Notes on Moscow

The drive in from Dormodedovo Airport through black and white forest and then, as the traffic bunches at the first of the ring roads around the city, the close proximity of hundreds of filthy cars queuing to get back inside the capital. The snow under its black crust is melting and flooding the road. This is spring. A red anthem of brake lights repeating, sapping the life out of each us. The rear windows of the 4x4s are blacked-out. We crawl out of the sovereignty of one grey residential tower and succumb to the sovereignty of its neighbour. Each enjoys a view of the motorway, a Shell service station, building sites, an orchard left behind. On the radio phone-in a middle aged woman repeats her point, allows her voice to get out of control, and begins to cry. The cars stand still, patiently waiting for her to finish. A row of trees guard another grey tower, they were dead long before winter. Adverts for a film called PITBULL, a symphony orchestra. We pass a mall made of white marble and glass; it claims a cigar lounge. Up ahead, rising high over the queue of traffic snaking up the hill, tall towers painted red and white emit thick white vapour.

The cycle of snow fall and decline and snow fall and decline. The snow falls and the ugly becomes beautiful until the snow deteriorates to black and melts and the ugly is even uglier.

A morning run. The crunch of snow underfoot. There is a reluctant morning light; Moscow goes to bed late, drowning its sorrows. I run either side of the Moscow River, which is three quarters free of ice. Into the wind (west) it is cold and I must wear my gloves, with the wind it is warm enough to take them off. Past the Red October chocolate factory and the black rigging of the monument to Peter the Great. On the south side of Krimsky bridge chauffeurs are filling their black Audis and polishing them. Their shine will last moments in the slush. On the north side of the bridge a pound filled with police cars slowly empties. The line of silver patrol cars, each one a Ford Focus, moves quietly out onto the street. It is 7.30am.

I run west along the river towards the fortress walls of the Kremlin. It is surrounded by dual carriageways too wide and fast for a sane pedestrian to attempt to cross. This is urban planning for power, not citizens; a centre built for march pasts and cavalcades and the management of crowds. Across the river the British Ambassador’s Residence, a classical palace built in 1862 for a sugar baron; its flag beautiful in the snow. I run back over Bolshoy Kamenny bridge, and into Bolotnaya Square. A middle aged man on his way to work stands still watching sparrows noisily occupying a bush. This is a park. Someone has stencilled ‘Bench’, Banksy-style, onto many of the grey benches. A row of metal trees, their iron branches hung with a multitude of padlocks; each a promise of shared love. This is a rare human touch. There is no room left.

Deep below the park, the old green metro trains run packed with commuters wearing coats and hats. The walls of each carriages is bare; ditto the marble walls of the Soviet-era stations. A shortage of options.

On a breakfast TV channel a regular item provides advice on how to fight. It is introduced by the anchor in much the same way that Good Morning Britain used to hand over to an instructor in a corner of the studio, leading a class of leotarded ladies through an improving work out. This item involves two men, one heavier set than the other and the principal; he is wearing a carefully secured lapel mic. In a mocked up restaurant, with several tables laid for dinner, the principal allows his assistant to shove him around a bit, patting him away in a good natured way before lashing out with lightening speed and bringing him crashing to the ground. The move is repeated in slow motion to demonstrate the placing of the principal’s feet and hips, the application of his weight. This time his assistant crashes into one of the tables. The principal rubs his hands and smiles into camera. “Kombat rezolution!” I hear him say. Thus prepared for the day ahead, Muscovites leave their apartments and head for the metro.

Later, in a taxi en route to a meeting, waiting at traffic lights, an adolescent boy walks between the lines of cars. He is hooded against the snow which is now falling again. My taxi driver turns to me and indicates that I should have what the boy is distributing. ‘Moscow girls’ he explains. He waves the boy over and lowers his window so that the boy may throw in two copies of a slim, wrapped magazine. The driver hands me one of the copies. It is a directory of young girls for hire, posing in thongs and knickers. Almost all are blond. The magazine carries a serial number: No4 (37) 2012. Does this tell me that the edition I am looking at is the fourth published in 2012, out of a total of 37 editions? Do they find fresh girls each month? The driver is old enough to be their grandfather. I chuck my copy on the floor. From my taxi, still stalled, I see the rococo exterior of a chocolaterie, its windows steamed up; a strip of white and grey park where a man walks a dog; a grand pink facade which carries an enormous advert for Rolex. At last we are moving, across a junction and past another narrow strip of park. A tall green statue of Pushkin; his face masked in snow.

It is lunchtime. I am early for my next meeting. In front of the Marriott Royal Aurora Hotel the pavement is double parked with black 4x4s. Across the road I stroll through a luxurious and deserted mall; in the window of La Perla a beautiful mannequin models a black thong. Through the tall window I see many more win a kaleidoscope of colours. Boutiques. A café. A handsome couple walk out of the snow and straight into an Italian restaurant. Back across the street I must leap over a puddle of black slush to enter the Marriott. Tall bodyguards stand outside, smoking. There is a metal detector inside the door to prevent men from bringing in fire arms. I pick a table on the edge of the lobby and order a club sandwich. Over the hotel reception desk hang a row of clocks showing the time in Moscow, London, New York and Vladivostok. Dark haired men in couples talk and smoke; sometimes new arrivals are kissed, once, on the cheek. Each man lays a pair of mobile phones on the table in front of him; somehow this feels sinister – a doubling of the normal rules of ownership. Each carries a small leather bag. The fashion is for well made leather black shoes, dark jeans, a shirt and a v-neck jersey, a leather jacket. The shoes are polished and spotless, which is only possible in this city if you have a driver. After lunch I get my muddy shoes polished at a shoe shine at the rear of the lobby. With time to kill I stroll up a flight of exquisite white marble stairs to inspect the Polo Restaurant. And down again. It is time for my meeting. A smartly dressed woman walks down the centre of the lobby; she is preceded by a thick set man in a dark suit. Over his left arm hangs an overcoat. In his right he holds a walkie talkie. He holds it momentarily to his lips and speaks.

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