Twisted Morality: An Exploration of Crime, Power, and Society in Modern Russia

It might seem necessary to cover Putin’s live-streamed Q&A, but truthfully, it was unwatchable. So much so that no one bothered to pull any quote-worthy responses. This leads us to believe it wasn’t socially important—far from it. Therefore, discussing Putin’s televised twaddle isn’t on the agenda.

Instead, let’s turn to something binge-watched by everyone and their aunt—an online streaming and torrent tracker sensation across the Russian-language internet: a crime drama titled “Blood on the Street” [available in Russian only].

If you haven’t watched the show and only noticed the splash it’s made online, it might appear as if the drama romanticizes young hoodlums with their lifestyles, rules, lingo, and the worldview of future crime syndicate grunts. It seems like a classical mob drama, albeit starring teens. However, that assumption couldn’t be more wrong.

All of the characters in the show are obnoxious. The Komsomol activists juggle Soviet ideology with illegal U.S. denims, VHS salons, and other banned hustles. The cops aim to frame anyone seeking promotion. Schoolteachers completely ignore new realities, and the kids’ parents fail miserably to connect with their offspring. Despite this sordid backdrop, the street gangs and their deplorable ways of navigating life are accurately portrayed as a realm of twisted morality rooted in lies, fear, and violence.

On one hand, everyone invokes the word of honor that can’t be breached, about camaraderie and having each other’s back come what may—reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas’ novels. On the other hand, they get lost in a maze of lies, screw each other over, sell their friends down the river, and stumble over their friends’ dead bodies to save their own hides. Without a second thought, the characters are ready to defraud their buddy’s mom of her meager monthly wages and an expensive hat.

They can’t cooperate, leading to botched attempts to earn money in a decent way. They can only live off the weak and vulnerable, rob younger schoolkids of their pocket change, and engage in primitive racketeering. None of them can join forces with someone who owns a VCR to launch a business and thrive off common enterprise. Instead, they swipe a VCR only to end up kneeling before their rival gang, begging for mercy. In this hoodlum universe, nothing can be mutually beneficial. Everything is a zero-sum game: own or get owned, fleece or get fleeced, beat or get beaten.

Early in the plot, things seem fine, more or less. There’s no real depravity. That’s where the protagonist says that the real deal’s word of honor is meant for the real deal only. If you promise something to an outsider punk, there’s no need to hold up your end of the bargain. It’s all straightforward. Their morals boil down to this: be powerful, side with the powerful, and dominate the weak. If there’s no higher power to keep you in check and make you play by the rules, and if you can deceive someone and get away with it, the world’s your oyster. The real power is the power itself. That’s your synopsis in a nutshell.

EERILY FAMILIAR

Everyone who’s glimpsed into this underworld knows that street gangs stem from misery. There’s no place for the morally sound there. Instead, the gangs incorporate those born on the wrong side of the tracks. There’s nothing inspirational behind their lifestyle; it boils down to filth, fear, and violence. These are the dregs of society, marginalized for a reason.

If you can keep your word, take care of your own lot, and team up for creative pursuits, you won’t stoop to beating a schoolkid out of their pocket change that can only buy you a lunch at a schlocky roadside diner. But the ugly truth is that this sordid morality is what Russia’s current ruling class abides by.

Who speaks this gang slang? Who promotes the moral standards of a rough ‘hood? Who thinks the weak deserve a beating and that you better strike first? Who seeks to hoodwink others but takes umbrage when hoodwinked? Who believes everything is a zero-sum game? Do you know the guys to whom the whole world is a bunch of rival ‘hoods? Who constantly browbeats people out of their businesses and whines about getting deceived, conjuring up improbable lies even with no apparent need to do so? They bask in punks asking them questions, listening to their BS, and nodding sheepishly.

Apparently, Vladimir Putin and his entire Security Council, made up of veteran intelligence officers, are the proud torchbearers of the Soviet street gangs in 21st-century Russia. Their public statements attempt to instill their hoodlum rules in a nationwide crowd. Like, you gotta be powerful to humiliate the weak. But if someone more powerful offends you, take it out on the weak. Lying is no big deal as long as it benefits your lot. You can assure everyone there are no Russian active-duty troops in Crimea, only to state the exact opposite months later. It doesn’t count as a lie. “Our lot knew full well what I meant. We’ve just bamboozled those Western punks.”

So, Russia’s ruling class is promoting its rough ‘hood morality nationwide. No one has any moral scruples about this worldview—they’re gloating about it. Tales of the Leningrad ‘hood Putin spent his formative years in are making the rounds. Under this worldview, actions that are alien to a law-based country suddenly make sense.

For instance, blowing up a jet carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, his aides, and crew without denying involvement isn’t just a terrorist attack; it’s about breaking a promise. According to this logic, Prigozhin is already a punk who challenged his own lot and can be lied to and killed. Putin owns his word. He promised security assurances and withdrew his promise. It fits the street gang logic.

However, the popular TV show suddenly goes off the charts: “Stick your goddamn rules where the sun don’t shine. You’re the scum of the earth. You can’t create or produce anything but trouble, misery, and devastation.”

If your beloved mom is tricked out of her monthly wages and then some, you’ll do nothing, petrified by fear. Your rival is more powerful; they’re not defenseless neighborhood kids. Allegedly fighting NATO, but once Ukrainian missile debris lands in NATO’s Poland, your rhetoric suddenly changes to a submissive tone.

Once you sense trouble, you’ll sell your friends and everything that’s theirs down the river. There’s no big deal in insulting the rest of the world and threatening to nuke them, as long as you’re guarded by your gargantuan security apparatus. But what happened to your sassiness and swagger, Mr. Medvedev, when you were fired from your PM role, demoted to a sketchy sinecure, and publicly humiliated? Your former minister has spent five years in jail. How about offering a word of support to your former buddy? I don’t mean standing up for him, God forbid. Just maybe think about this guy who has a small kid and whose sentence based on economic charges exceeds that of murderers.

It’s only an eight-episode show, with no room for multiple plotlines. But the former PM would absolutely fit the bill for a new character. Once he was put in charge for God knows what reason, but then he was repeatedly humiliated and floored. But he has no way out. He has to put up with those who despise him because if they kick him out once and for all, he might as easily kick the bucket. He hates them. Even those kids he used to beat out of their chump change are now spitting at him. This fear coupled with humiliation makes him the sickest of them all. The less he’s noticed, the louder he yells about getting someone owned.

IMPACTFUL ART

Make no mistake about it: the show’s crew are no rebels, no Pussy Riot-style campaigners, and no street protesters. They never intended their product to convey any social commentary. They just shot an awesome show about troubled teens.

Mind you, the production was funded by the Institute for Internet Development, a pet organization with the Presidential Administration. It’s a drama show about an era where down-to-earth characters speak their down-to-earth language.

Clearly, you won’t film such a show about what’s going on today. In today’s Russia, a wide range of topics is tabooed, and a similarly wide range of topics is heavily censored. A TV show about the 2020s shot in the 2000s can be either a sugarcoated propagandist movie where the hoodlums get their bearings and go fight in Ukraine or a sterile coming-of-age flick where straight-A schoolkids go to a Hogwarts-like school. Neither script will stand a chance with the audience.

In times like these, the art’s only natural way to exist is through telling abstract tales about the past, the future, or a parallel universe. Similarly, the top Soviet authors wrote children’s books, and the top Soviet journalists preferred to cover the animal kingdom as opposed to state farm achievements. Art is always looking for a free space where they can talk with their audience and be relatable while avoiding an interrogation by local detectives.

The show focuses on Russia’s provincial street gangs that are already ancient history. By the late ‘90s, they finished each other off. On one hand, it’s a story of a bygone era where you’re free to portray anything and then deny any allegations. On the other hand, it’s a perfect groundwork narrative that can be boosted by familiar characters and plotlines that won’t only be relevant in outer space. But that’s art’s side effect. You can tell a lot without ever meaning it.

For instance, Korney Chukovsky once wrote a children’s poem about an obnoxious cockroach, and 10 years later, the villain became so reminiscent of one mustachioed Soviet tyrant. Or you can shoot a drama show about the troubled late Perestroika-era teens and end up with a snapshot of late Putinism. You may never mean it, but your thuggish characters just use Putin’s quotes, wreak unthinkable havoc for the sake of a paltry dime.

You may end up showing that a world where everyone jumps at the opportunity to screw over their counterpart is a world of abject misery. An attempt to make some money off a stolen VCR can unlock a trainload of trouble.

In today’s Russia, the thing that’s closest to an ideology is Putin’s concept whereby the real power is the power itself and the ensuing violence. Whoever is the best fraudster and the top thief has the most power. Despite this, the most popular drama show that’s gaining traction nationwide argues for the opposite. The things you’ve beaten the people out of will land you in such a mess, you’ll curse the day you started it. And millions upon millions of people will curse the day they let the proponents of this concept rise to power. They’ll leave behind a thick trail of blood, only to be able to show off their woeful gains steeped in lies.

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