I haven’t read Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in forever, but if memory serves, this treatise on media and politics as entertainment is more relevant than ever right now. It was composed when the Oval Office was occupied by a B-grade film star but one with serious experience in governance, and since then the sideshow has been fully relocated to the center ring. First the Kardashians took Hollywood, then the Trumps did the same to Washington.
Handing the keys to America to Donald Trump, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman who believes he can run foreign policy the way John Gotti ran Queens, was exceedingly dumb. Chechnya apparently grew jealous. The state hasn’t selected a Reality TV star to run the whole show, but they did use Komanda, an Apprentice-like program, to pick a strategic adviser to the Putin-approved warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. It’s a stunt, but some stunts are dangerous. Perhaps there are certain jobs better left in the hands of professionals?
Eva Hartog of the Moscow Times conducted a smart interview with the “winner,” Filip Varychenko, whom the show described, accurately or not, as a “24-year-old millionaire from Dusseldorf who grew tired of European comforts.” He seems an amiable fellow who’s either blissfully ignorant of the deeds of the dictator he now works for or is wisely pretending to be. An excerpt:
How did you end up on the show?
I was working at a multinational company in Germany — I’d rather not say which one — working together with the chairman of the board to develop the business worldwide. It was really fun and interesting; I was traveling a lot. But I wanted to do something more meaningful.
I was looking for a position in the Russian government, but after some research I realized that it’s actually really difficult to get in. It seemed impossible.
Then I read an article online about Kadyrov’s new show. I actually thought it was a joke at first, but I applied anyway.
After a phone interview with the producers they invited me to a casting in Moscow several weeks later. I didn’t believe it was real, so I literally bought my ticket 24 hours beforehand, thinking it was the weekend and if I didn’t like it, I could just leave.
When I got there, I was really surprised to see so many people: men in their 40s and 50s, wearing suits, really professional looking-business people. I was the last person to audition and had to wait eight hours for my turn. But then I got my “golden ticket” — they said: you’re in, you’re going.
Why did you have to run up mountains, wade through rivers etc.? Why was that necessary for the position of “strategic advisor?” Or was that just for the television?
You have to understand: this is not a joke. What you saw was only half of how [Kadyrov’s government] really works: they work 30 hours, no, 100 hours per day. And Kadyrov works even more! I don’t know when he sleeps. I’ve never ever caught him sleeping.
There is no day or night, there is just work time. So you have to be ready. They say that if you have a strong spirit, you have to have a strong body.•