Panic, profiteering and a mysterious girl in a Mini: notes from Moscow

For ordinary Muscovites, the old instincts of self-preservation have surfaced from the 1990s like a sausagey burp

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM


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: zenrus.ru 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. Possibly this happens all the time to other writers — handsome fellows like Sebag, for instance, or Peter Pomerantsev — but I must admit that it had never happened to me.

After a series of improbable events, I find myself cast as a bit-part actor in Londongrad, a gratifyingly big-budget Russian television serial which I helped write. Inspired by the BBC’s Sherlock, it follows a pair of young Russians who run an agency in London solving problems for their Russian clients. In the greenroom, I tell one of the show’s stars about the brunette in the Mini. ‘Ach, you are you naive,’ says this fabulously Garbo-esque leading lady as she puffs on a Vogue Slim. ‘Russian women are like snakes in their holes. They feel the tremors in the earth! We know that there will soon be disaster and revolution! She is just desperate, darling!’

At the dacha I discover a book of Marina Tsvetaeva’s letters. In the late 1920s the great Russian poetess wrote to her friend Anna Akhmatova from Paris. She was bored by emigré life and desperate for the ‘little Russian wind’ — russky veterok — that blows all Russians hither and yon. Tsvetaeva returned to the USSR in 1939 and that ‘little wind’ carried her husband to execution, her daughter to the gulag, and her to suicide. Almost without exception, my Russian friends these days talk about leaving, for a while or permanently. There’s a new phrase for it — the ‘suitcase mood’.

Our local parish priest comes to dinner at the dacha. Unlike many of his colleagues in the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Andrei is widely travelled and highly educated. His two sons have recently graduated from Cambridge and Sciences-Po. But he’s deeply pessimistic about Russia. ‘There is no other nation on the earth that has suffered so much blood-letting,’ he says. ‘The revolution, collectivisation, the purges, the war, the emigration of the Jews and the academics. Who is left? Where are the Tchaikovskys and the Chekhovs of our age? We are like a dead coral reef, once full of colour and life but now poisoned and ash-coloured.’ To cheer himself up he’s taking a holiday in the Seychelles. He sold his Moscow apartment last year and presciently banked the proceeds in Paris. Now that’s divine providence.

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Owen Matthews’s books include Stalin’s Children and Glorious Misadventures.

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