Specter

Specter

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 9 1997 3:30 AM

Specter

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       Today is my birthday. In addition to entitling me to hourly renditions of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" sung in Russian by my daughter, it also reminds me how much Russians love to celebrate themselves. In America, you get taken out on your birthday, people buy you presents and pay for your drinks. Here it's the opposite. You are expected to bring goodies to the office and treat your friends to a huge feast. Then you have to shell out for the 83 bottles of vodka that your friends are going to drink as you pretend to try and keep up.
       Self-celebration is a big thing here these days. Last night my wife and I attended the Fifth Anniversary Celebration of the Triumph Awards, a charity bash that describes itself as the Russian Nobel Prize but is really more like a highbrow Academy Award ceremony--for all the arts. Nobody loves self-congratulation as much as a Russian. After a performance at the Bolshoi, the flower presentations to the stars seem to take as long as the ballet. At major concerts, I sometimes worry that world-renowned violinists will develop carpal tunnel syndrome--not from fancy bow work, just from the burden of bouquets they must carry with them off the stage.
       Last night's awards, in the Metropole Hotel--where Lenin once lived as he figured out the best ways to kill every capitalist on earth--brought forth the greatest collection of Mercedes and mink I have ever seen. And that's saying something. The show also caused a bit of a communications problem. No self-respecting rich Russian would cross the street without a cell phone, and last night they had to check them all at the door. But nobody bothered to turn the damn things off. All night long, through Chopin études, comedy routines, and interpretive dance numbers, about 3 million phones chirped constantly in the coat room.
       The very rich guy who sponsored the event--and has for the past five years--is named Boris Berezovsky. He is, among other things, one of the wealthiest men in Russia; he also happens to be the deputy national security advisor. He basically is the world's most successful car salesman, and he spent most of the evening sitting in the back, gossiping happily with other rich guys and celebrity journalists. One of the great things about rich guys here is that they don't feel the need to prattle on piously about their responsibilities to give something back (although a surprising number do support charity, in part because the public-relations benefits are incomparable).
       The Russian rich flaunt their wealth in a way that would make a Saudi potentate flush (even when oil was costly). Mr. Berezovsky never goes anywhere without a caravan of Range Rovers and Mercedes to follow him. And I mean a caravan. I once saw him pull out the tiniest cell phone I have ever seen to make a phone call, even though he was standing in his office where there were about 17 secretaries and 37 phone lines.
       But you can't knock his generosity. The spread last night was something not seen since the last time Onassis was on the Christina. Champagne flowed like the Volga. Caviar by the bathtub. Oysters, shrimp, five types of mushrooms. (None of this, by the way, is in season now. Only ice is in season here now.)
       There was only one catch. You had to live through the award ceremony to get to the food and, since I am not getting any younger, I couldn't hack it. After about three hours we gave up, went home, and made cheese sandwiches.

Michael Specter is Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times.