To Each His Own Symphony
Cast your mind back. Right back to the start of this blog. I can’t remember the exact words, and I’m a bit too lazy to go and look, but I did I say that these entries weren’t likely to be the most regular. That’s now looking a bit understated. In truth, I’ve taken the literary concept of the Unreliable Narrator and built on it to create the Fairly Useless Narrator.
But I think it’s important that I update the blog, not least as I need to set the scene for a couple of travel pieces I’m going to post in a week or so, (don’t bet the farm on this). You see, it would be unfair to leave those of you who still visit and read this blog with the impression of Russia as a land permanently condemned to survive under a never ending blanket of snow and ice. It is, for most of the year, however, we’ve just come out of a near tropical summer, one which doesn’t really fit with most people’s preconceptions of life here and I think it’s important to address that.
I went back to the UK in later May to attend a friend’s wedding. This, not long after returning from a trip to Uzbekistan. Unsurprisingly, the first question most people would ask is what was Russia like, which, let’s face it, is fair enough. However I found it a hard one to answer. Rather, I’d find myself waxing lyrical about the wonders of Samarkand, a place they’d barely heard of, rather than answer the simplest and most obvious of questions. The fact is that I’d run out of the mental vocabulary with which to describe Moscow. They might as well of asked me what it was like to be mammal.
However, that’s a cop out because I started this thing. I started describing the new and amazing experiences that seemed to assault me on a daily basis and not to finish that, not to see that through is to devalue the experience. It is still amazing and the amazing should always be recorded. In this way, the amazing lives on. Future versions of me, plus any number of anonymous future readers, get to share in it and, in that way, the amazing never really dies.
Like I said, I’ve started this entry a few times and, before I ever get chance to complete it, something has changed rendering what has gone before irrelevant. The past isn’t always prologue. I am also very, very lazy. But I think the point is that you have to move fast to keep up with any season that isn’t winter here. Spring happens quickly, and it’s not pretty or particularly nice. The snow that has lain for months on end, with constant and unending additions, starts to melt away and slowly gives up its secrets. Amid the litter, lie dead birds, rats, and the occasional lost household pet. Every now and then, the melting snow can reveal the frozen corpse of a tramp, or just some unfortunate reveler who picked the wrong time to sleep it off. Underneath the snow, gradually appearing in patches on either side of the flooded streets the remnants of last year’s grass appear, like the desperate tufts of brown hair upon a nearly bald head It’s not too prepossessing a sight and one not likely to trouble the postcard manufacturers greatly.
However, if the false spring comes on quickly, it leaves with equal alacrity and then something really remarkable happens and I’ve never seen its like before. The standing army of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis who spend the winter shoveling snow and picking away at the ice, emerge into the first proper week of spring, paintbrushes in hands and begin putting Moscow back together. Everything is painted. In a moment the kerbs are transformed from concrete grey to bright red and white. Similarly, the railings that line the patches of open ground are painted in brilliant colours. Building walls, whose first ten feet haven’t seen daylight since the snow first hit, are now painted bright greens. Bars, whose business it was to shelter the frozen within their protective embrace, now fling open their doors and begin the sawing and hammering that will see them spill out onto the street in temporary pagodas of beer and music. For nearly two weeks the entire city reeks of paint and thinners but, after so short a time, the transformation is complete and Moscow basks in the fresh spring sunlight, waiting for nature to catch up and match its bright new feathers.
It’s not just that summers are hot, (they are) which strikes you, but the enthusiasm with which they’re embraced. Really, seeing Moscow head into the summer is like seeing a drowning man come up for air. The many city parks take their place centre stage in the lives of a lot of Moscow. It seems inconceivable now, writing in a mid afternoon’s autumn gloom, that only a few months ago some friends and I spent an afternoon rollerblading around Sokolniki Park, before finishing off the afternoon with a fairly refreshing swim in the fountain there. Trust me, there’s few feelings to match doing nothing while the world around you works.
Then, in the middle of all of this, I somehow found myself in step with the city. I couldn’t tell you when or how it happened, but suddenly it was there. I was marching to the same beat as Moscow. Like everyone else, I was desperate to eke out and enjoy every last minute of summer, and soak myself in its heat after the long winter’s cold. Maybe it was this that led to me extending my contract here, to staying on for the remainder of the calender year, I don’t really know. All I know for certain is that there was a point in the summer where everything just felt right, after what seemed a very long time of everything feeling quite wrong.
Maybe, looking back, it was the uncertainty of the next contract in Vietnam that was on my mind. There’s no escaping the fact there’s safety in the known and Moscow, despite its many and glaring, faults is at least known. But to accept that is to run counter to everything that inspired this journey; of the months and years spent hibernating within the mist and fog that was my world after losing my sight. Because that’s how losing your sight hits you. It marks a forced retreat from the world. You stop interacting in the same way as you did before. What is outside appears secondary to what is inside. I don’t know, maybe not. I suppose that if all of that was entirely true, the world’s greatest philosophers would all be blind. But I think there’s an essence of truth in the idea. Certainly, in those periods where I have to, by force of necessity, remove my contact lens, I no longer feel that I’m quite the same person. It seems inconceivable that, following such a drastic change in the way I – literally – see the world that there isn’t a corresponding change in the way the world sees me. Hang on. This is all getting a bit vague. Maybe this will fall the way of someone blind or partially sighted and they’ll get it, but I don’t think anyone else will. It’s, in every sense, a highly personal experience.
I had a vivid reminder of that world recently. A cold spread from my chest and into my eye, requiring a fairly hurried trip to the hospital. The situation was easily resolved via a bunch of drugs and a few days wandering around my flat without the contact lens, but it was a nasty little reminder of how life used to be. It was also a pretty stark example of Russian free market economics in action. While the ophthalmologist I saw was OK, there is no guarantee that any Doctor you might see here is either capable or qualified. The free market pervades everything unchecked and without restraint. This even extends to the manner in which many professionals gain their qualifications. When this group includes Doctors, the significant expense of any health scare is only matched by the vagueries of a positive outcome.
Though this form of unbridled and unchecked capitalism isn’t simply a direct extension of human nature, as we’re told. I don’t want to believe that people are essentially venal. Here, it comes from the top and creeps its way downwards before engulfing all. Putin has gone on record, on numerous occasions, as saying that the prime motivator for people is money. That is, if you want someone to extend a simple act of human kindness to another, you must first weigh how this act might conflict with their own self interest. It’s a principal that cuts through Moscow, (I have little experience of greater Russia) like, as the tired analogy has it, the writing through a stick of rock. Moscow is all but defined by free market economics and, though life here can be beautiful, the effects of this principal are often ugly in the extreme. There is what I can only describe as an absence of humanity. Everything is on sale, from the Police to the politicians, and I can’t see much room for people in that equation. Because, surely, the whole purpose of any structure must be to benefit those involved within it, not simply the lucky or the ruthless.
But people do thrive here, despite the greed and the corruption, and they’re awesome. The same guy who elbows you in the gut in the charge for the Metro, will be the same guy that jams the train door open and pulls you on board. I think maybe that’s what keeps the city moving, these small, innumerable acts of simple human charity that people extend to each other every day.
Human nature can be pretty shabby. It can be self serving and it can be viscous. There is no end to the evidence for this, throughout history and throughout the world. However, to focus on that at the expense of anything else is to miss the point. From time immemorial, we’ve also set standards of behavior for ourselves that far exceed our ability to live up to them. It doesn’t matter if that standard is religious, political, philosophical or just the simple code of right and wrong that gets us each through the day, it doesn’t really matter. I think what matters is that we’re not quite up to the job of fulfilling these principals. However, that notwithstanding, it never once stops us from trying. Then, when inevitably we fall short of our own expectations, it’s never the expectations which are questioned, but our own abilities to live up to them. Maybe that’s where my head’s at right now. That Moscow might be rank with corruption, that it might whore itself daily to the whims of the corrupt and powerful few, but people here are still trying to create something better and, even if that never happens, that’s still pretty awesome.