My neighbor, Viktor, likes to listen to opera until the early hours of the morning. This makes it difficult to fall asleep, as his living room is above my kitchen, where I do most of my drowsing. My bedroom, you see, is covered in an immense wall carpet that has slid to the floor in such a haphazard manner that placing a bed anywhere is now impossible.
This brings us to the problem of finding good accommodation in Moscow, home to over 10 million people, many of whom have tiny, faded documents tucked away in the bottom of their cupboards.
What are these documents? Should one bring them up in polite conversation? Or not?
Etiquette is a tricky subject, especially in a foreign land, which is why notorious mass murderer Andrei Chikatilo (born in Yablochnoye, Ukraine and the killer of more than 50 people over a period of three decades) is very rarely featured on the front of New Year corporate greeting cards printed by foreign companies for their local staff.
Many of whom are not actually from Moscow, but from small hamlets spread across this vast country and ruled by a fire-breathing dragon that has no name. (Not one that can be uttered aloud anyway.) These places, far removed from the glitter and sparkly baubles of Moscow, with its creamy pies and luminous ties sold in palaces of marzipan and filled with diamond-crusted poodles walked by French dames with ribbons in their hair, are not good places.
I spoke to one of these “locals” once – a hunchbacked academic by the name of Professor Popov. He was a chain-smoker, and it was hard to make out his words in between the curling plumes of smoke that rose from his vicious, yet somehow feminine, mouth.
“I’ve…been…to…other…places,” he told me, his head emerging from above the wall he lived behind. “And the people there are no better for all their suffering.”
It was a typically Russian statement. Russians love to suffer, which is why the most popular type of “shop” in this city of “glitter and sparkly baubles” (Marc Bennetts, 2010) is a small dank affair, a construction of steel (hints of Stalin there) and calcium. Inside, tiny creatures, (they may be rice mice) run wheels of jagged glass under which well-dressed businessmen lie for hours on end, taking pleasure in the pain.
Ah, the Russian soul! Or as Lenin once said “The Russian soul – who can guess at its depths? Its loves and fantasies? The way it changes its clothes three times before going out for the evening to stroll the streets of St. Petersburg, where lice have no place.”
Or that may have been Gogol, I’m not sure.
But who can be certain in these times? Not even the all-powerful leaders of the faraway hill tribes, a dreamlike region where rivers of life-giving elixirs run across the heaving masses of dancing locals, all with their very own personal role to play in the drama that is soon to unfold.
But I fear I have slipped off topic somewhat.
Viktor doesn’t actually listen to opera, its just that I am not sure what to call the music that oozes from above in treacle-like lumps of stone.
Musique concrète? I should ask, but he has fallen victim to a strange ailment sweeping across Russia – the imbibing of dark brown liquids that poison the brain cells and turn ordinary folk into phantoms of people they have never met. They call this liquid “soul flame” and it is to be found everywhere, from the Kremlin to the old city walls that were recently uncovered by archaeologists working to reveal the location of the last roubles not invested in oil or gas.
Experts may say they know where Russia is heading, but pay no attention to them. They speak empty words and their mouths are full of mouldy paper and slime.
Heed the skies! A change is coming. As for me, I wonder more every day about this place, about its design and shadows. And sometimes I read Daniil Kharms. You, dear reader, should too.
Until next week, or until the sun rises again.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.