JANUARY 8, 2013
After hugging it out with his new—and, by comparison, petite and fragile-looking—president, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi on Saturday night, French actor Gérard Depardieu flew, inexplicably, to the Russian republic of Mordovia. He was greeted by local officials and feted by residents with bliny, a traditional song-and-dance show, where Depardieu, clad in an embroidered peasant’s tunic, grinned and held up his new, Bordeaux-colored Russian passport. Later, at a midnight Christmas service—Russian Orthodox Christmas is on January 7—he was handed a religious icon, keys to a new condo, and two kittens.
Days earlier, Putin, by presidential fiat, had extended Russian citizenship to Depardieu, who recently declared that he would abandon his native France, allegedly because of high taxes: Russia’s flat 13 percent tax rate looked a lot better than Francois Hollande’s now defunct proposal to raise taxes to 75 percent for those making over 1 million euros. (Depardieu has since denied this, saying that if he “had wanted to escape the tax man… I would’ve done it a long time ago.”)
The inaugural trip to Mordovia, observers noted, was a strange choice given what the republic is generally known for: penal colonies. The Mordovian economy subsists almost entirely on these alone; roads are merely strings connecting the colonies, some of which date back to Stalin. Most visitors to Mordovia are likely to see not yodeling singers in colorful frocks, but a depressed region where the free population seems split into two camps: the prison guards, and the day drinkers.
I have no doubt that Depardieu didn’t see and will not see this side of Mordovia, nor will he have met with the region’s most famous inmate, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the band Pussy Riot. (“It’s very beautiful here,” Depardieu said during his visit. “The people who live here are beautiful and spiritual.”) Nor will Depardieu see Russia as it exists for 99.9 percent of his now fellow countrymen. As Putin’s pet, he will be shielded from the collapsing infrastructure and a ramshackle poverty inexplicable for a country that pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia. He will never have to go to a poorly trained, overworked, and underpaid Russian doctor who would likely misdiagnose him anyway. He will never get caught in the teeth of the corrupt justice system; he won’t be extorted for bribes, whether or not he runs afoul of the law. Depardieu, who announced that he wants to move to a Russian village and learn Russian, will live a charmed life that will have very little to do with Russia itself.
Of course, this can be said of any wealthy Russian, or any celebrity anywhere in the world. The difference here is the orientalism of such Western men—and they are always, always men—who decamp to Russia and praise the place for its freedom and simplicity. The women, they say, are more beautiful and better (read: more sparsely) dressed, more deferential to men (especially men with money), and always aim to please, sexually. Without examining why Russian women might be like this, Western expats use these qualities as evidence for a quietly long-held view that feminism is the crude weapon of the ugly Western woman. The whirl-a-gig unpredictability of the place rarely stops being fun because it’s never entirely real. In these men’s eyes, it is not lawlessness; it is freedom from annoying rules.
In my years living in Moscow, I have come across many such Western men. In Moscow, their wealth gives them the kind of reality-bending leverage that it couldn’t in New York, London, or Paris. In Moscow, their wealth—and, in Depardieu’s case, fame—made them brilliant and sexually attractive, especially to the leggy, barely legal girls from the provinces; in those Western cities, their money merely made them rich. In Moscow, these men live above reality and above the law, above even the informal gang codes of the Russian elite: A Russian businessman who crosses the authorities risks his freedom or his life, but a Western businessman? He could get his visa revoked, and lose a bit of money. A flesh wound, really.
And yet, Russians encourage this. Despite a rise of anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the last year, Russians still revere the Westerner. They solicit his expertise and even grovel in front of him, while periodically stopping to beat their chests with a thin and tinny pride; they want, in some dark, self-annihilating way, to be the Westerner, to dismiss the part of themselves that is not European as somehow shameful and backwards, while still insisting on Russia’s spiritual superiority. Goods and foods are labeled “European”—that is, elite. But Russia also claims some responsibility for elite European culture. At one investment forum I attended, Putin went on a long tirade about how Russia was an inherently and quintessentially European country, that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were European writers—without whom, paradoxically, Europe would lack all culture.
It is a strange psychological dance—with roots in the holy foolery of Byzantine culture—and it is at play here: Russia welcomes and pampers the Westerner, it shields him from its cruder realities and lavishes on him its choicest sweetmeats and maidens. And, all the while, it mocks him as inferior in spirit, and holds up his rare defection as an example of all that is wrong with the craven, godless West.