Nezarvicimaya (Moscow) 00-04-1992
Christopher Long, 44, started his career as a journalist in 1978. He has been on the staff of many newspapers and magazines. He contributes to radio and television and has published and edited his own magazines. Since the end of last year he has been a Balkan specialist, often visititing that country [sic]. There he got to know a Nezavicimar special correspondent after which he decided it was his duty to come to Russia again. Before leaving Moscow, Christopher Long shared some items from his notebook.
I've been in Moscow for a week now and today I'm moving into my own appartment, a large one-room flat with a kitchen, bathroom, lavatory and hallway. There is a nice view from the window over the Moscow river to Kievski station.
My flat is on the third floor of what is probably the ugliest building in Moscow. I am told, incidentally, that it is lived in by those who designed it. I like such justice. In England architects create God-forsaken buildings in post-Modernist, Stalinist styles and then buy themselves nice 18th or 19th Century houses in Chelsea or somewhere in the green, rolling countryside. In Moscow, architects are consigned to a gulag of their own making and this is as it should be.
My neighbours are suspicious of this foreigner who appeared from nowhere. They are extremely curious as to who I am and what I'm doing here. But, being well-bred Muscovites, they refrain from asking questions.
We're playing a sort of game. As I lock the door before leaving, a dog in the opposite flat starts barking. This is a signal to a middle-aged lady on the floor below and she, it seems, is a self-appointed seksot. This lady immediately walks out onto the staircase as if to open windows and observes me closely. To intrigue her more I hang my Press and International Red Cross cards round my neck.
To achieve the maximum effect all I need now is a mysterious mistress who will leave my flat at 3.00 in the morning.
I have several appointments at the Russian Foreign Ministry and then at the British Embassy. What in God's name did Britain do to deserve this beautiful building on the banks of the Moscow river? My grandfather would have said that this is a small reward for all those aluminium pots and warm clothes that he and my grandmother sent on convoys to Murmansk in 1942.
President Yeltsin could always punish the English if they don't behave themselves by moving them, for example, into that giant, hideous carrot now inhabited by Russian foreign affairs clerks.
I ask the First Secretary of the Embassy about life in Moscow. He warns me about gypsy children who last week attacked a good friend of his in Arbat.
If I can survive six months of the Serbo-Croatian war why should I worry about children, I ask myself.
Two hours later in Arbat I am attacked by a gang of gypsy children. I get very angry and wonder what sort of death these children deserve but then consider that if I start killing them now my fellow countrymen at the embassy will almost certainly be moved from their lovely building opposite the Kremlin to some dingy hole. I decide to be merciful.
It's the first day of April today April Fool's Day. I wonder if Russians celebrate this day. It seems they don't. The news from their press is deadly serious. For example, Russian homosexuals have decided to cross oceans on a raft in the form of a giant condom.
Disappointed, I tune my radio to the BBC and hear that Europe and the US have decided to solve all Russia's problems by giving it 24 billion dollars. 'Ah! Thank God,' I tell myself, 'the West still has a sense of humour.'
I'm on my way to the newspaper [Nezarvicimaya]. I put the Zagreb 'cigarette ploy' into operation. The problem is that Moscow journalists, like Croat soldiers, smoke all my cigarettes whenever I meet them. So, I put my favourite Silk Cut into a Cosmos pack and vice versa. Thus I achieve three goals: 1. I have the pleasure of offering 'English' cigarettes to my Russian colleagues; 2. I obtain their sympathy that I have to smoke such rubbish; 3. no one ever asks me for another.
This evening I am invited to a young couple's first wedding anniversary party. I find myself wondering how young people ever manage to meet each other here. In Moscow there are practically no cafes, bars or discos not even comfortable places to sit and chat. How and where do they ever get to sleep with each other? Most of them do not have flats of their own.
But luckily not all of them have such problems. A pretty girl stops me in front of the Belgrade Hotel, asking for a cigarette. I give her one Cosmos, of course and she suggests that in return for $100 we could share it in the comfort of her cosy flat, not far away.
An elderly woman is sweeping the stairs of a metro station. Suddenly she is knocked down by a galloping lady. I help the cleaning woman to her feet and, having no Russian cash on me, put a pound coin in her hand. In London 1 pound buys just one metro ticket. In Moscow it buys me 400 metro trips. Here everything is either too expensive or too cheap. Like the Russians who are either too kind or too cruel, too beautiful or too ugly.
I pass the eternal flame in Alexadrov Garden. A happy bride is putting flowers on the tomb of the unknown soldier. I approach her and wish her happiness. She smiles in return. But she doesn't need my good wishes. Neither does she need 24 billion dollars. Like many other Russians, this girl would like to solve her own problems and build her own future no matter what it costs her.
The above was translated from English into Russian and then, for the purposes of this page, from Russian back into English. The result demonstrates that any subtlety and humour the original English version may have contained was lost on the editor and in translation! It was my fault. I failed to appreciate that English irony might not work well in Russian. The piece was heavily cut and taken at face value by my otherwise very tolerant and hospitable Russian hosts.
© (1992) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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