Breakfast at the Ritz in central Moscow had facilitated prying into the exchanges of surreptitiousness that occurred alongside six types of porridge including the omnipresent kasha (buckwheat porridge). A mother-daughter pair talked to a German man about selling their boutique jewellery business. Two other men from London seemed to have decided I looked too foreign to speak any English and proceeded to spare no detail in their discussions of their nights with an assortment of women.
I walked in a trance, taking in the chandeliers, the ceilings, and the hotel’s vast clientele – ranging from oil tycoons and international business folk to regular Muscovites dressed in their best, sneaking into the hotel lobby for a chat.
‘How long have you been in Moscow?’ I asked the waiter.
‘A year. I come from Georgia. And what about you, miss?’
‘I’m from India and have lived in London a while.’ I said.
‘Ah, my colleague and I were wondering. He is from Kungur.’
I made a mental note to check where that was. It was hard to reconcile Russia’s size; a country comparable in area to the planet Pluto but with a population of just 142 million, 10 million of who were in Moscow.
‘What are you in Moscow for?’
‘I’m in Russ…Moscow, to give a talk.’
In my subconscious, Moscow and Russia were intertwined. When I told my brother about my trip to ‘Russia’, he laughed. ‘Do you realize what you are saying?’
When talking about a country the scale of India, China or Russia, one often ends up generalizing the conditions of its people, basing perspectives on its metropolitans or national politics, distant from the reality of daily living.
Still, Moscow was my first port of entry into Russia and as a speaker at a media event, I had experiences laden with glamour. In a warehouse teeming with what seemed to be the entire marketing community of the city, I gave my talk while a Russian translator dubbed me. The high quality of the questions from the audience made me realize that the translator had likely over delivered on his transmission. It was apparent that the Russian language had a level of expression and sophistication that my English could not surpass. My colleagues were from across the country, and I learnt a little more about their hometowns over lunch. They were curious about the U.K and India. Their warmth towards me, a stranger, was heartening and insightful.
I was given a guided tour of the Kremlin. We walked in and out of the orthodox churches, imagining the revolution. I had struggled to find exhibitions about the Russian revolution despite it being the hundredth anniversary, but my guide told me that these would happen later in the year.
Outside the museums and churches, a wait for the black cars of the politicians to pass, tourists in groups queuing to visit Lenin’s mausoleum. Inside, the golden domes of the Annunication cathedral catching the faint glint of the sun in a grey sky and people moving in a silent hum kissing the portraits of their gods.
I sat on a bench in the cloakroom in a reverie, when a little girl came and sat next to me, initiating a conversation in perfect English.
‘Hello, what’s your name and how old are you and do you go to school?’
‘Your English is very good, keep it up. How long have you been learning it?’ I asked with a laugh as her friends broke into giggles.
‘I’m eight years old,’ she stated, deflecting my question with pride.
Breaking international barriers was straightforward for her.
Moscow was opulence, transformation and intrigue. The last few days had dazzled; the lights flickering around the Bolshoi after a ballet performance, the audience dressed to perfection. There was a constant movement between the old and the contemporary – shapes and angles of architecture over centuries, the elaborate artwork in the metros, then the hip cafes with themed meals. At dusk, I walked past an exhibition of photographs of Russia’s exquisite and vast geography. I stopped by Stalin’s skyscrapers, the edifices catching the twilight, towering above everything else. I felt the buildings clutching my insides, desisting me from moving. What was one meant to feel, looking at this monstrosity?
There seemed to be a certain order of events, an underlying hierarchy, a weighing up of personalities and facial expressions, a tumultuous history, all of which determined the boundaries of every conversation and situation. Of course, the taxi driver would wait for me however long I wanted. Why was I even bothering to ask when I was their guest, a colleague chided me. There was an enigma in the city that seemed opaque to an outsider. This enigma, I imagined, housed secret transactions and meetings between the elite like those I had encountered at the Ritz. No doubt it was also dispelled on occasion for the rest, by daily-life joys like families walking by the river or playing in Gorky Park. That enigma always returned to form a separation between what was public and what was private. This wasn’t different from many other cultures and places yet appeared to hold a different meaning in Moscow.
I took myself to a suburb in defiance of this enigma, chasing after an image I had from a Soviet children’s book I read as a kid, about a boy called Vanya playing with his Grandma in the snow. I had no detail save that, condemning me to a life of never finding that book again.
At Yaroslavsky station in Moscow, men stood in groups, smoking. A homeless man blared out some house music on a portable player. There, as the wind howled on a winter day, I took an old, blue, rickety train to Podlipki Dachnye, a suburb at the edge of a forest in the Elk national park.
The train passed concrete chunks of Soviet buildings. Workers stood out in the snow, casting long shadows as they laid out more tracks. Every time the train stopped, someone got into the carriage and advertised the sale of some small object of convenience like shoe laces or buttons. As the train moved, time passed too, moving me back to the past.
In Ryszard Kapuscinski’s travelogue, Imperium, he references a passage from Yurri Boriev’s, Staliniad, comparing the history of USSR to a train.
‘The train is speeding into a luminous future. Lenin is at the controls. Suddenly—stop, the tracks come to an end. Lenin calls on the people for additional, Saturday work, tracks are laid down, and the train moves on. Now Stalin is driving it…Stalin orders half the conductors and passengers shot, and the rest he forces to lay down new tracks… Khrushchev replaces Stalin, and when the tracks come to an end, he orders that the ones over which the train has already passed be dismantled and laid down before the locomotive. Brezhnev takes Khrushchev’s place… He decides to pull down the window blinds and rock the cars in such a way that the passengers will think the train is still moving forward.’
In Podlipki Dachnye, I found birches and snow and people, far removed from the brightness of Moscow, staring at me with hollow eyes. What was I doing here, they seemed to be asking me. Their gaze held a coolness that was unsettling. Someone helped a drunk old man cross the street.
This suburb was different to the havens I was used to visiting in the UK or the US. Blocks of kruschyovka or five storey buildings were all around, each identical to the next. The patches of grass in between were littered with plastics and discarded junk. There was a kindergarten at the end of the street. These industrial houses were conceptualized by Nikita Khrushchev and appeared in the 50s and 60s to combat USSR’s housing crisis after the war. Many welcomed these kruschyovka where they hoped they could finally have some privacy. Shostakovich explored these dreams in his operetta, ‘Moscow, Cheryomushki’, where a group of Muscovites aspire for a new life in the new apartments in the Cheryomushki housing development. There are plans afoot now to demolish these buildings and those like it, all 8000 of them, and resettle all its inhabitants in new housing. Although the buildings weren’t in great condition and built with cheap materials to begin with, they still succeeded in housing generations. Now their descendants do not want to leave, and Moscow’s proposals are being debated.
I arrived at the forest, and sat on a large fallen tree, getting some respite from the concrete by looking at the pines. Families cross-country-skied past. An old lady, wrapped up in layers of wool, her crinkled face only barely visible, walked ahead without giving me a second look. Behind her, a small sled trailed behind in the snow, with a little boy riding in it. ‘Vanya, Vanya,’ she called to him (in my mind), as that little boy (Vanya) smiled back at her. Though the smile was not intended for me, I smiled too, staring at them for a long while after they were gone, disappearing into a small colourful house, past a group of stray cats.
There was no glitz here; just Vanya and his Grandma, perhaps having a bowl of kasha together for supper. Or perhaps, Vanya is now playing Pokemon Go on a smartphone while his Grandma watches a speech by the President. What do they think of Stalin’s edifices, I started wondering, and then stopped. Dostoyevsky’s words in Notes from Underground came to mind, ‘For the whole world to vanish into thin air, or for me not to drink my tea? I say, let the world perish if I can always drink my tea.’ Whatever their attitude to their country’s history, politics or the rise of consumerism, they were far from Stalin’s edifices, a little boy who was likely not called Vanya, smiling at his grandma, returning to their warm home in Podlipki Dachnye.