Although Moscow is the capital of Russia, people say it’s not really Russian. Like most capital cities, it’s a repository for the country’s wealth and its aspirational provincials. In Russia the contrast between capital and provinces is particularly stark. Moscow has more billionaires than any other city, boasting 78 to New York’s 57, although the minimum wage in Russia as a whole is $155 per month.
Living in Moscow a year ago I drank from this trough, being chauffered around to teach children in luxury compounds, paying dazzling sums for normal sandwiches and renting a room with windows and many chairs. I was so wealthy and I was living in Moscow and I just didn’t care. This time I’m going from where the wealth is to where it comes from, taking the train from Moscow to Siberia, home to Russia’s oilfields, her gold mines and her krokodil, Russia’s response to America’s Wild West.
During my second stay in Moscow, I’ve been living in a hostel which seems more like a Dickensian work house than a place of leisure. There are almost no tourists here and the average age is about 50. Most people seem to be living here indefinitely. One pock-marked Russian lady has tried to turn her bunk into a private residence, closing it off with towels, a sarong and a clothes line. In the morning she sticks her head out proudly like a tortoise or princess in a castle. A lot of people have erected their own furniture, cobbling together shelves for their cutlery and powertools.
Some people are rearing babies here. In living memory I have never before had a baby reared near me. It is a new experience and one that I relish. The TV room is always populated by old Uzbek men wearing dirty wife beaters and plastic Adidas flip flops. Sitting beside them you see stolid little cockroaches make the journey from the sofa to the skirting board.
In my room of eight live a Mongolian and his mother. They wake up early, go out briefly and then the mother returns and sleeps a few more hours. Her amorphous, honey coloured mass spreads voluptuously across the bunk. She closes her eyes and she looks so happy and I feel happy for her. After a few hours her son returns and she wakes up. Then they lie awake on their bunks facing directly upwards, him above and her below. They don’t speak but they are happy together, mother and son, the way God intended. One cannot but smile at his harmonious design.
One morning they were talking particularly loudly and I saw my friend, Stefan, was still asleep. I smiled sweetly and asked the Mongolians to speak quietly so Stefan could sleep. They both looked at Stefan and then looked at me in outrage and disbelief. I mistook this for misunderstanding and repeated myself, “Please be quiet for a bit, he’s still asleep.” The Mongolians looked at Stefan, looked at each other, then looked at me. “He is reading,” said the son in English. “He is reading a book,” said the mother in Russian. I looked over and saw Stefan was indeed wide awake reading a book. I tried to explain my honest error, but sadly the Mongolians mistook my benevolence for beastliness.
I felt embarassed and resentful. That evening I saw the Mongolians in the communal kitchen. The man was stirring some rice and his mother was patting him affectionately on the shoulder, gazing lovingly at the back of his head. I saw the empty mug by his hand as an opportunity for atonement. I lurched in close and before he could say anything I filled it to the brim with beer and I gazed into his eyes expressing affection and penance from the bottom of my heart. Mug clinked mug and man smiled at man, a scene of reconciliation that still brings a tear to my eye.
Tonight I take the train 2000km east to Yekaterinburg in the Urals.