Russians are crazy. I guess that’s what makes them so appealing. I once read that the most interesting people — read: crazy-heads — are either the very poor or the very rich. It’s the middle-class blokes that are boring. They can’t stop talking about this stock or house prices going up or who’s going to win the next year’s elections. You know, the climbers.
But the poor and the rich? They live on a different planet.
Well, Russia has both of these extremes. Nothing in-between. You’ve got the filthy rich and the filthy — in the literal sense — poor, living side by side. Especially in Moscow. (When I say ‘Russia’ I should probably mention that I haven’t lived anywhere except Moscow and Saint Petersburg and I know that other places are very-very different.)
I wonder what that makes of me.
Where I am renting an apartment this month — I am currently back in Moscow for several more weeks — I see old Soviet ladies walk around with the same plastic bags they’ve used for months — now that I say that, it can actually be years — and they use it as a bag to carry their shit around.
‘Why buy a bag if you have a plastic bag from a supermarket? I’ve paid 3 roubles for it!’.
The subway in Moscow costs nine times cheaper than in London. And I am not exaggerating — it’s 0.5 pounds in Moscow against London Tube’s 4.5 pounds for an Oyster ride. I feel OK riding mostly Ubers in Moscow because I know I would have paid the same for a Tube ride in London.
Then it’s the salaries. In Moscow, the average salary is about 70–80K roubles per month. That’s roughly $1,000 per month. That’s what most people aspire to make. In the regions? It’s about 20–30K per month. Which is about $300. No wonder they all flock to Moscow.
The rich category of Russians spends the average salary on restaurants, strippers, hookahs, limos, and nightclubs per night. I don’t usually meet or see the ‘rich Russians’, but I did encounter the kids of really rich Russians.
And I must say: they’re fucking insane.
They are the 18-year-olds driving Mercedes Benz around Moscow without a driver’s license, sucking on a cigarette. It’s the ‘You-know-who-the-fuck-you-are-talking-to’ type of talk. It’s the ‘I-am-making-per-day-more-than-your-dad-per-year-from-one-Instagram-post.’
Moscow’s Instagram celebrities are another phenomenon most of my western friends will never understand. You see, in the US and most first-world English-speaking countries, people don’t use Instagram as a media platform. It’s a platform for photos — which is what it was intended to be. You just post pics from restaurants and selfies with friends and that’s pretty much it. In Russia, Instagram is the Internet. You can make money, sell stuff, find friends, find love, make love, sell ads, buy ads, create businesses, teach people, learn from people, read books, write poems, all in the comfort of one single app. It seems that it’s the backlash of Russia’s politicized TV media — people were looking for a place to voice their true opinions and Instagram (and Telegram) became the right place for that. You have professions like ‘Instagram photographer’ — in case you need good-looking photos for your profile. You can hire a personal manager to lead your account. You can hire a personal marketer so that they help you build your profile and attract subscribers, all with the hope that one day, you’ll be making money through selling ads. (That’s the dream, isn’t it?)
It’s a peculiar thing.
One last thing I want to mention about the lifestyle of the filthy rich is the constant hooking smoking. You know, those water pipes with tobacco making a brp-brp-brp-brp sound as you inhale? No? Good for you. There are three places in the world where they smoke that much hookah: Istanbul, Dubai, and Moscow. You can’t prove it historically, but there seems to be something common between the cultures of these three places.
It’s also rarely the gals — mostly the guys. You see them every Thursday and Friday night, hanging together, smoking hookah like chimneys, the smoke coming out of their noses, ears, eyes, and every other hole in their body. People usually don’t drink when they smoke hookah — that comes before or after — but it’s a whole ritual in itself. I know people who smoke hookah every day — heck, at 19, I used to do that as well! — and it’s crazy how expensive such a lifestyle can become. Smoking 1 hookah per day amounts to roughly 1,500 rubles (sometimes more!) per session, multiply that by 30 and you get the average salary just smoked out of the window. Literally so.
But OK, let’s talk about something else besides money or rich people. Money is a filthy, complicated, and sad topic when it comes to Russia. Everyone steals it, nobody has enough of it, everyone is obsessed with it, and so on. Let me tell you about the people.
This other day, I went to meet a friend at a pub. I miss London these days so I went to a local British Pub called Harat’s. It’s a great pub, there are several of them in Moscow, and they serve my favorite IPA. I arrived a bit too early and waited for my friend outside. (Short disclaimer: this is the very center of Moscow, practically downtown, as Americans would call it.)
As I waited, two shady and drunk men — looking about my dad’s age — come up to me slowly. They were standing nearby, smoking a cigarette. They come up casually so, nothing hostile, very friendly. And they started from afar.
‘So you tell me, why do you have those things on your coat?’
I looked down and saw two pins: one from Chipotle in London that said ‘I Love Burritos’ and the other featuring Anton Chekhov.
‘I dunno, I guess I just like them.’
‘You like them, don’t you.’
‘He likes them,’ one of the drunkards says to the other one.
Now, here’s the thing. I just called them drunkards but it’s not particularly true. You see, in Moscow, it’s hard to define the line between a guy having a good time on a Thursday evening or an alcoholic.
‘I do,’ I reply once again. ‘I think they’re beautiful.’
‘He thinks they’re beautiful,’ the guy kept repeating what I said to his friend even though we were all standing together.
Now, if it were in a dark place somewhere in the suburbs of Moscow, I would really start shitting my pants. But here, I was in the very center of the city, nothing could harm me. Yet, the next question he asked me will go with me to my grave.
‘Where did you serve time?’
At first, I thought he was talking about prison. One more fact about Russian men: most of them did time somewhere. In fact, pick any random male strangers standing around the subway entrance and I guarantee you, 30% of them are ex-convicts. I did my field research.
But he wasn’t talking about prison. He was talking about the army. In Russia, you’re required to serve in the army until you’re 27. If you don’t, you’ll be prosecuted and chased around. You won’t be allowed to leave the country and so on. You can get away if you go to college and then have your master’s and then marry and have kids.
‘I didn’t serve. I went to college.’
‘Where did you go to college?’
‘In the States.’
Now I should have known that was a trick question. Because once they’ve heard I studied in the States, their faces — red on every inch from too much drinking — have changed. Now their brains have switched to a fight mode and started seeing me as the enemy. The sad truth is: most Russians hate Americans.
‘How old are you?’ the other guy asked me, just to check.
‘Twenty-three,’ I replied, watching their movements closely.
That seemed to satisfy them and then they asked me another question that caught me off guard. ‘Do you love your country?’
How do you answer that?
‘I do,’ I said. I guess that’s how. Then they followed with a series of short questions about who I love.
‘Do you love your family?’
‘Do you love your city?’
‘Do you love yourself?’
‘Do you love me?’
(Okay, that didn’t happen.)
‘Then what would you do if somebody hit you in the face right on the street?’
That started to sound a bit like an invitation, I thought.
‘I would fight.’
‘How would you fight?’
I looked down at my hands. I was holding a cigarette.
‘I would fight them with this,’ I said, jokingly.
The guys chuckled then suddenly became serious and grave again. You could see by their faces that they had trouble concentrating. It would be not hard to just runway if something happened, I decided and kept calm.
‘You don’t love your country because you didn’t serve in the army,’ the first guy concluded. ‘I served in Chechnya in 1999. Were you even born then? There was a war going on! What would you do if the States invaded our country tomorrow?’
Isn’t it weird how people try to make you feel bad for the hardships they’ve faced because you’ve got it easy? Shouldn’t it be the other way? Also, there’s this constant fear of somebody invading you. Or maybe it’s not fear. Maybe it’s a way of feeling your own importance. In Russia, everyone is waiting for somebody to invade them. The sad truth number two: nobody cares. I have friends from around the world. Most of them don’t even know that Ukraine is a separate country and don’t know any other city except for Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
‘I don’t like wars,’ I said.
They looked at me funny as if I said something abhorrent. I knew what would follow, something about me not being a real ‘man’ (muzhik in Russian) and that ‘we must show those Americans’ — whatever it is we can show them. I got a bit bored by these blokes so I just told them I respect them and wished them a good night.
That seemed to please them enough.
They nodded in unison — perhaps they were brothers — and then the second guy — who was less wasted than the first — dragged his friend back into the pub.
I was left standing on the street alone, thinking about war and peace. And by around the same time, my friend had arrived.
Speaking of war and serving in the army. My grandfather — my mother’s father — is a former KGB agent. He hasn’t worked in KGB since the Soviet regime fell (in 1991) and has built his own business in security and surveillance since then. Like everyone else, he, of course, served in the army and told me stories about it. Not just stories — but he also showed me what they taught him there.
For those who don’t know, most Moscovites have a country house they call dacha. It’s an escape from the city and is usually so far away, you get exhausted from simply driving there. Our dacha was nearby, — ‘only’ a few hours away from the city. But the distance of your dacha is never measured in kilometers, miles, or time. It’s measured in the number of times you have to take a piss. My dacha: two and a half. (You arrive feeling pretty full.)
Anyway, I remember being somewhere about ten, walking with my grandfather in the woods, near our dacha. He was about sixty — or maybe even less — at the time. I have a young family because everyone gave birth at 20.
‘Here’s your grandmother’s cat buried,’ he said, pointing to a bush. ‘And here’s another cat. And there’s one more.’
I looked at the cat graves and thought, ‘My grandmother does love her cats!’
As we walked farther into the forest, my grandfather told me army stories and taught me how to know you’ve spotted an animal, how to navigate by trees, what the stars can tell you, and all that other stuff you learn just in case you find yourself alone in the woods, at night, in Siberia. By accident.
Finally, we arrive at a place deep in the forest. Grandfather suddenly stops and motions me to be quiet. Then he starts walking slowly. I follow him, tracing his footsteps.
In about ten steps, I see a huge — the size of a tall man — hill. It’s about two meters in height and looked as if somebody put together a bunch of little sticks.
Suddenly, it strikes me: the hill is not man-made.
It’s an enormous ant nest. Created by ants themselves. And not just any ants — but gigantic red ants, the size of your nail.
(Did you just look at your nail?)
I stepped back, terrified, filled with disgust.
But what followed next came to me in my nightmares.
My grandfather strips naked — and I mean completely naked, with his willy dangling like a summer leaf — and approaches the anthill. Then he turns around and slowly lies down in it, as if in a hot tub.
‘Grandfather, what the fuck are you doing?’ I ask silently, absolutely terrified by what I see.
‘It’s good for you! The ant bites are very good for you!’ he says as the ants start swarming around his armpits, arms, his hairy chest, and his gold orthodox cross.
For a second I wonder whether these sounds come from pleasure or pain. I take another step back, just in case.
One thing I have to mention about my grandfather. He is a great, funny dude. But he is also a big great funny dude. He has a huge belly — the type you see in pregnant women in their 8th or 9th month. As he lied down in the anthill — practically, destroying the collective work of art that the ants spent months (maybe years!) building — his belly was the only thing sticking out. Everything else was either consumed by the hill or swarming with ants.
‘What if they bite your willy?’ I asked my grandfather.
‘That’s good for you too! You should try it! Uuuughaaaaaaahahhahuuuuuuughhh’.
We walked back home through the woods in silence. My grandfather was marked with red poison bite dots like a polka dot pattern.
As we approached our dacha, he kneeled beside a tree and picked up a green leaf. It was a nettle leaf — you know, the ones that sting and give you a rash for days afterward.
He looked at me, winked, and put the leaf in his mouth.
As he chewed it, he smiled.