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By John Helmer, Moscow

Quadraturin was the stuff which, when squeezed out of a tube and painted on the walls of an 8 square-metre Moscow room, turned it into a much larger one. Biggerized it — is the translator’s term from the Russian.

Russian politicians have been using it for years, long before the arrival in Moscow of $1,000-per hour election technology consultants from the US National Endowment for Democracy.

The author, who is enjoying a boomlet of revival in the literary salons of London and New York at the moment, is considered to be an “experimental realist” (who isn’t?). To help his books sell, he’s also being called “one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century”.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born on January 30 (Old Calendar), February 11 (New) 1887, and died in Moscow on December 28, 1950. His body, and also his notebooks and manuscripts then disappeared. The latter were discovered in 1976, and publication in Russian began in 1989. His run in French began in 1991. He didn’t make it into English until after Boris Yeltsin had retired from biggerizing Russia. Here are Krizhizhanovsky’s stories in the original Russian.

The problem with Quadraturin, as Sutulin, Krzhizhanovsky’s hero, discovers after a single application, was that it kept on biggerizing. At a rate of 500 cm per hour. Muscovites generally prefer more square metres to their interior accommodation than less, especially if they don’t have to pay for it, or apply hoodwinking schemes to old ladies, alcoholics, and prorabiy. This was problematic, however, for Sutulin. “I’ve got to think faster than it. If I don’t out-think it, it will outgrow me,” he says. He rushes outside.

He is then too afraid of having his girlfriend sleep with him in the room, though she tries to explain, as she corners Sutulin on a cold street corner, that she didn’t mind sex in a cramped space, and hints that she wouldn’t mind it biggerized either. He promises the rendezvous in bed she is asking for the next day, and rushes back.

He wards off his landlady and others who knock on the door. With the one ceiling light burned out, and the room growing steadily sideways in the darkness, Sutulin gropes in all directions, talking to himself. Then he dies of fright, letting out a scream as he goes. In those days in Moscow (1926), according to Krzhizhanovsky, that got the neighbours out of bed and into the corridor at his door. It isn’t recorded what they found when they forced their way inside.

Krzhizhanovsky wrote another tale about what happened one evening at a concert. The five fingers of the right hand of the performing pianist ran off the keyboard, off the stage, and out the theatre door. Sometime later, after the digits had been discovered and advertised in the Lost & Found notices, the pianist put them back on his hand. They were a little worse for wear, and his playing wasn’t as good. So the better educated members of the audience walked out.

The plot of a third tale is attributed to a professor of economics at Harvard. Called “Yellow Coal”, the story is of the discovery of a new global energy source more plentiful and cheaper than solar power. The device required to convert the energy is called a myeloabsorberator. Installed unobtrusively in the seats of municipal trams, what it does is, according to Prof Leker, is to concentrate the neuro-muscular energy people produce when they are nasty to each other and spiteful. The energy was called yellow coal. The process of conversion, bilification.

Manuals were produced to capture more of the bile people produce than can be generated on public transport. One proposed routing the energy of unhappy marriages from double-beds into a central accumulator for lighting up and warming buildings. Electrification and industrialization were to be powered by collectors installed at office doors, turnstiles, and the backs of auditorium seats.

A politologist proposed awarding political autonomy to smaller and smaller ethnic groups, so that they would begin to attack each other, enabling absorberators to drain off the hatred and power military machines.

Another scheme was devised by the owners of factories. As Krzhizhanovsky imagined it, “hatred of exploitation could be exploited for industrial purposes, collected by an absorberator and pumped into engines and machines. Mills could make do with workers’ hatred alone; the workers themselves were no longer needed. Factories and mills began laying huge numbers of people off, keeping only skeleton crews to man the spite-collectors. The wave of protests and strikes that swept the globe only increased the bilious energy in accumulators and paid good dividends.”

That was written in 1939. It was published in 2006 in English by an outfit called OpenDemocracy financed by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers, and John Cleese.

Today, if Krzhizhanovsky were to be more widely read and better known, his imagination might be powerful enough to generate new energy for Russia. But wait – isn’t this exactly what is happening right under our very noses?

Here’s a tale, fresh minted from the Chief Economist of the well-known Moscow investment bank part-owned by Mikhail Prokhorov, Renaissance Capital. But to be fair — the bank and the oligarch don’t deserve the credit Ivan Tchakarov earns from this highly imaginative variant of the 70-year old Yellow Coal idea. And even if Tchakarov and the hero of his tale are cribbing from Krzhizhanovsky, squeezing out their own tube of Quadraturin, who should complain at such creativity? — not now, not on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of K’s birth.

So here it is, in the words composed and published this very week:

It is 7pm and I find myself in a private business club in downtown Moscow, surrounded by around 40 other attendees. I prefer to read The Economist’s latest issue rather than to make acquaintances, but struggle to make progress. I think the rest too are not interested in making small talk. We all are in anticipation of meeting the possible future president of Russia (at least this is how one well-known western media outlet dubbed him), the Robin Hood of Mother Rus, the benevolent protector of the poor, the intrepid crusader against corruption, the unblemished hero of a new democratic Russia…well, you get the point.

He appears all of a sudden and the first impression is definitely positive. Smartly dressed, tall, imposing and easy on the eye. We are in awe (no pun intended) and fully fixated on him. He sits in front of the audience, carefully scans us and gives off an almost invisible smile. I can almost feel his steely look on me; there is this unmistakable aura of determination and decisiveness about the way he straightens up his jacket and invites his PR man to get on with it. He will talk briefly about his political views and will then open to Q&A. And if you bear with me until the end of my long e-mail, I promise that I will even offer some grist for the mill of those that love conspiracy theories.

Where are we now in the political process: AN has some written notes, but barely looks at them (he says he hates the usual PP presentations with the usual bullets). He thinks Vladimir Putin (VP) is frantically trying to build a new political structure, which will replace the current one. VP’s image was always built on his personal popularity, on the carefully crafted and masterfully sold impression of the national hero who came to offer and implement law and order. AN, therefore, does not deny that VP is a popular man, but, unsurprisingly, argues that VP was also quite lucky with the oil prices. VP’s system was built on playing the mutually beneficial game of the federal govn (in the face of Putin’s key political instrument United Russia) receiving votes from the individual regions (in the face of the submissive governors) in exchange of granting green light to accumulate personal wealth. AN thinks that, given all the money that was available, Putin& Co could have ‘bought’ any possible reform that one could think of. However, the money was not meant for reforms, but for corruption and personal enrichment.

However, now United Russia (UR) has started to crack on the edges and AN makes the somewhat controversial point that it is increasingly becoming clear to many that if one wants to run for office these days, one has better chances to succeed by criticizing Putin and UR as this actually brings more popularity with the electorate.

Understandably, AN is not exactly a fan of VP 2.0, i.e. the concept of the Prime Minister changing his spots after the March elections and re-emerging as a reformer. He offers the example of his conversation with a senior representative of ‘one big gas company’ who told him that we at the company know exactly what needs to be done to make the company much better and more transparent. However, once we try to change a given political appointee, ‘he just runs to Sechin (or his political krysha, protector) and nothing happens’.

What should the opposition do: It should definitely keep the momentum of street protests (AN says ‘we will make a huge effort here’); insist on new Parliamentary elections by Dec; and insist on new Presidential elections in the next 1.5 years.

AN is adamant that these goals are very realistic and not just wishful thinking. Intriguingly, he actually thinks that Putin would be interested in such a scenario himself if one guarantees him political survival and preservation of his wealth. According to AN, Putin is still a popular politician, so he just be the leader of his party, still participate in the political process, but he needs to open up the system. However, AN is convinced that this runs against the very DNA of VP and thats why the latter may not agree to such a scenario.

AN argues passionately that people should not be afraid of any sharp political developments. UR will attempt to co-opt the opposition and smear his name, but it will not resort to clamp downs. He adds calmly ‘nothing can seriously happen’ and ‘UR is just trying to scare people’ by making a bogeyman of him. His Dont be afraid runs as a constant refrain through the whole conversation and gets immediately stuck in my mind.

Similarly, he is dismissive of claims that he is a nationalist extremist. His case is of course hard to square with some statements that he has allegedly made in the past, including comparing Caucasians with cockroaches and, much more alarmingly, adding that while one uses slippers to kill cockroaches, one should rather use guns for the Caucasians!!! Ouch!!!

What is AN personal ambition:? AN says he just tries to be a practical politician and deal with every-day practical things, even though many accuse him of being just an ‘office mouse’ digging in minor details. AL is ambitious to change two stereotypes about Russia and Russians- that nothing can be done in the country without oligarchs’ money and that people are not ready to give money openly for political causes.

AN wants to recruit 20000 observers for the upcoming Presidential elections (8000 already signed up). He also does not think he needs to form a party at this juncture as it is more important to have a smaller group of dedicated activists…

AN tries (quite unsuccessfully in my view) to present himself as just an ordinary fighter against corruption. He argues he understands that people can just get bored with him and he can fade into oblivion if, but all he cares about is that his moral compass points him in the right direction. In my view, AN is clearly burning with ambitions to be something more. His claim that all he does is create pressure points for the authorities, so that they ‘allow me and other people to run and be part of power’ betrays his underlying aspirations.

AN also does not get easily rattled by unpleasant questions and keeps his cool, although he gets visibly more animated when questioned on whether he actually is any more popular than Zuganov and Zhirinovsky. He brushes away questions on whether he is financed by the Americans, but conveniently proffers only ‘you are following my activities closely’ to a questioner that suggests that some published AN’s emails clearly show that Uncle Sam is footing his bill. AN neither denies nor confirms that, but adds that with the advent of internet, financing his activities actually do not requite lots of money.

What are his economic views: AN is quite fuzzy on this. He says his goal is now to fight corruption and fight for wider political participation, rather than write economic programs. He thinks that there are many good economic programs, including Gref’s 2010 and even Putin’s 2020. He acknowledges that all that is being said on the economic front is good (he also mentions yesterday’s Vedomosti article by Putin), but he simply thinks (well, he is absolutely sure) that Putin is just throwing sand in people’s eyes and is not ready to loosen the political constraints and put his coterie of corrupt underlings in prison.

He thinks Khodorkovsky was one of those that were stealing like all other oligarchs, but adds that his second sentence was fully fabricated. He does not think Khodorkovsky will play any important political role even if he were to be released.

In conclusion, our modest assessment: I learned that AN can be a charismatic speaker and manage a audience quite well. He is not afraid to answer hard questions and even revels in being given the opportunity. He undoubtedly enjoys the limelight despite making efforts to conceal it.

Despite his mild protestations to the contrary, he harbours political ambitions. His political philosophy is hard to pin down and it will surely evolve, but for the sake of offering a characterization, I would loosely say he is a social conservative. He clearly understands that being pictured as such gives him the best chance to appeal to the broad electorate…

However, he is still quite elusive and hard to understand completely, so we need to watch this place. Only history will show whether he is Presidential material (he also dismisses historical parallels to Alexander Kerensky), but two things are clear: he adds an interesting flavor to the current political process and he has a very long road in front of him to ingratiate himself with the majority of Russians.

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