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Feature Story December 12, 2003
Meeting the NatsBols
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 6 of 6
Sergei claimed he didn't know how many votes he'd get. He doesn't expect to win, of course. Everyone in Smolensk knows that the United Russia candidate, Sergei Antufev, will get the seat. The biggest local paper, Smolenskaya Gubernskaya Vedomosti, made the point pretty clearly by devoting almost all of its front page to a huge picture of Antufev. The NatsBols insisted that though he would certainly win, Antufev was an unpopular and little-known candidate.

My last question was how they felt taking part in an electoral process they considered corrupt and farcical. They all insisted that the NBP is in the electoral process "to the end," and that they weren't going to be dissuaded by defeats or punishment. It was late by then, and the talk wound down. We made our shy, courteous good-byes, which only brought home to me how familiar these manners were. They didn't resemble their media stereotypes -- mini-Nazis or embryonic Stalinists -- at all. They were the sort who join such parties early on, perhaps -- but they would never have survived the first purges. In fact, they were exactly the sort who are sent to the cellars for a bullet in the back of the head the minute the serious, dull managerial killers come to the fore, as they always do. They were romantics, like Limonov's boyhood friend Kostya Bondarenko in Podrostok Savenko: romantics who have to migrate to the brink to find the simple and noble world the stories promised them. Cultures continually produce such people, but only rarely do they provide a context in which such a dangerously simple, direct picture of the world can survive to adulthood.

Disaster provides that context. So Smolensk, which is one huge museum of horrors and disasters, seems an ideal place for romantics; and the debacle of post-Soviet Russia, imposed on this gory old town, completes the picture. Here, for a little while, the romantic view of the world is in a sense completely correct. The world of the suits really is nothing but vile bickering by thieves; the world of the populace really is one of deluded, miserable poverty. The vast disinterest in details of money and daily life that defines the true romantic is validated, because any such interest truly is debased and debasing. You can strike out in any direction and hit nothing but rot.

It's hard to guess where this career path leads, though. Of course, it's the Californian in me that makes me think about careers; that's all we're ever talking about, no matter what the ostensible subject. What happens to a NatsBol after his (or her) second conviction? Prisons are the most unromantic places in the world.

And even if you can avoid prison, there's the dismal spectacle of ordinary civilian life gaining momentum, always louder and more smug, leaving you with the options of hating everyone or belatedly, ineptly trying to join the world of money. And that, you know, is the worst of it: romantics who sell out and try to fit in never even get paid. Believe me -- I know. Judas never got paid; that's the thing they never tell you about him. They laughed at him when he went to collect his thirty pieces of silver.

I remember the NatsBols fondly now, thinking back to our interview: their patience with my terrible Russian, their comradely inability to make the damn camera work, the calm way they said they were in the grimy electoral process to the end. It's painful to think what will happen to them in five or ten years -- even if, by some bizarre and impossible fluke, they win.

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