In last Sunday's Observer Magazine, Carole Cadwalladr provided a feature called 'Shopping with the Oligarchs', which told of a visit to a goods sale aimed more or less exclusively at the super-rich of the new Russia. Events such as the takeover of Chelsea Football Club by Roman Abramovich, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky for tax evasion, the death of Alexander Litvinenko, and a singularly bizarre episode of Spooks in which a vindictive Russian billionaire attempted to asset strip the NHS have variously contributed to or reflected a new-found fascination with a nation which seems to offer us a distorted, Lewis-Carollian version of capitalism. Moreover, there is a frisson of danger in this obsession: Vladimir Putin seems intent on using Russia's oil wealth to up the diplomatic stakes and take advantage of an overstretched NATO. The spectre of crisis looms once again in the southern Balkans, an area in which Russia historically maintains an interest on the grounds of its religious and cultural affinities with Serbia. Coupled with the high visibility of citizens from former Warsaw Pact countries in the UK at the moment, the terms of the dynamics between what was formerly understood as 'Western' and 'Eastern' Europe (Tito-era Yugoslavia was the closest thing to an ambiguous component in this relationship) have altered radically in recent years. It goes without saying that these new conditions urgently necessitate the passing of olive branches on the levels of both particular subnational communities and international relations.
Now, I'm no fan of the global super-rich in any of their guises: my nightmare dinner party seating plan would almost certainly feature the Sultan of Brunei, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary and any number of owners of Premier League football clubs. In Cadwalladr's article, however, a justifiable tone of reproach towards the more or less stateless tastelessness of the oligarchy seems to lurch towards an older and altogether more troubling rhetoric. Having listed the various extravagances on which they are invited to spend their petro-roubles, Cadwalladr turns to the female escorts of the billionaires. Somewhat conventionally, she see describes menacing flocks of '6ft, high-cheekboned, otherworldly models', the (stereo)typical Bond villain consorts of choice. At this point, you should already be intrigued by the use of the word 'otherworldy', which I suspect has, in this instance, slipped its semantic moorings to the concept of beauty under the magnetic pull of the Othering process. And, lo and behold:
Later, in the toilets, I enter a cubicle from which a stunning 6ft supermodel type in an immaculate designer dress, make-up and fur coat emerges. There is piss all over the seat.
I'm sorry, but this really is unacceptable. The anecdote may well be one hundred percent true, but that doesn't describe the insidiousness of the rhetorical procedure at work here. The reader has already been drawn into some kind of complicity regarding the non-complimentary 'otherwordliness' of the Russian models. Here, this thought is both checked (by the 'civilizing' force of make up) and reaffirmed (through the classic technique of troping female gaucheness with a fur coat) before the delivery of the punchline. The beastly, feral Slav can't use a toilet properly!!! Even though she's dressed up all rich!!!
I'm not by any means saying that Cadwalladr consciously deploys racist imagery. What I am saying is that there has been a serious breakdown in the cultural imaginary here. I know I wrote a piece making a case against the argument that Heart of Darkness is a racist text a few weeks back, but Marlow is a narrator who sets out as the possessor of a fundamentally racist imagination. One of the instances in which this prejudice is most clearly manifested is in his description of his Congolese boilerman, whom he finds difficult to take seriously due to his wearing of a 'western' style uniform:
He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.
This is surely the same sort of intellectual manoeuvre as the one I describe above. The Other is portrayed as borrowing the clothes of (Western, capitalist) civilization without paying due note to its social providences. It is clearly disgust that is being articulated here, and in a language that manages to exacerbate the theoretical impossibility of meaningful cultural accords between the 'West' and the 'East' by putting the Russian in the subordinate position of the imitator. At the very best, this kind of writing is unhelpful.