Yesterday in Foreign Policy, Julia Ioffe published the most in-depth English-language article to-date on the hidden-camera scandals in Russia. She interviews Solidarnost’s Ilya Yashin, Nashi’s Robert Schlegel, and the center of the fiasco himself: Viktor Shenderovich.
It is a weird article.
Yashin compares infidelity and mattress-humping to defecation; Shenderovich says that his wife “reacted completely wonderfully” to the whole thing (finding the time for a joke about stealing shampoo from hotels); and Schlegel rants wildly about the normality of snorting cocaine.
Let’s have a look at just a few snippets of the piece:
The cultural difference between Shenderovich and his American counterparts is striking. Caught in embarrassing moments, American public figures prostrate themselves before the public, and before their families — in public. Russians, however, lack what they see as this deeply Puritanical impulse, so they swagger and mock, or yawn.
Indeed they yawn. “When a person who’s dedicated more than a few kilobytes denouncing others like he was some kind of general prosecutor suddenly turns up in a similarly compromising situation, and then chickens out [from self-criticism] — well, that’s understandable. It’s simple cowardice,” says Maxim Kononenko, columnist for Взгляд and one of the RuNet’s most popular bloggers.
Ioffe deploys the “Russia is not Puritanical” trope to argue that the Shenderovich tape isn’t scandalous, since Russians are unbothered by sex and even infidelity. What this seems to miss, however, is that infidelity can be quite attention-grabbing even if you aren’t particularly disturbed by the private adventures of other people’s privates. For someone like Shenderovich — or for a person like Jon Stewart, let’s say, since the media seems to be fond of this comparison (they both tell jokes about the government, right?) — cheating on your wife and then showing no remorse whatsoever is rather hypocritical, given the fact that, as Kononenko explains it, public figures like him earn their bread on Mount Moral Highground. (Jon Stewart, for example, is generally a very modest guy, frequently joking about his failures to effectively hammer certain guests, like in his infamous interview with John Yoo a few months ago.) “Lies” and “liars” are the invectives Shenderovich hurls at the Kremlin in his own LiveJournal response to the sex tape, and yet he never once acknowledges that he violated his own marriage — presumably behavior we could call “deceitful.”
I understand that he is accusing Vladimir Putin of mass murder, and Shenderovich himself is only guilty of cheating on his spouse and bizarrely humping a bed mattress, but his refusal to offer even a tiny mea culpa has most Russians “yawning” and “mocking” indeed. (Speaking of all the things Shenderovich didn’t do, here’s the one thing he did do: he closed his LiveJournal account two days after the scandal began, blaming the public backlash — a “shitstorm” of negativity.)
Moreover, Russians have always loved womanizers. It is central to the concept of muzhik, the manly salt-of-the-earth man. […]In typical muzhik fashion, Shenderovich and the two other opposition figures caught on the tape blew the whole thing off with a bravado that seemed to hold only a bit of defensiveness.
Yes, I suppose that is one way to look at it. Shenderovich’s really quite repulsive “bravado” (“for a girl with a reputation like hers, life is no longer worth living”) was probably not the thing even his critics most noted in their reactions. But there is an element of hypocrisy here, too, that Ms. Ioffe seems to miss (not surprisingly, I’d add, since the point of her article seems to be to highlight all the ways that Russia is culturally Martian to American observers). Russia’s liberals are notorious Westernizers. “You want it to be like it is in America?” Kononenko asks. “Well, then things will turn out for you like they do in America.” The liberals, many Russians have noticed, devote their careers to promoting Western values, but play the Russian exceptionalism card the moment events demand a little humility. Yawn (I know, right?).
On Monday, Yashin filed a complaint with the State Prosecutor’s office for invasion of privacy and distribution of pornography, citing Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Karl Rove, and Vasily Yakimenko, a federal official who curates all things youth-related and who was once in charge of Nashi. […] As expected, the authorities have yet to launch a real investigation, although the tenacious Yashin has gone on the offensive: With the help of some local journalists, he discovered Katya’s now empty apartment (you can rent it for $1,200 a month) and her ex-boyfriend.
Goodness gracious: he “discovered” Katya’s apartment! Can someone explain to me why this kind of detective-language is necessary? My inner novelist is telling me that this Yashin character, who “goes on the offensive” and “files complaints,” must be some kind of daring protagonist! Have a look, though, at the actual text of the complaint, and you’ll realize that 90% of it is pure nonsense. While Yashin does have the right to bring to the authorities’ attention the fact that someone appears to have impersonated police officers and solicited bribes from him, he has no standing at all to weigh in on the video-taping of Oreshkin, Fishman, Shenderovich, Limonov, or Potkin. (His blogged-about rendezvous with Katya and Nastya is, until the tape turns up, still just a rumor.) Indeed, Yashin doesn’t even highlight the crime of impersonating a cop — instead his “announcement” to the police cites criminal codes against disseminating an individual’s private information without his consent and laws against pornography. In this regard, YouTube is the guiltiest of all for allowing the bribery hidden-camera video to be watched over 100,000 times.
Yet, instead of asking the Russian government to immediately contact Google, he demands that Surkov and Yakemenko be “interrogated” and “checked,” to investigate their “possible” involvement. “Why?” you might ask. Well, Mr. Yashin doesn’t say — but he did find the time for a nice little photo op (pictured above) outside the steps of the General Prosecutor. “Russia,” we’re meant to believe, “strange land where men cheat on their wives, and the government ignores all complaints from honest citizens!” Of course, as an American, I’m sure there would be an immediate grand jury assembled, were I to write a letter to our Attorney General indicting American Government officials in the orchestration of some crime.
Incidentally, nobody but Yashin has bothered to speak to the police. Shenderovich has of course criticized the authorities for being helpless, but that’s a rather easy accusation to make, when he never filed any charges. Maybe he’s waiting for the sequel before he picks up his pen again?