In Other Words

True Crime, Russian-Style

Okhota na izyubrya (Stag Hunting) By Julia Latynina 527 pages, Moscow: Olma-Press and St. Petersburg: Neva, 1999 (in Russian) Pity the would-be Russian thriller writer. A big part of the pleasure we take in the latest blockbuster mob movie or bestselling crime novel is the sheer, children’s-bedtime-story catharsis of entering an imaginary world whose dangers ...

Okhota na izyubrya (Stag Hunting)
By Julia Latynina
527 pages, Moscow: Olma-Press and St. Petersburg: Neva, 1999 (in Russian)

Pity the would-be Russian thriller writer. A big part of the pleasure we take in the latest blockbuster mob movie or bestselling crime novel is the sheer, children’s-bedtime-story catharsis of entering an imaginary world whose dangers are vivid, yet safely removed from the struggles of our ordinary existence. But in postcommunist Russia, "real life" is as lurid and scary as any John Grisham pot-boiler. This is a country where a small-business owner, engaged in a trade as mundane as selling shoes, must pay local gangsters more often than the electric company. Here, tax officials sometimes wear bulletproof vests, conceal their faces in black balaclavas, and carry machine guns; the best restaurants have metal detectors in the foyer; and the country’s leading tycoons routinely must evade car bombs and flee the country under threat of arrest. And as for lurid — well, one of Moscow’s most popular news programs features an anchorwoman who strips while she recites the day’s top stories.

Against the backdrop of this surreal reality, Russian journalist Julia Latynina’s attempt to write an "economic thriller" is a heroic undertaking. She tells the story of a Moscow banking oligarch’s under-handed campaign to seize control of a Siberian metallurgical factory from Vyacheslav Izvolsky, the plant’s tough, young local owner. The book’s publishers have tried to set the tone with a pulpish cover featuring a steely-eyed assassin cocking his pistol at the reader.

Latynina gamely struggles to keep the book jacket’s guns-and-molls promise. She stages a gangland shootout, gives us a couple of scenes of creatively gruesome torture, and, by the end of the book, manages to tote up three corpses, a half-dozen assassination attempts, and several encounters with the prostitutes of Moscow’s casino land. It’s a noble effort, but ultimately, Latynina is outgunned by the sheer brutality of everyday Russian life. In a country where a week of headlines produces more gore than all 527 pages of Stag Hunting, Latynina’s thriller never quite manages to thrill.

That may be why Stag Hunting hasn’t quite achieved the runaway popular success its publishers — who touted the novel as "a book with every chance of becoming a national bestseller" — had hoped for. But Latynina’s work has become a must-read for the select group of mostly Moscow-based journalists, pundits, politicians, and executives who unselfconsciously refer to themselves as the Russian elita. Stag Hunting owes its influence among the elita to the meticulously detailed economic story Latynina tells once she has dispensed with her sex-and-guns subplots.

As one of Russia’s leading business journalists, Latynina is an able guide to the intricacies of post-Soviet economic life. She deftly combines a firm grasp of the dizzying financial detail of Russian business — an intentionally confusing realm of barter, arrears, and offshore bank accounts — with a clear understanding of the larger, systemic role these transactions serve. When it comes to interpreting the Russian economy, Latynina is, to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s terms, both a fox and a hedgehog, and that is what makes Stag Hunting such a fascinating book.

The novel, which helpfully includes a three-page appendix listing all the banks, offshore companies, and trading firms attached to the Siberian metallurgical factory that is the main theater of action, is full of riveting detail. Latynina explains precisely how factory directors use offshore firms to evade taxes, illustrates the best way to bribe provincial governors, traces the mutually beneficial accumulation of interenterprise arrears within a particular region, and shows how a tax regime intended to encourage exports can be manipulated to evade domestic taxes. Latynina is likewise enlightening about the weapons of corporate warfare à la Russe: The heaviest guns are not hired "killers" — though they do make an occasional appearance — but the more sophisticated arsenal of artificial bankruptcy, bent judges, manipulation of shareholder registries, and the painstaking accumulation of dossiers of compromising materials, known as kompromat, usually compiled by ex-KGB agents and used to blackmail one’s business opponents. If you care about the Russian economy (or, braver still, invest in it) but cannot instantly define financial instruments like veksels (promissory notes) or lzheeksport (falsified export documents), you should read this book at once.

For all her foxy talents, Latynina reveals her inner hedgehog, and that is another reason Stag Hunting has appealed to the Russian elita. Beneath the gangster flourishes and financial minutiae, Latynina develops a robust theory explaining how Russian capitalism really works. Her Stag Hunting school of Russian capitalism boils down to three tough-minded precepts:

First, the Russian state has disintegrated. In Stag Hunting, "there is no impersonal law," and "Moscow no longer exists." Instead, the country has been carved into "feudal kingdoms," each controlled by the reigning local business "khan" or "princeling."

Second, business corruption is not only ubiquitous, it is inevitable. Given the absence of an impartial legal system and the perverse nature of Russian taxes, the only sensible way to run a business is through an opaque web of offshore companies, mass tax evasion, liberal bribing of government officials, and the occasional use of deadly force. Latynina underscores the absurdity of obeying the law in today’s Russia through the example of the old-fashioned, by-the-book Stalinist who runs a helicopter factory not far from the metallurgical plant owned and operated by her fictional hero. The old-timer follows every government edict and scrupulously pays himself a modest ruble salary. But before long, the factory of the Volga-driving, virtuous Red director has run out of money, and he is forced to throw himself and his enterprise at the mercy of his thieving, Mercedes-riding neighbor. As the perplexed helicopter man tells his new khan, "I don’t know how this happened. I don’t steal, and my factory has ground to a standstill. You do steal and your factory is working."

Finally, Latynina’s Russia is a pitiless, neofeudal world in which the strong dominate by natural right, and the weak either blindly serve them, or perish. Izvolsky views his workers with a lordly contempt: "I don’t love them. It’s enough that I pay them." Their response verges on religious awe: "thanks to the Russian people’s sympathy for men like Ivan the Terrible . . . the director was almost universally respected."

The Russia of Stag Hunting is an unpleasant place, but a convincing one. Latynina’s vision of a collapsed state has become a truism of contemporary Kremlin watching. Her conviction that corruption is structurally inevitable is equally uncontroversial within Russia itself, although Westerners often have a fairy-tale preference for blaming the country’s current woes less on the system itself and more on individual, evil businessmen. And Latynina’s psychological insight into the relationship between Russia’s self-appointed supermen and its untermenschen — an Ayn Rand fantasy come to life — is dead-on. Reading about Stag Hunting‘s princely Izvolsky, I couldn’t help thinking of what one of the real-life Russian business oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once told me: "If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him. It means for some reason he was unable to become an oligarch. Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it. If a man didn’t do it, it means there are some sorts of problems with him."

What is especially endearing about Stag Hunting‘s jaundiced world view is that Latynina assesses the status of her own caste and gender with the same cold eye she brings to unravelling interenterprise arrears. In her Russia, journalists are all pawns in the corporate game, either owned by their proprietors or on sale to the highest bidder. Women fare even worse. Sleeping with the boss is as natural a part of a secretary’s duties as taking dictation; date rape is socially acceptable, particularly if it’s a superman doing the raping; and a woman’s principal career choices appear to be either prostitution or hand-and-foot domestic servitude to one’s masculine protector. Of course, as an ethical journalist and an independent working woman, Latynina is a living exception to the bleak rules she sets out, but that merely makes her unsentimental view of the degraded condition of her sex and her profession more impressive.

Those Western politicians and analysts who still cherish the hope that a few parliamentary votes can straighten out the post-Soviet economy and who see President Vladimir Putin as the good czar intent on cleaning up Mother Russia had best avoid Stag Hunting. They will be depressed by Latynina’s portrait of a country in which the government is at best irrelevant and at worst corrupt and ruled by business-princes whose power is crude and violent, but essentially stable. The Russian establishment, on the other hand, has recognized itself in the portrait Latynina has painted. Russians can be accused of many sins, but a failure to acknowledge their own shortcomings has rarely been one of them.

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