Moscow CallingMon 17 Sep
PART ONE: MOSCOW
“Moscow is Putin’s showpiece,” an American realtor told me. “Moscow is where the money goes. The rest of Russia ... well, forget it.” Richard was in Moscow to set up an office selling Miami real estate to oligarchs who’ve been warned off London.
“I’ve been coming to Moscow since the Nineties,” he said. “It was the Wild East back then. I’m a gay man, and sex was everywhere. Years of repression under Communism and they were all letting off steam. Now there’s an HIV epidemic but it didn’t start in the gay scene. Sex tourists from the West infected Russian women and sex workers.”
By the end of 2017, the Russian Ministry of Health estimated that just shy of one million people were living with HIV. New infections are roughly split between those who inject drugs and heterosexual transmission. Official accounts acknowledge that only one-third of those with the virus receive life-saving drugs.
The strangest sight in Moscow is the unblemished face it presents to the world. I felt an awe that I was later to feel on my journey round Siberia. In the steppe it was the sense of a divinity at work in an otherworldly, majestic landscape. “God is on high and the Tsar is far off,” they used to say. In Moscow it was the sense of a higher power at work that was not divine but was hidden behind the walls of the Kremlin, like a Wizard of Oz.
A psychoanalyst once told me that of all his clients the most entrenched in their symptomatology were young women who had decided on their identity with a rigidity he described as “frightening”. Here in the centre of Moscow, I understood what he meant. Young women were filing past me, parading the fierce disdain of high-end consumerism. In the Tverskoy District of central Moscow, next to the Bolshoi Ballet, this disdain is embodied in Tsum, the department store famous for its concessions to leading Western fashion brands. A strategy of deploying European prices aligns the mark-up of their products to those in Milan and Paris. According to their website, this means that “each season’s hottest items can be bought at TSUM at a lower price than in Europe.” It’s duty-free shopping in an environment that could be anywhere in Europe. Tsum announces the success of its strategy in a refreshingly frank way. “[The strategy] aimed at balancing the prices and enlarging the selection of merchandize has paid [off]: since 2015 in the middle of shaky macroeconomic environment [sic] TSUM’s turnover has been growing 20-30% each season.”
As they slinked or tottered by, depending on the feasibility of their footwear, the young women who kept crossing my path offered no glimpse of individuality or humanity, just the surfaces of their being. I was reminded of the irrelevance I felt when I once went into a designer clothes shop looking for a size 14 dress. I lived in a parallel universe that held no appeal to perfect specimens. These women only switched on their allure when safely ensconced in the porches of trendy restaurants. Under the patronage of shaven-headed men who stepped out of 4x4s with blacked-out windows and who looked like bodyguards, made-up women alternated between absent-minded smiles and hair-flicking.
Men in Russia are unmistakably men. Prestige is tantamount to a man’s identity and it is measured very simply in money or muscles or both. Women are the products of their femininity, the nameless girls the most successful of whom – success being measured in the endurance of their relevance to men – were those most adept at attaching their identities to whatever the fashion of the moment happened to be. The glossier the girl the more intent her pose against the backdrop of the city, the more languid her stare and pout for the in-built camera of a mobile phone. In the centre of Moscow, in the orbit of the Kremlin, every woman is a supermodel, every man is Putin.
Around the Central Park of Rest and Culture Named After Maxim Gorky the lesser Muscovites enjoy a less stylised free time negotiating the space of landscaped parkland. Laid out in 1928, this was the first park of its kind, and the prototype for hundreds of others across the Soviet Union. Named after a compliant writer, the park stretches along the banks of the Moscow River, and is divided into two parts. The first is primarily of interest to children or those trying to entertain them. The other, older half of the park is more restrained, consisting of formal gardens and planted woods. Here there is room for the rest of the city. Here there is diversion for all that has been carefully thought out, laid out and presented as a fait accompli. This is how you enjoy yourself. Contemporary art is put into service as an indicator of freedom of expression. Artists are pimped into supplying Gorky Park’s contemporary art gallery owned by an oligarch’s wife.
In the shadows of the park, middle-aged men, who had once been manual workers and miners, are kitted out in army surplus gear. Their muscles came from labour not the gym. They carry a bulk that was once their pride. Their bellies are swilling with beer. These men, also shaven-headed, are legion. They stalk the cities, parks, trains and metros, and each one is redundant, each has his own solitary gaze – that of a serial killer or a saint giving him the semblance of having a purpose.
“Gorbachev opened the gates. Brezhnev sold everything. Putin is buying it back.” Russians have a joke for every epoch. This one came from the taxi driver who picked me up from Sheremetyevo airport and drove me to my hotel behind Tsum. Well-built, middle-aged and ex-army, Dmitri was aggressively patriotic.
“You believe all the bullshit on CNN and BBC?” he asked me. It was an assumption rather than a question and I felt slightly panicked under the force of it. I said something vague about the importance of keeping an open mind. But Dmitri wasn’t let me wriggle out of this one.
“It’s all bullshit, but you Westerners, you believe it,” he insisted. Since I know this isn’t true and have several friends in London who are tickled by the prospect of the British government’s poisoning of the Skripals, I was in the happy position of being able to prove him wrong. The theory goes that MI5 poisoned the luckless father and daughter and pinned it on the Russians in order to spoil their hosting of the World Cup football championships. The storyline is convincing because it’s straight out of John Le Carre, and nothing is true any more and what is real is made up. That was my thinking on arrival. Two weeks later my mind was closing like a clam. Like the model women wrapped up in their appearance, I had seen a set of circumstances that was not up for discussion and it was precisely this lack of discussion and doubt that formed a barrier to engagement with the truth. Wherever I went and to whomever I spoke there was no debate, no speculation and no gossip when it came to Putin and politics. The strangest spokesperson for Putin’s politics was a Buryat shaman in a dirt-town yurt in Siberia. When I asked him the future of the Buryats, he said:
“The US and UK sanctions cannot destroy us. Your government will only make us stronger. That is the Russian character. We unite against a common enemy,” thus proving the commentators on Putin’s foreign policies correct. Even a Buryat who complains of his struggles to preserve his culture was pumping out the Kremlin line: “Putin is a strong leader. It’s sanctions imposed by the West that cause us problems.”
From young Russians I got the classic cop-out, “I’m not interested in politics.” This is the ultimate stance of an audience for whom the confusion of fake news has done its job.
Meanwhile I still wasn’t out of the taxi and it was becoming clear that Dmitri was so invested in Putin’s strength that to challenge his government would be to challenge Dmitri’s sense of self. Russians are proud, I was told. But this was fear. I paid him off and held my tongue and was pleased to see him go.
Tatiana, a mother of two, lives with her husband in two rooms in an old Soviet block of flats. She was used to making the most of a bad job. “It’s leafy where we live,” she said with a tired smile. Tatiana was my guide around Moscow’s tourist sights. Again, getting her to depart from the script was a struggle that yielded little but frustration on my part and irritation on hers.
I remember going to the Caribbean where my father worked in a casino that served up artificial thrills in the form of bright lights, sugary drinks and cash prizes.
“Tourists are babies,” my father said. The Russian tourist board is of the same mind. Another famous department store has a history rooted in the covered bazaars of Arab markets. The Upper Trading Rows, now known as GUM, were opened in 1893. However there was no sense of history. The once elegant galleries were broadcasting tinny Korean pop that was frantically cheerful. Vendors were pushing ice creams and cotton floss on to well Japanese and Chinese tourists browsing the concessions. It was the music that scratched on my nerve-ends. I had to get out, and no I didn’t want any ice-cream.
“Russians aren’t interested in history,” Tatiana told me when I remarked that every historical landmark looked brand new.
“Europeans have history – Paris, London, places like that. But Russians are more interested in looking forward.” Tatiana was old enough to have been a Pioneer in the Soviet equivalent of the Scout movement founded by Lenin’s wife. She still had the scarf and the badge of the as memento mori – so there was room for some nostalgia in her heart. The Pioneer movement spread across the country. Pioneer Palaces were built, with rooms dedicated to various clubs, crafts or sports. Pioneer Camps were set up where children were sent during holidays. All of them were free of charge, sponsored by the government.
“They taught us good values,” Tatiana said; “the importance of duty and respecting your elders.”
Tatiana dutifully shoved me round Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral. The square that I had been longing to see in order to feel something – some sense of recognition, of wonder and awe – didn’t move me. Red Square was hosting an international competition of military bands. Marquees, , scaffolding and pavilions had been erected. Red Square was choking with roped areas and placards, festival paraphernalia and tourists. St Basil’s looked freshly painted in salmon pink and sage green, its onion domes like props in Disneyland. The scene of unreality and confusion disturbed me. These sights should have excited a sense of recognition, a triumphant exclamation that finally I was seeing them in the flesh. But they didn’t. They were familiar but in an unnerving sense, as though I had accidentally uncovered their secret.
Immaculate palatial facades, litter-free avenues the breadth of football pitches, and perfectly groomed pedestrians. Moscow felt foreign but not for the reasons I wanted it to. This was uncanny. Moscow was inducing paranoic impressions of stable and familiar images, got up to be a simulacrum of themselves. It was like looking at St Basil’s or the Kremlin or a screen where the contrast and brightness settings have been expertly adjusted and everything is perfectly in focus. I had heard of fake news but here was a fake city and fake people to populate it.
I felt the smallness of myself, not in the way I feel it in London. In London I get narked by the close proximity of people and the stifling narrowness of platforms and pavements. In Moscow there was space for throngs of us. We swarmed and we commuted but in the vastness of boulevards that mirrored the vastness of rivers and lakes that crisscross the steppes and forests. I was subject to the state but far away from it. I was separate in a way I had never encountered. A feeling of well-being gave way to creeping complacency.
In 2006 in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, the writer, Vladimir Sorokin described a growing feeling of social obligation. “As a storyteller, I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favourite anecdotes: as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude — you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.”
I had a feeling my American realtor friend, Richard, would either do very well here or go into the mire. I am drawn to the latter, and I was beginning to miss the litter, dirt and transparent poverty of my home city. So I went underground. Here I found another Moscow, the paeans to the working people, their palaces, their comings and goings, their glory and monuments. I was finally moved.
Next time: the flea market where I meet unvarnished people.
Article by Lilian Pizzichini