REVIEW / A fledgling democracy wakes up to bad eggs (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture

IN A PORTRAIT of democracy, British- style, Margaret Thatcher (Con) awaits the count in her constituency. Sitting alongside her is Lord Buckethead (Ind), a man with a large bucket on his head and not a cat's chance in a kennel of winning. In a portrait of democracy, Russian-style, there is a muddle of candidates (some Ind, some Con, most just cons), none of whom needs silly headgear to advertise their absurdity but many of whom wear it anyway to guard against the harsh winters.

You would have taken away several questions from Moscow Central (C 4), which followed the capital's candidates through last December's hustings. For example, do you like your politicians raw or cooked? Here they're boiled to a homogenised, media-friendly mush. In Russia, where democracy is several aeons in arrears, you can still tell the difference between one buckethead and the next. One extorts and exchanges money illegally, another wears a flak jacket and edits a muck-raking newspaper, another on the run from a corruption charge sits on a pile of money in Mayfair, and another 'owns' a satellite television station. Would you put your X next to any of them, or next to the Communist devil you know?

The only thing each candidate agreed on is that he alone is the true saviour of Russia. For a moment, as we watched once more the cinematic strafing of the parliament building, it looked as though this film would turn in an apocalyptic, slow- motion homage to Yuris Podnieks. The message, after all, of the late Latvian's documentaries, apart from the fact that the nascent babble of voices makes this the place to film the effects of social change on individuals, was that here is a country that definitely needs saving. But then we started hanging out with the candidates and the film rapidly opted out of the Future of Mother Russia debate to zoom in on the saviours: Frolov (Comm), Minkin (Hack), Tarasov (Emig), Krasnov (Maf) and Vostrikov (Mad).

From all of them emanated a whiff of sulphur - apart, that is, from Vostrikov (Mad), the founder, presenter, and on- screen engineer of Liberty TV (and, incidentally, the only candidate who had secured a certificate of sanity - God knows how he pulled that one). You met him and rejoiced, for the Dostoyevskian holy fool is alive and well and filming his own election campaign. He ended up with a none- too-whopping one per cent of the vote, but he was at the core of Clive Gordon's wonderfully edited episodic narrative. As he adjusted the feedback from incoming calls on his phone-in show, it was as if you could hear the mewling and puking of democracy. 'Can I make a criticism?' asked one caller. 'Of course you can]' 'I don't think an incompetent like you should go into politics.' 'Well, what do you suggest?' 'Well, your programmes are rubbish. Those Indian films are terrible.' There speaks the truly trivial voice of democracy.

You hunted in vain for similarities with our own electoral practices. Activists handed out manifesto leaflets and everyone on the street grabbed one: was this the thirst for new ideas, or just proof that now even toilet paper is expensive? Before a press conference, journalists were entertained by cello and piano accompaniment, a typically Russian affirmation that high culture elevates even low vultures. An opponent cancelled the press call of Minkin (Hack) for him. Frolov (Comm) claimed the election would be rigged, and he should know, 'because we have great experience of falsifying elections'. Only in Russia.

The winner was Tarasov (Emig), which suggests that metropolitan Muscovites most admire exiled millionaires who are fleeing from the State. His main television exposure was on Vostrikov's show, after a screening of his own six-hour documentary, but Vostrikov shut the phone-in down after losing his temper. The police twiddled their thumbs as they waited for Tarasov to show for his interview. He's now back in Mayfair. Russia has been saved from at least one of her saviours.