I FELL ASLEEP WITH THE WINDOW OPEN, again, and I don’t know if it’s the freezing air or the sound of the snow plough rattling past my window that wakes me. My alarm hasn’t gone off, so it can’t be 7.30 yet. I close the window and curl up under the covers a while longer.
And then the alarm sounds, “Mast Qalander.” This Bollywood anthem is the only tune left on my phone since I somehow wiped all the Nokia tones, and sounds perverse now as I think of the leaden sky outside.
I fossick around beside the bed to find my phone and hit snooze. Then the plough clatters by again, and I decide I might as well get up.
After I’ve showered and dressed I walk down the dark corridor outside my room, through reception, and open the heavy outside door. The chill hits me, it must be about -10 degrees centigrade. Not too bad, though, and I’m not going back for my sheepskin.
The night warden is stood smoking at the entrance, erect and facing the breeze with his legs wide apart like a sailor. From what he tells me, I guess Kirill is about 50, and from the provinces rather than Moscow. I once asked him what he was doing during the Soviet years. “Digging potatoes,” he said wryly. And what about in the crazy 90s? “Digging potatoes,” – this time with a big laugh at the absurdity of it all.
He turns his head and smiles when he notices me rubbing my eyes and says, “Ah, Richard, l’vinoye serdtse!” – Richard the Lionheart. Yes, Richard the Lionheart. It’s me. Again. We go through this most mornings, but I still enjoy it, and it’s the kind of warmth that leavens the mix in this otherwise tough city.
I’m on my way out to teach an English class at Interros, one of the Russian finance giants handling many of the construction contracts for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The sun comes up as I begin my walk, and starts to burn off the mist. It’s a crisp, dry Moscow morning.
Outside MGIMO, Russia’s foreign policy university, the blacked out Mercs, Beemers, and G-Wagons belonging to the nouveau riche kids are already lining up, blatantly parked illegally and blocking half the rush hour traffic. But who’s going to tell their dour close-protection crews to move on? If not the militsiya, then not me.
On the way to the metro at Prospekt Vernadskogo I try to walk casually on the icy pavement, the way William S Burroughs’ colonel might have coached – every object you touch is alive with your life and your will. But only the shuffling babooshkas look comfortable. I’m sliding all over the place because the skinny tractors that clean the pavements also polish the ice like a curling rink and I don’t know the babooshkas’ secret. I think it might be their felt moon boots. I stick to the squeaky powder at the edge of the pavement.
At the metro entrance I instinctively run my tongue over my teeth as I catch the swinging metal door just before it smashes my face. I’m grateful every morning I get through it. Prospekt Vernadskogo is not one of the pretty Moscow stations, but going north towards the centre they get better.
At Vorob’evy Gory the train comes out into the open to cross the Moscow River, frozen solid and dusted white. The river is a good barometer for the winter’s harshness – just a few degrees change either side of -10C, and in a few hours the ice will either break into platelets, or the water re-freeze. There’s practically no traffic on the river in the winter, but it’s the first place to see spring, when people start strolling the banks in April, and the rowdy and rickety old pleasure boats tear up and down, sinking from time to time and making the newspapers.
I change at metro Biblioteka Imeni Lenina – all socialist glory and baroque pomp, constructivist stencilling on harvest gold tiles – before finishing my ride at Polyanka station.
Finally at Interros, I’m given my security pass and step left into a glass tube. I wait for a moment while all manner of I-don’t-know-what scanning takes place, before the door the other side whispers open and I go upstairs. There is always an eerie silence at Interros, no rhythmic tapping of keys or whirring of photocopiers. Somehow I have a feeling a lot of Russian big business is like this.
My pupil here is Nikolai. He’s a kind of vice-president, and a young one at that – no more than 45. He has a nice secretary called Katya, and a posh office complete with Newton’s cradle balance balls. Classes with Nikolai are more of a morning chat over coffee than teaching. His vocabulary is better than that of most people from the village in the north of England where I grew up. My main challenge is to get him to use articles, which he doesn’t see the point of.
Nikolai also has a magisterial grasp of Russian history, and the kind of sardonic humour that comes from having been young, good-looking, and successful in the torrid 90s. “Basically, in 16th century,” he explains, “Tsar Peter decided we all retarded and gets us to shave our beards and stop keeping farm animals in our gardens. This gets everyone pissed and ever since we have problem with government.” I remember this, thinking it might relate somehow to the off-the-wall class on the philosophy of science that I’m taking whilst in Moscow.
On my way home I take the scenic route to the metro from Alexandrovsky Sad, through the tundra of the gardens that are planted with tulips in spring, past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on to Red Square.
There’s a temporary skating rink on the square now, and mock mountain cabins. It all looks a bit crap. Still, it’s hard to detract from the grandeur of the place. The convex cobbled floor arches from Manezh Square at the north down to St. Basil’s Hansel-and-Gretel-style cathedral at the south. The twinkling Tsarist GUM department store stands to the east, always stocked for the nomenklatura during Soviet times, but off limits to everyone else. The crimson walls of the Kremlin to the west – just a pity the 11th century fortress mentality has rubbed off so much on the government which occupies it.
Many things brought me to Moscow, but really I know it was this place that always clinched the decision for me. It’s the memory of films shown on rainy days in school history lessons; scenes of the revolution and ensuing Cold War; crowds thronging to hear speeches that changed the world and parades to insist it was for the better; Stalin in his absurd uniforms; and finally, in 1990, the queue stretching for over a kilometre for Moscow’s first McDonald’s.
To me, Red Square is both the place that defined a century, and also the place that reminds me of my own earliest memories – of sneaking with my dad to the fence of the American base near our home to watch the secret Blackbird spy planes taking off. I come here every opportunity I have, and I don’t think I’ll stop detouring here no matter how long I live in Moscow. I sense it’s the thread of consistency which links me to all the other Russophiles that have been – and will continue to be – drawn out here to the Wild East.