Long before ‘Moscow of the 90s’ became a byword for an extravagant era of oligarchic capitalism, free-for-all sexuality, and epxat nirvana, the decade itself existed in its raw, beastly form, mutating constantly in an endless present. For those who lived through those madcap times, there wasn’t the easy perspective that culture-vultures now have looking back at the earliest, craziest version of post-Soviet Russia. There was just a complete immersion in the present and a constant refrain of carpe diem, a need to seize the moment before it was too late.
Hip Muscovites might now celebrate that decade as the ‘coolest’ period to be there, but it wasn’t really ‘cool’ in the traditional sense. It was a time of great political and emotional upheaval with everyone both scramling for a table in the new world order, and yet daring to be true to their inner selves, however tacky & horrible that might seem to others. Turned out that when Russians were unfettered from the Soviet machine, they turned into a Slavic version of Latin American gangstas, with their love of bling, blang, fast cash, senseless brutality, sleazy sex, mommy complexes, and proud spontaneity. Lermentov and Dosteovsky were better keys to the Russian soul than all the literature and film of the Soviet era.
For expats living in Moscow then, it was a glorious time, both for the bottom-feeders and the investment bank high rollers. For a brief period, like German after the War, Russians felt humbled and beaten down, and looked up to foreigners. Speaking English in a posh accent was equivalent to a VIP card at most clubs; and, when it came to scoring the plenty of hot, available babes or dyevs, gave the same status as owning a Ferrari in other cities would. ‘White’ or those from America & Western Europe were the Gods of the New Russia. Hence, the term ‘White God Factor’ coined by expats living there.
White God Factor, the debut novel of B.East Magazine publisher Vijai Maheshwari, is a pyschological portrait of that era, partly written in the style of the pulp books that became so popular in Russia of the 90s. It follows the fortunes of the brilliant but volatile Godunev, a former Moscow kiosk worker, who returns from New York and Miami hoping to make a quick fortune while the country’s assets are still up for grabs. Using his hipster credentials to infiltrate Moscow’s aspirational super-rich ‘biznismen’ scene, he gets caught up in machinations to privatize the Kremlin, and eventually finds himself out of his depths in a Russia of oligarchs, gangsters, models and prostitutes that is hurtling towards its own demise. But amidst the violence, callousness and audacity of the time, Godunev also reflects the Russian sentiments at the time: the passion of relationships; the extremities of life; a re-assertion of Russian culture; and a pervasive love-hate relationship with the US and the West.
You can buy a copy on Amazon by clicking here White God Factor
Here is an excerpt from the novel for B.East readers.
CHAPTER MINUS TWELVE
The glitzy bash for the launch of Russian Vogue at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel evokes the scene on the deck of the Titanic just minutes after it hit the iceberg. I didn’t come up with the cliché: It’s on the tongues of Moscow’s wags the past few weeks every time there’s a glamorous fiesta. This time Richard Gere sidles up to me as everyone mingles stiffly in the foyer of the American Theater, glomming onto the waiters as they pass with their silver trays heavy with fluted champagne glasses. Gulp, gulp, go the guests, their determined eyes tracking the champagne waiters. There’s a desperate desire to get drunk as fast as possible. Even Godunev is swept up in the general hysteria, downing glass after glass, until his cheeks are flushed, a little vein under the forehead going tic-toc. So peaceful again!
“Just like the Titanic, isn’t it?” he says. “Everyone’s running scared.” The Gere look-alike is wearing a smart tux tonight, his hair gelled and swept to the side of his head in a Beach Boys pomade; he’s washed his face in Clinique lotion this evening, it glistens just as Zara Wonder’s does.
I spill some Veuve Cliquot on the sleeve of his jacket out of spite. “I’ve heard that line a hundred times before. Did you just come up with it?”
“No, seriously,” he says, a tad offended. “Look around, they’re all pretending to have fun, but they’re scared shitless they’ll lose their shirts.”
“And what about you? Your fund managers aren’t pulling their hairs out?”
He smiles, does that famous shrug of his. “Oh, we’re tied up in oil and gas. Solid investments.” He winks. “And some proposed art acquisitions. A ruble devaluation is just a ripple in our portfolio.
“How’s Irina?” he asks, changing the subject. “I hear she’s having quite a fabulous time in New York, Jack Nicholson coming to her birthday party at Spy Bar.”
“How do you know?”
He twirls his hand in the air. “The grapevine, heard it at some party.”
I tap him gently on the shoulder. “I might have a surprise for you later in the evening. Stick close.” Then I push through the crowd, searching out familiar faces. The tusovka—at least the ones not in the South of France—are out in force tonight. Bartenev struts about in his psychedelic T-shirt and Mickey Mouse hat, Masha Tsigal is there, hugging someone as usual. Mikhailkov stands in the center near the staircase and waits for guests to come up and shake his hand. The Oligarch Gusinsky from NTV is there; so is Yeltsin’s press secretary. A few black-clad Americans in cocktail dresses scurry around, shooing everyone into the auditorium. A Molotov Cock model comes up to me. “I’ve got a multiple-entry visa to America,” she whispers. “Anything happens, there’s a plane waiting for us at Domodedskaya airport. I suggest you talk to Sergei about getting on the list.” I brush her off and accost Salminsky. He’s stylish for the occasion, just a white T-shirt under a Ralph Lauren jacket, thick, black-rimmed German glasses stuck on his face for effect. He’s already drunk and coked-up, grabs me around the neck as soon as I approach, and throws me in the direction of some model. “Get to know her. You’re single again, enjoy yourself.”
I extricate myself and lean towards him. “What about the ruble? There’s a lot of whispering going on here.”
He wags his finger in the air. “Nothing’s going to happen. I’ve spoken to Kiriyenko, he’s a friend of mine. And you heard what Yeltsin said yesterday.”
He turns in the direction of Zara Wonder, who’s pressed into a corner, flashes going off around her, and declaims loudly. “Russians are so used to crazy things happening, they will them into being. But this time they’re wrong.”
I can’t reason with him. It’s too late at this point anyway. I just want to have her raped, I repeat to steady myself, while tagging Salminsky into the auditorium. It’s a fairly standard presentation: Mario Testino’s shots of Kate Moss in some Sheremetyov mansion, taken specially for Russian Vogue, are flashed on the screen, and then there’s a few speeches. ‘Historic occasion.’ ‘Opening up Russia to the West.’ ‘Not since the Russian Revolution has Russia been so fashion-conscious as it is now. The growing middle class etc. Yak, yak.’ When Zara Wonder comes on stage there’s a silence. The murmuring stops and everyone gawks at her. She’s gorgeous again, damn!, a violet Vera Wang skirt held together with a rhinestone button, and a bodice above of illusion netting, so fine she seems topless. A slight gasp goes through the audience. From a distance she looks so fabulous and unapproachable. She raises her hand in the air, “Spasibo,” she says in Russian, to some cheers, and then gives a short speech. It’s concise and surprisingly moving. “When I was a young girl growing up in Pennsylvannia, I always imagined Russia to be grey and drab, like the suburbs of Pittsburgh.” A titter from the audience. “And even coming here I admit to a certain apprehension. But in the past twenty hours I’ve been impressed by the elegance and sophistication of the people I’ve met. And with the tremendous changes that have taken place here in the last seven years.” She raises her eyes at the audience. “And by the beauty of your women, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting back in America.” Loud clapping, some cheering. “I think Vogue should be privileged to be printing their magazine in a language so rich and historic as yours is. Spasibo.”
Then she coos with the baby of one of the publishers for a while, rocks it in her arms (she’s trying to dispel her blond seductress image, I conjecture) and exits gracefully from the stage. Later she barely stays at the reception in the conference hall. Even the large roasted pigs don’t detain her. She skips through the room haughtily with her entourage, shakes a couple of hands, makes some polite chit-chat with the biggest of the big-wigs, and then heads for the door. When she leaves the banquet room with a last-minute flourish I place a call to the motorcyclists. Bark down the phone. “Rev up your bikes. She’s coming.” Then I call the two cops from the Arbatskaya precinct. “Keep the boys ready. Her ZiL should be passing in ten minutes. And remember,” I add, my voice menacing, “don’t be soft. Use those Kalashnikovs.”