August 02, 2007

From Russia with Love

I was asked to post something about Russia from a personal perspective and thought this was a fair starter. Firstly, I’m not in Russia proper – I’m in one of the republics although I do cross over quite often. Secondly, though my financial position doesn’t match it, my social state, in Twelfth Night terms, is ‘well’.


Therefore I don’t yet live down in the sewer but am conveyed from door to door. I shop locally, walk about and chat with folk, hitch rides occasionally just to tune my ear to latest developments and so on. But what is it really, really like, living here? This is my take.


The photos were taken in about 1998, before recent rebuilding. Now there are IMAX cinema, velodromes, huge new estates of low-rise houses in all sorts of odd architectural shapes and the area you see in the photos is now regarded as getting on a bit in years. The sweeping new, kilometre long suspension bridge runs from the end of our Prospekt and the traffic is now of London proportions. There is money in this city, make no mistake but it’s not evenly distributed.


Many older people buy cracked eggs because they’re cheaper and vendors never turn away poor people but try to accommodate them – you see it all the time. The other day, an old lady was fumbling around for five kopek to complete a purchase of a little chocolate bar worth seven roubles [about 25 US cents]. I told the shopgirl to give her three bars and it wasn’t taken as largesse in any way by the girl – everyone pitches in for the old people.


The pension system is an absolute national disgrace and gets me hot under the collar.


No one pitches in for a drunk. If you’ve given up the will to live and let’s be fair – many have, particularly in the shadow of all the new infrastructural construction – then you’re on your own. People sidestep you in the streets, even if you’ve fallen over – actually because you’ve fallen over - and these people are forever wandering onto busy roads and getting run down. I see it as a merciful release but their families might differ on that.


The temptation’s there, all right, to turn to alcohol.


It’s in the culture, with a plethora of self-justifying, amusing, lexical excuses, a bit of excess is almost expected over here and a man who won’t let himself go at least a little is regarded with suspicion. I’m such a man but I compensate for that in other ways.


The layout of Russia is hard for westerners who have never been here to conceptualize. There’s Moscow in the far west and that’s another story in itself. They say here ‘malyenkaya strana’, meaning little country and that’s what Moscow is. To come to Moscow and say you’ve seen Russia is to come to London and say you’ve seen Scotland. The regions both share Moscow’s organization and infrastructure e.g. housing and roads but that’s where the differences begin.


Geographically, the countryside predominates, as in Britain - a series of hamlets, all vaguely linked but surrounded by leagues of grassland, forest, waterways and all very pretty in a different way to, say, the US. The long, straight, white barked beriozi [silver birch trees] stand a little like the trees in Fontainebleu, for those who’ve been there, perhaps around Barbizon. It’s distinctively, continental European.


Then comes the outskirts to the city and the checkpoints and five or so main arteries run inwards towards the centre. Even within the city proper there are parks and gardens everywhere, most of the paths are unmade and it’s not possible to get home on foot without dirtying one’s shoes. There is dirt and dust in a 50s sort of way.


The centre follows the pattern of cities worldwide – inner-city slum clearance, fabulous new shopping complexes and DIY barns on the outskirts for the new yuppies to visit, harshly contrasting with the greenery surrounding it and the middling circle of slightly older suburbs, virtually untouched and now losing their 1950s sheen.


My city has just over a million people and it’s getting crowded, especially on the roads, where the introduction of western credit is now destroying people’s lives and flooding the roads with incapable drivers, along with other things more dire.


The people really are children. A twenty year old girl is not grown up, despite appearances. She may look like a sophisticated femme-fatale, done up in full war-paint of the ersatz YSL variety and she certainly doesn’t blot her copybook in the various nightclubs springing up all over town but it’s an illusion. At home she has a family and grandparents and she’ll often leave the middle of the dance floor and put in call home on her mobile, just to say she’s OK.


And she is OK. The level of violence is so much lower than in western cities, depending, of course, to which club you go. Drugs, narcotics – these are the major worry of parents, not whether their darling will actually make it home in one piece.


It’s the students themselves who most decry the drug scene. Time and again they’ll bring it into the discussion and behind the tough exterior can be seen a core of ‘niceness’, a good-heartedness and it’s not a sham. Trouble is, as just mentioned, they are children, easily led down some new rapacious path and they never do things by halves.


Fashion is one aspect. This year all the girls are in maroon leather jackets. Last year it was all browns. The year before – cowboy style. Forever shopping, whatever floods the market becomes the new fashion. ‘We’re all individuals,’ they cry and it would be a good setting for Life of Brian. The guys and there are guys, if you look hard enough, they’re in their regulation black leather jackets, jumpers, jeans, black, patent leather shoes and cheeky smiles.


No doubt the Russian guy can be a charmer. That’s how he gets what he wants in the society, why the girls have no defences and why he has so little respect for womanhood. It’s all too easy. I thank them because the majority of the females are p-ed off extraordinarily by this arrogance and there’s more than a niche for a ‘gentleman’ who takes them out and holds doors open for them.


My two or three guy friends are big, lanky, happy-go-lucky, good looking, semi-dissolute bears who’d do anything for a mate. One of the girls yesterday told me she loved the new stubble on my chin – actually, I just hadn’t shaved but it seems just the ticket over here. Things are a little looser than in Britain, say.


So, they are some random thoughts by the Higham. Dosvida'nye, shsli'vo.


Crossposted at Shades .

3 comments:

Ruthie said...

This is a great post, very interesting and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Remind me not to marry a Russian man.

Lord Trafalgar Rock Pigeon said...

How about an Englishman?

Gracchi said...

Really interesting as ever James- I like the point you make about Moscow. I have to say I've only been to Moscow and St P and Novgorod so am not sure how much of the rest of Russia I've explored but you definitely give evidence that I should explore more.