Moscow Mon Amour

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev

Meet a mega-rich Pygmalion, his coarse 'creation,' and a romantic who battles the wrecking ball.

The demolition ball keeps the time of the city, a metronome that swings on every corner. Building after building is being knocked down; they are building a new Moscow right on top of the old. Moscow changes so fast, it breaks all sense of reality. You find yourself lost all the time, you can't recognize streets. You turn a corner looking for a place where you'd been to eat the week before, and in front of your eyes the whole block is being demolished. New buildings erupt over the city, burning with neon, money, and Gotham-Gothic turrets. The new skyscrapers imitate the bullying stance of Stalin-era architecture. Long before the city's political dissidents started to scream that Vladimir Putin was creating a dictatorship, Moscow's art critics already murmured: "Look at the new architecture--it dreams of Stalin. Be warned: the evil empire is back."

The gargantuan central avenues are coagulated with the sludge of acid snow (the chemicals the city uses as grit burn the paws of stray dogs), and the cloying ooze of some of the world's worst traffic. "Why don't you use the subway?" I ask a local. She's shocked: "But people would look at me in the wrong way--as if I was poor!" The siren-wielding black (always black) bulletproof Mercedes of the mega-rich and powerful are free to drive against the flow of traffic; they speed through the acid sludge: modern-day barons who live by different rules. This is their city, their underlings the ork-faced cops whom Muscovites call "werewolves in uniform." The barons control the road, the orks the pavement. The orks march down Moscow's avenues, belching out the phrase that is their mark of power: "Documents! Now!" They'll spot you right away: foreigners gawp, Muscovites walk face-down and furious. The orks always find something wrong somewhere in your papers: a visitor to Moscow has to obtain endless stamps and registrations. They'll threaten to take you to the station. Then comes the definitive Moscow transaction: the slipping of the bribe. But never use that word: "bribe." Never offer money directly. Paying bribes requires a degree of delicacy. Russians have more words for "bribe" than Eskimos for "snow." My favorite formulation: "May I use this opportunity to show a sign of my respect for you?" "Of course you may," the orks say, smiling suddenly, and stuff the cash under their policeman's cap. All they ever wanted was some respect.

An advertisement hangs on huge billboards over the city: a single, handsome, male eye staring out of a dark room through a crack in a door, both spying on the passersby and imploring them to release him. The ad is for one of Marat's companies: office furniture (black sells best) to fill up the endless, just-built offices of the new Moscow. Marat (a pseudonym) looks like Dorian Gray and is one of the city's princes. When I first meet him, he is living in one of the new Gotham-Gothic skyscrapers. He's knocked down all the walls in his apartment, painted the inside an asylum white: "I want it to feel like a mental hospital," he tells me. He has open-plan toilets: "I like to see how my guests react when they have to crap in front of everybody." Marat has the walk common to many of Moscow's newly rich: a cocky strut combined with the occasional paranoid shuffle; the sudden glance behind his back. His apartment has no signs of personal history: no old books, clothes, even cutlery. Every time I see him he seems to wear a new designer suit. A brilliant mathematician whose idea of entertainment as a child was reading through famous chess games, Marat graduated from college just as communism collapsed. He built computers and made a million. He built a bank and nearly lost it all: "The worst time is when people owe you money. No one will kill you if you owe them, but if they owe you they'd rather kill than pay. I dream of being able to go outside without bodyguards. …