With the exception of fishing, soccer and the Orthodox Church, few things are taken more seriously in Russia than Eurovision. Indeed, much of the sequined musical fare on Russian television looks like an endless Eurovision rehearsal. When Conchita won, back in May, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist in Russia’s Parliament who is roughly equivalent to Michele Bachmann, said her victory meant “the end of Europe.” The deputy prime minister and the Orthodox Church issued statements essentially denouncing the collapse of Christian civilization as we know it. On tonight’s show, broadcast to millions of Russians, the message is clear: Europe may have rejected homophobia, a value it once shared with Russia, by giving a musical prize to a drag queen, but Russia, like Gloria Gaynor herself, will survive, never to succumb to the rest of the world’s wimpy notions of tolerance. A country where gangs of vigilantes who call their cause “Occupy Pedophilia” attack gay men and women on the streets of its major cities will now carry the mantle of the European Christian project.
“I love you, Russia,” the bearded singer intones in English at the end of her number. “Russia, I’m yours,” she adds in Russian.
Seven more days of this, I think, as I crawl over to the minibar.
You might be wondering why I left my home and family and started watching Russian drag-queen parodies. I am the subject of an experiment. For the next week, I will subsist almost entirely on a diet of state-controlled Russian television, piped in from three Apple laptops onto three 55-inch Samsung monitors in a room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. (If I have to imbibe the TV diet of the common Russian man, I will at least live in the style of one of his overlords.) Two of the monitors are perched directly in front of my bed, with just enough space for a room-service cart to squeeze in, and the third hangs from a wall to my right. The setup looks like the trading floor of a very small hedge fund or the mission control of a poor nation’s space program. But I will not be monitoring an astronaut’s progress through the void. In a sense, I am the one leaving the planet behind.
I will stay put in my 600-square-foot luxury cage, except for a few reprieves, and will watch TV during all my waking hours. I can entertain visitors, as long as the machines stay on. Each morning I will be allowed a walk to the New York Health & Racquet Club on West 56th Street for a long swim. Vladimir Putin reportedly takes a two-hour swim every morning to clear his head and plot the affairs of state. Without annexing Connecticut or trying to defend a collapsing currency, I will be just like him, minus the famous nude torso on horseback.
Ninety percent of Russians, according to the Levada Center, an independent research firm, get their news primarily from television. Middle-aged and older people who were formed by the Soviet system and those who live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg are particularly devoted TV watchers. Two of the main channels — Channel 1 and Rossiya 1 — are state-owned. The third, NTV, is nominally independent but is controlled by Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the giant energy company that is all but a government ministry. Executives from all three companies regularly meet with Kremlin officials.
Each channel has a slightly different personality. Channel 1 was the Soviet Union’s original channel, which beamed happy farm reports and hockey victories at my parents and grandparents. It features lots of film classics and a raucous health show whose title can be roughly translated as “Being Alive Is Swell!” Rossiya 1 is perhaps best known for a show called “News of the Week,” featuring a Kremlin propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, who once implicitly threatened to bomb the United States into a pile of “radioactive ash.” (Sadly, for me, Kiselev is taking this week off from ranting.) NTV is more happy-go-lucky, blasting noirish crime thrillers and comedy shows, like a “Saturday Night Live” rip-off shamelessly titled “Saturday. Night. Show.” But during regular breaks for the news, the three networks are indistinguishable in their love of homeland and Putin and their disdain for what they see as the floundering, morally corrupt and increasingly lady-bearded West.
Here is the question I’m trying to answer: What will happen to me — an Americanized Russian-speaking novelist who emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child — if I let myself float into the television-filtered head space of my former countrymen? Will I learn to love Putin as 85 percent of Russians profess to do? Will I dash to the Russian consulate on East 91st Street and ask for my citizenship back? Will I leave New York behind and move to Crimea, which, as of this year, Putin’s troops have reoccupied, claiming it has belonged to Russia practically since the days of the Old Testament? Or will I simply go insane?
A friend of mine in St. Petersburg, a man in his 30s who, like many his age, avoids state-controlled TV and goes straight to alternative news sources on the Internet, warns me in an email: “Your task may prove harmful to your psyche and your health in general. Russian TV, especially the news, is a biohazard.” I’ll be fine, I think. Russians have survived far worse than this. But, just in case, I have packed a full complement of anti-anxiety, sleep and pain medication.
I glance from monitor to monitor, muting the volume on Channel 1, pumping it up on Rossiya 1, lowering it two bars on NTV. On one channel, Asiatic dwarves are shooting confetti at one another. Another screen shows a musical number performed by cadres of athletic dancers celebrating the 33 medals Russia won at the Sochi Olympics. Each line is met with the English refrain “Oh, yeah!” Another channel has two men dressed as giant bears, break dancing.
Russian TV has lovingly preserved all eras of American and European pop culture, and it recombines them endlessly, the more nonsensically, the better. Two frosted-haired individuals — a small bearded man and a middle-aged giantess — belt out a cover of the 1989 Roxette hit “The Look.” On another monitor, the famed Tatar crooner Renat Ibragimov, a dapper elderly man, performs a rousing version of Tom Jones’s 1960s dark pop ballad “Delilah.” If Spinal Tap actually existed, it would be touring its heart out in Vladivostok right now. But no matter what the style of the music, the studio audience goes bananas with the clapping and cheering. I send a few clips to my friend Mark Butler, who teaches music theory and cognition at Northwestern University, to help me understand the Russian style of enthusiasm. “The audience is not clapping solely on two and four, as listeners versed in rock do,” he writes back. “Nor are they ‘one-three clappers’ (the stereotype of people who don't get rock rhythm). Instead, they are clapping on every beat.”
I remember all this clapping from my early teenage years, at bar and bat mitzvahs in the Russian nightclubs of Queens and Brooklyn, and my constant need to slink away from the applause so I could be shy and alone in the parking lot. The happiest applause, in my memory anyway, belonged to my grandmother and her generation, who seemed amazed to still be walking the earth and to be doing so in the relative wonderland of Rego Park, Queens.
Slightly drunk off a frisky Clos Du Val pinot noir, which I’ve been sipping along with another helping of Wagyu, I can’t help myself. I begin clapping too, mouthing the lyrics “Forgif me, Deelaila, I jas’ kudn take anymorr.” In my high spirits, I take an affectionate look at my surroundings. The Four Seasons is a fine choice of hotel for my task. The lobby is filled with Russians, trendy grandmas sparkling from head to toe in Louis Vuitton and Chanel, guiding their equally gilded granddaughters past an enormous Christmas tree. The view from my room faces the nearly completed 432 Park Avenue, a 96-story luxury condominium building, which will be one of the tallest habitable towers in Manhattan (apartments start at nearly $17 million). If I had checked in for New Year’s Eve 2015, by which time 432 Park Avenue is expected to be complete, some of the tenants staring back at me would very likely belong to the class of Russian oligarchs who have helped transform the real estate in London, and now in New York, into the priciest on earth.
On NTV’s New Year’s extravaganza, the talk among the presenters turns to politics. The end of the year, after all, is a time to take stock, and stock-taking, whether at the kitchen table or the bathhouse or upon waking up after a night of drinking on some icy railroad platform far from home, is a national tradition. Russia is a country blessed but mostly cursed to endure years of civil war, global upheaval and dissolution of empire so transformative that other countries would have just given up and called it a day: 1917, 1941 and 1991 come to mind as moments when the very nature of Russia changed. In 2014, Russia changed again, or rather, Putin has taken a more definitive turn in his increasingly aggressive, anti-Western style of politics. He has become a conqueror, like the Russian czars he sometimes invokes with pseudomystical reverence in his speeches. In 2014, he concentrated his neo-imperial ambitions on Crimea, a sunny peninsula jutting into the Black Sea.
The year wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. The Sochi Olympics, perhaps the most corrupt in Winter Olympic history, were designed to present Russia as a nation that could compete with the West on its own terms, a nation that could mount an expensive pyrotechnical display while celebrating literary heroes like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Nabokov. The fact that in 2013 a museum dedicated to Nabokov’s work in St. Petersburg was spray-painted with the word “pedophile” by the same sort of people who revile Conchita was not mentioned.
In February, a pro-European revolution swept the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, a strong ally of Putin’s, from power in Kiev, replacing him with Petro Poroshenko. With Ukraine slipping from the Kremlin’s orbit, Putin sent Russian troops to occupy and later annex Ukrainian Crimea. Putin has said that Crimea is as important for the Russian people as the Temple Mount is for the Jews and Muslims, an opinion that should offend Russians, Jews and Muslims alike. For most people born in the U.S.S.R., myself included, the word Crimea evokes memories of summer vacations gorging on pelmeni (a species of dumpling) and getting reacquainted with the sun in decaying hotels and private huts. Think of it as a shabbier Fort Lauderdale with the occasional Chekhov statue. In any case, the loss of Crimea, with its majority-speaking Russian population, has been one of the most acutely felt wounds of the dissolution of the Soviet Union — having Crimea fall outside of Russia’s borders was like cutting off a piece of the Floridian peninsula below Jacksonville — and its reconquest has elevated Putin’s standing far above that of any Russian leader in perhaps a century. But that proved not to be enough for him.
The imposition of Western sanctions against Russian officials after Crimea’s annexation dealt but a glancing blow to the Russian economy. Putin’s next move, his support of pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s industrialized Donbass region, led to a war that the United Nations estimates has displaced a million people and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, and further sanctions from the West. (As of this writing, a cease-fire has been brokered, but it is fragile and may not last.) But it is the collapse of the price of oil, Russia’s main export commodity, that has weakened the regime. As the price of a barrel of Brent crude and the value of the ruble go down, the tenor of propaganda on Russian television goes up.
The presenters of a Pan-Slavic Russian-Ukrainian-Belorussian concert are rattling off a list of Russian pop stars no longer allowed into Ukraine after Putin’s invasion of Crimea. “We don’t have such blacklists,” the M.C. says. “We wish all people love and friendship without any boycotts.”
“They” — meaning Ukraine and the West; according to the Russian media, NATO and the C.I.A. have all but taken over Ukraine’s government, so it’s hard to resist conflating the two — “have oppressed our artists!” another singer says.
“They’re not allowing us to have our own point of view.”
“How can one not love one’s own president? That’s our point of view.”
“On our stage, there are no borders.”
The presenters sound genuinely hurt, and they are speaking for much of their television audience when they complain about the West’s cold shoulder. This is geopolitics as middle-school homeroom. Like an ambitious tween who longs for social success, Russia wants to be both noticed and respected. The invasion of Crimea and the bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine got the world’s attention, but now the cool nations are no longer inviting Russia for unsupervised sleepovers, and the only kids still leaving notes on Russia’s locker are Kim Jong-un and Raúl Castro.
I miss Putin. He is on a TV sabbatical for most of this week, enjoying the 11-day extended New Year’s holiday, swimming up a tsunami in his presidential pool, I’m sure. Putin’s face did show up on all three of my monitors around midnight, Moscow time, as he delivered his New Year’s address to the country. “Love of homeland is one of the most powerful, elevating feelings,” Putin declared, with his patented affectless-yet-deadly seriousness. The return of Crimea will become “one of the most important events in the history of the fatherland.”
For the rest of New Year’s Day, Russia falls into catatonic American-movie mode. The state-controlled networks hand themselves over to “Avatar,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Despite the bad blood with Obama, there is simply no way to fill out a day of programming without “Die Hard” or a David Blaine magic show. I enjoy a light snooze interrupted by further beef injections from room service.
The evening news on Rossiya 1 starts off with Ukraine. The anchors of the three networks are a clan of attractive, dead-eyed men and women. They speak in the same unshakable “out of my mouth comes unimpeachable manly truth” tone that Putin uses in his public addresses, sometimes mixing in a dollop of chilly sarcasm. Their patter has a hypnotic staccato quality, like a machine gun going off at regular intervals, often making it hard to remember that they are moving their mouths or inhaling and exhaling oxygen.
Putin’s popularity has mostly survived intact despite the ruble’s collapse and the gradual pauperization of his subjects. The media helps with a twofold strategy. First, the West and its sanctions are blamed for the economic situation. Second, the nascent Ukrainian democracy is portrayed as a movement of torch-wielding Nazi fascists under direct control of their Western masters. Few Russian families escaped unscathed from Hitler’s onslaught, and Nazi imagery, which remains stingingly potent, is invoked frequently and opportunistically, as a way of keeping historical wounds fresh.
On today’s news, the so-called Ukrainian Nazi fascists are celebrating the fascistic life of the neo-Nazi Stepan Bandera with a torch-lit Hitlerite parade. Bandera is a complicated figure, a Ukrainian nationalist who flirted with the invading Germans during the Second World War but was ultimately imprisoned by them. Any march through Kiev by Ukraine’s Right Sector, a xenophobic, socially conservative right-wing movement that has more in common with Moscow’s current regime than either side would like to admit, is catnip to the newscasters. “Instead of celebrating New Year’s, they’re celebrating the fascist Stepan Bandera,” the reporter declares. “It looks like fascist ideology will be the basis of the Ukrainian state.”
The leader of Right Sector did run for president of Ukraine in the May 2014 elections. He and his “fascist ideology” received 0.7 percent of the vote. Since the election of Poroshenko, who won by a majority, Ukraine is now easily the most democratic and pro-European republic in the former Soviet Union, excepting the Baltic States. It is, in fact, the anti-Russia. This, of course, drives Russia nuts.
I wake up feeling swollen. Movement is difficult, especially in my lower extremities. Probably just gout. The monitors are turned off at night, but the laptops are still whirling, the satellites still transmitting. I waddle over to my marble bathroom and look at my sleep-creased face.
There’s one small consolation in my day: crossing 57th street, moving through crowds of Russian, Asian and South American shoppers who are spending their way across New York, and finally dropping into the saltwater pool at the health club. I try to clear my mind of Russian TV, but the high-decibel pop soundtrack and the booming voices of the news anchors travel with me underwater, haunting my eardrums.
Back in my cage, the morning’s Catskill-smoked-salmon-and-egg-white sandwich arrives as I flick on the monitors, one showing the Red Army Choir singing its brains out, another with an advertisement for a 24-karat golden necklace for men that “doesn’t just show your material status but your good taste.” The thick, gleaming chain — chains, I should say; buy one, get one free — goes for 1,490 rubles, about $45 at the start of 2014, but about $25 at the start of 2015 as the ruble continued to plunge.
The news is pretty exciting today. Two reporters for LifeNews, a Russian channel that heavily supports the rebels in Ukraine and is rumored to have ties to Putin’s F.S.B. security service, had their camera smashed during a torch-lit parade through Kiev. “Anti-Russian feelings are approaching hysteria,” the reporter says.
I look at my watch. A full minute into the piece, and he hasn’t mentioned fascism, Nazism, neo-Nazism or the perfidy of the West.
“Torch-bearing parades are associated with Nazi Germany,” the reporter says.
On the monitor tuned to NTV, I catch a comedy called “An Ideal Pair.” The programming notes describe the plot: “Zoya is a sportswoman with a male character. That’s why she has trouble with the stronger sex and everyone runs away from her.”
I’m noticing a trend of movies about Russians in their mid-30s who are not yet married, a phenomenon confounding to most Russians who prefer to marry, have 1.61 children and then divorce early in life (according to the United Nations, Russia consistently has one of the highest divorce rates). Like most Russian rom-coms, the movie seems overly long, wordy and ridiculously chaste. Even a mild kiss fades out before anything can happen under the sheets. It’s rare to find a society with a more contradictory approach to sex. A new conservatism, led by the Orthodox Church, is constantly at odds with whatever progressive notions the Soviet Union instilled. Abortion was pretty much the most common form of birth control: The efficacy of Soviet prophylactics left much to be desired. Today, you can barely find explicit sex in a commercial film like “An Ideal Pair,” but watching one of the dance numbers on television makes you want to reach for a body condom just to be safe.
I crack open another bottle of wine and settle back into the world I cannot leave, with the January wind whipping past my lonely skyscraper. On Channel 1, the scandal of the smashed camera in Kiev rages on. There are many close-ups of the injured camera lying in what looks like snow or confetti. Then it’s time for Macaulay Culkin in the original “Home Alone.”
I am crawling through the snow in Kiev searching for my cellphone, which has been stolen by the neo-Nazi fascists. I find it by a wall defaced by a giant swastika, its screen shattered by the torch-bearing Ukrainians. “Allo,” I say in Russian. “Someone please help me. It’s cold out here.” A dead-eyed anchor from Rossiya 1 appears on my FaceTime. “Torch-bearing parades are associated with Nazi Germany,” he declares. I wake up and trundle off to the bathroom, pop some benzos and crawl back into bed. I sleep maybe three hours total. When I’ve occasionally returned to Russia for visits, I’ve sometimes woken up in the middle of the night thinking, What if they closed the borders? What if I’m supposed to live out the rest of my life here? Even though I’m ensconced in a luxury pad in the very epicenter of Manhattan, a similar feeling disturbs my sleep.
Today, I’m a mess. My breast stroke at the club looks more tadpole than frog. Back in my sunlit chamber of horrors, Rossiya 1’s news is on a rampage. A 35-car pile up in New Hampshire. No serious injuries, it seems, but clearly the West is falling apart. Things are even worse across the ocean. “An unpleasant New Year’s present for Prince Andrew,” a reporter says with a honed mixture of seriousness, sarcasm and glee. “Britain is shocked by a sex scandal between the prince and a minor who claims to have been held in ‘sexual slavery.’ ” Viewers in Yekaterinburg wolfing down their morning kasha are given a rundown of the crimes committed by the British royal family, from Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to Princess Diana’s death “in mysterious circumstances.”
Russians, on the other hand, are leading exemplary nonfascist lives. At the site of the Air Asia disaster, in the Java Sea, “Indonesian authorities are relying heavily on Russian divers and their equipment” to find and recover the doomed plane. In the northernmost reaches of Russia, we meet Aleksey Tryapitsyn, a “salt of the Earth” postman in a tiny village who somehow doesn’t smoke or drink and has been featured in a recent documentary, “The White Nights of the Postman Aleksey Tryapitsyn.” His wife is pretty salt-of-the-earth too. “I’m such an ordinary woman,” she says, “I know how to do everything: shoot a gun, catch ducks.”
The lessons for all Russians, especially spoiled Camembert-addicted Muscovites, are clear: In the difficult days to come, learn to shoot a gun, learn to catch ducks.
Today I have visitors: the Moscow-born writer Anya Ulinich and her friend Olga Gershenson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I order a meat plate from room service, and we settle in for lunch.
Last night, Anya found out that her cousin was killed in a small town not far from Donetsk, the Ukrainian city that has been a stronghold for pro-Russian fighters. “He was found dead in the lobby of his apartment building,” Anya tells me. “Nobody knows who killed him. There’s no police. It’s just anarchy.”
“I blame Putin roundly for this,” she says. “It used to be a normal town.”
She sighs. We glance from screen to screen. On NTV a man in a leather harness is dancing — well, practically having leather intercourse — with an equally leathered woman in front of two giant gilded statues of gladiators.
“That ballet is kind of cool,” Anya says.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Olga adds.
We watch for a while without saying another word.
My psychiatrist agrees to make a rare house call. We try to recreate the customary couch-and-psychiatrist’s-chair arrangement, except I’m in my king-size bed and he’s seated just to the right of me. The monitors are still on. On one, a Ukrainian drug dealer is caught in Moscow, and there are close-ups of his dastardly red Ukrainian passport. On another, two men are passed out on the grass, a spent vodka bottle between them. “There it is,” I say to my doctor. “Russia.”
I shut my eyes and think of what I mean by that.
“In my books, I’ve tried to understand my parents and what they went through in the Soviet Union,” I say. “Maybe this project is another way to get to know them. Times change, regimes change, but the television stays pretty much the same.
“I don’t agree with my parents about politics in the States that much, but we do tend to agree on Putin. That’s true of a lot of Russian-born friends of mine. It’s weird, but Putin brings us together with our parents. It’s nice to know that there’s a source of cruelty in the world that we can identify together.
“Imagine if my parents had never taken me out of Russia. Where would I be now? All this” — I gesture to the three screens — “would be my permanent reality.”
“You’re in a virtual childhood here,” my psychiatrist says. “These are regressive feelings.”
“Also, the televisions in the Soviet Union used to explode,” I say. “Sixty percent of the house fires in Moscow used to be caused by exploding televisions at one point.”
We’re silent for a bit, as happens often in the course of psychoanalysis.
Still, it’s good to talk.
Oh, the hell with it. I’m just going to start drinking after breakfast. And no more shaving or wearing clothes. The Four Seasons robe will do just fine. A woman with a Russian name on her tag rolls in my coffee and an H & H bagel with whitefish.
“Whitefish and not salmon?” She chastises me as if she were a Channel 1 television anchor and I were Ukraine.
“I’ll get the salmon tomorrow,” I promise her.
I watch a Jerry Springer-style show called “Male/Female.” Today’s topic: Tatyana, a woman from the village of Bolsheorlovskoe, 300 miles from Moscow, wants to find out the paternity of her latest child. A DNA test is administered to scores of the village men, and there are shots of poor Tatyana’s bedraggled neighbors voicing their opinions of her.
“A whore is a whore.”
“You get drunk, come to her house and bang!”
The village itself looks as if it has been banged repeatedly by some coarse muzhik in an ill-fitting Chinese-made sweater. The dwellings are tiny holes with room for a refrigerator, television and a sprinkling of roaches.
There’s a panel of experts, including a lawyer, a psychologist, a painter and a poet with a velvet jacket and a luxuriant, poetic mustache, commenting on Tatyana’s problems. “All Russian couples should have children while sober,” the poet duly notes.
Tatyana herself speaks with a hoarse country warble and is missing many critical teeth. Still, she’s oddly beautiful, and unlike a similar apparition on Jerry Springer, she never fights back even as the hosts and audience humiliate her. She sits there stoically, like a fallen character out of Dostoyevsky. In her own way, she is a model citizen for Putin’s new Russia. She knows to keep her trap shut while being continuously shouted at by persons in authority.
The DNA results are presented, and none of the assembled sad sacks proves to be the father. Tomorrow, Channel 1 will air the second part of Tatyana’s story. More villagers will be brought in for their DNA tests. Tatyana will once again be told she’s a whore.
There’s no way I can watch the news anymore without at least two minibottles of the Absolut, which I wash down with a couple of beers. The monitors are blurring one into the next, and I’m having trouble following the proceedings. On one screen, a man with a gun is being inhumane to others, while on another a woman of cubic-zirconia-grade glitz is singing nonsense. I let myself dissolve into the nonsense and the menace, as if I were a man just returned from a day of hardship at the hands of thieving bosses and thieving traffic cops somewhere in Tomsk or Omsk. What a powerful weapon Putin’s television is. How skillfully it combines nostalgia, malice, paranoia and lazy humor; how swiftly it both dulls the senses and raises your ire.
I bury my face in a hypoallergenic pillow. I need another drink.
But instead of the Absolut, I decide to do something forbidden. I whip out my laptop and log on to the progressive news site www.slon.ru. (Slon means “elephant” in Russian.) My friends in St. Petersburg subsist on these analytical blogs and news sites, the Slates and Salons of Russia. Slon is one of the remaining few that has not been bent to the will of the regime. Two other favorites, Gazeta.ru (gazeta means “newspaper”) and Lenta.ru, have lost their impartiality.
The two main headlines on Slon are not about the decline of the euro versus the dollar. They are about the price of Brent crude oil falling below $57 a barrel. Another article concerns the opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s refusal to continue to live under house arrest (the activist and his brother were convicted of unsubstantiated charges for challenging the administration). Another article is titled “How the Regime Will Fall: A Possible Scenario.”
Tens of millions of Russians, mainly younger and urbane, use social media. I imagine at least a few of them are posting the article on “How the Regime Will Fall” on their timelines or tweeting it out with abandon.