“We’re getting richer. We grow up faster / We’re closer to sunlight, we’re further from shadow. / Further from suffering, anguish and swelter. / Closer to the soil, and further from the swarm / That swarm of angry and hideous earthly creatures / Those that are fanged and cruel…”
What is this new devilry, you ask? Why, it’s poetry – and the author is the notorious Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, though she did not gain fame as an author, but in another way entirely.
Published in Argumenty Nedeli last week, the above verses on money – alongside breathless odes to star-crossed love – were written by a striking blonde bureaucrat on trial for corruption in Russia.
Vasilyeva was recently charged with large-scale fraud in connection with the ongoing Oboronservis property misappropriation case. She is the former head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s department of property relations, and the alleged mistress of disgraced former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Vasilyeva is currently under house arrest in her 13-bedroom luxury apartment in Moscow and is pleading not guilty.
Her book of poetry, appropriately titled “Poems” and complete with seductive pictures of herself, was self-published several years ago and has recently gained much attention.
As the investigation continues, the public can’t seem to get enough of Vasilyeva – her looks, her luxurious lifestyle, her seeming shamelessness. There have been sexist statements directed at her, obviously, but much of the public discussion surrounding this woman is in the vein of class warfare: there is something about Vasilyeva’s unselfconscious attitude of “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” that has struck a nerve.
Vasilyeva’s verses reveal similar anxiety and hatred, but directed toward ordinary people. Ordinary people are the ugly, terrifying “swarm” that she is referencing in the above poem. She does not want anything to do with this swarm. The only way to get away from it is to grow ever richer, of course.
In another poem, Vasilyeva refers to Russia thus: “Your hairy hands / Warm me, while envying me. / Do not abandon me, Motherland / My happiness will be organic / It will be vanilla-flavored, fairytale-like.”
You’re probably stuck wondering why Vasilyeva depicts Russia as having “hairy hands” (an image best not to dwell on, especially if you’ve read Victorian literature, which linked hairy palms with masturbation). What you should be paying attention to are not the author’s metaphors, but the feelings of envy she ascribes to her country.
Russia’s wealthy classes are aware of being envied. They don’t tie these feelings to rampant social inequality. Rather, they have the attitude so perfectly captured by Vasilyeva in her verse – the idea that they are hated by evil, nasty, unattractive people for their luck, their beauty, and their relative safety (all safety is relative in Russia, as Vasilyeva’s own fall from grace painfully demonstrates).
Rich Russians, especially those rich Russians whose money is entirely ill-gotten, don’t allow for the possibility that some of their fellow citizens, far from being a barbarous herd of haters, are thinking people who are appalled by corruption and greed. It simply does not compute. And as more and more billionaires emerge on the post-Soviet landscape, as social inequality increases, disdain on both sides will grow.
Vasilyeva is interesting because her poems reveal a fascinating duality. She is both a calculating cynic and, to quote another rich blonde as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a “beautiful fool.” She wants to be liked and is capable of much ardor (“Kiss me on the lips, spoil me / You’re like long-awaited snowfall”) as well as gratitude (“For a beautiful soul, for a sense of beauty / I’m grateful, God!”)
Most of all, she is afraid. In spite of her pagan-like insistence that closeness to sunlight will help her avoid misfortune, she is a woman constantly watching her back, terrified of the advancing swarm. Yet it’s not the evil lower classes that got her, in the end. It was power struggles at the top, coupled with an increased need for the government to at least demonstrably punish corruption.
Some will compare Vasilyeva’s story to the myth of Icarus, who got a little too close to the sun. I tie it to a much more banal legend: the popular idea that in Russia, a girl will have it made if she is beautiful enough and has a powerful enough “papik” (sugar daddy) backing her. Papiks come and go, after all.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.
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