And in comes the central figure of the new era, the universal object of envy and adoration—the glamorous crowd, the people who avail themselves of all comforts and pleasures life has to offer, with the same faces sharing the secret to their “happiness” and their art of living, washing their dirty linen for all the astonished audience to see, giving away recipes of success (i.e., how to make more dough). And on looks the contrasting backdrop of extras—the losers, the paupers, the beggars. Most of them nurture dreams of moving up levels up, into the realm of glamorous social animals. One would think they are a thing of the past, those animals, relegated to the backyard of social history together with aristocracy. And yet, it turns out, the nouveau riche of our days are so eager to be taken for aristocrats that they take pains to revive at least their labels.
Socialites on one side, paupers on the other. Why is “pauper” supposed to sound insulting? It is a neutral enough word describing the extremely poor, someone who perhaps lives on welfare. Or “beggar”: someone who makes a living by begging—something that could be a profession. There was the beggars’ guild in Russia before the revolution, just like there was the merchant guild and the craft guild. Remember Panikovsky, so vividly described by Ilf and Petrov—he worked as a blind beggar in Kyiv, in Tsarist Russia. The Soviet government almost eradicated this occupation, and there was criminal responsibility for parasitism. The Soviet government handled issues of labor reverently and dished out punishment for the parasitic way of life to the fullest extent of the law. No wonder there were almost no paupers or beggars left—everybody was employed.
But there are so many regular beggars today—too many. Different ages, different faces—memorable and forgettable, young women with babies in their arms, old men and women, homeless-looking middle-aged men, children, professional gypsy beggars. For example, Melissa, a short novel by modern Azerbaijani author Seving Nurugizi, paints a dreadful picture of abandoned children being forced into beggary: a whole ghastly world with a hierarchy of its own, income and expense, horrors and tears.
But society seems to have found a new object for the old label, mockingly applying the word “pauper” to regular people, who get by on their wages, that is, money they get for their labor, or pension, that is, money they get for their past labor. People who live a regular, non-glamorous life: bleak monotony of days, underpaid jobs, countless problems every step of the way. They don’t stand with a hat in hand, waiting for a handout—or rather, they do get that handout in the form of salary, pension, benefits, but not in any other way. There are millions of them. Compare the percentage of the rich, the uber-rich and mere mortals, and no statistical analysis is necessary. It is clear as day. The vast majority of population in the CIS countries are poor. There is a thin layer of rich people, and a sprinkle of the uber-rich. The middle class is almost non-existent. The uber-rich are oligarchs. No need to dwell upon how they make their fortunes. Any misty-eyed high schooler can tell you someone’s wild success story. Oligarchs have a magic wand, just like Harry Potter, and that magic wand is called the administrative resource. If you don’t want to be a pauper, a loser, i.e., someone who works, often hard and a lot, for slave wages, you have to get your hands on this magic wand.
What is the administrative resource, you ask? Putting it somewhat gracelessly, it means access to the state budget. The owners of the wand can dip into the budget, that is, into the public purse, taking as much funds as they like, and obtain licenses, acquire lands, get business monopolies, etc. Of course, this is a rough definition, reminiscent of the painting of a fireplace in the Soviet version of Pinocchio, hiding the door to the theater: once you find yourself in the actual theater, many things become much clearer.
Ask any wealthy person about the poor and you will hear an edifying story of the importance of doing your best, setting goals and working to achieve them, all the while using the modern career-building methods. There are tons of books on how to succeed in life. Methods, coaches, courses, trainings—all kinds of them. And don’t forget neuro-linguistic programming, advertising strategy and tactics to sell something the client does not need and, more importantly, get them addicted to the new product—to seduce and to lead astray.
A rich person, definitely a public official in our environment, who owns the magic wand (administrative resource), is not going to tell a poor person how the magic wand works, feeding them a “key” to a successful career instead. That is, if that rich person is smart enough.
Why is it the golden youth, the rich kids, who throw around denigrating words at poor people? The “golden youth”, children of the parents who moved up in the world—another label from the vocabulary of deep pockets. As Samuil Marshak put it in the USSR-famous children’s poem, “Mr. Twister, former minister, Mr. Twister, a banker and a businessman, owner of plants, papers and steamers…” The rhyme may be gone from the translated lines but the satire is still there and it is still relevant. A former, and often a still incumbent minister, may easily own an enormous fortune, probably with most of assets being in his/her relatives’ or even completely unrelated losers’ (drivers, maids, etc.) names. The accumulated riches normally can last the lifetime of more than one or two generations of the minister’s descendants. Interestingly, the society is usually aware of the origin of all those incredible riches. What we tentatively, almost shyly call the administrative resource is actually plain robbery. However, it is mauvais ton to show outrage about robbery or robbers. Quite the contrary, paupers often do their best and their worst to get closer to the lucky ones, resorting to various methods, flattery and praise being among the tried and tested ones. This experience has shaped a peculiar language, every phrase of which is baffling and laughable: so ridiculous is the syrup of sycophancy flowing from the TV screens, websites, newspapers and few magazines.
The older generation did and continue to do what they have to do, knowing that extra publicity is not something they need. Their children, however, those who brand their less fortunate peers and even older people with a fond “loser” or “pauper”, are a different generation. They don’t want to be humble. They have to show the world how cool they are, to show off their cars, their babes, their outfits. Their lifestyle in the social media live broadcasts is the pipe dream of many of their peers who were not lucky enough to have been born to rich parents.
“Həsrət qalmaq” is an Azerbaijani idiom that accurately conveys the feelings of those yearning for the brilliant heights occupied by the modern government officials with their unfettered access to the treasury. To more than the treasury, in fact. Our reality is that we don’t even have access to the Caspian Sea. Not the treasury—our sea, those dear, familiar, beckoning, affectionate waves. We, people born on the seaside. What do we have now? You can drive along the seaside and never see the water, captured by the owners of the administrative resource, who build their villas by the sea. They are allowed to do this, but the paupers can’t. One Russian-Azerbaijani golden boy said that he was going to make the entry to his private beach free of charge. Judging by his tone, he genuinely expected to become a people’s hero, a national sweetheart, a fairy godfather. But all he did was offer to return a tiny strip of the seized seashore to its lawful owner—the citizens of the country.
On the eve of the Great Depression, Theodore Dreiser dissected his contemporary American society like a surgeon. His novel An American Tragedy (1925) is based on a real-life criminal case. In the prologue, the main character commits his first crime, running over and killing a young child. He escapes punishment only to eventually commit his second crime. The young man murders his girlfriend, and the reason behind this heinous deed is his passionate desire to become part of high society, to be accepted as one of them, which means becoming successful and rich, leaving poverty behind. Of course, the novel is much more complex than these scant lines and Clyde Griffiths is an ambiguous character. But his desire to be part of a society, in which one’s issues are resolved easily and swiftly and nobody has to work hard for a living, is so overwhelming that he makes this fateful decision. As a song puts it, “It’s best to be rich and healthy”. Who would argue with this?
There are different ways to become rich. Both Steve Jobs and Don Corleone were rich people, either has followers and fans. It so happens that there are more Corleone fans than Jobs fans in our society. Why? Worldly-wise men will surely remember the primitive accumulation of capital and Marx’s words: “A certain 10 per cent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent, positive audacity; 100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.” Quote lovers won’t ignore this one and they will be right, in a way.
In my opinion, the twenty-first century offers many development models, and there is no need to look back at the “wild capitalism”. Still, the CIS is marching resolutely along that very path with all that it implies. Corleones with their children and households on one side and paupers on the other.
To get out of the humiliating position, poor people look at the thriving Corleone descendants, ready to mimic not only the behavior, manners and tastes, but also the methods of achieving the perfect life. They are willing to join the ranks of criminals in order to become “decent people”.
Be careful what you wish for.