Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Moscow

Luba Vinogradova, my wonderfully irreverent translator, was waiting at Sheremetevo airport to collect me in her four-wheel-drive Lada. Her driving has improved dramatically. The main risk, she told me, was that we might be stopped by the police for not having a clean car. Apparently Luzhkov, the high-handed mayor of Moscow, has launched yet another drive to spruce up the capital. The Militsia has been told to immobilise any car which is dirty, and not allow its driver to proceed until it is clean. Her Lada is a pretty borderline case. Even my emergency hoard of British Airways hand-wipes would not have helped much. Luba also told me of another regulation in Moscow. The Militsia is supposed to drive any foreigner lost in the city back to his hotel or apartment. She advised me, however, not to try flagging down police cars as taxis. Some regulations are purely for form's sake.

One day, when taking a bus to an out-- of-the-way archive, Luba suddenly decided to buy a women's magazine. The lead article advertised on the front was `Have you ever tried to obey your husband just for a change?' Needless to say, this was not supposed to be a serious proposition. According to the article, Russian women treat their husbands as creatures of limited intelligence. It also complained of how unsatisfactory men were in the Motherland. `New Russians' were uncaring, soulless shits, while sensitive, artistic types never had their feet on the ground. A good example of the sensitive category was described to me a few days later. Over lunch in the Cafe Pushkin, an English friend living in Moscow recounted the story of a young Russian whom she knew well. He loved books but, to earn his living, he worked for a foreign company which paid him a good salary in dollars. When the rouble collapsed last autumn, his saved dollars suddenly made him feel like a millionaire. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who dashed out to buy a car before the rouble price shot up, he went straight to the main bookshop on Tverskaya. He spent almost all his dollar savings, buying every book he had ever longed to own. In his heart, however, he knew that he was going to be out of work following the crash, because the foreign company for which he worked would cut its losses and pull out of Russia. On the other hand he was convinced that this opportunity to buy books would never come again. Apparently, he now sits at home, jobless but blissfully happy, reading his library. It sounded rather like a modern version of one of Tolstoy's tales in which spirituality wins over materialism.

Muscovites, whether book-lovers or not, certainly seem to conform to the old cliche about scratching a Russian and finding a peasant. They long to talk about gathering and preserving mushrooms, and you see them, with an earnest expression, carrying saplings on the Metro ready to plant them either at their dacha or outside their apartment block. Russians have a quasi-mystical relationship with the land, and yet theirs is probably the most polluted country in the world. You have only to sniff the air in some cities to know why ecological studies in Russia are known as `Goodbye, Motherland'.

know that paradoxes are two a penny in the new Moscow but they still provoke curious feelings. Luba and I had to suggest somewhere quiet to meet General Anatoly Mereshko who, as a young officer, had been on the headquarters staff of the 8th Guards Army in the Battle for Berlin. The only place I could think of was Patio Pizza, a restaurant like an industrial conservatory tacked on to the Intourist Hotel. …

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