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11 Jun, 2020 11:05

Drama around famous actor Efremov is latest example of divide between ordinary Russians & Moscow's wealthy liberal elites

Drama around famous actor Efremov is latest example of divide between ordinary Russians & Moscow's wealthy liberal elites

A news story about a horrific car crash has gripped Russia and prompted fresh debate about its notorious inequality. Celebrity Mikhail Efremov's drunken behavior left an innocent man dead and re-opened long-standing wounds.

Sergey Zakharov, the victim, was a delivery driver from a village in the Ryazan region, about 200km south of the capital. Like many people from rural areas surrounding Moscow, he commuted to the big city to obtain a decent wage. Outside of certain agricultural specialities, well-paid jobs are hard to come by in rural Russia. A phenomenon, of course, hardly unique to the country.

His killer's background couldn't have been more different. Efremov is from a family of Russian theatrical royalty. Much like the Richardsons in Britain or the Coppolas in the United States. His father, the legendary Oleg Efremov, was a 'People's Actor of the Soviet Union' and a 'Hero of Socialist Labor,' as well as a recipient of the Order of Lenin. While his mother Alla Pokrovskaya is remembered as a household name in her own right.

A very talented performer, the junior Efremov was honored as "Meritorious Artist" by the state during the Boris Yeltsin era. An award roughly equivalent to a British MBE or French Ordre National du Mérite. He has also enjoyed success as a television presenter. Apart from acting, he is known for his views critical of the Russian government and hosts a show on the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow. A notorious hell-raiser, Efremov's tumultuous personal life – he's on his fifth marriage, with six children – has helped make him a tabloid staple.

The story is all over the news in Russia, receiving wall-to-wall coverage, across TV, radio, and newspapers. But it's about more than just Efremov's celebrity. It's also become a sort of morality play about Moscow's liberal elites and their relationship with 'ordinary' people.

Many find the way a section of the establishment has circled its wagons to protect Efremov to be very distasteful. For example, star comedy actor Alexei Panin, himself the holder of a prestigious state prize, went on record to say "Everybody is offering condolences to the dead man. But Mikhail Efremov is a great artist, he cannot be imprisoned.”

Over the past three or four decades, inequality has spiked all around the globe. However, its effects have been especially profound in Russia, given that, only thirty years ago, the country was – at least nominally – communist, and people were raised to believe that everyone was fundamentally equal. London and New York have similar class, and financial, divides to Moscow’s, but they are more entrenched. In Russia, it's all happened within barely more than a generation.

In the capital, there is a very well-off elite, its members equally at home in Courchevel or Mayfair as they are at the [upmarket] Patriarch's Ponds, and also a substantial working class employed in the service-industry which caters to their needs. Those at the top of the pile are largely globalist in their outlook and West-leaning. Many of them send their children to England and the US to study and they support liberal causes. Indeed, plenty openly voice their complete lack of regard for the circumstances of their fellow countrymen and women. Along the lines of "well, we have it and they don't, and if they don't have it they only have themselves to blame.”

Try explaining that to someone in rural Ryazan. Where opportunities are scarce. Sergey Zakharov was one of those service employees. He didn't have famous parents to give him a leg-up in life. Instead, he worked for an online retailer – Delikateska – selling expensive food to the kind of people who belong to Efremov's social class.

Delikateska offers black caviar at $876 a kilogram (60,000 rubles). Which probably was close enough to Zakharov's monthly wage. For all his hard work, and long hours.

Efremov was driving on Moscow's Garden Ring (a central orbital highway) when his Jeep Grand Cherokee crossed the road and hit Zakharov's Lada van on Tuesday evening. Avito, a Russian classified advertisement website, lists a 2019 model of Efremov's car on sale for $144,492 (9,890,000rub). You could probably buy a couple of dozen used Lada vans for that sort of money.

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The actor was filmed confirming that he had been drinking prior to the crash, and eyewitnesses said he appeared to be clearly intoxicated. A bystander asked him did he understand the gravity of what he had done:

“I will cure him,” Efremov replied.

"You're not a doctor."

"But I have money."

That segment has been shared widely on Russian social media. With many commenters expressing their disgust at Efremov and everything he represents: The arrogant Moscow liberal elites who think they can't be held to account and are above laws meant for mere mortals.

Another public figure who has caused outrage with her response is TV presenter-turned-liberal politician, Ksenia Sobchak.

"I send sunbeams of support to Mikhail Efremov... I have always appreciated him as an actor and brilliant person," she wrote on Instagram. "There is no excuse for Misha's act... he doesn't understand how this will ruin his life." Countless respondents noted that she never mentioned Sergey Zakharov, instead, it seemed she was suggesting that Efremov himself was the victim.

A Moscow court has put Efremov under house arrest, pending eventual trial on charges of causing the death of a person by negligence. He faces up to 12 years in prison. While that's at the extreme end of the scale, if he gets away with a short sentence or little more than a rap on the knuckles, a lot of 'ordinary' Russians are going to become very angry.

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