Country pleasures

A week in the winter of our Moscow correspondent

The Economist Online | Dec 8th 2006

Friday

TOMORROW is my birthday, and we are going to our dacha to celebrate with some friends. Usually mistranslated as "country house", a dacha is in fact one of the few Russian pleasures that are truly democratic. Some are rickety huts with vegetable patches attached; some are gaudy electric-fenced mansions. Ours is kitchenless, but has two old stoves of the kind that domestic serfs once slept on, and a big verandah for summer evenings. An authentic Soviet canteen still functions nearby. I once asked whether their salmon was fresh; the waitress assured me that it had been fresh when it was frozen.

There are two ways to get to our dacha, and both are instructive. The first is on one of the main, perpetually clogged arterial roads out of Moscow. In summer, the peak dacha season, half the city's population flees on these roads on Friday evenings, desperate, as Russians always are, to be swimming in murky rivers and barbecuing in forests. The roads are perfect anarchy: impatient dachniki take to the hard shoulder in cars overloaded with food and firewood, and, when that is full, to pavements and roadside ditches. The traffic police are generally too busy extorting bribes to intervene.

Jam today, jam tomorrow
AFP

Occasionally the angry mêlée parts, like the seas of Egypt, for the lord of the Russian highway: the migalka, a flashing blue car light that is supposedly reserved for top officials, but which, like most other privileges, has long been available on the open market (along with shoulder-launched missiles, human beings and certificates confirming that you are a qualified brain surgeon). Vladimir Putin wants to restrict the use of migalki, though most people think the main result will be wider use of freelance police outriders. When Mr Putin himself takes to the road, half the city is shut down.

So in summer it is best to drive to the dacha in the small hours, when the route is clearer and you can still buy delicious water melon, grown in Astrakhan or Azerbaijan, from immigrant vendors along the road. Or to use the other method, which is the elektrichka, or commuter train, on which you meet yet another Russia. Throughout the journey there is a sort of shabby cabaret: a procession of beggars and hawkers, each with a windy spiel, selling ancient Russian products, such as pies kept hot under grubby blankets, and sunflower seeds, along with newspapers and beer. There are headscarfed old women who go up to Moscow to sell bunches of flowers, and lots of men with tell-tale blotchy boozer's skin. Some of the stations are only single platforms cut into the forest.

There is a river near our dacha, with a perilous foot bridge across it that seems to belong in "Indiana Jones", and a grove of silver birch trees (the ultimate Russian tree) on the other side, where we could pick mushrooms, were we confident of not poisoning ourselves. This weekend we will have some fine cognac that I brought back from Armenia, with which I hope to induce my musical Russian friend to sing some throaty folk songs. In Russia, the quality of fun is somehow different: more urgent and imperilled; more sentimental; better.

I hope it snows.

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Thursday

THE phoney war continues in Moscow. There has still been almost no snow. When the temperature dropped sharply in October I thought I recognised the chill in the air as the real thing: the one that stays until the thaw in April. The stalls selling Chinese-made gloves and hats sprang up outside the metro stations. In the last week of October it snowed. As they do every year, the gypsy taxis that many people use to get around the city instantly upped their prices. (How long a foreigner has been in Moscow tends to be proportionate to how long he is prepared to haggle while standing in the snow.) Stray dogs began to nose around for submerged treasures. Russian women were still wearing improbably high heels and short skirts, as they do throughout the winter.

It snowed again this week. But between the first snow and this one it has been unusually mild across much of Russia. In early November the air was damp with something like sleet, which got into your mouth as you walked, along with the taste of cheap petrol. But then it warmed up. There have been reports of insomniac bears roaming Siberia, too hot to hibernate.

Normally by this point we have had the big snow: the one that transforms the city, making ugly things beautiful, and beautiful things even more so. It also brings inconveniences, of course: the endless putting on and taking off of shoes; the ridiculous slippers that you have to wear over shoes in museums, which seem embarrassing until you realise that everyone else is wearing them too; the wild changes in temperature between frigid streets and buildings over-cooked by brutal Soviet central heating. Then there is the ice, an especial risk in combination with the maliciously narrow steps down to underpasses and metro stations.

A winter's tail
Reuters

Last winter was one of the harshest on record. For a couple of weeks it was cryogenically cold. Your nostrils froze together as soon as you stepped outside; there were daily stories about people going to hospital with mobile phones stuck to their hands, having inadvisably removed a glove to take a call. "What a shame," old ladies were heard to mutter, "such a winter, and no war." But even last year the winter's hardships were easily outweighed by its curiosities and joys: crunching around forests, and along frozen rivers under clear January skies; cross-country skiing, then a shot of vodka at home.

That is, so long as you have a home. The winter also brings to many Moscow residents a sort of lowest-common-denominator moral choice. Most evenings someone will ring the buzzer of your apartment, in the hope that you will let them in to sleep in your stairwell. Or the homeless lurk outside the front door, and try to sneak in when you open it. "I want your home", an unshaven wild-eyed man, who was carrying an artist's easel and had clocked that I was foreign, said to me in English last year.

If you don't let them in, and nobody else does, their options are not great. They can walk around the streets all night, trying to keep warm, or struggle to get a place in one of the few, strict hostels. They can crawl into heating vents or make nests somewhere in the metro system. Or, as some do every winter, they can give up, and lie down in the snow.

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Wednesday

I AM receiving letters about an article I wrote a few weeks ago from Armenia, the smallest, poorest, most accursed country in the Caucasus. Given their history―which in the 20th century alone involves genocide, Soviet rule, and, when that was lifted, economic collapse, mass emigration and war―it is perhaps astonishing that the Armenians have emerged into the 21st with their own state, however ramshackle.

It is impossible not to be impressed with their tenacity, and with the long-range devotion of the Armenian diaspora, whose remittances stave off ultimate ruin. Most of these come not from rich Armenians in America but from poor ones in Moscow, working on building sites and as illicit taxi drivers.

A few of those American-Armenians, generally the children or grandchildren of the original emigrants, brought up on magical tales of the mountainous homeland over the sea, have moved to Yerevan, the capital. This reflux has brought with it a property boom, a smattering of surprisingly good restaurants and one seriously good jazz bar. But it has also brought disappointments. Some of the repats had not reckoned on the ultra-cynicism and rank corruption that, to different degrees, are the inheritance of all post-Soviet countries. Many Armenian Armenians regard their compatriots, who have voluntarily exchanged Los Angeles for Yerevan, as crazy romantics.

I love going to the Caucasus because, as everybody who has been there knows, it is the most interesting and lunatic part of the world (even if, news agendas being what they are, that fascination can be difficult to convert into column-inches). In the Caucasus empires have clashed, micro-cultures have improbably survived, and ancient grudges have been nurtured with the ferocity of mountain peoples. On this visit I kept thinking of Freud's idea about "the narcissism of small differences", the deep similarities that lie behind and may explain the internecine Caucasian strife.

Ararat: the past is another country
Alamy

As well as the wine and the weather, I love going to the Caucasus because something utterly weird seems guaranteed to happen: a sudden summons from a president, or a midnight rendezvous with an oligarch. This time I saw two wonderful things. The first was Echmiadzin, a monastery complex known as the Vatican of Armenian Orthodoxy. Armenian churches are often gorgeous. The one in Lvov, in western Ukraine, is one of my favourites anywhere. At Echmiadzin there is a museum that contains, among other things, the spear that pierced Christ's side, a piece of the true cross and a bit of Noah's Ark. (Mount Ararat, on which the Ark came to rest, is regarded by Armenians as part of their patrimony, and is visible from Echmiadzin; but it now stands across the border, in Turkey). I am not religious, but I confess to a moment's access of religious sentiment. I didn't really think that I was looking at a splinter of the Ark. But what if I was?

The other unforgettable thing I saw was Lake Sevan, about whose beauty every third taxi driver in Moscow―the ones who are not Georgian or Azeri―endlessly wax lyrical. The town of Sevan was as poor and dilapidated as any I have seen in the former Soviet Union. But the lake itself was lovely, and the views from the peninsula that juts into it (home to a medieval church) were stunning.

There was a man standing in the middle of the lakeside road with his arms stretched out in parallel in front of him. He was a fisherman, my companion explained, and his arms were indicating the size of the lake trout in that day's catch. But, he said, with beautifully weary Caucasian understatement, when you bought them, the fish sometimes turn out to be smaller.

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Tuesday

I WAS interviewed on a London radio station the other day and asked about the mood in Moscow over the Litvinenko affair, a thrilling (for the British press) mix of poisoning, radiation and the KGB. There wasn't much of a mood, I tried to explain. Most Muscovites are uninterested.

Part of the reason is that, from the beginning, Russians know―as I suspect Britons are soon to discover―that their chances of ever finding out what has happened in such cases is close to zero. Even if the hand that dropped the radioactive poison into the tea is identified, the voice that ordered the killing will not be. The most dramatic and public events in Russia―the Beslan school massacre of 2004, for example―somehow remain opaque, instantly becoming tools for propaganda but never being properly understood. It can sometimes seem that there are no facts in Russia, only interests.

This information vacuum makes journalism somewhat taxing. By way of compensation, it also makes Moscow a world capital of conspiracy theories. The theorists begin by asking a classic Russian question, "komu vigadno?" ("who profits?"), then work backwards from the answer to identify a culprit. I await the day when somebody links the Litvinenko case with the (surprise!) unsolved poisoning that disfigured and almost killed Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine two years ago―on the basis that both victims had eaten sushi, a favourite new-Russian food. Who benefits if not the kebab lobby, which discredits sushi and recovers market share?

But the main reason Russians are unmoved by Litvinenko is that every day in Russia dreadful things happen that would lead the news in any Western country, but which scarcely rate a mention in the Russian media, and almost never in the Western press, another frustration of Moscow journalism. Take your pick among berserk murders, freak explosions, industrial disasters, assassinations of local politicians and hideous car crashes. One more dead KGBeshnik does not add much to the sum of Russian pain.

Fortunately, the Russian language has a one-word encapsulation of the resigned fatalism induced by the constant hum of violence and misfortune: normalno (pronounced, roughly, nor-MAL-nuh). Normalno is akin to the English "fine". But whereas "fine" is merely a polite evasion or equivocation, normalno contains a whole philosophy. Russians use it to mean "normal", "bad", and "good". Its proper translation is something like, "nothing can surprise me in this vale of tears".

Two normalnos from my recent experience. My friend and I were driving in the plush district of Patriarch's Ponds―known to Russian-literature enthusiasts as one of the settings of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita"― when we saw a man attacking a young girl. He was punching and kicking her, and trying to drag her into a courtyard. We stopped the car, and hooted, and he ran off. The girl rushed over and got in.

"How are you?", we asked.

"Normalno", she said.

I was walking late at night with the same friend along a stretch of the boulevard ring―the innermost of the several concentric roads around the Kremlin―when we came across an accident. A cyclist and his bike had struck a parked car, and both were splayed in the road, though somehow the cyclist's mouth had kept hold of his cigarette even as his body had relinquished the bike. He was blind drunk. We tried to pick him up: his head was resting on a spot that the tyres of the next passing vehicle would surely cross. He resisted. Everything, he assured us crossly, still prone in the road, with the cigarette hanging from a lip, was normalno.

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Monday

EIGHTEENTH-century England found the dénouement of Shakespeare's "King Lear" too bleak, preferring a silly adaptation with a bogus happy ending. For 21st-century Moscow the original is evidently not bleak enough. The other night I saw a celebrated "Lear" from a renowned director, Lev Dodin. All hints of redemption, however fleeting and illusory, had been excised. The characters normally portrayed as good were bad; the conventional baddies were ambiguous, but not enough to compensate. It was a depressing night at the theatre.

But not, mainly, because of the play, which was exhilarating, brave and searching, in the best Russian tradition. It was the audience that was depressing.

At the end they whooped and bravoed, as Russians often do at the end of operas and plays, suddenly morphing into Italians in a way that is always surprising and endearing.

But before that we were a rabble. There was a violent scrum to get into the building, in which both I and a friend almost came to blows (not with each other). Then, as there almost always seems to be in Russian theatres, there were other people in our seats. They were not as meek-looking as the cunning babushki who normally try this trick—I wonder whether they get in by paying backhanders to the doormen—but they relinquished the seats fairly readily.

At the interval there was an enormous queue for the buffet, all inedibly sweaty fish and Russian chocolate, but, unusually for any Russian social event outside a mosque, no booze.

The lion king

When we got back to our seats, new people were in them. This time they wouldn't budge.

"These are our seats," I said.

"No, they're ours", said one of the three offenders.

"Show me your tickets, please," I said.

"No," they said; "show us yours."

As it happened, my partner had them, and she was stuck in the even more enormous queue for the toilets. By the time she arrived, my Russian had run dry of objections that didn't amount to outright challenges to a duel. We showed them the tickets, but they were obdurate. "We stood in the first half," one argued: "now it's your turn to stand". We were eventually rescued by an usher as the lights went down; the interlopers left, mumbling intentionally audible unkind remarks about Americans.

Why did I find this routine Russian theatre-going experience so upsetting? Partly it was the fact that the raw Hobbesian struggle that is life in Russia had extended even into this sanctum of culture. Maybe because the seat theft reflected some deep and important Russian ailments: little regard for private property, and a sort of warped egalitarianism that has become a pretext for rackets. But mainly because it confirmed a big disappointment of my time in Moscow: that many of the people in this city with whom you might expect to have a natural affinity, based on their interests and views, turn out to be impossible to get along with.

Despite his or her vocal commitment to human rights and the rest, the Russian intelligent is often fractious, cold and abrasive—much less fun than the business crowd, however questionably the latter might have come by their wealth.

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