Sunday, 17 October 2010

From Madrid to Maidenhead to Moscow.

And so begins my time, my story, in Russia. I knew that it was going to be a different experience from the year I spent in Madrid and I would be lying if I didn't have flashes of 'why didn't I just stay in Spain!' rushing through my head as I waited in the flabby, congealed mess of people trying to get through immigration at the Domodedovo airport. There were vague, abstract ideas of what a line should be but it was essentially a free-for-all. Combined with a two hour delayed flight, it was not the ideal start.

The young militsia cadets running my 'line' decided to leave. I was standing, with a flurry of confused Russians in a line that wasn't moving. Nobody left. This was our line dammit. They'd come back. They didn't come back. People, huffing and puffing, started to filter out into adjacent queues. I was pushed forward by the elbow by an energetic and bolshy little babushka.
'Go forward, that's it!'
I laughed a little breathy laugh
'Why are you laughing? Go on, go and get behind that man. Move up'
I laughed because the dominance of the babushka is legendary and here one was, not half an hour into my Russian experience, throwing her weight around as if she had more authority than just her age. Sensing that our immigration office people weren't coming back I too moved into another queue. Within 5 minutes I was through.

Slava, a bright, young Russian who works at my school met me with my name on a piece of A4 paper. I felt important. I napped in the taxi as we drove into the centre of the city where I was to be staying. Kurskaya was my area and I would be living with Richard, another teacher. On the seventh floor a dim little flat with its door open, a Scunthorpian bloke and a little kid were waiting for me.
'Come in, don't worry about your shoes. Do you want tea?'
I walked up to the little boy and behaved like any proper middle-class Englishman should. I thrust out my hand,
'Hello! Nice to meet you'.
He took it limply and then ran back to his father. Over my Early Grey I realised he was essentially Russian and didn't really speak English. I felt a prat but consoled myself as we made friends by looking at his new plastic toys.

My evening was then spent talking about my future job and settling into my room. I collapsed onto my bed and readied myself for the weekend.

In Richard's hands.
A little tour of the local area and a metro trip to Kievskaya.
Simcard, Rubles.
We met one of his friends/bandmates who was lucky enough to live in one of the Stalinist skyscrapers. I felt privileged to go in and up.

There are seven of them - the 'Seven Sisters' - and they form an arc around the city centre. They are overblown, eccentric, spiky messes of statuary, spires, communist stars and vast haunches. Originally they were designed to surround one enormous, but never-built, building called the Palace of Soviets. It would have been the tallest building in the USSR, topped with a statue of Lenin. Its combined height would have been more than the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty put together. As far as I was concerned it was a shame it wasn't built. They remain beautiful, Gothic reminders of the once great potency of the soviets.

We had lunch by another Stalinist skyscraper, The Kudrinskaya block. It was the last of the skyscrapers and on its completion Krushchev commented how Stalin defended their construction:
'We've won the war and are recognised all over the world as the glorious victors. We must be ready for an influx of foreign visitors. What will happen if they walk around Moscow and find no skyscrapers? They will make unfavourable comparisons with capitalist cities.'
Fair enough Stalin, fair enough.

Another day of relative rest.
In the afternoon I met my boss, Tony, in Starbucks for a long coffee and a chat. He was a chirpy and laddish North Londoner and made me feel at ease quickly. We talked at length about the job itself and about what I could expect. I sweated. The heating was on maximum and even the waitresses were fanning themselves.
'Yeah, you can expect this in the winter'

Within a very short period of time my new boss and I were discussing the merits of Russian females and how it was absurd how attractive they were. Every time the cafe door opened yet another beauty walked in.
'Like I say mate, the only danger in Moscow is fighting off the women'

He told me about the phenomenon of reiderstvo, (corporate) raiding.
Essentially if one interested party wants to seize the business of another, it can. All it needs to do is first pay off some officials, police for example, to obtain some legal documents - company records, tax certificates, corporate seals etc - and then pay off some government bodies to help take ownership of the company. Lawyers and witnesses have even been bribed to say that the victimised party was definitely at a meeting where it was agreed that the ownership would be passed on to the interested party. And so the victim loses its assets and its company and is ruined.
Tony told me how he had a student once, a very rich man, who lost some of his businesses to a raiding scam. He then hired some heavies to go and get them back by whatever means necessary, which they did. However then the heavies, now aware of what the man had, decided to get something for themselves and the poor bloke was raided a second time, this time by the heavies!
'That's Russia you know. It's utterly safe and there's never any problems unless you're earning millions and someone doesn't like it'.

In the evening I met up with Miguel. He was one of my students in Madrid and his company had given him the option, along with some colleagues, to travel and live in Moscow for a year; to learn Russian and to get business experience. He accepted. I felt comfortable with him and was glad that I wouldn't lose the Spanish connection while I was here.

I knew I would have a class in the evening: 18:00-20:00 teaching at SBERBANK, the largest bank in Russia, but I met Tony in the morning and then we drove to the office where I spent most of the day planning. I instantly made friends with the lively, young Russians who were working in the office. There was Slava again, prim in a shirt and blazer typing away at his computer. Near the door of the small room was Sasha, a lanky and at first shy, blonde, Russian guy who steadily opened up as the days passed. Perpendicular to the door was Anna. An attractive and funny Russian girl who would be the giver of timetables. They all had a dry and sarcastic sense of humour. When we printed my photo out for my propusk, entry pass, it was such a large picture that it took up the whole A4 page.
'Oh that's great. We can put it on the board and use it for darts' laughed Anna.
Slava then pinned it to the board.

The propusk system is a gleaming example of the stupidity and pointlessness of the Russian bureaucratic system. I had to go first to one office, the bureau of entry passes, hand the rosy-cheeked lady my passport and tell her the company where I was headed. A couple of minutes later she handed me a little white card. I then took this card to the entrance of my building where I could beep through a turnstile. I had to follow this process not only every morning but also at every point throughout the day when I left the office. If I wanted to go for lunch I dropped the card in a box, left, and had to get another one when I returned. It was a chore.

At 17:00 I went with Richard to the SBERBANK head office in the south of the city. A massive building all white cement and green windows, it was very attractive. We sat in the entrance hall with some other teachers who had arrived and waited for our students to come and get us. At five to the hour one of my students, Ilya, called me to see if I was here. I was. He came down, got me a propusk, 'maybe we can sort you out with a proper pass or something', and then took one of the 18 lifts up to the seventh floor.
'What a view!'
'I know. It's good. One day we can go up to the 25th. That's a good view'
I taught Marina and Ilya that day. It was a dream.
They work such long days they said they were just happy to relax.

This morning I was supposed to have had an early morning class at 7:30 teaching some workers of SOVCOMFLOT, the largest, state-owned, merchant navy in the country. However, due to a metro closure along the circle line I was stranded in Moscow. It was dark, cold, early in the morning and due to some dicey directions from a man who probably just didn't want to be bothered by a stupid foreigner in a suit, I was completely lost. I didn't make my class.
On the phone to Tony:
'Don't worry about it. It's your first couple of days in the city, it happens to new teachers'
The rest of the day was planning again.

After work I went for a drink with Anna. We headed to Mollie's Irish Pub where the drinks were tasty but cost £5. I wrapped my coat around me and walked down to my metro stop past the behemoth Lubyanka building, where the FSB resides. At the Ploshad Revolutsii metro I passed the beautiful salmon-pink Epiphany Cathedral and headed back to Kurskaya.

A slightly dull day this one. Due to missing my class on Tuesday I already had the rest of the week planned. I decided to go for a walk around the local area, over the inimitable Red Square; down Varvarka Street, lined with different coloured churches and temples; around the Kitay-gorod, where I got lost; and finally back up to the KGB, cough, ahem, sorry, silly me, it's not, I mean the FSB headquarters. It's so utterly different to the KGB and in no way behaves like that old, evil and pernicious government body I can't possible see how I got confused...

That evening, at 19:30, after everyone had left - except poor Zhenia, a serious, blonde Russian girl who had to stay behind - I taught Aleksei, a serious but sweet man who works for GAZPROMBANK. He was a family man and keen to have business classes. Whoopie for him that I'm a fully qualified business specialist myself...

After all these '...' I returned home and collapsed early onto my bed. I set three alarms and woke up several times in the night, paranoid that I would again miss my early morning class.

I didn't.
I arrived at SOVCOMFLOT with plenty of time and collected my thoughts in the lofty, empty, marbled atrium. The class was fine, Yuri and Tatiana. They didn't mind that I missed the previous one. They found it quite amusing. I walked out past model boats and pictures of oil tankers.
'I worked 20 years as a seaman' Yuri smiled.

SBERBANK in the evening. Ilya's impressively bad breath and Svetlana, a new girl. The far off lights of the Moscow State University skyscraper twinkled into existence as I made the trek back to the metro and passed some stray dogs howling to each other in that lupine way.

I finally got my propusk. I no longer had to faff around at the bureau or ring Slava because the ladies behind the glass were denying me my plastic beeping card. No classes today though. I relaxed at home and tried, in vain, to tidy my room. I had a distinct lack of hangers to cope with a distinct glut of things to be hung. One week and my big bag was still lying on the floor. I was still pretending I was on holiday. It had started to feel like home. Only a little.
'Fancy a cup of tea?' asked Richard
Yes, it was starting to feel like home.
At 23:00 I met Miguel, his newly arrived girlfriend Sara, and a couple of Spanish guys and we headed to a Spanish house party near the Old Arbat street and its Stalinist skyscraper - The Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was slightly grander than the FCO building in Whitehall. And I say that under a thick blanket of understatement.

Vodka and oranges, lots of Spanish, a Bulgarian girl who had lived in Reading and a night out in Moscow - Propaganda club. Gay-friendly, cheap, good-natured and with 'democratic face control', it was a fun evening. I got home at 3:30 after a walk back to sober up.

I taught Aleksei and then a little 11yr-old called Artyem. I was sleepy and feeling a little languid due to my performance the previous night. I got through it though. I even accidentally taught the boy thirty minutes longer than I needed to.
Home. Siesta for 3.5 hours.

This brings me up to the present.
In the morning sun I walked around my local area. I found monasteries and churches and lovely views of distant architectural peaks as well as ugly roads, grey, soviet blocks and men hocking globs of phlegm onto the street.

In the greying and very cold afternoon I walked around with Miguel and Sara. We visited, and went inside, the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Saviour where a mass had started; down the river away from the Kremlin to find hidden coloured temples; along the bank to the 94 metre Peter the Great Monument - voted tenth ugliest building/monument in the world; past riverside clubs and chic bars and finally to their flat where we enjoyed a couple of beers and an Anglo-Iberian conversation.

In the somehow warmer evening I met with Anna and her friend Vacya for a drink, again at Mollie's and then went for a walk to see the lights of Red Square. It was a nice end to a very nice weekend. I felt like I was slowly getting to grips with Moscow.

Sure it wasn't as easy or immediate as Madrid. But then it was never going to be. I didn't - and still don't really - know anybody when I came and the city itself is 800km squared and 7th most populace in the world. Still this is one week of many.
I have time.

No comments:

Post a Comment