Apart from marveling at the failure of Britain’s parliamentary committee to ask the sinister figures of Rupert and James Murdoch the killer question (are you the ‘Old Ones from the depths of time and space’ spoken of by H.P.Lovecraft?), the recent News International phone-hacking scandal also made me appreciate the relative absence of a soul-destroying celebrity culture in Russia.
For all the moral outrage expressed over the News of the World’s tactics, it’s worth recalling that the paper sold almost 3 million copies every Sunday. So for whom did the hacks hack? Answer: the bored and sated masses who demand – to quote the anti-hero of Mike Leigh’s stunningly bleak Naked – “cheap thrills and plenty of them and it doesn’t matter how tawdry and vacuous they are.”
It would of course be inaccurate to suggest that Russians are without exception serious folk for whom gossip and trivia hold no attraction. But it’s also true that there just isn’t the colossal appetite here for the all-pervasive media banality that encapsulates much of life in the West.
It many ways, it’s a cultural thing. The Soviet Union – whose state media you’ll be surprised to hear devoted little time to tittle-tattle - collapsed a mere 20 years ago, and two decades just isn’t long enough for an all-powerful Western-style media to have taken hold. The Russians adore collectiveness, but thankfully they have yet to fully discover the dubious wonders of a shared media consciousness.
This is not to say that Russia doesn’t have its own gutter press and dumbed-down TV shows. After all, one of the main tabloids here – Tvoi Den – is a straight copy of The Sun. (It even has a Page Three girl.) But, like the country’s reality shows, which have seen lower and lower audiences of late, the tabloids and TV just don’t exert the same vicious hold on the nation’s consciousness as they do in the green and pleasant land of my birth.
The other reasons for this lack of a dominant celebrity culture is likely to be that folks here have other things to worry about (rampant alcoholism, corruption and a health service largely unfit for purpose, to name just three) without getting themselves in a state over the fortunes of complete strangers. This and a very healthy - not to mention refreshing - national sense of skepticism.
Of course, there would also simply be no motivation to hack into a murdered teenager’s voice mail in Russia, because the case wouldn’t gain anywhere near the same level of attention. With some 2,000 children murdered every year in Russia by adults, the nation would be unlikely to whip itself (or be whipped) into a frenzy over one more brutal killing.
But I like to think there is something more behind Russia’s reluctance to succumb to the kind of celebrity culture that has poisoned the national psyche in the U.K. and the U.S. than mere cynicism and social misfortune. For me – at least – this resistance is encapsulated by the Russian love of soups. (Yes, soups. Bear with me on this one…)
You probably didn’t hear about it, but Andy Warhol’s favorite tinned food, Campbell’s Soup, recently announced plans to pull out of Russia. Despite spending a lot on marketing, the company just couldn’t persuade Russians to eat tinned soup. That might not seem like much to you, but for me it sums up nicely Russia’s reluctance to succumb entirely to the worst excesses of the “decadent West.”
I mean, it’s not that I have anything against Campbell’s soups – I’m not sure I’ve even ever tasted them. It’s just that for a nation to make the collective choice to chop up vegetables – or whatever - put them in a pan, bring them to the boil and serve them piping hot with chunks of black bread (hungry yet?) rather than open yet another tin is something to be applauded. And says something significant about the national psyche.
But whatever. I’m surprised you’ve even got this far into the article. What, wasn’t there something else to distract you? Some gossip about Justin Bieber, perhaps? (Actually, I found something about Vanilla Ice dissing him when I Googled the teen wonder’s name to check I’d spelled it right. Go check that out!)
Anyway, that’s enough philosophizing. I’m off to eat some borsch.
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, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).