The Puppet Masters

At the end of 2006, the Russian publishing industry was puzzled to learn that many of the year's bestseller lists were topped by the debut novel of a then-unknown author, 31-year-old Sergei Minayev. His book, "Dukhless" -- the title is an invented half-Russian, half-English term that loosely translates as "soulless" -- told the story of a cynical executive at a large multinational corporation. Written in a plain and rather clumsy style, it was dismissed by many critics as trash. But after hearing that it had sold more than 500,000 copies within nine months of its release, many began to discuss the "Dukhless" phenomenon.

It's a phenomenon that's especially impressive when one considers that Minayev, a successful entrepreneur in the liquor business, never had any formal literary training; prior to "Dukhless," his writing experience was limited to essays and magazine columns. In any case, he is now busy presenting his second book, "Media Sapiens," which is focused on the mass media and their impact on today's Russia.

"I had long been interested in the mass media, ever since I read [media theorist Marshall] McLuhan during my university years," Minayev said in an interview last week while sitting at a cafe in a Novy Arbat shopping center. "But in this book, I'm not really revealing any specific secrets of media spin doctors. Their methods are simple; they focus on appeals to basic human emotions, such as fear or hatred. With this book, I wanted to raise among my readers indignation at, and even disgust with, the mass media." The writer added that it took him almost one year to research his novel, since neither he nor his business had ever been involved with the media industry.

"Media Sapiens" is subtitled "A Tale of the Third Term," a reference to the often-discussed possibility that President Vladimir Putin may run for a third term once his current one expires in 2008. The protagonist is Anton Drozdikov, a spin doctor who has been fired from his job at the Foundation for Effective Politics (a real-life pro-Kremlin think tank in Moscow) for submitting slightly updated speeches by Joseph Goebbels to the politicians he was supposed to be working for. At a time almost exactly coinciding with the book's release date -- February 2007 -- Drozdikov is hired by a fictional anti-Kremlin organization to coordinate all of its media activities. Armed with major financial resources, he uses all kinds of shameless media tricks to promote the opposition's case.

"Since the state controls all major information resources, it wasn't interesting for me to put the main character in the pro-Kremlin camp," Minayev said. "In that case, you have to work with large media channels, which is quite simple. My character, however, operates 'tactical media' such as newspapers, the Internet or fake documentaries, and he has to be much more ingenious. And the book shows that the size of a media channel does not always matter. What matters is the idea, and most of the ideas are based on scaring the audience."

The detailed, cynical descriptions of anti-Kremlin PR tactics, which include such tricks as faking an attack on an opposition activist or paying off the participants in a protest, may lead some readers to think that Minayev has taken sides in the dispute between pro-Kremlin forces and the Russian opposition. But the writer denied having any political allegiance. "Overall, the book is not about politics," he said. "It's about mass media as a third mind, which can operate by itself, even though politicians and spin doctors think that they're manipulating it."

Another central idea of the book, the writer said, is the stupidity of both the mass media (which "feeds the audience the same stuff on a daily basis, like a clockwork toy") and its audience (which "eats it with a big spoon, without really thinking").

Michael Eckels / MT
Minayev was a successful entrepreneur in the wine business before writing his first novel.
One noticeable element of "Media Sapiens" is the presence of real-life organizations alongside the fictional ones. Besides the Foundation for Effective Politics, one can find references to media outlets like Ekho Moskvy radio and Kommersant. There are also references to well-known events such as the mini-banking crisis of 2004, which led Alfa Bank to sue the Kommersant publishing house, claiming that the newspaper had smeared its reputation. Minayev described the 2004 events as a media campaign. "I remember that crisis very well," he said. "I believe that another, smaller bank was actually the target of that information war, but they used Alfa to create more media buzz around it." The writer claimed that a story in "Media Sapiens" about the deliberately engineered collapse of the fictional bank Zeus is based on a true story in which a bank was destroyed using the guestbook of the web site. "I included this in the novel to show that a financial crisis could also be staged with such simple tools," he said.

In terms of style, "Media Sapiens" doesn't differ substantially from "Dukhless," but the author believes that both books' rugged language is an advantage rather than a flaw. "It may well be that this ruggedness of language was one of the reasons why 'Dukhless' was so successful," Minayev said. He added that good timing and the right readership were the other factors contributing to its success. "The book hit the right audience, namely, office clerks -- a very numerous group, as well as active Internet users and advertising people," he concluded.

Minayev shrugged off rumors that huge amounts of cash were invested in the "Dukhless" promotion campaign. "The only investment the publisher made in the promotion of the book was the printing of posters, which maybe cost $500 or $1,000," he said. "All the interest in the book was generated exclusively in blogs, and this was the first precedent when a book initially gained popularity on the Internet, and then all that popularity went beyond the Internet and onto the streets." The author didn't deny his own contribution to spreading the word about "Dukhless" on the Internet, as he was a well-known blogger long before he finished his debut novel. "When we announced the publication of the book, information began to spread on the web very quickly, and of course, we didn't pay anything to anyone for this kind of promotion." Overall, Minayev said he would never invest any of his own cash in the promotion of his books, preferring to keep his business and literary endeavors separate.

"At the very beginning, I had very clear answers to two major questions," he explained. "First, I knew that if the book fell through, I wouldn't write anything else, and second, I knew that I wouldn't turn my writing into a business. I've been in the wine business long enough and I've been quite successful, and I don't want to approach writing, my hobby, the same way as I approach my business."

Minayev insisted that "Dukhless" was not about "glamour" or "anti-glamour," labels that critics stuck to the book. Rather, he said, it was about the crisis of a human being in the environment of a large multinational corporation. "In business, politics or anything, the dominating factor is the individual," he said. "And the main ideology of multinational corporations is that a brand will always be superior to the individual, and at some point we could come to that, when people begin to believe it. And they probably will, because if they hear from the television for a long enough time that bread tastes worse than pure buckwheat, they will begin to believe it."

"Dukhless" and "Media Sapiens" are published by AST. Vladimir Kozlov is a Moscow-based fiction author, journalist and filmmaker.