April 13, 2015 by AK
My comment, expanded and modified, to Tim Newman’s post on the government-supported restaurant chain proposed by the Russian filmmakers Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov. As La Stampa writes incredulously, “what is somewhat astonishing” is that the people promoting “patriotic food” are two “prominent film directors… despite their connections to the American world.”
What never ceases to amaze me is the Mikhalkov clan’s adroitness at getting what they want from the Kremlin. This time it’s cheap financing, probably subsidized loans from state banks. Last week, the CFO of a major state-controlled company admitted he could not raise ruble debt for less than 17% pa. Are the Mikhalkovs getting a 70% interest rate subsidy like Russian farmers? Not a big deal for the Kremlin but a nice perk for the clan. Another perk would be the “most favored” status the regional governors will grant the project if the Kremlin orders them to. It would mean low rents, local tax exemptions, and protection from incessant pestering by sanitary and fire inspectors.
What’s wrong-headed about it is Putin’s willingness to support the project. As Tim says, it will come at the expense of the Russian businesses that will be facing a privileged rival. The Mikhalkov brothers are shrewd operators: they know they are going to compete not with McDonald’s but with chains like Mu-Mu, Grabli, and Yolki-Palki, and a multitude of non-chain eateries. (The failed Russkoe Bistro was an attempt at a Russian-style fast food chain.) They are going to build on the image of Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s wife, the actress Yulia Vysotskaya. She has hosted a popular cooking show on NTV since 2003 so she’s practically a household name (or face). But so far she hasn’t been able to convert that into anything but recipe books.
Now all the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place: financing, protection, advertising. Of course it took access to Putin and patriotic chest-stumping to secure the former two – not fair game but the Mikhalkovs probably think of themselves as aristocrats of the flesh and the spirit, who are entitled to privileged treatment, those peasants be damned. “Both have poured scorn on Western influence in the past,” perhaps, yet the Mikhalkov shtick has always been playing the Slavophile (Nikita) and the Westernizer (Andrei). Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is skeptical of Russia’s ability to get anywhere at all, and I hear that his movies are more pessimistic in their view of Russia than any work by Andrei Zvyagintsev. But what does it matter when a great money-making opportunity presents itself and the clan closes ranks to grasp it?
(The name of Vysotskaya’s TV show has been chosen as the name for the food chain. Which is the odd bit, since “Eating at Home” only makes sense as a show: a restaurant can be billed “Home Cooking” or “Tastes Like Home” but hardly “Eating at Home.” According to Russian wisecrackers, it’s like naming a brothel “Sleeping at Home.”)
It goes back to the grand old man. The family patriarch, Sergei Mikhalkov, carved out a comfortable niche for himself and his extended family under Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev. His two sons – both talented filmmakers – did rather well under the late-Soviet regime. In 1980, Andrei managed to leave to work in Hollywood (where he made Tango and Cash) without being denounced as a traitor. What set them apart from their colleagues was their ability to leverage their artistic success to get the most out of the Soviet system for themselves and their numerous relatives.
It was well known as early as in the 1980s, when Valentin Gaft (a very popular screen actor at that time) wrote the famous two-liner: “Russia, can you feel this strange itching? It’s the three Mikhalkovs crawling on your skin.” It’s family business as usual in 2015.