Issue 35 (2012)
El’dar Salavatov: The PyraMMMid (PiraMMMida, 2011)
reviewed by Sasha Senderovich © 2012
Anyone who lived in Russia in the early 1990s or visited often enough to watch television there can never forget Lyonia Golubkov. A protagonist of sixteen TV advertisements that aired between 1992 and 1994, the simpleton tractor driver Lyonia touted in decidedly straightforward terms his successful stint as a fledgling stock investor. Lyonia, as it turned out, was investing in the firm called MMM, the most notorious of the pyramid schemes of the 1990s, that captured the hearts and minds (and hard-earned rubles) of millions of Russian citizens ready to emulate Lyonia’s televised success. The fictional Lyonia’s advertised trajectory, before the crash of MMM in 1994, was astounding indeed. Lyonia received enough return on his initial investment to buy boots and a new fur coat for his wife Rita; he followed that by paying for a trip for himself and his brother Ivan to San Francisco; subsequently was graced by a house call from none other than “simply Maria” (the protagonist of an eponymous and widely watched Mexican soap opera that aired on Russian TV at the time, played by actress Victoria Ruffo), and finally entrusted by the representatives sent to Moscow from his faraway native village to invest their precious resources—a few banknotes tied together with a piece of string. All this was observed by an impoverished populace that had seen its Soviet-era savings vanish at a time when runaway inflation, compounded by months-long delays of employment paychecks, kept millions of people in poverty.
The last two ads in the series refer by name to the creator of the MMM company, Sergei Mavrodi. In one of them, Lyonia interrogates Mavrodi’s portrait hanging on the wall of his bedroom, wondering how an investment scheme that once seemed so promising could suddenly falter. The hopeful Lyonia imagines Mavrodi’s visage answering him that MMM, after having to shut down temporarily, was now ready to reopen. The ad’s appeal to Mavrodi’s image as the pyramid scheme started collapsing helped temporarily restore the investors’ trust: by that point, millions of people who had invested money in MMM had become convinced (perhaps, not incorrectly) that MMM’s troubles stemmed from the government’s fear of the company’s growing power. Common people like Lyonia Golubkov had every reason to think that Mavrodi was their personal savior.
El’dar Salavatov’s film The PyraMMMid (in which Lyonia Golubkov, played by the original actor from the commercials, Vladimir Permiakov, makes a cameo appearance) elaborates this interpretation of Mavrodi through a kind of pseudo-biopic about the man, his last name changed to Mamontov (played by Aleksei Serebriakov). The firm’s name, MMM, and its recognizable logo are unchanged in the film. Many of the trappings of the film’s narrative make it clear that Mavrodi is Mamontov’s prototype: Mamontov has the same bulky eyeglasses as Mavrodi that became etched in the minds of millions of Russians, Mavrodi’s practice of printing his own portrait on MMM shares, and the presence of Lyonia Golubkov’s incessant promotion of the company on television sets in the background throughout the film. However, the film makes no claims to authenticity and the psychological portrait of Mamontov, quite coherently conceived in the film, is, of course, fictionalized. This free interpretation of a series of events known to many Russians is what makes a film that otherwise relies on exaggeration and overplaying, viewable. In The PyraMMMid, Mamontov is not simply a large-scale fraud as was Mavrodi, but rather a genius driven by a deep understanding of human nature and a love of mathematics. Mamontov’s understanding of human nature seems to come out when he expresses the view that greed is an inexhaustible “natural resource”—one that is far more relevant, in his assessment, to the conditions of unchecked post-Soviet capitalism than the actual natural resources being excavated, bought, sold, and stolen at that time. Mamontov is able to draw close to the pinnacle of power by harnessing the universal greed suddenly surging in people like Lyonia Golubkov after suppression during decades of a state-managed economy.
Salavatov’s Mamontov does, indeed, get quite close to power. With his investors numbering into the millions, Mamontov is presented as being in control of such large parts of the Russian population to such an extent that he could bring his supporters into the streets with enough force to topple the government for trying to check the expanding influence of MMM. In the foreground of the film is the power struggle between Mamontov, different governmental structures, and corrupt commercial structures; against this incessant power struggle, a personal drama unfolds as well. Mamontov’s estranged wife (played by the famous film director Nikita Mikhalkov’s daughter Anna Mikhalkova) commits suicide when she overhears Mamontov expressing disregard for their daughter, who had been kidnapped by one group among Mamontov’s many enemies. Further, he suffers the loss of his assistant Anton (Piotr Fedorov)—a math genius whose initial thrill at Mamontov’s mind games is presented as exciting for its own sake but, as the film progresses, becomes subsumed by a growing craving for power.
Yet it is Mamontov’s pursuit of heroism that lies at the heart of Salavatov’s cinematic interpretation. Mamontov purchases a Chaika as his personal car, choosing a model made in the same year as the car used to drive the world’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, through the streets of Moscow upon the successful completion of his space mission in April 1961. Through this symbolic linkage, Mamontov telegraphs his view of himself as someone who, like Gagarin, could help Russia’s national pride skyrocket. Ultimately, in Salavatov’s film, the fictionalized founder of MMM is motivated by his hope of restoring patriotic self-esteem and keeping Russia’s capital inside the country by defeating commercial rivals who seek to transfer its resources and treasures overseas.
Viewers would do better not to follow too closely the different players and twists of the film’s story, as it imagines the events surrounding the real Mavrodi and the real MMM as they may have unfolded in the early 1990s. After all, the facts of who gained the upper hand over whom are less important than the more generalized impression that the film offers of the power struggle between players entirely unconcerned about the future of Russia. In the film's chaotic denouement, different power players reveal themselves to be something other than what we had thought they were, leaving the viewer with a general perception of chaos, unpredictability, and uncertainty. The PyraMMMid might present to us an image of Mamontov as a genius set on saving the nation, but his attempt to assume for himself a larger-than-life role ultimately pales before the chaos that has become associated with that time period in popular imagination. It is this anarchy which eventually swallows Mamontov as well. With the penchant of Russia's current political order for casting the 1990s as the “time of troubles,” the film might strike the viewer as reflective of this order in its creating of a potential savior only to show him crumble under the weight of times.
In creating the character of Mamontov, Salavatov had correctly diagnosed the proclivity of ordinary Russians to believe in messianic figures capable of miraculously curing the nation of its many woes. (Here, it may be worthwhile to remember Sergei Mavrodi’s portrait in Lyonia Golubkov’s house towards the end of MMM’s advertising campaign—hanging on the wall icon-like and ready for supplication.) It isn’t difficult to see through the film's elaborate and at times confusing construction to perceive what the film implies beyond the frame: that a charismatic outsider dead-set on not compromising with business and political elites was not the ideal person to save the country from collapse. In the mid-1990s one could not have anticipated yet the era of Putin, who came from within the security forces and held the interests of governmental and business in check against each other. It is fair to say that The PyraMMMid casts Mamomtov as a false messiah in troubled times, a forerunner of Russia's “real” savior who—as the contemporary Russian viewer can easily deduce from Salavatov’s film—would arrive several years hence to exploit the narrative of 1990s chaos for his own ambitious political and economic ends. Every savior needs its forerunner, and every king, its jester.
At the time of writing, this latest redeemer of the nation, despite the growing signs of the nation’s impatience with him, still shows no interest in abandoning power any time soon. But the real Mavrodi, freshly out of jail, is back in the picture, too—with his new internet-based financial scheme, MMM-2011 potentially ready to compete with Putin-2012 for the trust of Russia’s Lyonia Golubkovs.
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PiraMMMida, Russia 2011
105 min., color, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: El’dar Salavatov
Idea: Sergei Livnev
Script: Sergei Krainev, Maksim Vasilenko
Camera: Goran Pavicevic
Design: Sergei Tyrin
Music: Pavel Esenin
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Petr Fedorov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Ekaterina Vilkova, Daniil Spivakovskii, Anna Mikhalkova, Aleksei Gorbunov, Artem Mikhalkov, Iurii Tsurilo, Sergei Koltakov, Bogdan Titomir
Producers: Sergei Livnev, Georgii Malkov, Mikhail Liasch, Sergei Sulgin
Distribution: Universal Pictures International Russia
El’dar Salavatov: The PyraMMMid (PiraMMMida, 2011)
reviewed by Sasha Senderovich © 2012