intents and purposes, a satire of Medvedev’s Russia. So why then is it marketed as “a fantastical tale of life under Putin”? That’s easy – because who remembers Medvedev? Putin sells better!
The story follows an ambitious scientist (Karpov) who moves with his wife to the Russian countryside in order to perfect an invention he is working on: a petroleum-based growth serum (called “Ivan Ilyin”) that can make things grow larger and faster than usual. He hopes to become rich and famous off the serum. After successful experiments on rats and farm animals (and a circus midget, who becomes a fully-sized man), Karpov gives the serum to a dwarf oil mogul. The now fully-sized businessman runs off with Karpov’s wife, and a string of mysterious deaths and crimes occurs.
What’s not to like about this setup? As it turns out, a lot. Call me crazy, but in my opinion Fardwor Russia isn’t an effective satire or even an effective book. Below are my three reasons why:
Fardwor, Russia‘s most glaring problem is that its satire isn’t very clever. A well-written satirical work makes use of humor, fantastical allegory, or wordplay to criticize real policies and people in a subtle way that doesn’t make the mockery immediately obvious. But here, more often than not, Kashin blatantly tells the reader what’s what*. There’s little to no humor. I was able to identify what everything represented a mere six pages in. Nowhere is this more evident than in Karpov’s wife Marina, who is a stand-in for the “average Russian citizen”. She is passive and apathetic, likes everything her husband does, and just hopes he knows what he’s doing (that’s directly from the text!). She doesn’t object to their move to the countryside because she knows “Karpov’s unknown experiments are a harmless hobby that require some sacrifices”. Any doubts I had about who Marina was meant to symbolize disappeared when I read this segment:
At the edge of a precipice stood a gargantuan statue of a Red Army soldier in a pointed cap and trench coat; Marina had thought at first that it was made of bronze, and then realized that it was most likely a piece of tin junk. […] The statue’s face was deformed and not very well-designed, and its arm poked unnaturally backward. Marina could have listed another dozen absurdities of the statue’s appearance, but the overall impression it produced in her was quite favorable and strong. (p. 29-30)
Wow, I wonder what he’s satirizing here? (Bonus points if you can tell me what the tin statue is meant to symbolize.) Other things including immigration policy and Soviet nostalgia are mocked later on, but I can guarantee you you’ll be able to identify them almost immediately when they appear. It really requires no thinking.
I do have to give Fardwor, Russia some credit though: it does have a lot to say about the corruption pervading the government and the suspicious closeness of business and politics. We see the director of the scientific institute where Karpov works plan to use him and his invention to climb the bureaucratic ladder and siphon off money from a government target program. We learn of a string of mysterious deaths linked to the activities of the government’s Olympic corporation Olympstroi. We witness the secret services inciting ethnic hatred in a provincial town by blaming the death of an important figure on “barbaric” Caucasians (on the internet). Whether or not you agree with what Kashin’s saying about Russia today is another question entirely, but the satiric commentary is there. It’s just not conveyed as effectively as it could be.
The second problem with Fardwor, Russia is its incredibly thin characters and plot. In the famous satire Huckleberry Finn, we observe the absurdities of the Antebellum South through the innocent child’s eyes of our titular protagonist, and though we grow to dislike the corrupt people around him, Huck himself remains an endearing and memorable character. Who do we have here? Karpov the ambitious, money-hungry scientist; Marina, his forgettable wife; Elena, the opportunistic director of the Institute; and a bunch of bureaucrats and greedy businessmen. The characters don’t grow or change, and they don’t learn anything. They drift in and out of the story as the plot demands and for many of them, their only function is to bring home Kashin’s message. Because they are so one-dimensional and one-note, the reader doesn’t bond with them and feels nothing when they are killed off. By the way, contrary to the book’s synopsis, that midget millionare Mefody Magomedov plays a very small role, and of the many deaths which occur in the story, only one has any connection to Mefody. (Spoilers! It’s his own.) The real focus of Fardwor, Russia is the growth serum itself – its effect on its subjects and the dangers it poses to Russia’s economy and political system. When Karpov starts using the serum on farm animals, some meat processing corporations feel that he’s a threat to their business interests and they go after Karpov and his invention. The State eventually gets ahold of the serum and uses it in a secret project. Other than that though, there is no unifying plotline: the short, poorly-transitioned chapters jump back and forth between what Karpov is doing, what the businessmen are doing, and what random side characters are doing until it eventually ends up with the secret project. Karpov doesn’t try to contain the serum’s effects, or team up with the State/oligarchs and use his serum to manipulate the masses. He eventually loses control of his invention and is sidelined because he’s a tool like all the others.
The third reason why Fardwor Russia doesn’t work well is because it’s pretty standard fare, really. If you’re a Russian liberal (for whom this book seems to be written), you likely already share Kashin’s convictions about the State’s corruption, ineptitude, arbitrariness, and so forth; and if you’re a Westerner reading the translation, you’ve probably heard these points repeated regularly by the media’s talking heads. Isn’t Fardwor Russia a bit like preaching to the choir then?
Before you argue that the intended audience is the Russian people at large, think again. Near the end of the book we learn of a secret government project in an assisted living facility. A
propagandist “internet polemicist” named Close to Zero is brought in to educate the “modernizational majority” – ordinary people from the provinces – on how to conduct polemics and explain what the country needs. But it is soon revealed that these Russians are simply a bunch of children that the government injected with Karpov’s serum one day. Though they are clearly adults, they still have the immature minds of children. They apparently can’t think for themselves and must be told what to do, and they lap up any information Close to Zero gives them. Now if this isn’t a contemptuous swipe at the majority of one’s fellow countrymen, I don’t know what is.
The purpose of satire isn’t to make others laugh at the people or ideas they make fun of – though if a satire manages to do that, more power to it. The purpose of satire is to warn the public and to change their opinions about the prevailing corruption or conditions in society. Fardwor, Russia won’t do that – it’s too busy labeling the public – the one that matters, the Russian people – as idiotic, immature, and impressionable children who need to grow the hell up.
Let’s wrap this review up in Fardwor fashion, in which all the “plot” threads are resolved neatly in the last 3 pages in the most mediocre way possible:
J.T. would finish the review by saying that while it does a decent job of picking at the shady intersection of business and politics within the government, Kashin’s Fardwor, Russia! is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is, and that Oleg Kashin should just stick to journalism.
The review would go up on Russia Reviewed and people would read it, though not enough people would read it for word to spread beyond the blog.
The review would be “liked” and commented on, and one commenter in particular would post a wall of text on how Kashin was a liberast, and J.T. would read it and say “Hmm, that’s interesting.”
J.T. would sit in the vestibule of her residence hall waiting for her ration of milk за вредность to arrive (though she’d wish for something more potent). The milk would eventually be delivered, and J.T. would rejoice – only to discover that the milk had already gone sour.
Fardwor, Russia! would be put in the bin of books to donate to the P.— Library Russian Studies collection. But then J.T. would realize that no other student should have to muddle through such rubbish as she did, and she’d take the book out of the bin and bring it home with her on the weekend and use it as kindling for a campfire. The marshmallows roasted on that fire would be some of the best J.T. ever ate.
The NSA agent reading this bit would get a good laugh out of it, and the SVR agent watching the NSA agent would feel slightly less bored for a moment.
Putin would run for re-election in 2018.
And in a week or two, no one would ever remember any of this.
Oleg Kashin should probably just stick to journalism.
Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin. Translated by Will Evans. Pub. 2016 by Restless Books. Paperback, 224 pages. ISBN13: 9781632060396
*Now that I think about it, this might be a problem of perspective. Maybe the reason why the things being satirized seemed so obvious to me is because I’ve read so much about Russia already.