Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Owen Matthews

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Owen Matthews

Article excerpt


Here we go again. The rouble slides, then tumbles, and slides again. For those of us who remember the crash of August 1998, the drill is familiar. For Muscovites, the old instincts have surfaced from the 1990s like a sausagey burp. Shoppers besieged Ikea, Auchan and other mega-markets, desperate to spend rapidly devaluing roubles. Cynical expatriates such as myself did much the same with our newly inflated hard currency. I cleared my local posh wine shop of a thousand bucks' worth of Burgundy, now half-price in dollar terms. A correspondent colleague raided the Moscow Apple store to the tune of two iPhones and a pair of laptops before they shut down to recalculate prices.

'Of course, one could achieve the same effect simply by becoming twice as rich,' I observe to an expatriate publisher over dinner in a fashionable Finnish-fusion restaurant. My companion has had a rough ride over the years and lost several fortunes to crooked Russian partners. Now he is in a triumphant mood. 'Ah, but then you wouldn't have the moral satisfaction of seeing these bastards suffer,' he says, pointing a forkful of smoke-infused reindeer carpaccio. 'Hubris -- nemesis. That is priceless.'

My friend the author Michael Idov says that all Moscow theme restaurants actually have the same theme. The theme is: you're not in Moscow.

Just as in 1998, one can follow the score from almost every street corner, as the swelling fortunes of the dollar and euro are displayed in illuminated scarlet numbers outside exchange offices all over the city. But this latest crisis boasts a more restful and high-tech way of keeping up: tracks the euro-rouble exchange rate alongside the price of crude oil against a background of waves and clouds, with a choice of soothing soundtracks with names like 'Song of Wind' and 'Dream of Wings'.

As I stand on Tverskoi Boulevard in swirling snow attempting to hail a cab, a pretty young brunette in a new Mini pulls up and asks where I want to go. This is surprising. Usually, Moscow gypsy cabs are old Volkswagens driven by friendly but occasionally malodorous gastarbeiters . On the way home my self-appointed chauffeur launches into a tirade about how lazy and dishonest she finds her countrymen and how she dreams of a new life abroad. When we arrive at my in-laws' fashionable address, she refuses payment and asks for my number. …

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