As a Russian, I could hardly avoid watching Robbie Williams’ latest video — it’s been all over the media, both in Russia and the UK. For those that haven’t seen Party Like A Russian, there are ballerinas, palace interiors and references to a corrupt millionaire lifestyle. The Guardian has claimed that Russians are outraged by Robbie Williams’ crude stereotyping, while The Sun has even suggested that the singer shouldn’t go to eastern Europe any more (it should know).
While the cliches Robbie uses did make me shout “Really?!” at my laptop screen, what’s interesting is that far from being offended (the state channels are always outraged, so we can discount them), a lot of people in Russia seem to have taken the video as a compliment.
You see, a large part of Russian society loves to think that they’re different to the rest of the world. That different rules apply to them because of their unique “national destiny”. The Party Like A Russian video plays into the hands of this imaginary exceptionalism. We may be corrupt and hedonistic, but at least our behaviour is unique — and so widely recognised that even western pop stars are making videos about it. A journalist at the conservative website Svobodnaya Pressa said in response to the video: “Let them be scared of us, not love us, demonise us — as long as they respect us. Let the smiles be fake as long as the fear is real.”
It’s the same feeling that many Russians feel when we see yet another Russian villain in a Hollywood film — we’re maybe a bit annoyed to be pigeonholed but also pleased that the category we’re assigned to is a position of power, even if it is a negative one. Power is power, and a country stuck in a 25-year-long post-imperial soul-searching hangover is always up for some of that.
Whatever Robbie Williams was trying to achieve with the song, I doubt he wanted it to become an anthem for a country perfectly content to be an anti-hero.
Even Uvelka, the minor buckwheat company that features in the video, was delighted. The Chelyabinsk firm issued a press release saying they were pleased to see that they were recognised abroad as a symbol of Russian cuisine (“which is undoubtedly the result of the hard work of the Uvelka team”). Their PR department is probably still doing their happy dance — for buckwheat to be elevated from humble grain to the breakfast of oligarchs was surely beyond their wildest dreams. I hope Robbie’s at least getting some merch from them, or maybe a lifetime’s buckwheat supply.
There’s also the little spicy detail that celebrity sites keep reminding us of — Robbie Williams performed at the £8 million wedding of the daughter of Rashid Sardarov, an oil tycoon, only this summer. Is that where the inspiration came from? Because it gives the song a little extra substance — in the same way a horror film based on a true story is always a bit more terrifying. You can’t say Robbie didn’t do his homework.
Also, why no bears? You’ve wandered pretty far into stereotype territory, Robbie so you might as well have gone the whole way.