вторник, 10 августа 2010 г.

Day 50

Smog

God is required elsewhere; he has handed the writing of this chapter in Moscow's history to Dante. At night when the city makes the haze glow red, I swim in an alien world, in and out of car headlights cutting long trails across intersections. As the days go on and the toxic smoke shows no sign of lifting, I begin to feel claustrophobic. Apocalyptic particulates seep into the apartment, the underground, I descend every morning into the ring line as though it was the innermost circle of hell. The tops of skyscrapers become hypothetical, like mountain peaks in cloud. The soles of my feet are black with ever-present dust.

On the urging of a friend, I flee to St Petersburg. The air there seems agonisingly sweet; I have no interest in sight-seeing, I only want to breathe. After a few days we are summoned back to Moscow anyway, the news tolls from my phone as I emerge from an intense cleansing session of sauna and pool. Whispering courage to my lungs, I catch the 1am train to the capital. There are four of us in the kupe. A weepy teenage girl, crackling with tension, perches across from me.

I'm scared. Didn't they give us tickets for seated places? Why do we have a kupe? It's scaring me. What if they make us get out in the middle of nowhere because we have the wrong seats?”

They won't do that.” I try not to sound too dismissive, but her plaintive tone annoys me.

There are Muslims in our train. I saw one in a burka. What if they are planning something? I'm scared. They could come in here.” A Moscow-Petersburg train was blown up last year.

They're capable of anything,” the woman next to her agrees.

I wait for our fourth companion, a dark-haired young man, to add to the chorus of paranoia, but he says quietly: “People are people. You can't tar everyone with the same brush.”

As the train begins to move, a konduktorsha peers through the door. “My car is almost empty, it's air-conditioned, much nicer, 1,000 roubles.” The girl leaps at the invitation.

But you'll come with me, won't you?” she pleads. “And bring me back if I don't like it. I'm scared to go by myself.”

Don't worry my dear, I'll treat you like my own daughter,” the lady responds, gleaming at the prospect of the thousand roubles. Her large stockinged thighs make a muffled scratching noise as they walk away.

I lie down and close my eyes, listening to the remaining two passengers converse. They are frank with each other in a way that strangers on a train would never be, in the West. The woman talks about her alcoholic husband, their separations and reunions. The young man mentions that he too was married.

And...?”

Khoroshevo po-nemnozhku.” Impossible to translate the succinct pathos of this phrase, roughly, it means “Good things in small doses”.

At eighteen, festering in a Ukrainian village, he proposed to his fifteen-year-old high school sweetheart. He brought her to St Petersburg, working odd jobs to support them. She left him for a man who owns three restaurants.

She never used to like jewellery, she wouldn't even wear silver. Now she walks around covered in gold.”

She is the new Russia.

понедельник, 26 июля 2010 г.

Day X

Systema


I've decided that I'm going to attempt to learn Systema, an obscure Russian martial art, which I first discovered in a small city where by rights no such thing should have existed, were it not for the persistence of a bulletproof instructor whose thickset neck spoke volumes. Fascinated though I was by the potential to learn how to kill an opponent in 30 seconds or less, I abandoned the class after one lesson, not relishing being groped, even in the name of self-defense, by the bearded misfits in attendance. Apologies for putting it so bluntly.

But the cachet of acquiring secret powers of destruction – or less reprehensibly, of building unflinching resistance to life's vagaries – simmered in the back of my mind. The chance, now, to study with the originator of the System, Ryabko, holds undeniable appeal.

The school is near Belorussky vokzal, and as usual with Moscow train stations, the area is derelict, inhabited by vagrants. I walk down a side alley, reaching a dead end. An old Soviet-era truck idles in the background, the driver leans out to flick a cigarette. This should be the right address, but the only visible door has been riveted shut with a metal bar. Reassuring.

As I continue along the eerily quiet street, trying not to look lost, three men materialise beside me. Three beasts of pumped-up muscle. The leader of the pack asks if I'm lost. “Er, I...” I'm such a useless liar, especially in a foreign language. “I'm looking for a women's...ah...Systema class. Is it nearby?”

What a coincidence, I happen to be a teacher there!” Mr Alpha Muscle glibly responds. I don't believe him for a moment, but all I can produce is an insipid “Oh, really?”

Really. There's no class today, but why don't you give me your number, I'll let you know.” Again, blatantly a ploy to get my number. I know this. Yet the conditioning to comply kicks in, and I catch myself giving out digits. This is absurd. I stop and raise a skeptical eyebrow. He confesses that he doesn't work for the school and laughs, without malice. Nonetheless, my sense of foreboding grows.

Don't call me, there's no point in calling me.”

Why?”

Because I'm married.”

Does your husband know Systema?”

No.”

Then, nyet problem!”

He laughs again, a simple laugh that makes him seem so much like an innocent peasant youth. He would really be very good-looking, if it wasn't for his small yellowing teeth. I'm aware that, in a stupid superficial way, I would trust him more if his teeth were white.

Let me show you the way to the class.”

I don't want to follow him, but am somehow hypnotised into submission. There is an entrance at the other end of the building. We go through a turnstile, the kind they have in jails, heavy metal rails rotating floor-to-ceiling. It locks shut behind us. He starts to lead me across a courtyard overgrown with weeds and sickly trees, an unlikely headquarters for the guru of Russian self-defense. I note the irony of the situation for future reference, when I'm capable of appreciating it. Just as I resign myself to certain martyrdom, my guide points at a gold plaque on the wall which reads “Systema Ryabko”.

While we wait in the hallway, Alpha continues his aggressive flirtation, reaching over to remove my glasses. I wave his hand away. Then, feeling perversely grateful that he has turned out to be a decent human being after all, I take them off and smile. He blinks admiringly, announcing with customary hilarity: “Tvoyi glaza...oni...ryzhye!” Your eyes...they're ginger!

Ginger. At least he didn't say brown. Finally, he departs.

Meanwhile, I'm asked for my name, and ushered in hushed reverence to the office of the master himself. Short and broad, he presides in a leather chair like a mafia don, resplendent amid dark wooden furniture. To my surprise, every inch of wall space is covered with icons and photographs of prominent Church figures: the Patriarch makes another appearance, arm-in-arm with our hero. The window-ledge overflows with icons, still more lean against the desk. It becomes almost comical, the place is practically a monastyrskaya lavochka, a monastery gift-shop. Ryabko, however, assures me that religion is an individual choice, and that Systema is guided by a philosophy of self-knowledge. He chats with me in a benevolent way while we wait for the female instructor to arrive. She is a classic mushroom-gathering Russian blonde, give her braids and a sheaf of wheat and she could advertise communism – no, not from a colourful poster, but as one of those massive statues with upraised arms, the concrete call of the motherland, 82 meters high over Volgograd. She leaves the scent of steel in her wake.

“Go and change.”

The apprenticeship has begun.

среда, 7 июля 2010 г.

Days 26-27

Valaam and Konovets






The tour operator's website advertised a fleet of rickety vessels from the 1970s, built in Czechoslovakia and Germany. I have been keeping fingers crossed for reliable German construction, and as soon as I see the bathroom in my cabin, I know that my wish has been granted. Not because it is particularly pleasant – it has been quite the opposite for twenty years at least – but because of the dire efficiency with which the toilet, sink and shower have been crammed into one small space. In fact, the whole bathroom is essentially the shower: close the toilet, turn on the water, and enjoy.

Still, it's a small price to pay for the pleasure of lolling on deck in the clear sunshine, stretched out on a chaise-longue. An unidentifiable stratum of Russian society, perhaps lower-middle class, sighing with relief, lies back with a handkerchief over its face. Large solid bellies swing over small swimming briefs as Rammstein grunts inexplicably from the speakers. I close my eyes and drift with the rumbling ship.

After several hours we reach Valaam, an island on Lake Ladoga, not far from Finland, which houses an historic monastery. The moment of glory has arrived for my improvised nun's habit. To cover my head and shoulders, I've chosen a culturally appropriate leopard-print shawl. The final touch is a pair of ostentatious sunglasses. The general effect is more 'nun with a habit', but I'm optimistic that I'll pass the censors who hover at the entrance to the religious site, on the lookout for lustful female flesh.

Approaching the dock, we notice a black yacht emblazoned with a bicephalic eagle, which we presume means that an oligarch has come to atone for his Courcherevels; but rumour spreads that it is the Patriarch of the Orthodox church, who, complete with retinue of SUVs and helicopters, has arrived to open a local hospital. I don't need to see the souvenir stalls hawking salvation and self-flagellation, to conclude that the church has invited the money-lenders back to break bread in modern Russia.

The monastery itself offers the usual combination of low arched ceilings and gilded icons, penitents and petitioners. I light a candle for no one in particular, for the sake of ritual.

One of the Americans is pulled into the entertainment that evening. The show is led by a middle-aged woman in a sailor suit that squeezes her hefty hindquarters like a lecherous drunk. She leads unwilling volunteers in anachronistic proletarian contests: who will bandage a child's head fastest? who will be first to tie a man up with a rope? It feels like a scene from a Soviet summer camp.

Towards midnight, we lay out a Scrabble board on green plastic table, blankets round our shoulders. The low immobile sun bleeds into the lake, making it shift and shimmer like crimson silk. The game ends in argument over the correct spelling of “coraled” (it's “coralled”, by the way). My fault ofcourse, I'm far too competitive. I had been in the lead, until an unscrupulous opponent, turned vengeful by my goading remarks, decided to set up another team with a winning triple letter score, on which they proceeded to play the offending word. Hubris indeed. While I pretend not to sulk, someone tells the story of how, back in Moscow, a friendly security guard recently suggested they share a prostitute. This fails to lighten the mood.

At the next stop, Konovets, I forego the tourist sites, and sit instead on the shore, letting the water nibble at my bare feet. Nature here overwhelms human attempts at divinity. The great Russian landscape artist Nikolai Rerikh knew this: his 1917 painting of Valaam, Holy Island, shows a wild rocky mass leaning against the northern summer’s eternal sunset, and as an afterthought, a tiny boat in the corner carrying two timid pilgrims.

Trailing my fingers through the sand, I can see the cruise ship bobbing toylike in the distance, keeping time with the hunchback playing the French horn by the pier. His surreal brass band of invalids creaks out a Soviet tune, whose lyrics echo faintly from my exiled childhood: “The river begins as a little blue stream, and friendship begins with a smile…”

суббота, 3 июля 2010 г.

Day 24



Porcelain coke bottle




Agonisingly, I retrace my steps to the apartment, running all the way, discovering reluctant reserves of stamina, heartbeats clinging to my ribs in irregular clumps. The passport, naturally, is carefully stowed in the bag I had planned to take with me on the trip, but replaced at the last minute with a different one. Muscles leaking lactic acid, I make it back to Leningradsky just as boarding begins.

The kupe is inoffensively modern: patterned orange upholstery on comfortable bunks, a fold-down table in the middle carrying small bags with toiletries, snacks in clear plastic cases with children's drink boxes, bread, the usual mucusy yogurt and vacuum-packed slices of sausage. I make lazy conversation with fellow travellers, trying not to seem like all I want is to wade into clouds of luxurious sleep. Through the open sliding door of the kupe, uniformed young women offer tea and coffee, heels catching in the folds of the long cloth that covers the carpet in the aisle. I had earlier confronted this object with perplexed resentment as it curdled round the wheels of my suitcase; it lay there obstinate like a towel that someone had accidentally pulled all the way out of the dispenser in a public washroom.

In the morning, we stumble weak-eyed from the train, onto a platform whose coffered concrete roof hovers in monumental tension, stretching towards a distant horizon of unrealised Soviet futurism. A bus takes us to a canape reception across from Kazan cathedral. Its mottled black columns submerge me momentarily in the ocean, Neptune's palace encrusted with molluscs, as the guests pop tiny amber embryos on their tongues.

For reasons known only to the gods of carbonated soda (fizz be upon them), we are taken on a tour of the Coca-Cola bottling plant outside St Petersburg. A study in red and white. The familiar curlicue letters coil around every available surface, from the cheap plastic wall-clock to the pens and notepads on the table. The vending machines, naturally, contain only Coke-derived fluids. Such Freudian levels of overcompensation recall the flags draped from coast to coast in the US of A. No object is too ignoble to be splashed proudly with the stars and stripes. And the dichrome world of the plant is the world that Coca-Cola would create, if it could, on the outside; and the endless bottles jostling down conveyor belts are nothing less than the exact equivalent, in terms of their value to the corporation, of each person who will consume them. Capitalism*, in equating the individual with the uniform product, tends towards totalitarianism, from which we are saved just as long as competing brands burn, bright enough that we can still see ourselves, even if we are nothing more than their reflection.

One bottle is different. It sits on the table while the Russian plant managers recite a standard-issue presentation, deadpan delivery of the jargon of corporate responsibility, as superfluous English text, neither understood nor relevant, slides across the screen behind. The bottle makes silent comment on this awkward coexistence of East and West. Made of white porcelain, its classic all-American curves painted with traditional Russian folk patterns, it teeters on the edge between beauty and kitsch, authenticity and corruption.

By chance, an hour or so later we are wandering through the Imperial Porcelain museum, attached to the factory that created the promotional bottle. Here too we are surrounded by Western forms taken to Russian extremes. Among giant rococco vases gilded with the faces of forgotten nobility, we wait for our cruise ship to come in.


*Capitalism here, before anyone objects, is meant as a shorthand for the current model of economic growth (advertising and mass production) rather than in the strict sense of a system of capital accumulation.

Day 23

Yoga

We are due to leave for St Petersburg at midnight from Leningradsky Vokzal. In the misguided spirit of productivity maximisation, I decide to use the time before our trip to attend a yoga class between 8 and 10pm. A pert female voice informs me over the telephone that it is an advanced group, but I am so thrilled at having discovered that there are lessons in my building that her warnings fall on deaf ears. My last experience of yoga, ten years prior, to counteract a series of inexplicable panic attacks, has left a dimly lit image in my mind of slow, calm movements and pleasant relaxation. I don't really want to use the word 'zen' in relation to yoga, it makes me seem like a victim of post-modern religious insensitivity, but essentially, I expect to feel very zen, perhaps even deliciously sleepy, ready to sushi roll myself into a gently rocking train berth, after a casual session of indulgent stretching.

Two hours later, glazed in sweat and coated in a light powdering of ever-present Moscow dust, like some kind of filthy salty human donut, I am dragging myself to the station in the midst of an argument with angry leg muscles, having discovered – too late – that Yoga Russian Style is more boot camp than spa experience. The only thing that kept me contorted in the strictures of an endless agonising stretch, was the fact that the instructor's musculature had been rather pleasantly refined. Cursing his pretty blue eyes, for whose tender approval I had forced myself into ever-more unseemly positions, I climb the escalators at Komsomolskaya, reflecting that it had hardly been worthwhile; at the end of the class, he had revealed a certain crassness... With seeming chivalry, he had asked whether I would like to sit at the front rather than the back, given my nearsightedness. Not relishing the embarrassment of demonstrating the Collapsing Warrior Pose before a live audience, I invented a silly joking excuse – that I would rather not show everyone my, to put it bluntly, ass. “They'd have something to look at”, he winked.

It is not obvious, once I emerge above ground, which of the three train stations surrounding me is Leningradsky. A confusing warren of kiosks cast an anaemic reddish light over the thick throngs of thieves and beggars attracted by easy pickings. For the first time, I feel intimidated, revulsed. The alleyways exhale stale urine mixed with that sharp vinegary smell, the stench of civilisation, the urban unwashed in their stiff clothes, a Hobbesean state of nature – not the naked, jungular one where bodies are purged by rain. This filthy, hopeless opportunism is the real measure of the city, and its hot breath feels deadeningly close, the distance from top floor to bottom rung only a greasy palm's breadth.

Turning on my own axis with slow uncertainty, awkward in a grey cotton tube dress that suddenly feels streetwalker-short, I intercept the leer of a gang of militsia boys. Their huge peaked caps slide back on their cropped blonde heads. They are always in groups, affecting casual banter to hide their adolescent discomfort; you hardly ever see a police officer alone. Reflexively, I check for my passport. It's not there. Which means I can't get on the train.

пятница, 2 июля 2010 г.

Day 22

Great lengths.

I need to find a long skirt. Well, strictly speaking I don't need to, but we will be touring a monastery where below-the-knee modesty is required, and it's a convenient excuse to buy new clothes. In the park near the Russian language school is a shop selling light cotton sarafany, maxi-dresses, they have a striking monochrome A-line piece I quite like, but the price is shocking: almost 3,000 roubles, about fifty quid, for quality that would be worth twenty pounds, maximum, in the UK. My Russian teacher recommends a mall at Okhotniy Ryad metro station.

The State Duma, the lower legislative chamber, is near Okhotniy Ryad. If you go there, in front of the massive square-columned facade, you'll see row upon row of idling expensive German cars. In general luxury cars are ubiquitous, the bigger the better, never mind that most of the time they are stuck at a standstill in Moscow's traffic jams. A Hummer limo was parked by my apartment block the other day. I've seen a Lexus SUV on Prospect Mira with the ironic license plate number, “NA555CP”, which is so close to reading “in the USSR” that I can't believe it's just a coincidence. The cars outside the Duma, though equally ostentatious, differ in one significant detail: they have blue police lights on top – migalki – which give MPs and bureaucrats right of way on the choked up roads. The migalki have lately become controversial, as the population increasingly resents this privilege, particularly after a series of fatal accidents involving official vehicles. I recall that on the way to Ikea, when a flashy flashing Audi flashed past, the other drivers honked their horns in derision. I've also been told that some people attach upturned blue baskets to the roofs of their cars as a kind of protest. I want to interpret this a reassuring indication that Russians might be growing restive, that their capacity for revolution is still strong and that they may not agree to be ruled by an oily political monopoly much longer.

The vicinity of Okhotniy Ryad also hosts the famous Bolshoi Theatre, and a charming pedestrian street, Kuznetsky Most, lined with pretentious restaurants. I will definitely be coming back to the linen white terrace of the Cafe des Artistes, the perfect vantage point for people-watching.

I fail to find any malls however, and it's only when I reluctantly give up and head back underground to the metro that I notice an unassuming door marked “shopping centre”. Beyond this portal is a noisy shiny space packed with every imaginable store, including – oh horror! – British high street favourites Topshop, Miss Selfridge and New Look. My resolution not to spend money on clothes in Russia, due to the expected absence of suitable shops, instantly becomes futile. I purchase an eminently unsuitable floor-length slinky black dress fastened at the shoulders with gold chains. I can only hope it will pass the censors at the monastery. I try to convince myself that a nun might, at a stretch, wear this to a cocktail party.

четверг, 1 июля 2010 г.

Days 14-21

Illness

Like an abbreviated version of Latin America's lost decade, I fall into a week of stagnation and inaction. In my case, it's not foreign debt that is the culprit, but foreign bacterial culture, gross domestic byproduct. Yes: I develop gastroenteritis. Also known, less politely, as something less polite. I'm still not sure whether I should admit this publicly, however it makes for a good story. It also makes spending more than an hour in the company of other people unpleasantly awkward. Still, I keep going to classes, keep hoping that I'll be fine the next day. After four days I start to feel delusional from dehydration and go to a nearby pharmacy to get some electrolyte powder; they have none.

As I wobble down the street to another pharmacy, I can see two barely presentable young men with beer bottles coming towards me with unmistakeable purpose. My heart sinks. Somehow this inevitably happens when I'm at my very worst. What exactly is so attractive about the undead zombie look? I'll never understand men. When they speak to me, I act brusque and disinterested, which only seems to encourage them. They notice my slight accent, and ask where I'm from. This is exactly the scenario I was warned about by my mother: don't say Canada, they'll want to take advantage, say the Baltics. Say the Baltics. I say “Canada”.

“Ohhhhh we've never seen a Canadian before!”

It's strange to be treated like some kind of exotic creature when normally, with typical Canuck self-deprecation, I feel as though I come from the most boring country in the world, whose citizens' greatest claim to fame is that they are...inoffensive. And bleed trees to make maple syrup. My suitors offer to go for a beer, I answer that I'm sick.

“But beer is the best medicine!”

Thankfully, the fact that I don't believe in the curative benefits of alcohol finally convinces them that I'm a lost cause. They leave me alone, no doubt convinced that Canadians are the most boring people in the world. I shakily make it to the pharmacy, where I have the following exchange:

ME: Have you got any rehydration powder?

LADY: You mean Regidrom?

(Vigorous hopeful nodding on my part) Yes. Have you got it?

LADY: No. We have not.

ME: Have you got anything like it?

LADY: No.

After a few moments of awkward silence, yielding to my pathetic appearance, she condescends to elaborate:

"There is no Regidrom in ALL OF MOSCOW. There is a problem with the supply."

ME: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGGGHHHHHHHHHH!

So either everyone in Moscow has diar--gastroenteritis simultaneously and bought all the Regidrom, or there is some kind of hostile blockade by Finland and it's the beginning of World War III. You couldn't make it up if you tried.

Finally, on the sixth day, exhausted from having hardly eaten anything for a week, and out of consideration for the hapless colleague who would shortly be spending 48 hours sharing a tiny ship's cabin with me, I decide to go to a private clinic. There, an affable doctor spent all of two minutes palpating my stomach and taking my pulse, upon which he solemnly pronounced "you have gastroenteritis". This exercise in stating the obvious was mine for the bargain price of 120 Euros. However, in fairness, he did prescribe some medication which helped me return to normality within an hour.

четверг, 24 июня 2010 г.

Day 9

Diskea

The minibus driver who takes us to Ikea is an industrial engineer, but engineers have been out of fashion in Russia for a long while. Few new industrial enterprises are being built, while existing manufacturing plants were often cleaned out of anything saleable in the early 1990s. Many stand hollow and idle, creating the problem of dead towns, where virtually the entire population had been employed by a single Soviet-era factory. Pikalyovo, in Leningrad oblast, almost shared that fate recently -- it's an example that comes up often in conversation. In 2008, the world financial crisis reached the three main plants in Pikalyovo, cement and chemicals producers owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska's Basel Cement. They suspended output and laid off workers. With no other employment options, some people began to starve, gathering dandelions to make salad. Crime rates rose sharply. Finally, when hot water and heating were cut off, residents rioted and blocked a federal highway. This act of protest, rare in Russia, alarmed the authorities. Putin, like a deus-ex-machina, descended onto Pikalyovo and pronounced that this was unacceptable, the show must go on! And what a show it was: Deripaska is summoned to be publicly knighted Sir Cockroach, Putin throws his mighty pen down on the table and tells him to sign a written promise to restart the factories – "and don't forget to return my pen". So Pikalyovo had a happy ending, of sorts, while the obedient Deripaska remains a member of the Kozy Kremlin Klub. I wonder if he is the kind of man to hold a grudge, and how long Putin's infallibility can last.

As for our driver, Sergei, a handsome man with long sinewed arms and short greying hair, he tells me that he first worked as an auto mechanic, then during the 1990s traded cloth for eight years. Later he decided to start up a corporate taxi business, bought a couple of vans and sent them to Ukraine to be retrofitted, seats installed and windows cut into the sides. One of the windows leaks, but it's cheaper than buying a ready-made passenger van. Sergei is lucky that his wife works as a chief accountant, but he is tired of Moscow life, his passion is hunting, and they are slowly building a large timber-frame house in the countryside, where they plan to move as soon as they can. Sergei clearly relishes the opportunity to linger over the details of his dream, down to the wood-burning stove heating system; gas is cheap in Russia ofcourse, he says, but only if there is a pipeline nearby. The stove has to be fed twice a day. Listening, I glimpse him from a distance through the long wild grass, chopping logs at the back of the house, a river twining beside. He is one of those rare people who thrives easily in nature.

Halfway through my search for quasi-necessities at Ikea – table lamp, can opener, cutlery sorter – my vision blurs and pinpoint lights begin to dance in my right eye. A migraine. No. I concentrate all my willpower to force through the fog and use what I know will be my last fifteen minutes of vertical mobility to pick up some plants, which is what I really came for, some extra oxygen in the flat to counteract Moscow's smog. I manage to pay, before running, pale and covered in sweat, to the toilets, heaving but not quite throwing up, as pain lances my frontal lobe. While the others shop at the next-door big box discount store, Auchan, I lie on the back seat of the minibus for the remaining few hours, Sergei offering me a pillow and a cup of sweet hot green tea with simple kindness.

By evening, I feel less terrible and spend a brief hour at the language school, where they have organised a disco-themed night. Amid the hazy chatter, I overhear someone whispering that the young man in the red waistcoat is a distant descendant of the Romanovs.

The migraines will last three days. I expected this, the stress of the past few months leaving my body at last.

среда, 23 июня 2010 г.

Day 7


The bad.




I am shuffling into routine. My neighbour has kindly shown me around the area and signed me up for a card at Utkonos, the online grocery store which conveniently has an outlet behind my building. It's right next to a mint green early 19th century layer-cake of an edifice that houses the offices of Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia), Putin's political party. I only notice this after a few weeks however; until then, I remain perplexed by the fact that there are road signs everywhere saying “Access reserved for members of United Russia”, which seems like a decadent social injustice. In any case, I'm very pleased that online shopping has arrived in Russia, it's essential as I'll need to buy two 5-litre bottles of water every week, too heavy to carry home. … takes me past the sauna where she used to go as a child. A low structure of crumbling red brick. Men wrapped in white towels make conversation by the entrance. I make a mental note to come back and have an authentic banya, if I feel brave enough to submit to being beaten with the traditional venik of branches. Maybe in the winter. Right now the stifling 35 degree temperatures are already providing me with a more than sufficient sauna experience. But I don't mind, not yet. I'd feel guilty complaining about something as mundane as the weather when every day I see things that remind me how lucky I am.

The two boys, not more than thirteen or fourteen years old, sodden drunk, filling the metro car with the stink of alcohol. They slip around on the seat, taking gulps from a warm bottle, yelping with sharp tragic laughter as the other passengers look away.

The figures hiding in the corners of the metro, displaying discreet placards offering “Diplomy, attestaty” (diplomas, affidavits). How many officials are occupying positions of responsibility and making decisions that will affect me with these false credentials?

The nischiye, the beggars: elderly, crippled, orphaned.

The legless veterans balancing their painful stumps on makeshift cardboard platforms all day long, leaning against a lamppost for support, sometimes you don't notice them until you almost trip over them, because they're half your height.

The old women holding religious icons, bowing and crossing themselves, bowing and crossing themselves, again and again.

Worst of all, the woman crouched on the ground with a drugged baby, most likely not even hers, wrapped in tight rags, its pacifier hanging out of its mouth. The sight makes me physically ill, I wish I could erase it but I know it will stay with me always.

I hear from several different sources that there's no point in giving them money because 90% goes to the organised crime gangs that control them, sometimes 100% if the beggar gets paid in vodka, that Moscow is carved up into strict criminal districts where each nischiy has his allotted spot. I don't know if this is true, or if it's an excuse to assuage the conscience. Still, it's odd that the signs they hold all look identical, the same white background with the same block print script in black marker: “My son is dead, left three children” - “My mother is dead” - “Pomogitye, help me”.

вторник, 22 июня 2010 г.

Day 6

(In which I almost become irretrievably lost on the way to my first lecture, but am rescued by some brawny car stereo salesmen)

Exit from Kitai-Gorod station. Check the map. Turn right, away from the park. Check the map again. Definitely the correct direction. Correction: where the road curves, turn right onto Solyanka, the street named after pickled cucumber and sosiska (sausage) soup, best described as the Russian housewife's deft makeover of last night's leftovers. Keep swimming along amongst the pickled citizens and sausage stands, down to where Solyanka shakes hands with Yauzskiy boulevard. Here, turn left again? Doesn't seem quite right, the map shows two parallel yellow lines separated by a grey gap, which must signify a river. Ah there it is. Shouldn't be too far now, check the time, even so I'm going to be late. But what a relief, I'm not the only one, there is a fellow student on the corner. Looking suspiciously lost.

“I've been all the way up that side. No sign of the university.”

Surely not, this is the only configuration corresponding to what's shown on the map. Let's stop at that shop. Walk in with my crumpled printout, try not to seem too foreign. Prostitye pozhaluysta, excuse me, where is this school? Strangely, though it's a well-known institution, nobody seems to have heard of it. The security guard turns the paper this way and that. A helpful customer appears and offers his opinion, then another. Finally, the three of them agree that I need to walk further up. All indicators would suggest that they have no idea what they are talking about, but out of desperation, I choose to ignore this. Too late, I will learn that hardly anybody knows where anything is, even if it's two blocks away. That woman who's been sitting lazily outside her kiosk for the past twenty years? Not to be trusted. The police officer laughing with his mates in the metro? Might as well be a tourist.

Another fifteen minutes under the sweating sun and we are firmly in the middle of not exactly nowhere, but not exactly somewhere reassuring either. Under an industrial bridge, along a grassy embankment. The only indication of human habitation is a broken down building, a sign tells us they sell car stereos. Decide to go inside. Lounging around the counter are some guys who are real men, I mean real proper men with dark tans and huge muscles, wearing wifebeaters and gold chains. If they haven't killed someone yet, they probably will soon. When they finally figure out where we need to go, they click their tongues in amazement at how far away we are, expressing doubt as to our ability to walk back. As we stand and chat, I realise that the map has disappeared. What have they done with it? Are we stranded here, have they decided we will make tasty hostages? Nyet nyet, it's out back with the IT expert, Oleg, he's producing a new one for us, more accurate. My faith in humanity is restored.

One and a half hours tardy, the heat in my cheeks a feverish pink, we stumble into the classroom where the professor lectures haphazardly on Russian history. His voice fumbles clumsily across my eardrums, still numb from the hum of the traffic. Slumped in my seat with half-closed eyes, I happen to glance down and suddenly I feel alert again, alert with the fear of a hunted animal, I want to get up and leave now, leave the place where such things are allowed to be commonplace. Carved into the desk is a tiny swastika.

понедельник, 21 июня 2010 г.

Day 5

On heat and inappropriate attire

It has suddenly become very hot. I think I am managing to blend in a little better, my lack of leather jacket being less noticeable now that the new rule of Moscow fashion seems to be 'wear as little as possible'. Dresses come in three styles: short, very short, and transparent. See-through clothing must always be paired with a black thong if worn by anyone under the age of 35. A peculiar type of cheap shiny fabric, which I've never seen before, is popular in shades too bright for the mortal eye to behold. Sequins and nightclub wear are de rigueur for an outing to the supermarket. Similar patterns are assumed to match, even if the colours clash; take, for example, the woman attired entirely in different types of tartan, right down to chewed-up plastic bag she holds on her lap. Curiously however, all this finery barely raises a pulse in its intended audience. A long-legged girl in an outfit sewn under an electron microscope, who would ordinarily attract ogling whistles elsewhere in the world, might as well be wearing a radiation isolation suit – not a single backwards glance. Perhaps it's a case of sensory overload. There are so few eligible Russian men that the competition is correspondingly fierce. Or should that be floral...

воскресенье, 20 июня 2010 г.

Day 4

Metro

I have my first experience of the famous Moscow Metro on my way to the office for breakfast this morning.Although my anticipation is deflated temporarily by the ticket-seller asking disparagingly "Chitat' umeyesh?" ("Can you read?") and pointing at the price list when I enquire about the cost of a one-way bilet, the Metro itself more than fulfils expectations: every stop has palatial proportions, high arches leading onto platforms slathered with marble and mosaics, statues and stained glass. Unlike the London tube, life underground here is more sociable,, a place for people-watching – the girls are dressed to impress. Friends turn to face each other and chat on the ride down the endless escalators, lovers embrace shamelessly, to the sound of public service announcements listing the dangers of improper escalator etiquette. There are some dozen stipulations on how not to use these stuttering steel-toothed stairs, of which I can remember only one – not to sit on the steps – because the girl in front of me was doing just that. The walls on either side are lined with posters promoting the virtues of the family, and the evils of cigarettes and alcohol, clearly meant to buoy Russia's shrinking population. An advertisement for 390-rouble sandals looks tempting, until I read the fine print: “footwear may be of substandard quality”. There are booths at the foot of every escalator, where security guards are meant to be watching screens, presumably an anti-terrorist measure. The guards, however, tend to be elderly ladies, one of whom is actually having a nap when I walk by. But who knows, the nap may be a clever ploy, and the Kremlin may have discovered that the Chechen fighter's greatest fear is being told off by his grandmother.

I also have my first experience of getting lost. It's relatively mild, compared to the one which awaits me in a few days' time. I simply walk in precisely the opposite direction to where I ought to be going. Yet it feels so very right. We have such a talent for convincing ourselves of the rightness of the wrong way. I meander down Denezhny Pereulok, an idyllic vision of pastel-coloured early 19th century buildings, pink, blue and green embellished with white columns and stuck-on stucco ribbons. Small white puffs of poplar seed drift down like mysterious snowflakes from a clear blue sky.

Finally I begin to feel that even if this was the right way, I've definitely gone too far, and perhaps it isn't the right way after all. I ask for assistance from the least threatening-looking person in the vicinity, who happens to be a man in a traditional dancing costume – shining high black boots and wide red trousers. Big balloons high on helium pull vainly at the strings clamped in his right hand. I feel like I've fallen through Moscow's old alleyways into another fairytale. He strokes his noble handlebar moustache and thinks I must be confused when I say I want to find Noviy Arbat. All the tourists flock to the old Arbat, the former bohemian quarter, now choked with matryoshkas and amateur portrait makers flattering their subjects. Noviy Arbat, on the other hand, is a loud long neon-lit terrace, the home of the casinos before they were banned in Russia, now lined with overpriced restaurants. Dance music blasts from outdoor speakers there day and night, carefully muffling the expensive conversations taking place below.

Later, carrying a box of white chocolate-covered offering, I ring the next door bell, only to be greeted by the gasp of a middle-aged woman who seems aghast at the sight of me standing there with a suddenly congealed smile. An uncertain pause. I worry that I've breached some code of conduct, the chocolates are obviously entirely the wrong colour... But she quickly recovers and explains her surprise: it's her birthday, she's waiting for the guests to arrive, and instead she sees a foreign stranger coming to congratulate her. We laugh at the clever timing of my gift. She introduces herself as Nastia, her husband as Nikolai Dmitrievich.

суббота, 19 июня 2010 г.

Day 3

Restaurant

If I am going to have any hope of fitting in and not being taken for an 'anglichanka', I will have to buy a black leather jacket. Everybody seems to wear them, men and women alike. Look, there goes another dyed dried and stitched piece of secondhand skin, attached to the person walking past the gated driveway of my building. The kind of driveway you imagine the black KGB cars slinking through when they made their silent final visits. But I'm lapsing into false assumptions again: this apartment block was only completed in 1953, the year the Great Purger left the people fatherless. It's strange to think that I am dwelling in what was perhaps the final monument to his regime. Unlike Stalin's faltering legacy however, sealed with a surprisingly damning pronouncement by President Medvedev last month, the building has been undergoing a major renovation, kapitalny remont, for the past two years. Down in the courtyard, I can see a man applying concrete patches with hypnotic slowness, pausing to stir and smoke before smoothing a single stroke of pale mixture over the dark red curve at the base of the outside wall. I am not sure whether to call him a builder or just a contract labourer, they don't wear any protective clothing on construction sites here, sometimes not even shoes. Over the next few days I become aware of how the work seems to progress haphazardly; the steps at the back entrance are an unfinished pile of loosely mortared bricks. I wonder if they will be done before I leave. In the apartment, too, small oversights gradually come to light, the bathroom door not quite shutting because the hole for the latch hasn't been cut deep enough.

In the evening I walk to the restaurant where we are all congregating for the welcome dinner. This part of Moscow – like all of Moscow, really – is a potluck of architectural styles and eras. The wide six-lane roads add to the inchoate impression, making it difficult to grasp the city as a whole, rather as parts perceived from a distance. Passing ice-cream stalls, I notice again that the names of familiar brands have undergone subtle cultural shifts. It is hard to envision a less dessert-appropriate name than Magnum, with its phallic wild West connotations, but at least there is some vague sense in the Latin meaning, along the lines of 'premium' I suppose. For the Russian market however, it has moved still further into unlikely metaphor to become Magnat (magnate)– your personal oligarch on a stick. Not to be outdone, the common-or-garden variety chocolate-covered cone insists on being known as the Monarkh.

The restaurant, on several levels, is laid out entirely in rough-hewn wooden logs, meant to replicate the interior of an old mill. A colleague mentions being perplexed by the sound of someone repeatedly flushing the toilet, until he realised that there was a water-wheel running in the corner of the room. Two shimmering pheasants swish their fine tails across the sawdust floor of a large cage, glancing skeptically at the hungry diners – though the Maitre d' assures me that they will not be eaten. We sit at a long rustic table laid with a panoply of traditional salads and cold meats. The waiters, dressed like peasants, carry round caviar and blini (crepes), followed by sizzling main courses and finally light cream and fruit-filled pastries. It feels like the closing scene from a Russian fairytale, where the happy protagonists invariably enjoy pir na ves mir, a feast big enough for the whole world.

пятница, 18 июня 2010 г.

Day 2

Connections

I wake up around six in the morning, the duvet covered in a pattern of whorls and flowers, projected across the bed by the bright sun behind the gossamer curtain. Looks like the driver will have a fine day for his trip to the dacha – perhaps God does speak Russian...

The schedule which I've been given stipulates that I will be visited by someone named Andrei between 9am-10am in order to set up the internet. I make myself some tea and porridge from the provisions that have been left at the flat. It strikes me that they have perhaps been selected in order to give us British fellows a taste of 'home' – though maple syrup might have been more appropriate in my case. I have the unsettling impression of assuming another person's identity; here, in accordance with the terms of the programme, I am considered British, whereas I am in fact Canadian. And from still another perspective, I am probably more Russian than any of the other fellows...So what does that make me, exactly?

By noon, Internet Andrei has still not made an appearance, and meanwhile I have been confined to the flat and unable to buy any proper groceries. For lunch, I resort to eating a pink mucus-textured yoghurt, made of milk powder and gelatine, and flavoured with “aroma identical to natural strawberry”. Confusingly, it is “Approved by the League for the Nation's Health”, an organisation seeking to “improve the health and living standards of Russian citizens”.

I telephone the office ready to make all kinds of non-politically correct cultural assumptions about lazy Russian internet technicians, only to be told that Andrei had arrived promptly at nine o'clock and had tried to call up to the apartment. This is alarming, considering that I have been there the whole time, certifiably (though rather unwillingly) awake. I inspect the intercom and it turns out to have been switched off. Now I must wait until after seven, when he has finished his other rounds, which is very disappointing as I'm desperate to be in touch with family and friends. I've never missed the internet as much as I do now. How much more difficult must it have been to travel to distant lands when unreliable letters were the only form of communication.

Gingerly digesting my Definitely Very Healthy Approved Lunch, I am sitting in the kitchen writing on the laptop, when a high-pitched trill comes from the direction of the hallway. I'm not sure whether the sound is being generated in my flat or not, so I creep up to the door to investigate. I hear a man speaking on his phone outside. Suddenly the trill shrieks out again, right next to my ear, making me jump (in a dignified professional manner, ofcourse). Based on this direct sensory experience, I am drawn inexorably to the scientific conclusion that the intercom must be working.

It is not Andrei, but an unassuming grey-haired man in a white t-shirt, who kindly points out that I have left my door open. He introduces himself as one of my neighbours from Number 28 – I've heard several voices next door and assume a family is living there. I thank him and say that I was planning to drop in to introduce myself, to which he replies that I am welcome come by any time. I will go tomorrow when I've hopefully had a good night's sleep.

I decide to stave off my imminent collapse by going for a walk and exploring the area. In some ways it seems distinctly foreign and it is hard not to feel awkward, out of place. At the pharmacy across the road, the products are all in glass cupboards, and I'm not sure whether I should try to slide the pane across to take something myself, or whether this will set off alarms and generally cause commotion and embarrassment, so I sheepishly leave the shop. There are kiosks along the sidewalk selling everything from magazines to bras to pastries and large cream-smothered cakes. The wares are again displayed behind glass, with a small window for the vendor, sometimes so low that you have to stoop and shout your order into the unknown. I find a supermarket nearby, Azbuka Vkusa, which has a gratifyingly sophisticated range of products, albeit at markups of 80%.

Further down the street there is a cheap corner store where lonely tomatoes languish on plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays. I pick up some dish liquid and laundry detergent – the brands are all recognisably Western, except Mr Clean has for some reason become Mr Proper. Is this a kind of moral cleanser, say, for washing one's mouth after accidentally saying something rude? At the checkout, the cashier, a boy of about 18, whispers excitedly “navernoye, Anglichanka” to the girl standing beside him – “nu, sprosi, sprosi!” (“she must be English – go on, ask her!”). I am amazed that without me saying a word, he has assumed I'm from Britain. What was it that gave me away? Have my years in the UK imbued me with an air of ineffable Anglo-Saxon cool, or perhaps just ineffable scruffiness? Either way, this is not helping with my identity crisis.

His face when I throw “deistvitel'no, Anglichanka” (yes, I'm English) over my shoulder, is priceless.

All at once, I realise that I've left my passport at home – we were strictly instructed to carry identification at all times. I instantly have visions of being carted off to the police station and forced to pay an $800 bribe to secure my freedom (apparently, the average bribe paid by Russians doubled last year). I turn around and head back quickly, trying not to attract attention.

Andrei finally arrives at 11pm. I offer him a cup of tea and he tells me about an immense shopping mall nearby called Golden Babylon, a name which he pronounces very casually, as though it was perfectly banal, but which strikes me as eerily symbolic of the excesses of the New Russia.

четверг, 17 июня 2010 г.

Day 1


Arrival


There is some low cloud over the Moscow suburbs as we descend towards Domodedovo. Fingers of evening light caress the landscape, making the roofs of the clustered houses glitter. The first sight of these villages, intertwined with vast fallow fields and pine forests, leaves a delicate imprint of emotion which I can't define, except that I know I have not felt this way before, about other arrivals in other places. It is a smooth landing.

The runway is surrounded by unkempt greenery and half-built structures, the airport when we enter is quiet and empty. The scene feels worryingly close to the image of Russia which we in the West are trained to expect, still a forbidding wilderness.

A middle-aged woman shouts at us in grumpy Russian to go up to the second floor, showing no mercy for English-speakers. My heart sinks – here again is the confirmation of a stereotype! Will I be spending the rest of my time in Moscow cowering under an onslaught of angry babushkas? I am relieved to see that the customs officers on the second floor offer a stark counterpoint to the dictator below, an array of pretty round-cheeked girls spanning the full spectrum from blonde to russet to brunette. I wonder for a moment if they are chosen specifically to dazzle the foreign visitor with the cream of Russian youth, but any thoughts of a pleasant welcome are quickly dispersed; the brunette says not a word in response to my smiling greeting, and affects a disapproving severity, almost comical when artificially imposed on her young features.

The fog of foreboding closes in further at the sight of a sinister red notice hanging over the baggage claim belt, warning tourists not to take private taxis – “There is no guarantee against fraud”.

Feeling relieved that someone will be meeting me, I walk slowly past the greeting line, but among the flower-clutching relatives, there is nobody with the promised piece of paper reading “AF 8”. I try to suppress a rising anxiety. This is the very scenario which my imagination, always helpfully inclined to expect the worst, has been replaying for the past few days: stranded at the airport, with my phone battery indicator blinking red, and not the slightest notion of where I need to go.

I pace back and forth searching in vain for my elusive guide, manfully concealing my distress under a veneer of wild-eyed panic. During my wanderings, at least five cab drivers, sensing easy prey, approach me saying “Devushka, taksi?” Their refrain takes me back to my former life, a firelit front room, and a long-haired Welsh sprite telling me that the only Russian she knew was “Eto taksi? Da, eto taksi”. The phrase, which we found hilariously random at the time, now seems particularly apt, given the need to distinguish between the real taxis and the impostors.

Still, the drivers are friendly, nothing like the shifty ogres conjured by the threatening sign. One of them even offers to let me use his phone so that I can contact whoever was meant to be picking me up. “They should have been here by now!” he observes, not very reassuringly.

Just as I am beginning to evaluate whether I will be able to get a good night's sleep by putting two plastic Domodedovo chairs together, my saviour appears: Anya, from the programme, holding the long-awaited “AF 8”. I have a strong urge to hug her and jump up and down squealing, but manage to maintain the dignified demeanour required of a serious professional.

In the van, Anya decides that she wants to buy some strawberries from a roadside vendor. The driver mentions that there is a kolkhoz nearby where you can pick them; if you fill five baskets for the collective, you can keep one for yourself. A relic of the old Communist ethos...

Those two elderly women weathered by the fumes of the highway, on the other hand, are undeniably the product of the capitalist revolution: entrepreneurs in head-kerchiefs. We stop beside baskets of strawberries displayed in the skeleton of an old-fashioned baby carriage. Anya hops out and returns with a large bag of fruit, bruised and sweet.

As we start to pull out from the gravel shoulder, the second vendor waves us over. Anya sighs and descends from the van again to inspect her wares, but comes back empty-handed. Before we can drive away, the woman pokes her head into the car and offers a plastic cup full of malinovka, tiny wild strawberries, “only 150 roubles”.

“Too expensive,” Anya retorts.

“What do you mean? It takes hours to find these in the woods.”

Unperturbed by our reluctance to make a purchase, she chatters cheerfully with the driver about the early cucumbers growing on her windowsill. “My daughter came and said, mama, they are THIS big!” In the end, we buy some raspberries.

We pass by a very different indicator of Russia's capitalist development, a banner explaining that a Volvo factory will soon be constructed in what is currently an impenetrable thicket of evergreens. This leads to a discussion about cars and status. Apparently, nobody in Russia would be caught dead driving a Russian car – a peculiarly Russian kind of nationalism. If you see someone driving a Zhiguli, you know that it's because he really cannot afford anything else.

The driver asks if I had seen clouds from the plane when we flew in; he is going to his dacha on the weekend.

“You should pray for good weather in the morning,” Anya suggests.

“Why not in the evening?”
“In the evening too – and all night as well!”

“But does God speak Russian..?” I start to say. Then I notice that there is a wooden cross hanging from the rearview mirror, and hold my tongue.

The streets grow wider as we enter the city. The traffic is dense and chaotic. We are tossed around the van, veering from one lane to the next, avoiding rogue motorcyclists who screech past. Russian roads are notoriously treacherous, with something like 30,000 accidents each year, but neither Anya nor the driver are wearing seatbelts.

“There is the Metro station,” Anya says, “And there is your building – the one with the XYZ Bank.”

I laugh incredulously. Sure enough, my benefactor operates a branch virtually on my doorstep, proving that corporations must be persons after all, since they have a sense of irony. (Another irony during the trip came when Anya, seeming to temporarily forget who employed her, told me that banks are all zhuliki, thieves, who dupe people into accumulating debt without even letting them read the contract they sign. “Prosnulsya – uzhe v dolgu”, our driver added emphatically.)

We were warned that the apartments may not be 'Westernised', so it is with a tinge of trepidation that I squeeze into the elevator next to my enormous suitcase. We stop on the 6th floor outside a massive door made of beaten metal, black and gold. There is a small entrance hall, where the neighbours have placed a vase of white and purple roses on a stand. Two further doors, padded and upholstered in studded faux leather, lie between me and the apartment. As Anya struggles with the ancient inner door, I steel myself for the inevitable revelation that the flat is a ramshackle Soviet disaster and that I'll be filling my bath out of a kettle for the next year.

Instead, I step into light and airy space, large rooms and high ceilings, far nicer than any of my previous 'Westernised' rental abodes in mould-ridden, pre-mixer-tap-era Britain. The gleaming bathroom is beautifully tiled in soft shades of sandstone and terracotta; the bedroom has a low bed, just the kind I like. Walking into the kitchen, I am touched to see that someone has hung a housewarming gift on one of the cupboards, a carving of a little log izba, saying “Schastye v dom” (bringing happiness to your house). The counters are covered in new crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, including an object described as a “100% Klassniy Chainik” (100% Classy Teapot). When I turn on the light, the round glass lampshade glows like a piece of striped yellow candy. Looking down from the window, I can see a small park overgrown with trees, concealing a children's playground.

To my surprise, I discover that I feel at home.

вторник, 15 июня 2010 г.

Introduction

I am going to Moscow to participate in an internship programme and am chronicling my experiences for the enjoyment of friends and family. Any information relating to the programme or to persons with whom I interact, has been anonymised.