Tech’s work colleague is on the phone, anxiously memorising instructions… again. This is the second incident 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… out to somewhere. There the given destination -and a resolution to his crisis awaits.
The instructions he receives are relatively simple: be at the exact location, at the exact time, with exactly the right amount of cash –an amount that no doubt includes the supplementary ‘Westerner-Tax’ casually thrown in as a bonus. It’s a ransom call, of course, but with no plaintiff pleas from the imprisoned to show that ‘they’ are serious. There’s only the calm Russian-accented English of a man who’s demanded such payments before. A message as clear and perfunctory as a driving school examiner forewarning the next stage of a test.
The colleague’s passport is in the Russian’s possession. The situation is simple, in his eyes: you have money, we want it, we have your passport, you want it back. 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” in such manner. ‘They’ probably even have lunch-breaks, it’s just like 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 problematic option -and the owners need them. The going exchange rate is much more quantifiable, reliable. I’m not exactly what the Ruble-to-passport exchange rate is, but it’s certainly good enough to bring one of the shadowy small-guys stalking into this Westerner’s apartment a second time. “There’s a place where they all go” Tech explains, referring to a known part of town where such transactions are routinely completed.
I imagine an orderly queue of wide-eyed Westerners clutching brown envelopes fat with Rubles, all nervously waiting to be led into the ‘office’. In bored Russio-English, someone shouts “Next!” from off-screen. Maybe there’s a sign: “Now serving ticket number 87”.
Oh, and the cops are all too eager to help -according to Tech. If you report the theft to the police directly, 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 Rubles”. The police can be helpful like that. “Just putting you through, sir…” It’s all part of the service.
Dodging the battle
Across town, in another world, a chess game is in progress against the ostentatious backdrop of executive hospitality with silent combatants and their 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 the hard way how to deal with this situation. Timing was everything. With some artistry he would excuse himself for a visit to the bathroom, at a moment respectfully distanced from the game’s commencement, so as not to appear rude or disinterested. Then, allowing the right amount of time to elapse, he would return to the closed doors of the meeting room, now manned by a minion, and with the game behind them already escalating. Explaining that it would be too disrespectful to enter and disturb the progressing battle, Tech could then excuse himself and wander freely around Moscow for a couple of hours, unimpeded.
It’s all about respect and the concept of station. It’s about class equating to worth, defined by wealth, and with business acumen as the icing. Is that so different from us? Maybe it’s just more overt: they have seen western life through a TV screen, blown the image up to cartoon proportions and then mirrored it back. Similar in some ways, but more so; pushing reality 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. With doors left (quite literally) open, ‘enterprising’ individuals could walk in from the streets to claim everything as theirs and then sell it off, catapulting themselves into the stratosphere of this ‘mega-rich’ that they have heard about. Hold tight. It’s like finding a loaded gun and proceeding to cold-bloodedly murder taste and morality whilst morphing into grotesque parodies of 1980s Dallas characters. As someone once pointed out to me: “Even people who live that way DON’T live that way.”
Not every individual though, and not every company. Tech is keen to point that out. He says that there’s even a certain telecoms firm that prides itself on its stated lack of corruption. However, the concept of wealth equating to status still 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 cast onto the freeway. The Western passenger, Tech’s colleague, is stunned to silence –this can’t be happening. Suddenly he feels a long way from home, nerves ringing from shock and the crunch of the glancing impact. The oligarch himself has calmly left the vehicle and is checking for vital signs whilst the traffic drones by, disinterested. 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. Business as usual.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 33)
Stopping off at the Russian city of Perm.
[Photo by Michael Popov]