Laughing at poverty is like laughing at cancer – you can only do it if you’ve been there, or are there now. Yet showing disdain for the poor is often a hallmark of societies with great social inequality, and sometimes even progressive Russians jump on the bandwagon.
Svetlana Kuritsyna, a.k.a. “Sveta from Ivanovo,” became famous this past winter after journalist Zhenia Gladin, my colleague at our sister-paper Moskovskiye Novosti, recorded Sevtlana’s clumsily worded tribute to Vladimir Putin and the United Russia Party in a Moscow underground crossing. Sveta was in town to take part in a counter-protest organized by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth movement, meant to show support for the ruling regime. Zhenia approached her to ask what she believed United Russia’s greatest achievements were so far.
Sveta stumbled through a sincere, silly speech. “We started dressing more better,” she said at one point, clearly at a loss as to how to properly answer. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold and she was wearing a parka. She was just an ordinary girl on her way to the metro.
Zhenia’s video became an instant hit, going viral across Russia and inspiring responses that ranged from laughter to sadness to scorn. Later on, aghast at how many insulting comments the video had received, Zhenia published a column asking for Sveta’s forgiveness. Sveta did not respond – she was busy trying to escape her newfound fame.
After much scorn and soul-searching on the subject of Sveta in the media and on social networks, Izvestia tracked down her family. It turns out that her mother works at a linen factory, making a little over $200 a month. “I’ve been working since I was 15,” Natalya Kuritsyna told Izvestia. “I haven’t had any rest since I started. They’ve paid our salaries before with table linens, with bread. For four years, we would go to Moscow and St. Petersburg ourselves to sell them.”
It was Natalya’s wish that her daughter, naive as she was, would find her way in life. And Sveta, who was at the time living in a dingy dormitory, indeed found her way – she was invited to host a talkshow at NTV, a channel that specializes in controversy. Her new talkshow was christened “Beam of Light” – a play on the name Sveta, which comes from “svet,” the Russian word for light. The show itself is predictably cringe-inducing – and yet also touching in places, such as the episode in which Sveta confronts the people who are refusing to pay her mother her back wages.
Whether we like it or not, Sveta’s show, the mere existence of Sveta, is a beaming signal from a world of loss, indignity and degradation. Most of us come in contact with this world in one way or another, but few people in Moscow actually notice those folks like Sveta, who are stuck there for life – lest they accidentally achieve fame and possibly try to capitalize on it somehow.
When people tear the likes of Sveta apart for having joined a pro-Putin youth movement, they seem to miss a central point: in places like Ivanovo, joining Nashi was often the only way forward for a young person who is interested in actually doing something with life.
If your mom is busy pulling arduous night-shifts at a linen factory and your dad is nowhere to be found, when the town you’re living in is the sort of place that people “drive by in their limousines on their way to Moscow” (according to Sveta’s mother), you’re probably not going to be a very sophisticated teenager (and Sveta was only 19 when she became the star of both political debates and macros).
Nowadays, the debate in Moscow seems to center on whether or not Sveta “belongs” among today’s television stars. The most spirited defense of Sveta so far came from journalist Andrei Loshak, who reminded the country that in most cases, girls like Sveta are simply treated like fresh meat by the more urbane, educated men who chance upon them – until such girls are not young anymore, that is. These are the consequences of class inequality and regional politics that stem the money flow to a few key places in Russia.
Will Sveta’s new gig translate into a better life for her and her mom? Who knows. The important thing is that she hasn’t given up. NTV’s decision to hire Sveta may have been an attempt to “troll” the intelligentsia, but as such, it may backfire. Not only does she still possess a rare quality for television – sincerity (we’ll have to wait and see how long it takes for that aspect of her personality to be filtered out) – she’s also unashamed of being who she is.
She has broken the rules and that’s OK. The rules suck to begin with.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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 deputy editor 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.