361kb - Brett Forrest

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361kb - Brett Forrest

BASED ON A TRUE STORY

VITALI DYOMOCHKA (FRONT

AND CENTER, WITH GUN) AND

HIS BAND OF GANGSTERS

TURNED ACTORS GOT TIRED

OF HOLLYWOOD’S PHONY

STORY LINES AND SPUN

THEIR CRIMINAL TALES INTO

A GRIPPING TV SHOW

bullets

blood &


IN THE LAWLESS

CORNERS OF THE FORMER

SOVIET UNION, A

DANGEROUS RUSSIAN CAR

THIEF HAS TURNED

HIS LIFE STORY INTO ONE

OF THE HOTTEST SHOWS

ON TELEVISION—THE REAL

REALITY TV. SAY “DAS

VIDANYA,” HOLLYWOOD.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS

BY BRETT FORREST

Y

ou can’t have fun when you’re famous.

Behold Vitali Dyomochka, laid-back

in a Land Cruiser, just trying to enjoy

himself with a few close associates.

It’s dead night in a dead end, and they’re

waiting for a girl to tiptoe out of the

sauna. A Kalashnikov rides shotgun.

Russian synth pop is beating up the quiet. Everyone’s feeling

up their cheek scars and buzz cuts with their tattooed

fingers. The door to the hothouse squeals open, revealing the

cutout of something with a skirt on.

“Hey, girl,” Vitali mumbles into the dark.

The shadow steps into the shaft of a street lamp, illuminating

a pretty face that’s touched up with unease. Vitali reaches out

to put a palm on her. And there is a moment just then, a gap,

when her doubt disappears, when she is suddenly feeling giddy.

“I know you,” says the girl. “You’re the guy from TV.”

This is what it has come down to for Russia’s most infamous

television idol. Vitali Dyomochka has traded in a life as the

brutal leader of a car-theft ring in Russia’s Far East for a life as

the creator and star of Spets, a TV series based on his own

wild times. They watch The Sopranos even in the farthest

reaches of nowhere. The world isn’t so big anymore. And when

a bona fide killer like Vitali gets his hands on a digital camera,

he can tell the real story in a way that big Tony couldn’t dream

up on that shrink’s couch.

There is a side effect, however. Vitali has been having trouble

maintaining the fear, since it works out that you’re either a

villain in the everyday or you simply play one on TV. And what

kind of fun can you have if nobody’s spooked?

“AREN’T YOU AFRAID OF ME?” Vitali asks Complex,

shaking hands in greeting, clearly expecting a yes, hoping for

one even. His voice is faint and scratchy. He is in Moscow

now, cruising around and looking for a synthesizer on which

he’ll compose and mix music for Spets. Vitali is particular

about his purchase, sitting in shops and playing piano with

slender, delicate fingers and a studied, upturned profile,

his bald head parched white in the mercantile fluorescent

lighting. Once he finds what he needs, he packs up his

tracksuits and makes for the airport.

He flies the nine hours back over the expanse of Russia. It is

the same swindle. The main difference between Moscow

and Russia’s far eastern capital of Vladivostok is the sum total

of Chinese guys named Vladimir.

Unlike in Moscow, where the Mercedes jeep plays khan

to the cars that swat each other along the roadways, in

videotape

51 FEBRUARY/MARCH 2005


Vladivostok it’s Toyota’s Land Cruiser that

affects top-down order. A day trip across

the Sea of Japan and there’s an easy markup

waiting for anyone who can front some

cash and sail on back with an SUV, steering

wheel tucked on the right-hand side. On

Vladivostok’s rain-polished hillside streets,

it’s still possible to hear the conspicuous

grinding of the lawn mower engine encased

beneath the hood of a Zhiguli. But by local

consensus this is a national indignity, best

tuned out, then forgotten, much like a certain

75-year period in the country’s history.

All Soviet revolutionary statues are still firmly

in place here, watching over the whalers

in Vladivostok’s distended port. All the while,

fleets of halogen-lamped Japanese rides

encircle them, pumping Russian club

mixes through slits in the blacked-out windows,

cracked just wide enough to ash a cigarette

and watch the particles disintegrate in

the sea-salt gust.

This is the only thing that Russia’s Far East

has in common with California, across the

Pacific: car culture. But this is a culture of

stealing cars, rather than waxing them for the

ride to the house party up the 405.

In Ussuriysk, a settlement of 250,000 souls,

there are countless ways to go about

appropriating a car. Vitali has two favored

methods. He can frame it to appear as

though you have negligently collided with

his car in traffic. He will then demand

your vehicle as compensation for damage,

a demand made more persuasive by the

submachine gun nosing out of his coat. Or

he can sneak up while you’re changing

a flat, slip unseen into the driver’s seat, and

gas it once you’ve tightened the last lug.

It’s a living.

Vitali left prison in spring 1997, after his

second “sitting,” as the Russians say. He was

dressed in pants that stopped midcalf. A

murdered brother, no money, no place to

go, a constitution that had grown to crave

prison gruel called “sechka.” It was that

bad. And maybe it should have been for a

guy who murdered a rival and then found

the humor in it. “I aimed at his heart, but

I missed,” Vitali says. “It shows you how

poorly I know anatomy.”

But prison in far eastern Russia, mid-’90s,

was no place for weaving macramé potholders.

Overcrowding, scant supervision, a shortage

of sechka. “When you live with wolves,” Vitali

says, “you howl like a wolf.” And on the

streets of Ussuriysk, there was plenty of prey,

so many right-hand-drive cars on the road

that wiseguys had taken to calling the place

Little Tokyo.

FEBRUARY/MARCH 2005

RUSSIAN REALITY TV

(FROM TOP): VITALI

DYOMOCHKA IN SCENES

FROM SPETS; VITALI ALSO

COMPOSES THE MUSIC

OFFICIALS AT THE

STATION THAT AIRS

SPETS ESTIMATE

RATINGS NEARING

100 PERCENT

VITALI STEERS HIS PANTHER-COLORED

Land Cruiser among Ussuriysk’s crumbling

czarist-era minipalaces, Khrushchevcommissioned

apartment buildings, and

patchwork dogs that leap in the alleyways, lit

by an unseemly sunlight. At least the sun

is shining. Soon it will be winter, when darkness

rules even in the daytime. “We are famous

here,” Vitali says, scanning the streets in a

tight squint. “We have a morbid reputation.”

It is a reputation that has been enhanced

52

by near total exposure. Officials at the TV station

that carried Spets in the winter and spring of

2004 estimated ratings approaching 100 percent.

“Real people, ordinary people, love this

show,” says Aslan Saydaev, the director of

Ussuriysk TV. “The percentage of ex-cons is

higher here than in any other Russian region.

It was a restricted zone in Soviet times, until

1989. The government paid undesirables to

move here from other parts of the country.”

Add to that the area’s high concentration of

prisons and work camps, and the result is

a population that has been operating off the

Spets playbook for as long as anyone can

remember. The seven episodes that aired

in 2004 depicted brutal murders, bloody

rumbles and genuine, unsimulated sex (you

can tell), all of it produced without the

detached gloss of a network budget. “For

people from the West, this show would be a

shock,” Saydaev continues. “But for us, it’s

natural—it’s who we are.”

Spets, however, has found detractors

within Russia as well. Saydaev says that

after viewing the show, officials from the

FSB (the successor to the KGB) in Moscow

“recommended” that Ussuriysk TV shut

down. Now Saydaev, a Chechen, operates

the channel underground, and is anxiously

seeking safe passage to another country.

All this over a series whose mission

statement expounded on one simple ideal:

authenticity. Spets may be cruel and violent,

but, Vitali says, the program is redeemed by

the fact that everything contained therein

is true to life. All of it actually took place, and

nearly all of the actors are themselves the

genuine perpetrators.

“We were tired of watching TV and movies

that weren’t real,” Vitali says. “When a bomb is

ticking, you know the timer will stop at the last

second. When you see a movie with Steven

Seagal, you know he will kill everybody singlehandedly.

When you watch a Jackie Chan

movie, you know he will also win, but at the

same time be funny. But no one can criticize

our show, because it is our real life.”

Part Miami Vice, part senior class project,

Spets spends a lot of time with its digital

video cameras burrowing deep into the

recessed pits of Vitali’s forever-focused

Sinatra blues. Vitali has plenty of appeal—

enough to persuade city officials to allow him

to crash a car through Ussuriysk’s main

movie theater, enough to convince his reallife

wife to appear in the same episode

with his real-life mistress. His eyes are, as

the Russians might say, bez nichevo: without

nothing. And he is always in character.

Rappers and hoods make good actors.


This much we know. But good writers too?

Within the fry-cook editing and wind-whistle

audio quality of the small-budget Spets,

gems roll out with regularity.

In one setup, a man sprints after a Land

Cruiser, waving his hands in the air and yelling

wildly, managing to convince the driver

to hit the brakes. The man sticks his head

through the window, casually produces

a pistol and fires into the driver’s face. He

then focuses his eyes on the female

passenger, splashed in her boyfriend’s blood.

The hitter is panting, and smiling, when

he says, “Whew, I haven’t run like that in

a long time.”

Vitali, who also wrote the scripts for the

program, is the source of this dread humor,

which reflects a life in which all is simplified,

where everything rests on two-option equations:

strong or weak, in or out, alive or dead.

Spets blows any notion of reality TV into

so many pieces.

V

itali parks at

Ussuriysk’s Club

Lion, stepping

over a flattened

rodent at the

doorstep and into

the mirror-walled

space. He sets a

bottle of Hennessey on the table, and a

broad-backed guy named Roman Alferov

daintily pours the brown fluid into shot glasses

laid out among the plates and silver and

the lace placemats. “And in Moscow, they

think that everyone in Vladivostok sleeps

in a Land Cruiser and fights with bears,”

Alferov says, chuckling to himself. The

club, loud with techno-accordion music,

begins to fill up.

Seated at the table are six main cast members

of Spets, who also belong to Vitali’s car-theft

ring, whatever may be left of it. They are all

in their mid-20s. Vitali is a little older. “I’m

33—like Christ,” he says, turning away the

Hennessey, since he doesn’t drink or smoke.

“Someone has to stay sober,” he says. “And

many drunk people go to prison.” (Ten

members of the Spets cast were arrested

during the shooting of the show; another

was murdered by a rival outfit.)

Vitali nods respectfully to the neighboring

table, where the regional mafia boss—the

Thief of Law, as he is called—is snacking with

the three best-looking girls in the place. The

dancers up on the dance floor keep sneaking

glances at the table of TV stars. But no one

approaches, except for a few friendlies

with switchback beaks and full-gold grins. If

everyone else is reluctant to get close, it’s

something other than coyness that’s keeping

them away.

“There’s a reason people want to fight an

actor like Russell Crowe in a bar,” Vitali says.

“Because they know he won’t kill them with a

gun or a sword. That’s the difference between

us and the Hollywood people.” He folds his

arms and eyes Club Lion with the cool

appraisal of a man reclining in total ownership.

On an unseen gesture, the music in the

club drops out, the dance floor empties, and

the Thief of Law rises to stand over Vitali’s

table with a crystal shot glass lofted in his

right hand. “This is a toast to a normal boy

from a small city, who found something to

change his life,” he says, eyeing Vitali. “There

are many things we can do to help him in

that direction. And we will.” The drinks get

drained, and the music kicks up again. But

the Thief of Law is not finished. He leans in,

STRANGER THAN FICTION

(FROM TOP) VITALI WIELDS A

MACHINE GUN ON A DAY OFF

FROM FILMING; THE VIOLENT

AND RELAXED SIDES OF THE

POPULAR SPETS

and with a whisper, adds, “I want you to know

that you are very safe in this restaurant. If

anyone comes to you, these are not people.

This is just dandruff.” In or out, dead or alive.

IT MAY SEEM A DANGEROUS THING to

reenact actual crime scenes for the cameras,

for fear of revealing secrets, of finding oneself

no longer with us. But Vitali explains that

Spets consists of episodes that local police

have already pieced together. In the

instances when he portrays events previously

unknown, he is only giving the cops tidy

finales to inconsequential cases. In one scene,

masked gunmen unload their clips into a

car hurtling down a rural highway. The car

pitches off a bridge and explodes. “In real

life, my friend was driving that car,” Vitali says.

“All the police found was his head. So

now they know how it got there.”

The gang is moving on, escorted to the

door of Club Lion by the lyrics of a popular

song: “I will have a smoke and disappear in

the darkness.” Soon the entire crew is surging

in a Land Cruiser caravan down one of

Ussuriysk’s main streets, which is lined with

banks of ghostly birch trees on either side.

“This show has changed my life,” Vitali says,

his voice a faraway scrape, almost inaudible.

“If I do something wrong now, people would

recognize me. There is no way back for me.”

His Land Cruiser gets stuck at a stop sign

behind a blue camper. A middle-aged man is

at the wheel, driving his wife and children in the

slow-moving vehicle. Vitali opens his car

door and sticks his head into the wind. “Hey,”

he yells into the camper’s open window, his

voice full volume now. “Go fuck yourself, you

whore.” The camper hurriedly moves aside,

allowing the Land Cruisers to blow on past.

Vitali drives a few miles more. After a couple

minutes, he comes upon several cops on

the shoulder of the road. They’re waving their

batons in his direction, and he pulls to the

curb. Vitali hops to the blacktop and meets the

police as they approach his vehicle.

The cops pop the back hatch of the Land

Cruiser. They rummage through old clothes

and cardboard boxes, before coming upon

a long black piece of metal machinery, a

weapon by the looks of it. “What’s that?” asks

the cop holding the flashlight. “It’s a camera

tripod,” Vitali says with irritation, grabbing the

hatch and slamming it shut.

Vitali climbs back into the car. “All that is

in the past now,” he says, shifting into drive.

“Now we make movies.” Vitali lets out a

snort, leaving the cops the see-you-later

stream of a couple candy taillights. You

take your laughs where you can get them.

FEBRUARY/MARCH 2005

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