Oleg Kashin: Роисся вперде (Fardwor Russia!)
Let’s start with the title, which certainly confused me. Towards the end of the book, some girls are given the assignment of producing a patriotic poster, with the words Forward Russia!. They misspell the slogan and put Fardwor Russia. This was tricky to translate. The original Russian title is Роисся вперде which, if spelled correctly in Russian, should read Россия вперед, i.e two letters have been transposed in each word. Maybe Forwrad Ruissa might have worked better but then maybe not.
Kashin is a Russian journalist who has been highly critical of the Russian authorities (for which he has been beaten up more than once) so it is not really surprising that he has written a satirical novel in which the main character gets beaten up by the FSB (successor to the KGB) and where corruption and skulduggery are rife. However, this is not a Victor Pelevin in-your-face satire but more gentle, while nevertheless being highly critical of the Russian system.
Our hero is an amateur scientist, called Karpov. He is married to Marina and they live in Moscow. His late grandfather had developed something called petroleum growth substance, in other words a growth hormone. He had fed it to pigs but, as it tasted of oil, the pigs had refused to eat it. When they were force-fed with it, they died. Karpov Junior is determined to succeed where his grandfather failed and has been concocting a growth serum in his kitchen. At the beginning of the novel, he decides that they should move back to his home town, a small town which has an agricultural institute. Marina is very reluctant but follows her husband. He tells her that he has to do this for the sake of his experiments. She hopes he will soon become very rich and it will all be worthwhile. When they return, they go back to the old apartment and everything seem to be in order (even the TV is working!) and they move in. Marina is bored, while her husband spends all of his time working in his grandfather’s old shack.
But things have changed. While the old neighbours are still the same, many others have gone and others arrived. The agricultural institute is still there but makes its money selling off its land and hiring out its facilities. There is not much agricultural research going on. However, the new director, Elena Nikolaevna, has plans. She wants to get a large grant and, to do so, she needs a project and she sees Karpov’s growth serum as a way to do so. She even offers him a job.
In the meantime, Karpov had got his growth serum to work but with a slight problem – the animals just kept on growing, so he had to shoot them. Finally, he finds a way to regulate the growth. Now he needs a midget to test it on. He finds one in a circus and he is happy to be a guinea pig. However, it does work so he is no longer a midget and out of a job. He appears on Russian TV where he is seen by Mefody Magomedov who, along with his brother, Arkady, owns a large business empire. In other words, the two are oligarchs. Mefody, however, is a midget.
From here, matters get very complicated. The growth serum works but the consequences of giving it to humans and to animals have disastrous effects, made worse by the corrupt Russian system, with, for example, the meat producers not at all happy with the competition and a host of other participants protecting their interests in the way they know best – corruption and violence. Kashin introduces us to a whole range of Russian corruption, particularly the Olympic building project, for which there is a special body which does not actually do any construction and only seems to employ senior officials.
This is a very funny book, exposing Russian corruption and brutality but in a more gentle way than we might expect. People die. People disappear. Money changes hands. Money disappears. However, Kashin almost assumes that this is quite normal and nothing to be really worried about. Nevertheless, for those of us not exposed to this level of corruption on a regular basis, as Kashin has been, this is a very funny book.
First published 2010 by Ad Marginem
First published 2015 in English by Restless Books