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Chapter 9 - Moscow - The City of Billionaires and Beggars
Britney Spears welcomed me to Moscow. Not personally, of course, but the shrill tones of ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time!’ were being blasted into the frosty air outside the Leningradsky railway station. The icon of decadent Western capitalism was now reigning supreme at the station named after Russia’s communist revolutionary. I don’t suppose the bearded old man that was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov would have foreseen the day when that occurred. Russia was still run by a man named Vladimir though. However, the hedonistic and troubled character that was Britney Spears felt a more apt symbol for the new Russia. Preparing to disembark correctly in Moscow was no less arduous than executing an efficient invasion of a troublesome small third world country. I’d had to carefully note down all the relevant details for where I needed to go, how I would get there etc. The margin for error was wafer thin. Strategically, it could be broken down into six separate transition stages. Of all my achievements in life, buying my own train ticket, using Russian in Russia, ranked pretty proudly at the time, as did navigating a successful course through the Moscow metro.
Britney Spears welcomed me to Moscow. Not personally, of course, but the shrill tones of ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time!’ were being blasted into the frosty air outside the Leningradsky railway station. The icon of decadent Western capitalism was now reigning supreme at the station named after Russia’s communist revolutionary.
I don’t suppose the bearded old man that was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov would have foreseen the day when that occurred. Russia was still run by a man named Vladimir though. However, the hedonistic and troubled character that was Britney Spears felt a more apt symbol for the new Russia.
Preparing to disembark correctly in Moscow was no less arduous than executing an efficient invasion of a troublesome small third world country. I’d had to carefully note down all the relevant details for where I needed to go, how I would get there etc. The margin for error was wafer thin. Strategically, it could be broken down into six separate transition stages. Of all my achievements in life, buying my own train ticket, using Russian in Russia, ranked pretty proudly at the time, as did navigating a successful course through the Moscow metro.
It means, ‘Do you speak English?’
I didn’t know why I bothered to ask because the answer was nearly always a resounding and uncompromising ‘NIET!’
I had this undercurrent of dread that by somehow slightly mispronouncing Moskva (Moscow), I would find myself marooned on some horrid train for days and days on a one way ride to Vladivostock.
The most embarrassing thing can be the heavy build up of an impatient queue behind you at the train station ticket counter as you stammer and stutter away. Even my scribbled sheets of helpful notes wanted to take off and leave. They were up in the air and all over the place.
The demeanour of the woman behind the glass was never in danger of being anything other than dismissive, and my tongue-tied helplessness in conveying what I wanted, a ticket to Moscow, was unavoidable. Her gaze was heartless. It was like watching the curtains in a crematorium wrap themselves around the wooden coffin, only the atmosphere in a crematorium was more light-hearted.
‘Niet! Niet! Niet! Niet!’ came the barked splenetic shriek. It wasn’t terribly encouraging. A grumpy looking women behind the frosted glass at another counter stared dismissively at me, as if I had spent the last six years stalking her. She seemed to regard me wanting to buy a train ticket as unforgivable insolence.
I wanted to give life to a favourite Russian phrase I had seen in a phrase book:
‘You are so delightful. What a happiness that you exist! I fly to you on wings of love’, but thought better of it and apologised for wasting her time. I would have to try my luck at one of the counters right on the other side of the main concourse.
There was always a feeling not dissimilar to the ticking down of the famous Countdown clock, knowing the funny sounding whoosh noise at the end was not far away, by which time you have failed to justify your existence at the front of the queue. You cannot be understood. You are the weakest link. Goodbye!
Sometimes, plenty of times, it was expedient to just politely give up and have a go at another counter. There was no danger of receiving a ‘Have a Nice Day!’ in Russian as you left.
I would have to fork out double what I had hoped to pay. As my ticket was thrust at me, a stream of minor directives were issued out to me in Russian, not one of which I had the faintest chance of beginning to comprehend.
Luckily, there was a young woman a couple of places behind in a lengthening queue - the queue were all party to my exchanges anyway - who could help me with some rudimentary translation of words like platform, time and seat number. This neatly summed up the two very contrasting sides of Russia - the old rudeness and the new friendliness.
There was an immediate whiff of the exotic about travelling by train in Russia. The sense of a classical journey just waiting to be unravelled before you…once you’ve found the correct platform, train, carriage and compartment of course. When the station announcer is not making announcements, loud classical music serenades you to the train. You would be hard pressed to get that at Paddington station in the middle of rush hour.
Then there’s the unfamiliar letters and names of places across a big proud map of Russia’s epic landmass. The eager pooping noise of a monstrous beast of a train impatient to leave. The first chug, a bellow or three of heated steam, and then the metallic clanking on the track. An epic method of travel for an epic country stretching into an epic continent.
Initially, I thought I might find myself walking half way to Moscow, such was the substantial length of my train. It took me fifteen minutes to trek from the back end of the train to the front where my compartment was. With time unexpectedly pressing, a walk nearly turned into the desperate late run of someone trying in vain to catch the train. The platform was long enough to wave endless goodbyes, but I made it. A journey and a continent were slowly starting to warm up.
People all around me were speaking Russian, but it felt more intimate now on board a train. In dreamy moments, with patterned carpets and frilly curtains, it could have been the Orient Express. The conductor could have passed himself off as Vladimir Putin’s son. Four of us sat opposite each other, probably all silently contemplating what the others were thinking about. I tried out some of my Russian phrases and exhausted most of them fairly swiftly.
What would the bedtime etiquette be, I wondered. Best to watch and wait, I decided, putting my head down into polishing up my recital of ‘I’m sorry, my Russian is very bad!’
In the corner was a big bearded man, who looked like he would have effortlessly bear-hugged me to death. But his features belied a courteous warmth, in spite of the language barrier we had. His name was Mikhail and the well turned-out woman sitting next to me was his wife. Mikhail suggested I leave the cabin so his wife could get changed for bed, something that, for whatever reason, hadn’t obviously occurred to me. So we all filed out into the corridor.
The corridor was congested with lots of other men doing the same thing. The train was now well set on its overnight course towards the Russian capital, where Britney Spears would greet me.
With surprising ease I made my way down to Red Square in Moscow. An outline of the Kremlin squinted through a hazy morning sun. There was a long queue running from the entrance of Lenin’s mausoleum. Britney Spears was definitely not to be heard here. Red Square was remarkably empty. Men in military uniforms were everywhere. But where was everyone else?
I think they might well have been fighting their way through the brand new shopping centres, crammed with fashionable international brand name boutiques, which now ran all the way along the side of Red Square. To get around the square, you are deliberately made to walk through the shopping centres with their gleaming glass roofs and artificial fountains. This was the new Russia. From building empires to building shopping centres. Where the ruling elites once took away people’s freedom, they now took away their money.
I had just finally exited the seemingly endless parade of indoor shops as I came outside into a fairly non-descript street. I was thinking to myself, ‘is that it?’, when around a corner I caught my first glimpse of the eye-catching fairytale vision that was St. Basil’s Intercession cathedral. It was perhaps the most famous image of Russia, the one you are likely to see behind television news correspondents and in newspapers next to stories of Russia.
St. Basil’s is like a flamboyant church on steroids. Its pantheon of spires and coloured adornments make it look like something genetically modified. Each brightly baubled tower tries to outgrow and out-show the one next to it. The domes look just about fit to burst. Its inflated tackiness and attention demanding exterior neatly encapsulated the contrast between the old architectural wealth of St. Petersburg and the new wealth of Moscow.
St. Basil’s is well over four hundred years old and was built by Ivan the Terrible. Legend had it that Ivan the Terrible had its architects’ eyes removed so they would never again be able to create something of comparable beauty anywhere else. While the large domes were supposed to remind him of Tartars’ heads on sticks. This was a man who took pleasure in boiling his enemies alive.
Ivan the Terrible - was there ever a more sinister title for a ruler? - was followed by Peter the Great, the man who really hauled Russia out of the dark ages. Catherine the Great continued in much the same vein in the late eighteenth century, bestowing progressive authoritarianism on a country which was forming itself into a major world power.
Many of the tsars who followed Catherine in the 1800’s were authoritarian and increasingly out of touch. The seeds of a revolutionary movement were being sown until the arrival of Nicholas II, the last tsar. Nicholas’ refusal to accept political reforms led to the 1917 communist revolution and the rest became history with worldwide repercussions which still shudder to this very day.
The Russian revolution did much for Moscow, transferring the power and prestige back to it as it was made capital again instead of St. Petersburg, which was much more strategically vulnerable to foreign attack. How ironic that progressive authoritarianism would eventually make a comeback some two centuries later.
St. Basil’s is a chaotically beautiful mixture of colours and shapes, the result of eight separate churches melded together. After spending many minutes gawping at it, I became aware of several noisy and colourful wedding parties arriving to have their champagne photos taken outside St. Basil’s and Red Square. Long, black limousines deposited tens of smart suited and well dressed people, most of them joyously inebriated and wielding further supplies of champagne.
It was starting to feel like half of Moscow had organised to get married on the same day. I was struggling to move without bisecting a photograph of a freshly nuptialised couple of congregation let loose.
A very unkempt looking man with a large board around his neck was holding his hands out collecting money from passers by. I think he was a veteran soldier from the war in Chechyna, but he seemed quite popular with plenty of Russian people stopping to hand money over to him. Nearby, there was a circus man performing tricks with an eagle and a monkey for photographs.
Elsewhere, people crowded around a small circle on the pavement, where people were throwing coins over their shoulders in some sort of fortune ritual. Several old ladies clambered expectantly behind the thrower each time, competing for the scraps of a few pence rolling and bouncing towards them.
Another symbol of the new Russia perhaps, a country where the unassertive do not thrive. Some people energetically sprint while others crawl laboriously along the streets. Moscow, the city of billionaires and beggars.
Right opposite Red Square, a couple of hundred metres from Lenin’s resting place, prominently resides what was apparently the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant. Queues once stacked up around the block when it first opened. I decided to dine at the Kremlin. Well not quite inside the Kremlin, but at a small take-away food kiosk just along from the entrance.
Slowly but surely, the more I ate out, the more I realised that the concept of chivalry was very much alive and well in modern Russia. After my meal, a cloakroom attendant forcefully insisted on holding up my coat for me, without me realising what he was doing. He just waited and waited, until I realised he was waiting for me to slot my arms in.
Doors are theatrically opened by men for women. It was quite a ritual for a man to stand up and hold up a woman’s coat for her to slide into. He’ll probably expect her to cook his dinner on time and then slap her around when he gets home, but that’s another matter.
And women in Russia just love flowers. They cannot get enough of them, contentedly carrying armfuls of them around with them into all sorts of places and on all sorts of journeys. From a male perspective though, care had to be taken to buy both the correct number and colour of the flowers, to avoid causing offence. Never give an even number of flowers because, this indicates sorrow for a death. Another thing to remember was never to shake hands with someone across the threshold of their house. Or enthusiastically tell them how much you like going to the toilet.
It was just about warm enough for an ice cream and outdoor beer right on the edge of the square adjoining Red Square. It was a splendid place for people watching. Maybe because it was a weekend, but nearly all the Russians I observed were in a much more relaxed and sedate mode than I had envisaged in Moscow.
On my way back from Red Square, I saw a car alarm going off on an old Lada, which made me look twice in amazement. Elsewhere, down by the Moskva river I could see men straining to push their broken down Ladas out of the traffic. Men seemed to think nothing of bending over into the bonnet of broken down cars, with lit cigarettes in their mouths, to carry out repairs.
Yet, at the same time, I probably saw more Bentleys in two days in Moscow than I had seen in a lifetime in England. There were plenty of Hummer Cadillacs for good measure as well. For every beauty on the roads, there was a beast too. Yet Moscow felt like a city where it was always rush hour, but never happy hour.
So I had managed to find Godzilla’s, my wonderfully named accommodation hostel. To start with, they found me a bed in a room with six beds in. Six people were already in there according to their booking system, but my bed had been reserved. So one of them must have checked out. Or so the Malaysian student on reception convincingly assured me, as he ripped off the sheets from the nearest bed by the door, which happened to belong to a Frenchman, and shoved aside his belongings. No problem, he said, this is your bed now.
I sat and waited. It would be a painful, but necessary process of elimination to establish who the Frenchman was when he walked in. One by one, each of the other residents came in and claimed their own beds, and it seemed the Frenchman had no plans to move out at all. I was squatting on his bed. Each time the door creaked open and a new face poked their head around, I was dreading the prospect of him returning to reclaim his bed. Everyone else in the room found it hilarious.
Finally, in he came, a heavily built man who slightly resembled Gerard Depardieu. At first he tut-tutted at me in French. As he didn’t speak English, I did my best to plead my innocence in his native language. Slowly, he came around to forgiving me and targeting the blame on the idiots running the hostel. Eventually, I just stuck out my lower lip, simultaneously raised my eyebrows and shoulders in a very Gallic way attempting to deny all knowledge and responsibility for what had taken place. This he understood well.
Just when I was thinking what a surprisingly modern and developed city Moscow was proving to be in certain areas, this place had a remarkably outdated Soviet style, paper-based booking system. All the names got mixed up and people had to play musical beds. No one could spend more than one night in the same bed, or the same room, because it didn’t comply with the central system. It was totally absurd, but everyone had a good-humoured laugh about it. And, if nothing else, it certainly ensured that everyone got to know each other.
There is so much money swilling around Moscow that it has inevitably developed a reputation as a high class party capital. Felix was a smooth, good looking French-Canadian guy intent on having a good time. I found some other very friendly English people in my room and we decided to go out. Restaurants in the Russian capital were purposefully expensive. But Felix told us he knew an exquisitely good place which we would love.
The only drawback was that it would cost nine thousand roubles (about £200) to reserve a table. Just to reserve a table, how obscene was that? Felix was quite intent on taking us there though, and made several phone calls. To the immense relief of all of us, they were full up. It seemed paying £200 just to reserve a dinner table in the newly hedonistic Moscow was not much of a deterrent. Another even more exclusive place apparently used gold plated Kalashnikov lamp stands, which was even out of Felix’s league.
So, we could pretend to be oligarchs no longer, and settled on going to a more low key, less sumptuous pub type place, which was perfectly fine and suitably lively. The food was outrageously overpriced, and sulkily served up of course, but the atmosphere was suitably stimulating and the clientele voracious. Felix took very little time to disappear into a phalanx of stunning looking Russian women. We never saw him again.
The place was pulsating with testosterone and sweat, but it was strangely compelling. I met a burly man named Boris. He spoke good English and didn’t hold back with any of his opinions. If a shy and retiring Russian man existed, I was yet to meet him. Boris had once lived and worked in England.
‘Women in England treat me like shit. They are very rude and stuck up. Many women now, not just in England but everywhere, are really like prostitutes. They can have sex with a man anywhere, any time they want. It is easy. But too many women want men only for money to give them better lifestyle.’
Maybe he had had one or two bad experiences, I tentatively suggested.
‘I do not understand people in England.’
‘No, me neither.’ I replied candidly.
‘They are slaves for buying a house, new cars, spending money always in the shops. But they do all this in their own little worlds. They do not have much time for other people, especially someone like me from the outside, another country.’
I asked him about Tony Blair, which provoked an even more contemptuous response. He put two fingers to either side of his mouth and yanked it upwards into a very high, hard and faked grin. ‘He is always like dis!’
Boris held the pose for effect. It was a pose which was sadly all too recognisable to any long suffering British voter. In fact Blair’s gruesome smarminess was only surpassed by the intrusively wide, xylophone-teeth bearing grimace of his money grabbing wife, which I mimicked back to Boris. We both fell about laughing.
‘New politicians always promise new things, but they say the same things, and end up doing the same bad things. It is human nature.’
Boris was not too optimistic about Russia.
‘The people here are like animals. They always need a strong leader. They like to be protected. I do not think we can have democracy and freedom like you have in the West.’
‘One thing is true though,’ he added before he had to leave, ‘wherever you go in the world, everyone has prejudice, ignorance, selfishness and greed. Always these things do not go away. We are all compromised by our own prejudices and ignorance.’
There wasn’t too much I could add to what he said.
I got accosted later, in a mostly friendly way, by a large, very drunk Russian man wearing a seaman’s hat. He looked like he had been drip-fed vodka since birth. He splurted out some English.
‘A Russian woman is always better as a lover than as a wife.’ he confided in me. ‘When she becomes your wife, she changes and wants many things. It is more fun to have a Russian woman as a lover.’
‘Russia is like its women,’ he explained, seemingly oblivious to the fact that such a thing as a two way conversation might exist. ‘You fall in love with her and she betrays you. Always keep her as your lover.’
To my great surprise, Red Square finally opened up properly. Apparently, it had been closed for a couple of days just because it was Vladimir Putin’s birthday, which sounded a rather Soviet thing to do. I had seen it all from the outside, but to stand in the middle of it gave a better appreciation. I imagined all those intimidating military march pasts, all the saluting, all the mighty posturing, all the power. It reeked of modern, powerful history.
The people in Moscow didn’t appear to have the appetite to fully embrace politics and democracy. They just wanted to concentrate on making money. Historically and economically, Russia has always been a country slow to get going. So maybe the expectations for it from the West have been over-optimistic. We don’t really know what exactly is going on there.
Indeed, there are probably many little known things from the Soviet era that we are still to discover. Like the fact that a very deep special metro line was built to ferry around the Soviet leaders in the event of a nuclear strike. And that Stalin used to get terribly irritated, by being unable to avoid seeing the union jack flag flying in the British embassy, from his office window in the Kremlin.
Kremlin means ‘Citadel’ in Russian. The Kremlin was the fortified, heavily guarded complex on the north bank of the Moskva River, right in the heart of Moscow, right in the heart of Russia. This used to be the seat of half the world’s power, the nerve nucleus of a superpower, I thought to myself as I strolled around it.
The Kremlin, which is over eight hundred years old, is like a small, exclusive high walled city within a city. It contained a handful of palaces, cathedrals, and a shady garden area where many heads of state strolled with presidents. The most glamorous of the buildings was the Church of the Deposition. A giant 200 tonne bell, the world’s biggest, hogs the pavement outside. It had never been rung because it cracked.
A handful of large, impressive cathedrals are housed within the Kremlin’s high walls. But all things considered, the Kremlin did not quite have the visual wow factor that Red Square did. Somehow, it disappointed me slightly. I didn’t really want to see impressive cathedrals and pleasant gardens. I wanted to see tanks and cold war spies. It was one of those places where what it represented was far more important than what it actually looked like.
Stray dogs were everywhere down by the river Moskva, which served up some pleasant views. On the other side of the river from the Kremlin and Red Square was a very different sort of Moscow. It was such a huge city, sprawling on and on, perhaps a microcosm for the country it was the capital of.
So what of the new Russia? We are drawn to it, but also drawn to resist it because it still frightens us. Perhaps we need to look at the new Russia with a more rounded sense of historical perspective. The country endured seven decades of life under a warped ideology, which had the effect of destroying the human spirit. Seen within the context of generations of communism, Russia has come a long way in the last two decades. There are no longer queues for food. Some people now even have the luxury of being able to shop at IKEA - lucky them - and other designer boutiques, which for many people in England at least are now regarded as indispensable to the quality of their lifestyles.
Russia is changing rapidly. A middle class is developing, the bedrock of any sustainable democracy, but it is more of an economic middle class than a political one. The confidence has more to do with being able to make money than being able to say something hostile against the regime. Simple things like being able to own property and travel more freely have helped to fuel the economic development. Everything could be bought in Russia from policemen and judges to politicians. Manners and taste don’t get in the way either.
We also forget the Russia of the Boris Yeltzin years in the 1990’s and his chaotic, vodka-soaked rule. Putin stabilised the country and, being so different from Yeltzin, being sober and in control, that is what fed his popularity. Putin didn’t fall over drunk on military parades or fail to meet other foreign leaders with his plane sat on the runway because he had had ten too many vodkas. He was clear-headed enough for the rest of the world to take seriously.
Politically, in the old Russia, before Lenin and Stalin, the people never previously had historical experience of political freedoms, like being able to vote and hold leaders to account. All too readily, we forget this. Of course,things are far from perfect in the new Russia. The Russian people, to a large extent, are still told what to think, but comparisons with western countries like our own are perhaps slightly premature and even unfair.
The new Russia is erratic and unpredictable, the wealth as shocking as the poverty alongside it. Russia wrestles with conflicting emotions. There is superiority and pride over the mighty empire that once was. There is also inferiority and insecurity over what has been lost. We can hold our noses and turn blind eyes some of the time. But we cannot ignore it, fear it or interfere in it too much. We can only watch it and respect it.
The London Underground has buskers. The Moscow metro has classical orchestras. Just inside the entrance of one station behind Red Square, I walked into an impromptu concert. Men and women of different ages were giving it their all with violins and cellos, all for a few tens of roubles. They seemed to be doing it more for love than money.
In spite of having made the same journey twice before on Line 9 of the metro, I developed sudden amnesia as I struggled to guess how I was supposed to get onto it. I couldn’t even find a way down to the platforms because so many people were coming out. My ticket was valid but I had nowhere to insert it. As I tried to walk through the gates, some vicious metal turnstile spikes abruptly shot out and slammed into my thigh. A shrill alarm sound leaked out, like the noise of a really hideous mobile phone tone but at ten times the volume.
Desperately, desperately, in a very English sort of way, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, in spite of the commotion I had just provoked. So I retreated out and the noise stopped. There had to be a correct way to reach Line 9, I decided, as I set about experimenting with some of the other openings, all of which seemed to be exits. So I went back to the same woman that I had asked previously where to go. She gave me short shrift and brusquely waved me off to the same place where I had just set the alarms off.
A sweat was developing on me by now, mainly because each time I crossed the station concourse I also had to walk past four men in military uniforms. All of them looked like they couldn’t wait to snare a stupid tourist like myself. It was inevitable that they would find a meagre excuse to extract a hefty bribe or backhander from me.
Every time I passed them, I did so with my head down in a very low profile, sheepish manner. By my fifth attempt, I strengthened my resolve to just take the plunge and dash through the gate before the turnstile spikes clanged me and the alarm shrieked. It was either that or be stuck there all night.
My burst through dash was a heart-stoppingly close thing, but I couldn’t turn back. I walked feverishly quickly with my head down, as I sought to swiftly assimilate myself anonymously into the masses of other bodies on the escalators. Somehow, it worked. I even fluked finding my correct metro stop first time as well, without having to get out and look around and getting on again. The drawback was that it was pitch black at Tsvetnoy Bulvar. So I spent half an hour walking around the block the wrong way en route back to Godzilla’s, where of course, I could guarantee my bed would have been moved.
Sure enough I had been moved again. I was starting to feel like the only meaningful things I was spending my time in Moscow doing were getting lost, buying train tickets and moving beds, each rather time consuming and wearying in their own ways. Rather like the country itself, I never quite knew exactly where I would end up, but I knew it would be somewhere different.
I looked at a map, and it hit home that China and Mongolia were only a couple of days train ride away beyond the Urals. This was the eastern fringe point or frontier of the European continent. The scale of the world’s largest country is astonishing. Over half of its entire landmass is virgin territory.
In the same way that Lisbon in Portugal once faced out towards a burgeoning empire in the Americas, Moscow also faced outwards, right at the opposite extremity of Europe where Russia slid away into Asia. Sometimes the geographical context of Russia becomes obscured or sidelined. Yet this country spans eleven, yes eleven, time zones around the world in its shadowy vastness. That’s practically half way around the world. Russia refuses to be confined to one continent.
Yet, of all the far flung, exotic travel destinations within a train ride from Moscow I could have opted for, I was heading back west into Europe, to Latvia - quite tame really, but appreciated. Travelling by train was again going to be quite an experience. I had to state whether I wanted to travel by soft class or hard class, which was the way first and second class were neatly defined. I think I was assigned hard class.
The previous time, I had bought a train ticket with no problems at all. Except that it was for the wrong day, so I had to buy another one. Moscow had so many train stations - each one served trains going in different directions. I wanted to go to Riga, the capital of Latvia. But first, I had to battle at rush hour, going deep underground with the crowds on the Moscow metro. All the names of the stations in the Russian alphabet looked like they kept changing. It was very disconcerting. But one way or another, I found the right station and even the right train.
Travelling hard class, a seat really was exactly that, a flat seat on a hard wooden bench. My reasonable tolerance for low levels of comfort would be tested here, I thought. The train was dark and gloomy inside, with a slight whiff of an abattoir. It was much more basic and rustic than the previous one I had taken. My seat was in the middle of a gaggle of noisy Russian women, who were too busy scoffing bread, meat and hard boiled eggs to notice me plonking myself in the same compartment. They feasted to the accompaniment of tingling Russian pop music.
Around the fringes of this group, hovered a couple of shifty looking Russian young men, who I kept catching staring at me. One particularly unkempt man, stripped down to just a white vest, was swigging from a huge beer bottle. It wasn’t too long before I could sense half the carriage concentrating on me, the foreigner.
My carriage felt like a very transient place, and a family from across the aisle kept intruding into my space. People were always passing through. As the family gathered up their sprawl of luggage and hauled themselves up in search of new seats, I stretched my legs out and began to savour my new found space. It lasted for all of twenty seconds. More bodies appeared to fill the voids.
Before long though, everyone had either finished eating or settled down as the train pulled out of Moscow. The man in the vest offered the pickings of his large chicken to me to eat. After I refused a couple of times (it didn’t look that inviting), he insisted I have some. Each piece I finished he would thrust me some more, with chunks of bread as well. Then he did the same thing with his large beer. I had a couple of swigs, mainly out of politeness.
Then the two old ladies opposite me began to intervene, urging me not to accept and to be careful with him. He was becoming more drunk by now, and more assertive in his attempts to get me to join in. Half of me wanted to out of politeness in accepting his hospitality. The other half of me warned to be cautious.
The ladies had a big argument with the man, shouting at him. He just descended deeper and deeper into drunkenness, calling out my name and waving a vodka bottle at me for the best part of a couple of hours. I just tried to put my head down and keep a low profile, which wasn’t easy as he was only a few feet away from me. It seemed the two old ladies had judged it right. I thanked them with great sincerity in my best worst Russian.
In some ways, leaving Russia was like when I arrived. There was an air of menace about some of the people. In the same terms as we see Russia as a dangerous, unpleasant threat from the outside. Yet, from the inside, elements of Russia are not quite as one-dimensional as they would seem to be from the outside.Purchase 'Travels in The New Europe: A Changing Continent'