Business in the City of Extremes, part 4
Tech’s work colleague is on the phone, anxiously memorising instructions…again. This is the second time, during the 9 months of his Moscow contract. With the look and voice of a man hearing bad news from the hospital, he focuses intently on every word, staring blankly through the walls…to somewhere, out there, where the given destination – and resolution – awaits.
The instructions he receives are relatively simple: be in this location, at exactly this time, with exactly this amount of cash – an amount that no doubt includes the supplementary “Westerner Tax”, as casually thrown in as a service charge. It’s a ransom call, of course, but with no plaintiff pleas from the imprisoned to show that “they” are serious (or maybe that never actually happens outside of a Hollywood blockbuster?); only the calm Russian tones of a man who’s demanded such payments before, as perfunctorily as a driving instructor might forewarn of an impending emergency stop.
The colleague’s passport is in the Russian’s possession. The situation is simple: you have money, we want it, we have your passport, we’ll make the exchange… It’s just a business transaction, really. No animosity involved. There’s probably a whole in-tray full of passports, waiting to be “processed”. “They” probably even have lunch-breaks, just like in a regular office.
“They’re not going to steal your stereo,” Tech tells me. That’s usually the desperate work of a junkie on the bottom rung, looking for small change and a quick fix. “No,” I chime in, realising: “Because then they’d have to sell it”. Passports are a much tidier, less bulky option. The going exchange rate is much more quantifiable, reliable. Exactly what the rouble-to-passport exchange rate is, I’m not sure, but it’s certainly good enough to bring one of the shadowy small-guys stalking into this errant Westerner’s apartment a second time. “There’s a place where they all go,” Tech explains, referring to a known part of town where these transactions are completed.
I’m imagining an orderly queue of wide-eyed Westerners clutching brown envelopes fat with roubles, all nervously waiting to be led into the “office”. And in Russian-accented, bored English, someone shouts “Next!” from off-screen. Or there’s a sign: “Now serving ticket number 87”.
Oh, and the cops are all too eager to help. If you don’t wait for “the call”, and instead report the theft to the police, they’ll take your name and details, and “look into it”. Then sure enough, that matter-of-fact phone call shortly afterwards: “We have your passport. Be at this location, at this time, with this many roubles”. The police can be helpful like that. “Just putting you through, sir…”. All part of the service.
Across town, in another world, a chess game is in progress against the ostentatious backdrop of executive hospitality and silent attendees, on both sides of the board. It’s the Oligarch again, pitted against one of his peers. Two giants in a wordless battle for dominance before the business negotiations start. Everyone waits. This will take hours. But these are the negotiations, or at least the first major round. “We’d go for business meetings,” explains Tech, “and out would come the chessboard, for two hours. The way the chess-game went seemed to dictate the negotiations,” he reflects. “They wouldn’t do it with Westerners”. He dismisses the notion. It’s a Russian thing. We wouldn’t understand.
Tech learnt how to deal with this situation the hard way. The timing was everything. So, with a fine art, he would excuse himself for a visit to the bathroom, just at a point judged respectful enough before the game commenced, so as not to appear rude or disinterested. Then, allowing the right amount of time to elapse, he would return to the doors of a closed room, manned by a minion, with the game beyond them already escalating. Explaining that it would be too disrespectful to enter and disturb the progressing battle, Tech would excuse himself to wander freely around Moscow for a couple of hours, unimpeded.
It’s all about respect and the concept of station. It’s class equating to worth, as defined by wealth, and perhaps with acumen as the icing. Is that so different from us? Maybe it’s just more overt: they have seen us through a magnifying glass, blown the image up to cartoon proportions and then mirrored it back. Like us then, in some ways, but more so, pushing into the realms of glossy soap-opera.
Tech describes a state of affairs that would be unimaginable here in England: that of abandoned national houses of art and other treasures, orphaned after the Soviet collapse. Their doors quite literally open, for people to walk through off the streets, to claim everything they see as theirs and then sell it all off, to be catapulted into the stratosphere of the mega-rich. Hold tight. It’s like them finding a loaded gun with which they cold-bloodedly proceed to murder taste and morality, turning themselves into grotesque parodies of 1980s Dallas characters. Apparently.
Not everyone, though, and not every company. Tech is keen to point that out. He says that there’s even a certain telecoms firm which prides itself on its (supposed) lack of corruption. But the concept of status equating to worth permeates.
Out on the brutal Moscow roads, the Oligarch has hit someone trying to cross. A dangerous pursuit at the best of times. Maybe drunk, homeless, confused, or just a tourist who didn’t “know the ropes” – who knows? He’s now a twisted doll on the freeway. The Western passenger, Tech’s colleague, stunned to silence – this can’t be happening – is feeling suddenly a long way from home, nerves ringing from the shock and crunch of the glancing impact. The Oligarch himself is calmly out of the vehicle and checking for vital signs against the drone of disinterested traffic. Rolex? No. Expensive suit? No. The clothes are cheap (it’s all relative of course). Business card/expensive wallet? Unknown. “Nobody significant” he says, as he gets back into the car and drives away.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 33)
Stopping off at the Russian city of Perm.
[Photo by Michael Popov]