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Diary of Russia's Gen-S (for Scumbag)

Books: Pair's bestseller is part 'Steal This Book' and part Eminem. It captures the cliche of the modern young male.

January 29, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — It was a terrible day for Spiker and Sobakkaa, two young Russian "scumbags"--as they liked to call themselves--living in London. They hadn't stolen a thing.

But, recording the gloom of Day 13 in his diary of the London trip, Spiker suddenly brightened with a memory. They had stolen! But it was something so mundane, it had slipped his mind: some rice and chicken to eat.

Since the pair's 1999 London tour, podonok--scumbag--has become a term of endearment among certain young Russians, notably soccer hooligans, skinheads and their ilk. And the diary, which Spiker swears is 100% nonfiction, has exploded in Moscow as a controversial bestseller.

Though it reads at times like a how-to guide on crime and fraud, the book took a major prize as the best Russian literary debut.

Spiker and co-author Sobakkaa--the name is similar to the Russian word for dog--made thousands of dollars on "Bigger Than Ben." And despite the pleasant notoriety, Spiker--25-year-old Sergei Sakin--has decided he quite likes making money the honest way.

But he has to share the royalties with Sobakkaa--Pavel Tetersky in real life--whom Sakin claims contributed almost nothing to the writing. Tetersky hotly denies that contention. The two are no longer on speaking terms.

The book brilliantly captures the cliche of the contemporary young Russian male: hard-edged, dishonest and callous, distilling his creative flair into nefarious, if not criminal, activity.

In a country where opportunities for young people are limited and often governed by family connections, Sakin's example is not exactly luminous. The one thing that can be said is that he has made it on his own terms. Now he's waiting for Hollywood to call.

'Bigger Than Ben' Released Only in Russia

Densely stuffed with obscure Russian street slang, the book contains a "Clockwork Orange"-style glossary for the reader, including the entry "podonok (scumbag): good guy."

So far, the book has been released only in Russia. The title, "Bigger Than Ben" (Bolshe Bena), is a reference to London's Big Ben. Sakin liked the alliteration in the title.

Tetersky admits that Sakin came up with the idea of turning the London diaries into a book and edited the entries somewhat, but he insists that he wrote half the original.

"I was doing it just to take it back home, show to my friends and have a good laugh about how we spent our time in London," he said, admitting that the diary is no masterpiece and is "definitely a far cry from 'War and Peace.' "

Sakin's second book, due out soon, follows the themes of the first. It details his experiences as a skinhead and as an employee at Moscow travel agencies, where he used many dishonest tricks--for example, failing to declare some clients to an employer and keeping the profits.

"I always turned out to be smarter than my employer," boasted Sakin, who said in an interview that he was never caught.

His inspiration was his father, an honest engineer who struggled, poor and threadbare, refusing to go into small business until he could do so without sacrificing his principles. Sakin was determined not to live that way.

Replete with repellent racist nuggets and tales on how they made hundreds of British pounds a day by stealing mobile phones and cheating banks over loans, "Bigger Than Ben" has made Sakin financially independent. But it came as a blow to his father and mother.

"She said: 'I thought you were much kinder than this, much smarter and much cleverer. You're capable of much better than this.' My father had the same opinion," said Sakin. He shares a small Moscow apartment with his parents and his new wife, Anna, who offered a visitor cake and said parts of his second book make her feel physically ill.

2nd Book Reflects Muscovites' Racist Views

Like his first book, the second reveals the ugly underbelly of racism in Russia. Sakin despises people from the Caucasus, a predominantly Muslim region of southern Russia, convinced that they are ruining Moscow. It's a view many Muscovites share.

Dmitri Lipskerov, author and co-chairman of the board for the Debut Prize, an important Russian literary award given by a charitable trust, argues that the references "which may be perceived as racist" do not constitute real racism.

"It's just a manifestation of the way young people overdo things," he said. "It's an urge to attract attention."

But he now sounds almost regretful that Sakin and Tetersky won the prize.

"Actually, we granted the prize to these guys as a kind of advance, because we saw some potential in their writing," Lipskerov said. "And also for me personally they seemed to be representing the cultural lining of the new generation, the 20-year-olds, a generation I don't know much about.

"But it seems to me now that these two guys are more interested in material gains than in writing literature."

Sakin, however, makes no apologies for being commercial and scorns what he calls the traditional mold of Russian writers: poor fellows with dirty hair.

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