MOSCOW (Reuters) - A billionaire banker has locked horns with a poverty-stricken left-wing writer in a rare public debate over social division in crisis-hit Russia, revealing growing antagonism in its ostensibly well-controlled society.
The debate, which quickly spread over the internet but has not been reported on state-controlled mainstream television, has evoked memories of pre-1917 Russia where hatred between the ruling class and the poor sparked a Communist revolution.
The row started when Pyotr Aven, the wealthy and well connected CEO of the country’s largest privately owned bank Alfa, wrote a damning review of “Sankya,” a novel by Zakhar Prilepin, a member of a banned radical political party.
It tells how Sasha Tishin, a disillusioned young Russian from a provincial town, joins a radical party hoping to change the political system by force, and leads an attack on a local administration headquarters.
“Most of what one needs to hate in life, from my point of view, can be found in writer Prilepin’s book,” Aven wrote in the Russian Pioneer glossy magazine, which targets wealthy educated Russians and has a circulation of 20,000.
The revolutionary views of the book’s protagonist, he added, made him “reach for a pistol.”
Tishin takes part in violent protests, fights with police, plots killings of officials in neighboring Latvia, and is subjected to brutal torture by security agents.
“Why, instead of bringing order — planting a tree, building a house, washing socks or reading a fairytale to a child — does one need to engage in doing nothing, then after a good booze, taking up a club and smashing everything?” Aven wrote.
After eight years of economic boom, Russia is plunging into economic crisis which is threatening to crush the fragile stability fostered by Vladimir Putin’s government with the help of buoyant oil revenues, compliant state media and heavy-handed police.
Little-noticed when it was first published in paperback by niche publisher Ad Marginem two years ago, the book’s sales jumped to 35,000 this year. Publication rights have been sold to Poland, France, Serbia, China and Turkey.
Prilepin opposes what he terms the “social Darwinism” which has split Russian society. Despite Russia’s oil wealth, about 21 million Russians or 15 percent of the population live below the poverty line of $158 income per month.
He responded to Aven’s comments by saying he had been working hard, selling over 100,000 copies of his books, while raising three children and paying taxes.
“I do not understand what else I should do to be able to buy a flat because we do not fit in the one we have,” Prolepin wrote in Ogonyok magazin, which has a circulation of 70,000 and a wider readership than Russian Pioneer.
He said he had been living with his family in a tiny two-room apartment in the industrial city of Nizhny Novgorod, which was the hometown of Maxim Gorky, an early 20th-century writer.
“The ghost of poverty is still lurking in front of me, it has not gone so far away that I cannot sense its sickening smell,” wrote Prilepin. He said he and his family had sometimes been forced to eat fried cabbage for months to survive.
Some book reviewers have likened Prilepin to Gorky, who was often called “a thunderbird of the Revolution” for books like “The Mother,” written in 1907, about a young factory worker who becomes a revolutionary.
Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga river was renamed after Gorky in Soviet times, but regained its original name after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Russia is on the brink of the social revolution and such a revolution is badly needed,” a skinny, clean-shaven Prilepin told Reuters in a Moscow cafe. “Russia is now in a turbulent state, now it is all going to start.”
With Russia’s rich-poor divide brought into sharp focus by the oil bonanza, there is widespread hatred of billionaires such as Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club in Britain, or market reform ideologists like Aven.
Aven worked in Russia’s first reformist government in 1991-92, which used “shock therapy” to reform the economy, wiping out the lifetime savings of millions of Russians. He was 29th in Forbes magazine’s list of richest Russians this year.
Aven’s former colleague in the government Anatoly Chubais, an architect of privatisation, survived an assassination attempt in 2005.
Prilepin served in police special forces, fought in Chechnya, and then worked as a crime reporter before becoming a writer.
“The difference between me and Aven is basic — in case of a crisis, he and his family can leave this country and watch developments from the outside,” Prilepin wrote in the Russian Life magazine, referring to Aven’s properties abroad.
Aven, bespectacled and fast-talking, told Reuters the reaction to his book review took him by surprise, but he could understand the resentment.
“It was like a letter from a world which is totally unknown,” he said by telephone. “I can understand that reaction perfectly well — the outrageous behavior of the rich showing off their wealth.”
Putin, first president, then prime minister, and his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev have portrayed Russia as a stable country where the authorities enjoy the full backing of the population. Prilepin’s book evokes a different world, which is missing from the mainstream media.
In reality, Putin disbanded or marginalized opposition parties like the banned National Bolshevik Party, which counts Prilepin among its members, or their allies from chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov’s Civil Front.
“Despite the financial crisis, there are people able to defend the future,” said Aven, justifying his attack on the book. “Moreover, today’s rich came from the same slums as Tishin and had to go through you know what,” he added, recalling the often violent birth of Russian capitalism.
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said Aven’s views were “an ideological manifesto of Russia’s ruling elite” and were in line with the general thinking in the Kremlin. “As long as Aven sits in his office, the regime will not change,” he said.
Editing by Michael Stott and Sara Ledwith