Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told journalists a while back that during a visit to one of the country’s most popular social networking websites, odnoklassniki.ru, he had discovered that there were another 637 Dmitry Medvedevs registered. Some of them, he said, even looked like him.
The news snippet got me thinking.
Where did they all live, these other Dmitry Medvedevs? What kind of lives did they lead?
It then occurred to me that there must be other namesakes of Russian and Soviet leaders out there in the vast territory of the Russian Federation. Why, perhaps in some tiny Siberian village there is a shy and retiring Vladimir Putin? On the 10th floor of a block of flats in Russia’s Far East a sober and healthy Boris Yeltsin?
Who knows, maybe somewhere in Moscow there is a gay, disco-queen Leonid Brezhnev? A hirsute, corn-hating Nikita Khrushchev eking out a pitiful existence in a ramshackle village in the North Caucasus? In a Central Russian apartment decorated with Satanic symbols a dope-smoking, heavy-metal loving Joseph Stalin? (Ok, the last one is unlikely – after all, Uncle Joe thought up a new surname for himself from the Russian for “steel”. Dzhugashvili, the one he was born with, just wasn’t snappy enough for a murderous dictator-to- be.)
I suddenly really wanted to meet these people. To discuss Russia’s past, present and future with them. In some ways it struck me that the exercise would be even more rewarding than conversations with the real Medvedev or Putin. After all, they often give interviews, and their opinions on almost everything are well known and documented. And there are plenty of experts to fill in any gaps in our collective knowledge. But their namesakes are the unknowns who are silently shaping Russia’s destiny.
I became more excited. The quest, for that was how I had begun to think of it, would take me all over my adopted homeland, to places I had never been, to interact with the lives of people I would never, under other circumstances, have encountered. They would, these namesakes of Russian leaders, have interesting – even valuable - things to say. Of that I was more than sure.
“You see Marc,” a friend told me in 1997, during my first year in the country, “almost everyone in Russia has a story to tell. Almost everyone has some crazy stuff that happened to them or their family. Russia has been through so much, even the boring people here are more or less interesting.” He was, as I would find out during the next decade and a bit, absolutely right.
My idea was, I knew, slightly absurd. Russia, after all, is the biggest country on Earth, stretching from the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. What would, say, the Dmitry Medvedev of Vladivostok think about me when he learnt I had flown seven hours to meet him, to find out about his life and thoughts? Would he think me insane, or would he accept the journey for what it was – a leap into the unknown, an obsession even? After all, Russia itself has spent many years of its long and turbulent history believing in the dreams of men driven by mad desires.
First of all, however, I would have to track down the “Russian leaders.”
That would not be a problem. All over Moscow, there are CDs on sale containing data bases for just about anything you can imagine. Tax records, driving licenses, criminal records, and, of course, telephone numbers. For 300 roubles (about $10), I would be able to purchase the numbers of almost all the listed telephones, both mobiles and landlines, in Russia. There were bound to be, well, hundreds of Medvedevs and Putins there. Maybe even a Yuri Andropov or two if I was lucky.
But, then, well, things got on top of me and I never quite got round to it. It was the second law of thermodynamics: entropy (everything decays, even enthusiasm) in motion. I’m sure you understand, even if you aren’t too hot on physics. Call it laziness, if you like.
I’ll get round to it one of these days though, I promise. Just don’t hold me to my word.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.