Sarah Lindemann-Komarova: “Russia’s Happy Ending”
[originally posted 12.6.18]
Subject: Russia’s Happy Ending
Date: Thu, 6 Dec 2018
From: Sarah Lindemann-Komarova <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Russia’s Happy Ending
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
[Founder, Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center 1995 – 2014. Helped to establish this as the hub for the first civil society development support network in the former Soviet Union.]
Link for article with pictures and video
How much money do you need to be happy?
How much money do you really, really need?
Something surprising and interesting happened on Russian TV recently, the 12 part series “House Arrest”. More than just great entertainment, the series is required viewing for anyone who wants to understand Russia today. “House Arrest” was something special from the opening credits when an impressionistic animated stick turns into a strippers pole supporting a dancing dollar bill. The creator of the series is 39 year old Renaissance man Semyon Slepakov who also plays the guitar and sings the theme song he wrote.
A little here, a little there
And look, you already have six million
A Monaco villa, a Swiss bank account
But still I need, need, need more
Morphing images swirl by reflecting the lyrics and foundational principle for not only the series “hero”, but global elites today, and their predecessors from Gordon Gekko to the 19th century Master in Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”. It is no surprise when the montage ends with the expensively suited “hero” turning into a fly that splats and incinerates on a light bulb.
My wife’s a top model, my lover is too
Only she is just a little bit younger
White yacht sails on the ocean
Happiness is close, happiness is so close
Money and corruption are not unique themes for Russian TV, film, talk shows, and Internet. The basic plot is a dramedy with a gimmick and so many twists and turns, ups and downs that anyone who didn’t live through the last 30 years in Russia will get some idea of what it was like for most people in the country.
In the kitchen paintings by Dali and Van Gogh
Have built a church, mosque, synagogue, and for insurance a Buddhist temple
If it doesn’t work here, it will work there
Arkady, the crooked Mayor of a Northern provincial town, is arrested for taking a bribe. He is placed under house arrest that must be served at his legal address. This is not his current palatial abode but the communal apartment he grew up in. The tormentor of his youth, Vanya Samsonov, is still living there. A recent encounter between them ended with Samsonov kissing Arkady’s ass. This unexpected turn of events provides everyman Samsonov with a chance for revenge, a typical situation comedy is set up. And, yet, 30 minutes into the first episode all you can think about is “how did this get on TV?”.
So, what’s new here? “House Arrest” has a well written script with real life characters played by brilliant actors but the unique, secret sauce in this case is Slepakov. He produced the series for the aggressively non-political, pure entertainment TNT network. It is not a knock off of an American show or genre, it is a true Russian original. Slepakov has had numerous hit sit coms so he had carte blanche which he used to present a relentlessly honest picture of Russia today and elicit the wonder, how did this get made in Russia? 13 million people have watched the first episode on YouTube.
Social satire is a big part of Russian culture, but Slepakov stretches things beyond satire into the realm of daring. In response to even the most outrageous situations depicted you find yourself saying, “that could happen”. For example, while running for Mayor everyman Samsonov drunkenly rams a BMW he is test driving into the vision impaired society building. His candidacy is saved when the beautiful Moscow campaign manager sprinkles some of her personal marijuana stash to spin a story that the crash was intended to expose a drug ring. Social satire yes, but everyone in Russia has a story only marginally different.
The cast of characters represents every social and bureaucratic level. The innovation is that Slepakov shows some affection and understanding towards all of them. They, like Russia itself, are flawed, desperate, strugglers trying to survive and figure out this new world where the rules and even the language changes every day. Corrupt bureaucrats talk about how they are going to steal money from the construction of a new industrial complex, or “how it is fashionable to call it, Cluster”.
Arkady, the wiry corrupt Mayor, who had a miserable childhood raised by a strict grandmother, rebelled against his communal past by grasping onto the finer things in life. He glides across his filthy room listening to Sinatra and consumes nothing in his new, modest environment without mumbling, “really bad sausages”, “really bad vodka”, “really bad coffee”.
Samsonov is stuck. Like all humans, he is often his own worst enemy even if those whose greed and distain for people like him are worthy of hatred. He explains to Arkady, “If it were me, I would dig a very big hole and collect from all over Russia people like you and throw them in the hole, without food and then you would start to chew on each other and now the most important thing, I would not feel bad for any of you.”
Samsonov’s wife Nina is the Russian everywoman who just wants “a normal life”, no dreams, no disappointments which does not mean there are not regrets and longing. Samsonov coaxes her into a Porsche by convincing her the impossible is possible, “Crimea is ours”. Another female communal dweller is the beautiful, single Mom Marina who represents a the modern Russian woman. A university teacher and activist she is protesting the removal of what remains of a fortress against the Mongol invasion.
All the characters are recognizable people with their longings, inadequacies, and an always surprising something that makes them not only interesting, but sympathetic. That even applies to the multiple layers of officials and security service personnel. The power vertical is magnificently on display exposing its own survival game and constantly changing rules. When the rotund Governor isn’t eating or plotting how to steal more money, he is being photographed pretending to be engaged in various sports for image making Instagram selfies. The local FSB head hired his sister’s son, a little person, to work in the archives while the FSB General in Moscow begins every video conference confusing which region about what issue he is focusing on, “OK, so what are you doing about the poisoning?, ooops, no corruption, right, any progress?”
The nuances that make Slepakov an equal opportunity humanizer create challenges in this hyper politicized political environment. He is a hard target for anyone to hit because he is most famous for satiric songs that take on everyone. In one song Putin asks Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov to coach the Russian World Cup team, “Ramzan, Ramzan, Ramzan, you are as hard as parmesan”. In a song about the two men accused by MI 16 of poisoning Skripal, they were just gay boys out for a holiday and all of the lyrics and images are x rated takes on the Salisbury Cathedral Spire.
Another way this series and Slepkov himself have exposed the political fault lines in Russia is the reaction to them. One newspaper reviewer shared my initial thought, “…this is not possible'”. Then goes on to explain it was possible because Slepakov is a cop out, “….is it worth making sweet and respectful curtsies to “inviolable” evil, in order to ridicule another evil…”. His big sin for some came a year earlier on Yuri Dud’s popular You Tube show. Slepakov’s assessment that Putin had “plus’s and minus’s” proved to be a triggering event that reverberates throughout many interviews available on Internet.
Russian conservatives and liberals adhere to predictable sets of ideas, behaviors and principles. Slepakov rebels against groupthink because it too often results in anger and hatred, which is not an effective strategy for change. Change is something he very much wants to see happen in Russia. “I didn’t want to provoke people, I wanted to make people closer, to make peace with each other. That was my humanitarian goal making this series.”
This balanced approach is often a challenge for journalists who push Slepakov to go negative:
Slepakov: I am not adamant like people who call for revolution because “those” people own villas. I am not opposition….everyone should do their own thing and maybe then out of that something good will come.”
Journalist: Just shut up and do nothing?
Slepakov: There are only two options, keep quiet and put a rag in your mouth or revolution? I don’t think so, I think that change can happen constructively, calmly, with signals, talk to people, debate, have a dialogue…if you are aggressive, you are going to be confronted with an aggressive response. I want change in our country but I want it to happen in a peaceful way, through dialogue and cooperation. I don’t want sacrifices, murder, blood…..”
The more I listened to Slepakov, his insistence on a less aggressive strategy and not dividing the world into deplorables and elites, the more I thought about John Lennon. How he launched the 60’s when he took on the rich with humor, “… people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. The rest of you can just rattle your jewelry.” His attitude towards revolution, ” if you want money for people with mind’s that hate, then all I can tell you is brother you have to wait..” , and ode to the decent strugglers, “A working class hero is something to be.”
You can never predict when and from where the rare enlightened ones will appear. Or why the boy from Liverpool grew up and never lost touch with that reality or lost the humanity and common sense that came from it. The same is true for Slepakov. His childhood in the Southern Russian city of Pyatigorsk, spent partially in a communal apartment, is not something he escaped. It informs his art as he looks back on it with fondness and humor. He tells a story about his academic parents bringing a visiting French Professor to dinner. The Professor asks his father where his office is and they point to a desk in the corner. He repeats the question about his mother’s office and is shown another corner, another desk. Next, he asks where they sleep and they point to the couch he is sitting on and explain that it opened up to a very comfortable bed. Slepakov joined his university comedy club that went on to win the national championship (university comedy is a major sport in Russia). He was invited to come to Moscow and write and he is currently #29 on Forbes list of most successful entertainers, making several million dollars a year.
There is one revolutionary aspect to “House Arrest”. Slepakov’s rebellion against Russia’s tortured past is to be compassionate and hopeful, and in a first for Russia…SPOILER ALERT…there is a happy ending! In the final episode you are dragged through the mud of dare we dream expectations only to be crushed again and again. Among many stunning moments in over 12 hours of TV, one continues to haunt. The image tells you all you need to know about the 90s in Russia and the desperation faced by many decent, imperfect people. A flashback ends with a close up of Samsonov’s bloody face as he lays wide-eyed on the ground gripping a steel fence. He taunted thugs until they beat him up to cover for drunkenly gambling away the family savings insuring no exit from the communal apartment. And, that is where Russian stories are supposed to end but in the last few minutes of the finale we get our happy ending.
There are no miraculous changes in character. As advisor to now Mayor Samsonov, Arkady’s instincts continue to be bad. They are kept in check by the rest of the new government gang that includes Cultural Minister Marina and Nina, the Minister of Health. This is the kind of democracy Russians thought they were getting 27 years ago this month. Slepakov may be on to something. The annual Civic Forum for civil society leaders of all persuasions scrapped their traditional format this year. Instead of the usual siloed discussion groups, this weekend’s event has an over-arching theme, happiness.
The world according to Slepakov is not complicated, “I try to show what is happening in life. I did not want to do a series where someone is guilty and someone is right. I was categorically against that…in the end, we all live in one country and we must teach people how to get along together and make this country better.” Is Slepakov the real, real thing? It is too early to tell but he will be interesting and entertaining to watch. A happy ending for Russia, imagine.