When the first of the truly modern “modern politicians” straddled the front page, even the meliorism junkies of the New York Times deemed it proper to lament the creature’s arrival and to bemoan its lack of substance. But the journalists, as always, had no clue. In an age when money is not only paper but paperless, an age in which democracy has the manners, though not the morals, of a Thai ladyboy, an age in which substance, in nearly every field of endeavor, is pretty much a hanging offense, deriding a politician for doing nothing is not only outmoded, it is naive.
This past July, Moscow was the scene of a remarkable spectacle. It was remarkable chiefly for being a repeat of the spectacle of the year before, because, as those familiar with Huckleberry Finn will know, charlatans try to leave the town they have fleeced and do not ordinarily hang around in the expectation of another big score. Not in the new age, though. Today, the “Royal Nonesuch” show put on by the Duke and the Dauphin in Arkansas would win international acclaim as performance art, with the Turner Prize an all but unavoidable accolade for the Mississippi duo.
Admittedly, art has inhabited the borderlands of reason since time immemorial. The show on the Moskva River, however, was only marginally concerned with art, its official designation being a charitable concert. The first time, in December 2010 in St. Petersburg, the Federation Fund show drew attention to itself not so much because such personalities as Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci had been flown in to pose for the cameras, but because a star guest named Vladimir Putin appeared on stage, sat himself at the piano, and tapped out the opening bars of the informal anthem of the Soviet secret police, “Where Motherland Begins.” In July the rigmarole was repeated, despite the absence of Mr. Putin and, perhaps less dramatic, of another Hollywood heartthrob, the actor Dustin Hoffman.
It was again a huge success, as Sophia Lauren sparkled in diamonds, José Carreras and Andrea Bocelli sang, and Woody Allen played the clarinet. Other stars in attendance included Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Steven Seagal, Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons, Carole Bouquet, and Isabella Rossellini. The audience, in an auditorium seating 3,000, numbered 30, yet all traffic in the surrounding area of Sparrow Hills had been stopped, and the nearby streets closed for 48 hours on special orders from the Kremlin, so not even a Russian mouse could slip through police cordons for a voyeuristic nibble at all that Hollywood fame. In fact, not one Russian celebrity was conspicuous by his or her presence, with the exception of an imposing lady vaguely reminiscent of Imelda Marcos—Yelena Sever, wife of the event’s organizer doubling as the MC. “You take one look at her, and you just know she owns a lot of shoes,” a Moscow friend has remarked.
For weeks preceding the July happening the streets of Moscow had been plastered with giant posters of the glamorous Sever, described as “Patroness of the Federation Fund,” though who this nice lady is and what the fund does remained a mystery to Muscovites. All anybody knew for sure was that “Putin played the piano for those guys in St. Petersburg.” The press was unable to help, as the fund’s founder and ambassador plenipotentiary, Vladimir Kiselyov, has on numerous occasions told the press to buzz off, to jump into a lake, and to “stop bothering me, because I’ve got more important things to do than speak to journalists.” And the man proved himself right, because when the Russian minister of culture, Alexander Avdeyev, came on that stage, it was not to say that Kiselyov is a crook or a charlatan, and that the streets round Sparrow Hills have been closed to prevent his escape, but to praise his fund for drawing attention to the plight of the nation’s sick children.
Such is the stated aim of the fund. Not to collect money, which can instead be provided to the fund by the government and then spent as Mr. Kiselyov sees fit—for instance, on Yelena Sever’s shoe collection, if indeed she has one. Not to buy equipment for hospitals, which the Hollywood dignitaries can do directly, after a quick tour of the ophthalmic and oncology wards (“because both begin with an ‘o,’” as an irritated Kiselyov once barked at a journalist in the Kommersant), followed by a caviar luncheon. The aim is “to raise awareness,” as the fund’s website declares with modesty verging on global self-effacement.
Truly, we live in a new era, and it is folly to suppose that philanthropy should not follow politicians with their Obamas, or international finance with its Madoffs, or the fine arts with its Hirsts, into the rarefied stratosphere of the criminal swindle. Kiselyov’s Federation Fund, the Royal Nonesuch of Putin’s Russia, has beaten the West at its own game by putting the chary in charity.