Bullets, Blood, and Videotape in Russia’s Far East

In the lawless corners of the former Soviet Union, a dangerous Russian car thief has turned his life story into one of the hottest shows on television—the real reality TV. Say "Do Svidaniya," Hollywood.

YOU CAN’T HAVE fun when you’re famous. Behold Vitali Dyomochka, laid-back in a Land Cruiser, just trying to enjoy himself with a few close associates. It’s dead night in a dead end, and they’re waiting for a girl to tiptoe out of the sauna. A Kalashnikov rides shotgun. Russian synth pop is beating up the quiet. Everyone’s feeling up their cheek scars and buzz cuts with their tattooed fingers. The door to the hothouse squeals open, revealing the cutout of something with a skirt on.

“Hey, girl,” Vitali mumbles into the dark.

The shadow steps into the shaft of a street lamp, illuminating a pretty face that’s touched up with unease. Vitali reaches out to put a palm on her. And there is a moment just then, a gap, when her doubt disappears, when she is suddenly feeling giddy. “I know you,” says the girl. “You’re the guy from TV.”

This is what it has come down to for Russia’s most infamous television idol. Vitali Dyomochka has traded in a life as the brutal leader of a car-theft ring in Russia’s Far East for a life as the creator and star of Spets, a TV series based on his own wild times. They watch The Sopranos even in the farthest reaches of nowhere. And when a bona fide killer like Vitali gets his hands on a digital camera, he can tell the real story in a way that big Tony couldn’t dream up on that shrink’s couch.

There is a side effect, however. Vitali has been having trouble maintaining the fear, since it works out that you’re either a villain in the everyday or you simply play one on TV. And what kind of fun can you have if nobody’s spooked?

“AREN’T YOU AFRAID of me?” Vitali asks, shaking hands in greeting, clearly expecting a yes, hoping for one even. His voice is faint and scratchy. He is in Moscow now, cruising around and looking for a synthesizer on which he’ll compose and mix music for Spets. Vitali is particular about his purchase, sitting in shops and playing piano with slender, delicate fingers and a studied, upturned profile, his baldhead parched white in the mercantile fluorescent lighting. Once he finds what he needs, he packs up his tracksuits and makes for the airport.

He flies the nine hours back over the expanse of Russia. It is the same swindle. The main difference between Moscow and Russia’s far eastern capital of Vladivostok is the sum total of Chinese guys named Vladimir.

Unlike in Moscow, where the Mercedes jeep plays khan to the cars that swat each other along the roadways, in Vladivostok it’s Toyota’s Land Cruiser that affects top-down order. A day trip across the Sea of Japan and there’s an easy markup waiting for anyone who can front some cash and sail on back with an SUV, steering wheel tucked on the right-hand side. On Vladivostok’s rain-polished hillside streets, it’s still possible to hear the conspicuous grinding of the lawn mower engine encased beneath the hood of a Zhiguli. But by local consensus this is a national indignity, best tuned out, then forgotten, much like a certain 70-year period in the country’s history.

All Soviet revolutionary statues are still firmly in place here, watching over the whalers in Vladivostok’s distended port. All the while, fleets of halogen-lamped Japanese rides encircle them, pumping Russian club mixes through slits in the blacked-out windows, cracked just wide enough to ash a cigarette and watch the particles disintegrate in the sea-salt gust.

This is the only thing that Russia’s Far East has in common with California, across the Pacific: car culture. But this is a culture of stealing cars, rather than waxing them for the ride to the house party up the 405.

In Ussuriysk, a settlement of 250,000 souls, there are countless ways to go about appropriating a car. Vitali has two favored methods. He can frame it to appear as though you have negligently collided with his car in traffic. He will then demand your vehicle as compensation for damage, a demand made more persuasive by the submachine gun nosing out of his coat. Or he can sneak up while you’re changing a flat, slip unseen into the driver’s seat, and gas it once you’ve tightened the last lug. It’s a living.

Vitali left prison in spring 1997, after his second “sitting,” as the Russians say. He was dressed in pants that stopped mid-calf. A murdered brother, no money, no place to go, a constitution that had grown to crave prison gruel called “sechka.” It was that bad. And maybe it should have been for a guy who murdered a rival and then found the humor in it. “I aimed at his heart, but I missed,” Vitali says. “It shows you how poorly I know anatomy.”

But prison in far eastern Russia, mid-’90s, was no place for weaving macramé potholders. Overcrowding, scant supervision, a shortage of sechka. “When you live with wolves,” Vitali says, “you howl like a wolf.” And on the streets of Ussuriysk, there was plenty of prey, so many right-hand-drive cars on the road that wiseguys had taken to calling the place Little Tokyo.

VITALI STEERS HIS panther-colored Land Cruiser among Ussuriysk’s crumbling czarist-era minipalaces, Khrushchev-commissioned apartment buildings, and patchwork dogs that leap in the alleyways, lit by an unseemly sunlight. At least the sun is shining. Soon it will be winter, when darkness rules even in the daytime. “We are famous here,” Vitali says, scanning the streets in a tight squint. “We have a morbid reputation.”

It is a reputation that has been enhanced by near total exposure. Officials at the TV station that carried Spets in the winter and spring of 2004 estimated ratings approaching 100 percent.

“Real people, ordinary people, love this show,” says Aslan Saydaev, the director of Ussuriysk TV. “The percentage of ex-cons is higher here than in any other Russian region. It was a restricted zone in Soviet times, until 1989. The government paid undesirables to move here from other parts of the country.” Add to that the area’s high concentration of prisons and work camps, and the result is a population that has been operating off the Spets playbook for all of living history. The seven episodes that aired in 2004 depicted brutal murders, bloody rumbles and genuine, unsimulated sex (you can tell), all of it produced without the detached gloss of a network budget. “For people from the West, this show would be a shock,” Saydaev continues. “But for us, it’s natural—it’s who we are.”

Spets, however, has found detractors within Russia as well. Saydaev says that after viewing the show, officials from the FSB (the successor to the KGB) in Moscow “recommended” that Ussuriysk TV shut down. Now Saydaev, a Chechen, operates the channel underground, and is anxiously seeking safe passage to another country.

All this over a series whose mission statement expounded on one simple ideal: authenticity. Spets may be cruel and violent, but, Vitali says, the program is redeemed by the fact that everything contained therein is true to life. All of it actually took place, and nearly all of the actors are themselves the genuine perpetrators.

“We were tired of watching TV and movies that weren’t real,” Vitali says. “When a bomb is ticking, you know the timer will stop at the last second. When you see a movie with Steven Seagal, you know he will kill everybody single-handedly. When you watch a Jackie Chan movie, you know he will also win, but at the same time be funny. But no one can criticize our show, because it is our real life.”

Part Miami Vice, part senior class project, Spets spends a lot of time with its digital video cameras burrowing deep into the recessed pits of Vitali’s forever-focused Sinatra blues. Vitali has plenty of appeal— enough to persuade city officials to allow him to crash a car through Ussuriysk’s main movie theater, enough to convince his reallife wife to appear in the same episode with his real-life mistress. His eyes are, as the Russians might say, bez nichevo: without nothing. And he is always in character.

Rappers and hoods make good actors. This much we know. But good writers too? Within the fry-cook editing and wind-whistle audio quality of the small-budget Spets, gems roll out with regularity.

In one setup, a man sprints after a Land Cruiser, waving his hands in the air and yelling wildly, managing to convince the driver to hit the brakes. The man sticks his head through the window, casually produces a pistol and fires into the driver’s face. He then focuses his eyes on the female passenger, splashed in her boyfriend’s blood. The hitter is panting, and smiling, when he says, “Whew, I haven’t run like that in a long time.”

Vitali, who also wrote the scripts for the program, is the source of this dread humor, which reflects a life in which all is simplified, where everything rests on two-option equations: strong or weak, in or out, alive or dead. Spets blows any notion of reality TV into so many pieces.

VITALI PARKS AT Ussuriysk’s Club Lion, stepping over a flattened rodent at the doorstep and into the mirror-walled space. He sets a bottle of Hennessey on the table, and a broad-backed guy named Roman Alferov daintily pours the brown fluid into shot glasses laid out among the plates and silver and the lace placemats. “And in Moscow, they think that everyone in Vladivostok sleeps in a Land Cruiser and fights with bears,” Alferov says, chuckling to himself. The club, loud with techno-accordion music, begins to fill up.

Seated at the table are six main cast members of Spets, who also belong to Vitali’s car-theft ring, whatever may be left of it. They are all in their mid-20s. Vitali is a little older. “I’m 33—like Christ,” he says, turning away the Hennessey, since he doesn’t drink or smoke. “Someone has to stay sober,” he says. “And many drunk people go to prison.” (Ten members of the Spets cast were arrested during the shooting of the show; another was murdered by a rival outfit.)

Vitali nods respectfully to the neighboring table, where the regional mafia boss—the Thief of Law, as he is called—is snacking with the three best-looking girls in the place. The dancers up on the dance floor keep sneaking glances at the table of TV stars. But no one approaches, except for a few friendlies with switchback beaks and full-gold grins. If everyone else is reluctant to get close, it’s something other than coyness that’s keeping them away.

“There’s a reason people want to fight an actor like Russell Crowe in a bar,” Vitali says. “Because they know he won’t kill them with a gun or a sword. That’s the difference between us and the Hollywood people.” He folds his arms and eyes Club Lion with the cool appraisal of a man reclining in total ownership.

On an unseen gesture, the music in the club drops out, the dance floor empties, and the Thief of Law rises to stand over Vitali’s table with a crystal shot glass lofted in his right hand. “This is a toast to a normal boy from a small city, who found something to change his life,” he says, eyeing Vitali. “There are many things we can do to help him in that direction. And we will.” The drinks get drained, and the music kicks up again. But the Thief of Law is not finished. He leans in, and with a whisper, adds, “I want you to know that you are very safe in this restaurant. If anyone comes to you, these are not people. This is just dandruff.” In or out, dead or alive.

IT MAY SEEM a dangerous thing to reenact actual crime scenes for the cameras, for fear of revealing secrets, of finding oneself no longer with us. But Vitali explains that Spets consists of episodes that local police have already pieced together. In the instances when he portrays events previously unknown, he is only giving the cops tidy finales to inconsequential cases. In one scene, masked gunmen unload their clips into a car hurtling down a rural highway. The car pitches off a bridge and explodes. “In real life, my friend was driving that car,” Vitali says. “All the police found was his head. So now they know how it got there.”

The gang is moving on, escorted to the door of Club Lion by the lyrics of a popular song: “I will have a smoke and disappear in the darkness.” Soon the entire crew is surging in a Land Cruiser caravan down one of Ussuriysk’s main streets, which is lined with banks of ghostly birch trees on either side. “This show has changed my life,” Vitali says, his voice a faraway scrape, almost inaudible. “If I do something wrong now, people would recognize me. There is no way back for me.”

His Land Cruiser gets stuck at a stop sign behind a blue camper. A middle-aged man is at the wheel, driving his wife and children in the slow-moving vehicle. Vitali opens his car door and sticks his head into the wind. “Hey,” he yells into the camper’s open window, his voice full volume now. “Go fuck yourself, you whore.” The camper hurriedly moves aside, allowing the Land Cruisers to blow on past.

Vitali drives a few miles more. After a couple of minutes, he comes upon several cops on the shoulder of the road. They’re waving their batons in his direction, and he pulls to the curb. Vitali hops to the blacktop and meets the police as they approach his vehicle.

The cops pop the back hatch of the Land Cruiser. They rummage through old clothes and cardboard boxes, before coming upon a long black piece of metal machinery, a weapon by the looks of it. “What’s that?” asks the cop holding the flashlight. “It’s a camera tripod,” Vitali says with irritation, grabbing the hatch and slamming it shut.

Vitali climbs back into the car. “All that is in the past now,” he says, shifting into drive. “Now we make movies.” Vitali lets out a snort, leaving the cops the see-you-later stream of a couple candy taillights. You take your laughs where you can get them.