Peter Pomerantsev goes to Mongolia and meets the president, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur turned politician. Specifically, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur and martial arts champ who named his company after The Godfather.
This isn’t just eccentric; in Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta has a fascinating chapter on the role movies played in the making of the post-Soviet gangster. Coming out of the Soviet era, people thrown into this baffling future were in search of ways to convince others and themselves of their new roles. The Soviet Union had a criminal subculture of its own, that grew in its camps and prisons, but it wasn’t very useful when you had to deal with people who didn’t move in that world, although it was a useful source of legitimacy with those who did. It was also very local and supremely anti-aspirational. The vision of the mafioso according to Mario Puzo and Scorsese, though, was something they could buy into that everyone recognised, all over the world.
Gambetta points out that the tropes Puzo and Coppola stylised for their own purposes were developed for good reasons – they were ways of doing business in a world without trust – and adopting them was useful both because they were a kind of brand, and because they worked in their own way. The economic need to be recognised as a gangster drove the cultural phenomenon, but the cultural tropes also changed the economic process of production or rather predation.
The Mongolian president is especially interesting because his original business was importing movies. In fact, he spent prize money he won as an athlete on a good, Panasonic VHS machine and worked out how to hook it to a Soviet TV and some unspecified speakers (maybe like the Hungarian ones my dad’s still got?). Then he set up as a touring cinema. He mostly showed toons and Jackie Chan, but he obviously also bathed in mafia movies because that’s what he called his business.
We can see a strategy here. He had to physically cart the gear around, and although it was easy to record TV onto video, replicating VHS cassettes without specialist equipment was quite slow. He needed to choose wisely. So he chose either the sugar hit of Disney toons and kung fu, or else great juicy slabs of New Hollywood classicism. Both worked because, well, they’re great at what they do. There’s no room here for low-value bulk; for that you need media abundance. Which brings us to Donald Trump.
As Sarah Kendzior points out, he’s been fascinated with the USSR and Russia since at least 1984 and they with him. Well before the end of the USSR, Trump was invited over to Moscow to pitch a plan to build a hotel – maybe rather like the one the East Germans did in Berlin around the same time? – and the relationship never really ended. Now look at it.
Very unlike the Mongolian president’s filmgoers, or the Solntsev brothers down by the airport motorway, the de-Sovietising elite that discovered Trump had access to American TV. They monitored it, after all. Military leaders like Sergei Akhromeyev noticed Silicon Valley – they called it the scientific-technical revolution – and nobody was going to fall in love with Detroit automakers in the 1980s. Is it too much to suggest that this media filter and its founder effect sold the criminal world on The Godfather, and the future rulers on Trump, as their idea of us?