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.
“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.