Moscow literati write off protest as too 'banal'

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - While a triumphant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, dressed in black bow-tie and silver cummerbund, was gloating before the foreign press on Tuesday, the Moscow intelligentsia were preparing their evening wear for the Russian Booker Prize dinner, a highlight of the social calendar, writes Helen Womack. But they were not in the same party mood as the ultra-nationalist leader, and the banquet became a mournful session of soul-searching about how the far right could have done so well in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

'Congratulations on the victory of the fascists,' quipped someone as the Minister of Culture, Yevgeny Sidorov, came in from snowy Shchusev Street, where an elderly woman was rooting through a bin for food, to the House of Architects, where the tables were laid with caviare, sturgeon slices, steak, meringues and mandarin oranges.

The minister ignored the remark, although later he said that, as a member of Boris Yeltsin's reformist government, he felt he bore collective responsibility for what he called the shame of Mr Zhirinovsky's victory. Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, might have suggested he could do business with Mr Zhirinovsky but, said Mr Sidorov, 'I will not give him my hand. He is an adventurer and I do not like what he says on the Jewish question.'

The writers all agreed with this, but it did not appear that they were planning to use whatever influence or moral authority they might have to campaign to prevent Mr Zhirinovsky from gaining more power. They had different reasons for standing on the sidelines.

'Russia has shown its shameless innocence. The people can be manipulated in any way. We can have no more illusions about the Russian people,' said Viktor Yerofeyev, author of the erotic stream-of-consciousness novel Russian Beauty, who wore black - not fascist black but designer black. Did he think writers might stand up and be counted by signing an anti-fascist appeal? 'Some may do this but I will not join bad writers in making a statement. It is too banal to protest.'

Bulat Okudzhava, a writer and performer of romantic ballads, might have spoken out against what he called a 'very sad development' but he said the mass of people paid no attention to the intelligentsia. 'It has always been so. The cultural level in society as a whole has never been high. The Bolsheviks needed a stupid population. This (the rise of fascism) has its roots far back, in Communism, in the slave state which was Russia before Communism.'

The literary critic Alexander Archangelsky blamed fractious reformers and those who boycotted the elections for Mr Zhirinovsky's win but said it was not too late to stop him becoming president when Mr Yeltsin retires. Mr Archangelsky was, however, against the creation of an anti-fascist movement, which, he said, would only make Mr Zhirinovsky more popular. The duty of writers and other artists was rather to 'transmit humane values' to the people.

The Russian cultural community is not well placed to transmit such values, as it is decimated by emigration and impoverished by the collapse of state support for the arts. The pounds 10,000 Russian Booker Prize, awarded for the second year running by the organisers of the British Booker competition, attempts to stimulate serious literature here but it is a drop in the ocean amid a market flooded with popular art of the trashiest kind.

This year's winner was Vladimir Makanin, author of A Baize-Covered Table with a Decanter in the Middle, a novel about the sovok, or little Soviet man, who was just a cog in the wheel of the power machine. Makanin was not present at the ceremony and therefore unavailable to speculate on the likely fate of the individual if fascism were to roll over Russia.