There and Back Again: reviving the blog for my latest stay

I’m back in Moscow, to be based here until around the end of April on research leave, and so I thought I’d revive the blog to cater for any observations that don’t fall into the more serious security and politics genre of my main one, In Moscow’s Shadows. So, stay tuned…


Paroxysms of Patriotism: the Victory Day gallery

I’ve posted some pictures of the preparations for the actual 9 May Victory Day (Den’ pobedy) parade elsewhere, but it is striking the extent to which this is a celebration which still covers the city and its inhabitants with posters, flags, banners and ribbons. In part this can be explained as the mobilisation of past glories for political purpose by the authorities, but that doesn’t explain why people plaster their cars with decals, tie St George’s ribbons to their rucksacks and baby buggies, put flags and posters in their windows and generally get in on the act. This is still a very real, very present event and even while one could sniffily talk about a people who believe their glory days are past rather than ahead of them, here in Moscow it’s hard not actually to be rather impressed by the genuine passions the event arises, which are patriotic but not–at least in my experience–nationalist or xenophobic.

When HRH Met Sally: a brief review of Jennifer Eremeeva’s ‘Lenin Lives Next Door’

Lenin.Cover_.Final_-682x1024On the one hand, the “expat’s eye” book has a long and sometimes-distinguished pedigree (heavens, one could even make the case that the tenth book of Pliny the Younger’s Epistulae could be considered an expat’s take on Bithynia-Pontus, first century Roman Turkey). On the other hand writing one means having to navigate a tricky route between blandly affirming “we’re all the same under the skin” banalities like a moralizing Disney special, and falling prey to the kind of patronizing Orientalism that ultimately brands Johnny Foreigner as being a splendid chap but not altogether civilized or grown-up because He’s Not One Of Us. The best of the genre, though, manage to highlight the genuine quirks, cultures and characteristics of its subjects without feeling to need to patronize and in the process not just entertain but also enlighten. George Mikes’s How To Be An Alien remains, in my mind, a classic study of the English which, even though it freely exaggerates and caricatures (“Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles”) nonetheless is in so many ways spot-on about the, um, “English Condition.”

In this company, Lenin Lives Next Door, by 20-year-veteran US expat in Moscow Jennifer Eremeeva, is a an excellent addition to the canon that says much about the day-to-lives and aspirations of today’s Russians, still stranded between Soviet legacy and uncertain future, as well as the world of the expat in such a country. Everything from the art of constructive dismissal, Russian-style, to the invisible but iron-hard social hierarchies embedded within expat book clubs is rightly fair game.

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By Their Dogs Shall Ye Know Them

Prague was ridiculously dog-friendly (in all the right ways – like not only being able to take your dog into a restaurant, but the waiters putting down a bowl of water for her before even thinking of taking your order), but there seemed to be a social contract at work. We were amazed by just how well-behaved Czech dogs were, almost to the point of speculating about some Stepford Wives shenanigans at work. Hypnotic suggestion, computer chips, regular beatings. Whatever the reason, Czech – or at least Prague – dogs seemed in the main unflappable, sober, friendly but reserved and above all obedient. And, it be honest, that seemed to be what their owners expected.

For all sorts of reasons, but this one included, Prague is not Moscow. As cities go, it is not that dog-unfriendly, but certainly not especially friendly, either. (Don’t get me started on the strays, too.) The dogs of Moscow appear to be either apartment-sized mini-breeds such as to make Penny look looming or ales at the other extreme, substantial Shepherds, Labs, even Pit Bulls. Nary a middle-range collie or the like to be seen.

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Benson & Ledges

IMG_1137What can a photo tell us? Here’s a little ledge on the lift shaft in our apartment block. The stairwell is clearly often used for a quick smoke — what’s the point of a malodorous and carcinogenic habit if you can’t share it with your neighbours? — and this would equally clearly be soneone’s favoured spot. I assume someone, anyway, given that the discarded packs are all the same type. Is this an elegant repurposing and appropriation of the existing architecture? (You can tell I am married to an urban sociologist.) An example of the perfect equipoise between slovenliness and punctilio? (“I will throw away my dog-ends and packs, but not just willy-nilly.”) Or simply an illustration of the fact that communal spaces in a Russian apartment block receive distinctly little love and attention, let alone cleaning.

I am tempted to take a plastic bag down and clear it myself, but (a) I would feel strangely transgressive applying my alien values and (b) I am genuinely curious to see both how quickly the dog ends add up and what happens if the ledge gets full. The inner ethnographer wars with my inner cleaner.

Postscript: 28 January. Today one of the dom staff came and cleaned the stairwell, including the ledge ‘o many dog ends. Does this mean that it’s cleaned but very rarely, that the secret smoker worked very hard to build up his or her collection in between cleans, or that the dom management reads this blog? I think I can exclude one of that trio of explanations.

Making a Spectacle of Myself

Erm, no, I don't think so

Erm, no, I don’t think so

I wear a bright red winter coat. That’s unusual in this city where — with the exception of the teeming workmen in their high-vis orange — solidly sober blues, blacks, greys and browns very much seem the norm, especially amongst the menfolk.

But beyond that, I seem to be unusual in wearing glasses. Men younger than their 50s in particular seem quite rarely bespectacled. Am I misreading the density of glasses here? Do Russians keep them off in the cold? (I could understand this as stepping into the subway station from the -15C street leads to instant and impenetrable fogging.) Do they have unusually strong ocular genes? A propensity for contact lenses? Or do they simply squint and make do, victims of habit, penury or vanity? It does seem to be one trait of the Williamsbourgeois hipster that hasn’t even made it to the young Muscovite twitterati.

The Discreet Charm of Honest Rudeness

Whatever the components of my ancestry, I am English and thus prey to a cultural predisposition to lie rather than tell an honest but uncomfortable truth, to rely on circumlocution and under-statement, to the mutual dance of manners and implication. Perhaps for that reason, Russians’ tendency to rude honesty — or honest rudeness — is for me at once jarring, uncomfortable and refreshing. There are no insincere “have a nice day” well-wishes from low-paid customer service drones who actually couldn’t care less if you spontaneously combust the moment you step out of the store (and that last consideration is purely so they don’t have to sweep up your ashes). They will wear coats of sweeping furs even though my Western liberal guilt somehow regards them as abhorrences a world apart from the meat I eat and the leather shoes I wear. They do not feel any need to get out of my way in the overcrowded aisles at Aushan, but nor do they begrudge me my moment when I sweep in to exploit an opportunity and fill a gap with my shopping trolley before them.

NoMigrantsIn that spirit, while it in no way redeems the crass racism so widely prevalent here, there was even something faintly admirable about the unselfconsciousness of this builder’s brochure I found in our mailboxes. Not for Russians the codes, nudges and deniable-but-universally-understood ways in which racism can be expressed at home. No, here is a brochure in which on the cover it reassures the reader that they will not have to put up with Central Asians or the like in their homes: “No Migrants. All Your Own [Kind]” it says, and inside the firm notes that it is looking for new staff, but even before it says that they have to have the requisite skills, it stipulates that they must be Russians. Not “permitted to work in Russia” or anything like that, but Russians. Although–pace David Cameron–I get the sense that “Polish builder” is actually a positive marker in the UK at present, in the main I suspect that often people would, sadly, prefer to have “their own” work inside their houses. (Moscow, in perpetual remont–repair and remodelling–clearly has no problem with armies of Central Asians working outside) but I wonder how many culturally and, indeed, legally could or would ever actually approach this so overtly? Again, I must stress this isn’t an attempt to present racism as any less objectionable, but I felt it an interesting insight into Russian concepts of what can and cannot be said.


NoMigrants2PS: Another interesting example: a cleaning service (advertised in our apartment building’s lift) that reassures potential customers that “only slavs” are employed; so, even if you’re a Russian-passport-holding Dagestani or Tyvan, you’re out of luck. An opportunity for Belarusian gasterbeiters in Russia? Or simply a way of being even more specific in pandering to the fears/concerns of potential punters.