Moscow Days: Writing is on the wall and it's no joke
Monday 14 April 1997
Friends who have lived here in Moscow for years tell me that there was very little graffiti under Soviet Communism before perestroika beyond the odd scrawl here and there supporting the local football team. On the rare occasions they could get hold of it, Russians had better things to do with their paint.
There was also the matter of deterrents: anyone caught scribbling a political diatribe on the walls could expect a long stretch behind the bars of a mental asylum or in a labour camp. A venomous assault like the one in our park would probably have led to a life sentence, or - under Stalin - a bullet in the skull.
Now graffiti have arrived. Moscow still has a long way to go before it is engulfed by technicolor babble that covers the inner-city gangland areas of the United States, where public anger over graffiti vandals is such that when a young so-called "tagger" was shot dead by a member of the public several years ago, the killer was widely lionised.
But it is growing. In the last few weeks, the area around our apartment has been daubed by a team of mystery writers keen to remind us of the merits of "Rave", "Nirvana" and "Ultra-Hooligan". In a rare critique of a music-doting rival, someone has written: Tolka Idioti Slooshchayoot Rap - "Only Idiots Listen to Rap".
Political comment remains surprisingly rare. Given its level of social and economic strife, you would expect the streets of Russia to resemble the Falls Road in Belfast. But most slogans, half in English and half in Russian, seem to be nothing more than the bleatings of bored adolescents.
They do, however, have the merit of clarity. The Cyrillic script is particularly suited to the art of vandalism and protest. Its boxy capital letters, with their odd spikes, convey urgency. And while many of us in the computer- dependent West write so little by hand that we can barely manage a readable shopping list, Russians remain excellent penmen. The attack on Yeltsin in the park is noticeably neat, despite the writer's fury.
It is no more than one would expect. Much of the country still regards the typewriter - let alone, a RAM-packed desktop - as a rare possession. Much of this bureaucratic nation's massive output of paperwork is completed in longhand.
Clearly written Russian graffiti may be, but funny it is not. Most seems to be confined to bald and humourless statements of the "Tanya loves Boris" school. Even the latest rash of political slogans to adorn the streets is colourless. The words "Russia + Belarus Union" have appeared in part of the city in the last few weeks, evidently the work of a nostalgic Soviet hand, applauding current plans to reintegrate Moscow and Minsk. But you rarely see the subversive humour that is occasionally etched on the walls of Britain.
Perhaps this is because most Russian jokes are too longwinded, for there is no shortage of material. The Western view that Russians can't tell a punchline from a parking ticket is wrong. Russian jokes - known as anekdoti - are as dry and black as their champagne is pale and sickly sweet.
But they have a certain wry, absurdist, and self-deprecating appeal. "What's the difference between Communism and Capitalism?" runs one old chestnut. Answer: "Capitalism is the exploitation of men by men, and Communism is the reverse."
For years, Mikhail Gorbachev provided the butt of the nation's jests. He was seen as a bumbler, henpecked by an avaricious wife. Before him, there was the doddery figure of Brezhnev who was widely ridiculed, despite censorship. But Boris Yeltsin has proved harder to caricature, being an unamusing mixture of reformer and an autocrat.
So the wags have turned to the class of new Russians and the Mafia, who have become enormously wealthy during the transition to the free market, but are usually caricatured as cultureless dimwits. A popular one runs thus: "It's 6pm, and two hired killers are waiting for their victim at the entrance to his home. He always returns home on time, but tonight he is late. One assassin looks at his watch and says: 'What's going on? Something terrible must have happened, I'm really worried about him.'" Funny? No, Yes? Maybe not. But there's a grain of humour there that has yet to find its way on to the walls around my home.
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